July 15, 2018

Kailash Manas Sarowar Summer 2018

Kailash and Manas Sarowar are words or rather destinations that send shivers of excitement through many who have grown up in an Indic environment. As the centre of the metaphysical universe and the abode of that innate quality of Goodness, that we identify with and as Shiv, it is the ultimate place of pilgrimage for anyone who lives and believes in the Sanatan Dharma of this land. But before one sets out for Kailash one must understand that this is no comfortable vacation of the kind that you enjoy in hill stations like Darjeeling, Almora or Simla. It is also not an adventure trek -- there are far more interesting and logistically friendly trekking opportunities in, say, Himachal, Ladakh or Garhwal. Kailash and Manas Sarowar is no vacation, no trek, but a place where you surrender your heart and soul at the altar of the Divine.

There are many ways to reach Manasarowar but the most popular route is through Nepal from Kathmandu. On this route, there is no need to either walk or take a pony and one can reach Manasarowar by bus. It is three days by bus from Kathmandu although there is another option of flying to Lhasa and then take a three day bus journey to Manas Sarowar. These three days on the bus allows one to acclimatize to the high altitude, and low oxygen, of the Tibet plateau so that breathing problems are minimised, though never completely eliminated. The other option of taking a helicopter flight, though shorter and more expensive, can lead to severe acclimatization issues and breathing problems. After a day spent on the shores of Manasarowar, one needs to go to Darchen, at the foot of Mount Kailash, again by bus, and then perform the three day circumambulation or parikrama of the mountain. This is a very tough trek and most pilgrims perform a symbolic parikrama around the Yamadwar -- a small passageway with a big bell -- that is starting point of the formal parikrama. Ponies are available for the parikrama but the high altitude, going up to 18,000 feet, causes intense physical distress and many pilgrims need medical evacuation from the parikrama.

In addition to the physical difficulties of reaching Manas Sarowar and Kailash there are quite a few operational challenges as well. Personal visas to enter Tibet are not issued to individuals. Pilgrims must must form groups of the same nationality and then apply for a group visa through one of the many tour operators in India or Nepal. However one needs to remembers, that despite claims to the contrary, these Indian and Nepalese tour companies can only offer services upto the Tibet border. Once  inside Tibet, one is in the hands of the local Chinese guide over whom the tour operators have little control. Hence it is quite possible that in remote regions like Saga, Manasarowar and Darchen, four to six people may have to share rooms that were promised on a twin-sharing basis and there is no scope for any argument there. Food also become a challenge because in many places Indian style food is simply not available and unless one is comfortable with pork or yak meat, one would have to have live on boiled cabbage, boiled mushrooms and rice,  which can be really awful. One would be better of carrying biscuits, dry fruits, chocolates and fruit juices, especially for lunch during the long, eight to ten hour drives bus drives through the desolate, “lunar” landscape.

The final problem is toilets -- that simply do not exist outside hotels in big cities like Lhasa or Shigatse. Most public toilets, including the ones at Manas Sarowar and Kailash are just rooms or enclosed spaces, often with no roof, with just a row of  holes in the ground through which  you drop your load. There is neither water nor toilet paper unless you carry it yourself and there is no way to flush away the sewage that simply accumulates! And of course there is no privacy -- everyone is in the same room, squatting side by side, though men and women have, thankfully, different rooms.

Given the Government of India’s focus on Swachchha Bharat, there is a good scope for our Ministry of External Affairs to explore the possibility of  extending this concept to Swachchha Manas and Swachchha Kailash. Thousands of Indian pilgrims will be benefited if one or two Dharamshalas can be built by the Indian government, even if these just provide a basic dormitory accommodation and proper Sulabh Sauchalay type toilets.

