A journey to fraught India-China border pass near Tawang

At 15,200 feet above sea level, two guards of the 11th Mountain Battalion of the Indian Army, armed to the teeth, watch through a spotting scope the mountain ranges on the Chinese side for any suspicious activity. They watch from the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) at Bum La, a border pass between India’s Tawang district and Chinese-occupied Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR).

Bum La, which means “a pass between mountains”, is marked by mountain ranges dividing the region between India’s Arunachal Pradesh and China’s Cona county. The region has been a witness to the 1962 India-China war – and China’s continuing interest in the region keeps it on the edge.

A giant white rock placed on a mountain range on the Indian side is a memorial to Subedar Joginder Singh, who along with 21 other soldiers of the Indian Army died fighting the Chinese troops at the Bum La sector on September 28, 1962. Subedar Singh is remembered as the “the Bum La Tiger” by the Indian Army.

Oxygen is scarce and the temperature dips to as low as minus 15 degrees in the night. Chilly winds blowing from the mountain ranges can make the fingers swell, lips parched and eyes bloodshot. Non-locals are easy prey to mountain sickness. There are camps set up by the Indian Army to provide oxygen, medical support, tea and facilities to the soldiers and handful of tourists, who come to the LAC here.

Bum La is located 30 kilometres from Tawang, Arunachal Pradesh’s border district located 10,000 feet above sea level. (Express Photo by Vaibhav Jha)

Bum La is located 30 kilometres from Tawang, Arunachal Pradesh’s border district located 10,000 feet above sea level. To reach this restricted belt, a civilian needs a special pass from the Tawang’s local authority. Visitors and officials are advised to begin their journey at 9 am as the sun sets at 4:30 pm in Tawang, making the return journey from the LAC difficult. SUVs offered by Tawang’s travel agencies is preferred by tourists due to treacherous roads running from Tawang to Bum La.

As the trip commences, within minutes the city area of Tawang ends and the hill roads lead to army camps located at several crucial points along the way. The tourist convoy has to pass three security pickets during the one-and-a-half-hour journey, where special pass and identification cards are checked.

The hill road is flanked by snow-capped mountain ranges, wild vegetation, half-frozen waterfalls and frozen lakes, with little signs of life. Warning placards prohibiting photography and flying of drones are put up near army settlements and their advance positions in the ranges. The roads turn slippery with snowfall and they are often found damaged due to landslides, which makes the journey difficult. The Border Roads Organisation (BRO) is carrying out the road construction work.

‘Bhotiyas’ or mountain sheep dogs and cattle yaks are a common sight along the route as they keep looking for food amid the mountain ranges. Once in a while, a shepherd appears on the road, guiding his yaks to the vegetation areas in the rugged terrains.

As the vehicles climb towards Bum La, temperature and oxygen level dip, making breathing difficult. Barely 500 metres before Bum La, the Indian Army runs a cafeteria, called “Tongpen La”, which is claimed to be the world’s highest café at 15,150 feet.

The hill road is flanked by snow-capped mountain ranges, wild vegetation, half-frozen waterfalls and frozen lakes, with little signs of life. (Express Photo by Vaibhav Jha)

The visitors’ register at the camp shows an average of 60-80 people coming to the pass on a daily basis. A number of bikers, newly-married couples from West Bengal and Assam, and local residents of Tawang were present at the camp. Two middle-aged men facing breathing difficulties were administered oxygen while the remaining ones were given warm water and tea.

A senior officer, stationed for long at the LAC, greets the visitors, escorts them to the LAC point, and briefs them on the rules. As part of the drill, he narrates the historical events related to the site, his voice rising so that it could be heard above the sound of the blowing wind. It is mostly about the 1962 Indo-China war at the Bum La sector. He laments that the Chinese have occupied the Indian territory ever since. But, clinching his fist, he asserts: “Today the Chinese have occupied our land, but tomorrow it could be ours.”

Pointing to a white dome atop a mountain range on the Chinese side of the LAC, the officer says it is a “Chinese radar dome”, whose line of sight stretches till Sela Pass, a high-altitude pass between Tawang and West Kameng. The dome also oversees the newly-built New China Road (NCR), which connects the TAR to the Arunachal Pradesh border.

The officer then points towards concrete houses constructed on the Indian side of the LAC, saying that they have been built for BPM (Border Personnel Meeting) between senior officials of the Indian Army and the PLA (People’s Liberation Army).

“A total of nine BPMs occur in a year with five in our territory and four in Chinese’s. Our first BPM happens on Republic Day i.e. January 26th, second on April 14, third on May 30, fourth on August 15, and fifth on Diwali,” said the officer.

As a group of officers with a pair of binoculars climb a rock in a bid to get a better view of the Chinese radar, he warns how the PLA troops were spotted that morning.

The officer goes on to relate how the army, back in 1962, armed with “303 rifles, regular jerseys and suits” fought back the 300 infiltrating Chinese soldiers and how Subedar Joginder Singh was captured.

“Today, in 2021, we have modern weapons, ammunition, equipment, clothing and food,” he says. “We might keep our friendship with China but if they try to repeat 1962, we will give them a befitting reply.”

He ends his presentation, comforting the visitors that the LAC is safe, and that now the Chinese cannot move an inch here. Asked if the PLA soldiers could see them, the officer took the visitors a few metres away from the LAC and asked them to look east. Barely 100 metres from the Indian side of the LAC, two PLA soldiers, in white thermal jackets and with a spotting scope, were standing atop a rock, watching across the border. In a lighter vein, the officer asked the visitors to wave at them, which they did. It remained unreciprocated.

(The correspondent was part of a Bum La tour organised by the Gandhinagar-based Rashtriya Raksha Shakti University)

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Vaibhav Jha