FROM India, the Silk Route is the shortest land route to China, with the Tibetan town of Yatung just 52 kilometres from Nathu La, which is situated at a height of 14,500 feet (4,350 metres) above sea level across the Himalayas. Nathu La is 52 km from Gangtok. Overlooking the scenic Chumbi valley of Tibet, it has long been the gateway of India.
The Silk Route bustled with trade after the Tibetan Prince Phuntsog Namgyal was crowned Sikkim's ruler in 1642. British forces led by Francis Younghusband used this route for their 1904 invasion of Tibet. It has remained closed for the past four decades. The Tibetan capital of Lhasa is 525 km from Nathu La.
At Nathu La, the Indian Army has placed a signboard, which points to the old Silk Route. This reminds visitors of the caravan sarais, a fabled land, reclusive monks, hidden secrets and unimaginable wealth, which are enjoined to the fables of the Silk Route.
It is not uncommon to come across in Gangtok old-timers who recall pre-1962 trading practices. Some of them spoke Tibetan and learnt Chinese as well. Khayali Ram Singhi, 85, is one such trader who used to run Shri Sikkim Store in Yatung until 1962, when the Sino-Indian war took place and the two countries severed their trade links. He was one of the last traders to return from Tibet.
Earlier in 1958, most of the traders from Rongpo, Rongli and Kalimpong, who owned shops in Yatung closed their business and returned home as a result of pressure from the Chinese police. In 1962, Khayali Ram was asked by the trade agent in Tibet to return to India. "I had Rs.13,000 in the Bank of China. I have the passbook with me. I could not collect it before leaving. If the trade route is opened I hope that that money will be returned to me.''
Khayali Ram recalled the journey from Gangtok to Nathu La. "After travelling for 15 miles (24 km) we used to reach the post of the Indian government where we would spend the night. From there I would take a mule and go to Nathu La and then onwards to Yatung. It was a tough journey in very cold weather, but the profits made it worth it.''
SOME of the goods that were taken from the Indian side to Tibet included cigarettes, watches, petrol, kerosene oil and textiles. Said Khayali Ram: "Blue jeans from India were the most sought after item. Chinese soldiers used to pay a good price for them."
Motilal Lakhotia recalled how mules were used to take automobile parts to Tibet. Trucks and jeeps used to be dismantled to the smallest possible parts and then transported to Tibet, where they were reassembled. In return, Indian traders used to bring the Chinese silver dollar, which they would take to Kolkata and convert into silver.
The traders used to supply goods worth Rs.2.50 for every silver coin they received. In Kolkata, each silver coin cost Rs.5. Tibetan traders would lead their mules laden with two mound (80 kg) sacks of musk pods, raw Tibetan sheep wool, silk, brocade, zee (precious Tibetan stones) and dayangs (Chinese silver coins) to India. The volume of trade increased in 1954 with the arrival of the Chinese in the plateau. Chinese soldiers wanted foreign wrist watches and fountain pens.
Veterans here recall the visit of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to Gangtok. In Khayali Ram's house a certificate with Nehru's signature and commendation for leading the trade links has found its place in the drawing room shelf.
Another trader, Sohanlal Jain, who owned one of the 74 shops in Yatung, recalls how Nehru travelled to Lhasa via Yatung.
Says Khayali Ram: "There was nothing like a road at that time. Now things will change and the trade route will open again. No doubt completely different items will be sent across the border. The days of the 20-day-long trade journeys have truly ended."