July 09, 2018

Highway from Kolkata to Lhasa

The Belt and Road Initiative, China’s quaintly named initiative to redraw trading routes around the world may have many shortcomings but if adopted intelligently can certainly usher in a new age of economic prosperity in Eastern India. China has a huge East-West spread and its western part, the Tibet Autonomous Region, while rich in resources has no access to the sea. Russia’s Siberian treasure house, which is similarly landlocked will gradually get opened up as the Arctic polar cap melts and the Arctic ocean becomes navigable but there is no such hope for Tibet. China knows this and also knows the importance of a route to the sea, which is why it is investing so heavily into its all-weather ally, Pakistan. The Karakoram Highway, the China Pakistan Economic Corridor and the Gwadar Port are all pieces of the puzzle that China is trying to put together at great cost. But the cost is not much as in money as in the the way it is forcing a great power like China to accept the dictates of Islamist terrorists like Masood Azhar. China knows that it cannot push a trade route through Pakistan without the blessings of the Islamists and even as it surely knows the terrible price that the Islamists will extract through the Uighur militancy in the far western Chinese province of Xinjiang. China is caught between the need to pander to the devil of Islamist terror and the need of a deep sea port to relieve the claustrophobia in landlocked Tibet. Is there an alternative? That is what we explore in this article.

The nineteenth century saw the British empire locked in the Great Game with imperial Russia as both jostled for influence across the vast spaces of Central Asia. As a part of this international political maneuvering, Lord Curzon, the then Viceroy of India decided to send a British Mission under Col Younghusband to Lhasa in Tibet. This departed from Calcutta in 1903, crossed over from Sikkim to Tibet at Nathu La and after many wars and other adventures later came back, apparently victorious, in 1904. The political outcome of this British Mission to Tibet is no more of any relevance in the twenty first century but the fact that army of 3000 people along with another 5000 odd camp followers could actually cross the highest mountain barrier twice should be an eye opener to anyone who dreams of trans-Himalayan trade routes.

Not having access to the vast resources of the British Empire, but seeking to recreate Younghusband’s route and relive his adventure, this author fired up Google Maps to see if there exists a motorable route that could take one from Kolkata to Lhasa. A straightforward request for directions obviously returns a negative and Google admits that it cannot find a route from Kolkata to Lhasa. But a little tinkering with the map reveals a few interesting facts. First, there is obviously a motorable road that connects Nathu La to Gangtok in Sikkim, then through NH10 to the highway network in India and eventually to Kolkata about 800 km and 20 hours away. Second, the border post of Nathu La abuts the Chumbi Valley, just next to the Doklam Plateau of Tibet where the Indian army has been in confrontation with Chinese army over the construction of a motorable road, but if we ignore this confrontation then there exists a motorable road on the Chinese side. Third, this Chinese highway, S204, that currently terminates at Yadong is a part of the Chinese highway network and connects Yadong to Lhasa which is about 400 km or 10 hours away. Finally, the distance between Nathu La, the last motorable point on the Indian side and Yadong, the first motorable point on the Chinese side is, as per Google Maps and “as the crow flies”, a miniscule 15 kms. These four facts put together mean that the 1200 km road from Kolkata to Lhasa is almost ready except for a 15 km ( or say 30 km, since we cannot fly like a crow!) stretch between Nathu La in Sikkim and Yadong in Tibet! [ See map  on next page]

From this perspective, should we in India object to China building a road in Doklam or should we encourage them to do so? And create a great highway that connects Lhasa to Kolkata …

The benefits of such a highway are obvious. For the Chinese it means an immediate access not just to India, but through the Kolkata-Haldia dock system to the main shipping lines that connect Europe and Africa to the far East. For Bengal and Kolkata this could a veritable blood transfusion for the rejuvenation of its ailing and anemic economic landscape, because Ray, Rabindranath & Rossogolla notwithstanding, maritime trade has always been the lifeblood of Kolkata and South Bengal.

