Nathula located at the Indo China border at an altitude of 14,100 feet asl is a favorite hotspot place of visit for visitors coming to Sikkim. It is 56 km East of Gangtok and connects the
Indian state of Sikkim to Tibet Autonomous Region in China.
Nathu means "listening ears" and La means "pass" in Tibetan. It is one of the highest motorable roads and is covered with rich alpine flora and fauna. Special permits are required to visit this site and excursions are organized by registered tour operators only. The Nathula Pass was re-opened for border trade after a gap of 44 years in 2006. The road to this pass is breathtaking and the landscape is dotted with army settlements. This pass has historical importance and in 1904, Major Francis Younghusband, serving as the British Commissioner to Tibet, led a successful mission through Nathu La to capture Lhasa. It is guarded on both sides by the Chinese and Indian soldiers.
Nathula Pass was the place through which the famous Silk Route used to operate until 1962. This used to be a trade route between India and Tibet. Lines of mules used to carry silk, gold and many other items from Tibet to India and take daily essentials back to Tibet. The route in Tibet goes down the Chumbi Valley to Yathung, a place about 30kms away which once used to be a major trading township (no longer so). In fact on a clear day you can see this route winding down the valley. If you look at the eastern horizon, you can see the magnificent peak of Chomolhari of Bhutan. On a clear day you can even see the road winding down the Chumbi valley. Tourists are allowed to go close to the international border from where you can see Chinese soldiers on the other side of the barbed wire.
The fenced Indo-China border is also few meters away and you can see both Indian and Chinese soldiers guarding the border. The guards are friendly. A stairway leads to the border. There is no "no mans land"; here. Even today, mails are delivered across the border on certain days of the week. There is an engraved stone here called Nehru Stone which marks the visit of former Prime Minister of India Jawaharlal Nehru who visited in 1958. When the war broke out between India and China in 1962, the Indo-China border at Nathula was relatively quiet. But in 1965 a firing across the border took place because of a dispute around the location of the fenced border. In 1967 a major confrontation took place here between the two countries and many lives were lost on both sides. You will find a memorial here constructed in honor of the Indian soldiers who lost their lives in this battle.
On the way to Nathula, you will come across a place called Thegu which has an ATM. This is the highest altitude ATM in the world. It operates with a generator and a special fuel that does not freeze in such high altitude. You can take cash or just check your balance and take the slip as souvenir.
A note of caution
Because of the high altitude at Nathula, oxygen level in the air is quite low. Few (adults or children) can face breathing problems at Nathula. If you already have breathing or other health problems, you should consult a doctor before the visit. You can take Acetazolamide Tablets (consult doctor for dosage) while visiting Nathula. It helps retaining oxygen in the body. You may also consider carrying portable oxygen cylinders. They come at various sizes. Larger ones last continuously for 3-4 hours. There are also small cylinders. Each small one lasts for about 15 minutes. If you start having breathing problems, you should immediately come down. You will get portable oxygen cylinders in Gangtok at Medical shops.
How to reach:
You can take a round trip tour package from an authorized tour operator in Gangtok. It will require a full day trip from Gangtok to visit Nathula. It is usually combined with visits to Tsomgo Lake and Baba Mandir. The road condition is not good. Only Jeep or SUV type vehicles (like Bolero, Scorpio etc) should be taken to approach Nathula. Sometimes due to snow, landslides and other road conditions, traffic gets held up for hours on this route.
Permits for Nathula:
Note that Nathula is a protected area. Foreign tourists are not allowed here. Indians require a valid Protected Area Permit to visit Nathula. Permit is issued by the Sikkim Tourism Department in Gangtok. You can get it through a registered tour agency or ask your hotel to get it. You will need photo ID proof (PAN card not accepted) and two passport size photos each. You should apply for the permit at least one day before your planned visit. If you plan to visit Nathula the very next day you arrive at Gangtok, you should then send your documents and photos to your tour operator in advance to get the permits done before you arrive. Permit cost is Rs. 200/- per person. Permits are not required (or issued) to children below 4 years.
When to visit Nathula:
Nathula is open for Indian nationals on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sundays. The visitors have to get the permit to visit the place by applying to the Tourism and Civil Aviation Department through a registered and recognised Travel Agency. Foreign nationals are not allowed to visit Nathula. Photography is strictly prohibited. Good time to visit is between May to October when the temperature hovers around 10 to 15°C. On a clear day you can see the entire pass and the landscape with towering mountain peaks in the background. You won’t usually get any snow during this time.
Winter starts from November and peaks between December to February. This is when heavy snowing takes place and the temperature can easily go below -25°C. Often the route to Nathula remains closed during winter when it snows heavily. However if the route is open and you make a visit during the winter, pick up snow boots and heavy winter-wears along the way. There are stalls that offer such snow gears on rentals. The two months - November and March are good time to see Nathula covered in snow. The route usually remains open on these two winter months. However from Mid December till third week of April you can get snow at Nathula. From may onwards the snowing usually stops although there can be exceptions on certain days.