Nathula is a pass on the Indo-Chinese border (La meaning Pass in Tibetan). The place is 56 kilometres from Gangtok and passes through Tsongmo Lake. The place is covered with snow for the most part of the year. The pass was traditionally used by merchants of India and Tibet for trading. It was part of the famous Silk route connecting the plains of Bengal with Tibet that ran through the Zuluk - Memenchu - Jelepla route.
After the Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1950, there was a major migration of Tibetans to India through the Pass. Today Tibetan migrants constitute a substantial part of the population of the Sikkim and Darjeeling hills. During the 1962 Indo-Chinese war, the Nathula Pass witnessed heavy fighting between the two countries. Since then the border remained closed until recently.
The border was opened for trade on July 6th, 2006 after prolonged negotiations between the two countries. Dignitaries from both countries met at Nathula on this historic occasion and trade between the two countries resumed on a limited number of items. The future of the pass seems to be bright as the state and the Central government plans big for the Pass. Tourism may also get a major boost as the border is planned to be opened for tourists in the future.
At present, tourists are allowed to get close to the international border and the Chinese soldiers can be seen protecting their side of the border. On specific days the Chinese authorities also allow tourists to visit the area and on those days the tourists of the two countries can see one another.
Nathula is a half-day sightseeing excursion from Gangtok. The distance from Gangtok is about 56 km. Most tourists start the tour in the morning between 8 to 10 AM and return to Gangtok by 2 to 3 PM. A late evening drive is not suggested as the road is very hostile and often gets blocked by landslides etc. There is no tourist accommodation after Gangtok town. In case the tourists are stuck here, the Indian army provides accommodation for the night. There is an alternative route for visiting Nathula through Zuluk, Memenchu road. But tourist permits are not given through this route.
Note: Nathula has witnessed heightened tourist interest in the last few years. On the other hand, the restrictions on visiting the border are quite strict. This has resulted in a demand-supply mismatch, especially during the high season. More tourists are interested to visit the border than the number of passes available. Also, tourists are allowed to visit Nathula only on specific days of the week. There is a restriction on the number of vehicles that can visit Nathula on a given day. Tourists are advised to make a reservation for the tour well in advance to avoid disappointment. Foreign tourists are allowed to travel only up to Tsongo lake.