Long, long ago, long before Kolkata or even Bengal existed, this part of the country was known for its maritime trade. Both Faxian and Xuanzang (whom our old history books would refer to as Fa-Hien and Hiuen Tsang) who came to India from China during the time of Harshavardhan have left glowing reports about the great port of Tamralipta, which is identified with modern Tamluk in East Midnapur, on what is now known as the Rupnarayan river. With the siltation of the Rupnarayan, the port shifted to Satgaon, modern Saptagram, located on the Saraswati channel that broke off from the current Hooghly river channel at Tribeni and flowed through Singur - the tragic location of the aborted Tata Nano factory. Singur is perhaps where Bijoya Singha had set sail from to reach, occupy and rule Sinhala or modern Sri Lanka. Subsequently, with the closure of the Saraswati channel, the Ganga waters switched back to what is now known as the Hooghly river and the British set up their trading post first in Hooghly, on the west bank,  and when this was devastated by a cyclone they moved to Calcutta -- and the rest as they say is history. The KG -- King George’s -- dock system of Calcutta became the heart of the vibrant economy of Bengal and eastern India till it received a body blow during the Partition of India. Calcutta’s  pre-eminence as a centre of trade and industry survived for another quarter of a century till it was finally done in by the Communists who not only killed all industry but also devastated its educational institutions leading to a near complete exodus of intellectual capital. Commerce in Calcutta, now called Kolkata, is now dominated by an industrious tribe of up-country traders and in a fortuitus turn of events, it is these people who are best placed to leverage a new trade route if it were to open up between Kolkata and Lhasa.

Some may be apprehensive that a highway like this would facilitate a Chinese military attack on India. These is unlikely in the 21st century. If the Lhasa-Kolkata highway were indeed to open up as a new “Silk Route”, the biggest beneficiary would be trade but there could be a positive strategic dimension as well. If China sees this as a safe and secure route for its products to reach the sea, then its dependence on Pakistan will reduce and it will have the freedom to take a more honest view of the Islamist mischief that is being spawned at its western edge. A strong and powerful flow of money across the Himalayan border will automatically lead to a reduction of military hostility across the same because the interests of the trading community will have a moderating effect on the militarist nationalism of fringe groups.  Chinese angst over the its current border along the McMahon Line in Arunachal may also be assuaged and its leadership would not lose face over its inability to occupy what they believe is Southern Tibet.

Would it lead to a increase in Chinese exports to India and have a negative impact on the balance of trade between the two countries? This is also unlikely. While trade is certainly facilitated by the ease of movement and cost of transport, the real driver for trade is the topology of demand and supply and this will certainly not be impacted. The Kolkata-Lhasa highway may impact traffic on other, longer, sea based routes, but its impact on the overall volume may not be significant. On the other hand, given the lack of agricultural land in Tibet, there may be a market for the reverse flow of food products and fresh vegetables and this may give a fresh impetus to agricultural income in eastern India. Vegetable farmers in Bengal and Bihar may see a huge new market opening up through Nathu La.

What would it take to make this trade route operational? First of course, the section from Nathu La to Yadong must be completed and we can rest assured that the formidable Chinese border management machinery can make it happen in a short time. We are not aware of the condition of roads in Tibet but certainly the existing motorable roads in Sikkim and Bengal needs to be strengthened and widened. Between the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) and the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) this, in principle, should not be a problem. The only big problem could be land acquisition in North Bengal which is why it is important to have to alternate routes -- the shorter route through Malda and Murshidabad and the other slightly longer route that swings past Sahibganj and Dumka in Jharkhand before coming back through Birbhum. In fact an inland port at Siliguri, which is already a big trading hub, would make matters much easier.

If and when the governments of India and China agree to rebuild and rejuvenate this ancient trade route it would be entirely appropriate to honour it with the names of  Xuanxang, the Chinese pilgrim, who came to the court of Harshavardhan in the 7th century and Atīśa Dīpaṃkara Śrījñāna the famous Buddhist scholar from Bengal whose visit to Tibet in the 11th century is one of the greatest Buddhist legends of Tibet.

To get the ball rolling on the Dīpaṃkara-Xuanzang Transhimalayan Expressway, the first and easiest thing would be to organise a Kolkata to Nathu La car and truck rally. This will not only fire up the excitement and enthusiasm with all stakeholders but will also help us understand the operational challenges involved, at least in the first 800 kms. Will the different chambers of commerce that are headquartered in Kolkata take up this challenge?

this article was first published in Swarajya