Nathula located at 14000 feet is one of the three trading border posts between India and China; the other two being Lipulekh in Uttarakhand and Shipkila in Himachal Pradesh. It is on the famous silk route which has been used for trade between India and China, extending to Arabia, southern Europe and Persia, for over 1500 years. Civilian movement is usually restricted about 20 km before the actual border but Nathula is a place where you can reach up to the barbed fences of the Indian border. The experience of reaching the very end of Indian frontier and to see another country beyond it, is what attracts visitors to Nathula.
Let me start by clarifying few frequent queries.
Permit and restrictions: There are two permits, one till Tsomgo Lake and another special permit for Nathula. Only Indians are allowed to visit Nathula and foreign nationals are not allowed beyond the Tsomgo Lake. Visitors are NOT allowed to Nathula on Monday and Tuesday. The permit can be obtained through government registered travel agents. You need to apply for the permit one day before the date of journey. If you want to apply for the permit before reaching Gangtok, you can contact your booked hotel or the travel agents and mail them your personal details and photo ID proof (PAN is not accepted).
Vehicle restrictions: Personal cars are NOT allowed to Nathula. Bikes are allowed but only if it is registered in your own name or you have an affidavit from the owner. The best way to travel is to book a shared/reserved vehicle from a government registered travel agent.
Snow: There is no fixed time for snowfall. I have heard people experience dense snow in November but I visited in December and there was no trace of it. Not even a bit. Perhaps March-April is the only time when snow is guaranteed.
Photography: Currently photography is strictly prohibited. Army personnel confiscates your camera/ mobile if you are caught clicking photographs. All photographs or videos that you see in blogs over the internet were actually taken much earlier. ( I traveled in December 2016)
Nathula is always the first target of tourists on Gangtok trip. I planned to visit Nathula on the first day itself after reaching Gangtok on the previous evening. We made the permit arrangements beforehand through the hotel authorities. We started our journey around 9 AM from the office of our tour operator in the Tibet road. They clubbed us with another group of visitors from Karnataka. The road to Nathula passes through hilly terrains and deep valleys. The road to Nathula is maintained by the BRO (Border Roads Organisation). The condition of the roads is pretty good as compared to hill roads in other Himalayan states of India. Along the way, we crossed many small villages situated along the roadside. The landscape gradually changes as you ascend to greater heights.
The route from Gangtok to Nathula is highly militarized and you can find army camps and other military establishments all along the route. Since Nathula is situated on the Line of Actual control, en route Nathula, the permit is checked multiple times at different locations. The first checkpoint is around 15 km from Gangtok where the driver got down to obtain the required permits. After obtaining the permits, we drove ahead along the anfractuous roads. After 1 hour we stopped for some refreshments. There are many small shops along the way where you get winter garments, wine, cigarettes and snacks (yah.. all in the same shop). We halted there for about 20 mins, had some food and then continued our journey.
After around 2.5 hours, we reached Tsomgo Lake (more popularly known as the Changu Lake). When we reached Tsomgo Lake, I was somewhat disappointed to find that the lake is not in frozen state and there was no trace of snow. For me, one of the prime reasons to visit Nathula was to experience the drive amidst snow clad mountains in subzero temperature. That was not going to happen. However, the lake had clean, blue water which glittered as sunlight fell on it. There were yaks with colourful caparisons and colourful Buddhist flags which somewhat recouped the disappointment.
We drove ahead and decided to stop by the lake while returning. Actually, there are entry and exit time restrictions at different checkpoints and you must cross the gates before that time. There is another checkpoint about 10 km before Nathula where the permit for Nathula is done. A final check is done 4 km before Nathula where the road bifurcates to Baba Mandir.
There are few other lakes as well with clean blue water.
The vehicles are stopped about 500 meters from the actual border post and the visitors have to walk from there. Finally, there are steps leading to the border fences. Though comfortable, climbing at that altitude with decreased oxygen levels can be really challenging especially for aged visitors. I could see many visitors gasping for breath. On the border, you find Indian army personnel on our side of the border and their Chinese counterpart on the other side of the fence. It’s a jolly atmosphere there with visitors shaking hands, embracing and chatting with the army people. The army guys were very welcoming and talked to the visitors, sharing anecdotes and answering our questions. The Chinese army guys were also very hospitable and were shaking hands and trying to communicate with the visitors, though they didn’t understand much English and of course no visitor knows Mandarin. There are offices on either side of the border with the Indian buildings painted with patriotic slogans and a conventional red building on the Chinese side. You can see Chinese posts and flag on the mountains on the other side of the fence. You can also see the border gate which opens only when trucks are transported from one side of the border to the other. The gates also bear traditional Indian and Chinese designs. History lovers would know the importance of this gate and appreciate the fact that it is on the famous silk route which has been used for trade between India and China, extending to Arabia, southern Europe and Persia, for over 1500 years.
There is a small war memorial bearing this redolent epithet:
“When you go home, tell them of us and say, For your tomorrow we gave our today.”
A patriotic sentiment is bound to engulf you at the border. There is an option to get a certificate signed by the army testifying that you have reached Nathula. That, of course, comes at a nominal price. There is no restriction on the amount of time you can spend at the border. We spent about 20 minutes and then returned back.
After Nathula, we went to the Baba Mandir which is a unique temple. It is a temple dedicated to a dead soldier who has not been delinquent in his duty and is believed to be patrolling the Sino-Indian border even after his death. I have written a separate post on Baba Mandir and the associated beliefs. Please read it here:
On our way back from the Baba Mandir, we stopped at the Tsomgo Lake and clicked a few photographs with the decorated yaks. While coming back we again stopped at a shop (can’t call it a restaurant) for lunch. We had spicy momos and hot noodles. It seemed Sikkim government has been very generous in distributing liquor license. Almost every household that runs a shop has a rack for wine bottles. Where we stopped, they had an indigenous way to provide visitors much needed warmth in the freezing weather. Under the tables, they kept a gas furnace and people sit around the table by covering their legs with the large tablecloth. Its small things like this which are takeaways for me in my trips. I look for these unique features/practices of different places and that is what inspires me to travel more, see more and learn more.
We reached Gangtok around 5 PM. It was a wonderful day in which we saw nothing extraordinary but in a way, everything we came across was unique; something you won’t find anywhere else. In the evening we explored the MG Marg market area, the Sikkim handicrafts, food and souvenir items. The next day we went for local sightseeing of Gangtok. You can read about it here:
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