Located at an altitude of 14,140 feet and 56kms from Gangtok, Nathula Pass was the place through which the famous Silk Route used to operate until 1962. This used to be the silk 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.
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.
After some 44 years of closure, the old Silk Route again reopened on 6th July 2006 allowing limited trade between India and Tibet of China. Items such as wool, raw silk, yak hair, yak tail, China clay, horses, sheep etc can be imported duty free from Tibet of China through this route while 29 items including clothes, tea, coffee, rice etc can be exported to China. This is however limited only to a border trade and participated by 100 odd businessmen.
This Indo-Chinese trade market operates from 1st June to 30th September every year and from Monday to Thursday every week during that period. Trade marts have been set up on both Indian as well as Tibet side. The Indian trade mart is located at a place called Sherathang about 3kms below Nathula pass. It has a well developed shopping mart and India’s highest altitude internet Cafe. Trade mart on Tibet side is located at Rinchangang.
As a tourist you can visit the border trade market at Sherathang. Close to Sherathang is another place called Kupup which mostly remains covered with cloud. It has the second highest golf course in the world. Among other things in Kupup, you will find the Gnathang Monastery, and Gnathang War Memorial which was built in memory of the British soldiers who died in a war with Tibet in 1800s.
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 withdraw cash or just check your balance & take the slip as a 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 to cope with high altitude sickness.
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. Your hotel can also arrange if necessary. If unused, they are returnable but refund is usually partial.
Permits for Nathula
Note that Nathula is a protected area. Foreign nationals, NRIs or OCIs are not allowed here. Indians require a valid Protected Area Permit (PAP) to visit Nathula.
You need to get the permit done through a tour operator authorized by Sikkim government (there are plenty of them in Gangtok). And you can visit Nathula only by a vehicle provided by such a tour operator. You can not take a city taxi or a self driven vehicle to Nathula… you won’t be allowed. The permit is issued by the Sikkim Tourism Department in Gangtok / Police Check Post.
You will need photo ID proof like Passport / Voters Card/ Adhaar Card (PAN card is not accepted) and two passport size photos each. Application for permits are done in the morning and the permits are usually issued in the afternoon or sometimes next day. So you should apply for the permit at least one day before your planned visit. Note: Journey to Nathula starts in the morning.
If you do not want to spare a day in Gangtok for the permit, you should then send your documents (photo copies) and self photos to your tour operator in advance to get the permits done before you arrive. Permit cost includes Rs. 200/- per person for the form provided by the tour operator (it can vary) and additional Rs. 20 for the permit itself. Permits are not required (or issued) to children below 4 years. You can however take an infant at your own risk.