Nathula is a pass on the Indo Chinese boarder (La meaning Pass in Tibetan). The place is 56 kilometres from Gangtok and passes through Tsongmo Lake. The place is covered with snow for 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 plains of Bengal with Tibet that ran through the Zuluk - Memenchu - Jelepla route.
After Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1950 there were 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 boarder remained closed until recently.
The boarder was opened for trade on July 6th, 2006 after prolonged negotiation 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 state and the Central government plans big for the Pass. Tourism may also get a major boost as the boarder is planned to be opened for tourists in the future.
At present the tourists are allowed to get close to the international boarder and the Chinese soldiers can be seen protecting their side of the boarder. On specific days the Chinese authorities also allows 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 kms. Most tourists start the tour in the morning between 8 to 10 AM and return to Gangtok by 2 to 3 PM. Late evening drive is not suggested as the road is very hostile and often gets blocked by landslide etc. There is no tourist accommodation after Gangtok town. In case the tourists are stuck here, the Indian army provides them 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 boarder are quite strict. This has resulted in a demand supply mismatch especially during high season. More tourists are interested to visit the boarder than the number of passes available. Also tourists are allowed to visit Nathula only on specific days of the week. There is restriction on the number of vehicles that can visit Nathula on a given day. Tourists are advised to make reservation for the tour well in advance to avoid disappointment. Foreign tourists are allowed to travel only upto Tsongo lake.