China today opened a second land crossing in Tibet, via Nathu La on the Sikkim border, allowing the first batch of Indian pilgrims to Kailash-Manasarovar use a more comfortable route to the sacred lake on the Chinese side of the Himalayas.
Chinese president Xi Jinping had, during Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to that country last month, promised to open the second route to Kailash Mansarovar through Nathu La in Sikkim, which is 4,000 metres above sea level.
The Nathula pass will facilitate comfortable travel for Indian pilgrims by buses, especially for elderly Indian citizens, though conditions in the Himalayan region with less oxygen levels still pose a challenge.
The pilgrims, several of whom are middle-aged and retired, have been looking for this kind of an opportunity since long.
The Nathula route was officially opened on Sunday by Chinese ambassador to India Le Yucheng, who became the first Chinese official to cross the border through the new route.
Le, along with councillor in the Indian embassy in Beijing Shrila Dutta Kumar and top Chinese officials of Tibet, welcomed the pilgrims as they crossed over.
The new route is in addition to the existing Lipulekh Pass, which was badly damaged in the floods in Uttarakhand in 2013.
A total of 44 pilgrims crossed over from the Indian side of the border in Sikkim today as the first batch of the annual Yatra through this border route.
The Nathu La route will enable pilgrims to travel the 1,500 km-long distance from Nathu La to Kailash by buses.
Welcoming the pilgrims, Le said, the Chinese side, especially the provincial government of the Tibet Autonomous Region, has done a lot of preparations to open the new route by building new hotels, improving roads, training translators, tour guides and preparation of Indian food.
He said this route is more comfortable and safer than the old one.
The ministry of external affairs, which organises the Yatra, permits over 1,000 pilgrims a year in 18 batches. The entire trip is of 23 days, of which 19 days are meant for travelling while the remaining days are for medical check-ups. It costs around Rs1.80 lakh for a pilgrim.
The first batch is led by Tarun Vijay, the BJP Rajya Sabha MP who has written a book on the importance of Kailash-Manasarovar.