Nathu La: The High Road

Nathu La: The High Road
On a clear day, you can see this route winding down the valley, Photo Credit:

The historical battleground and trade route is on every mountain lover's bucket list. Here's the lowdown on doing Nathu La right

OT Staff
May 18 , 2021
06 Min Read

At an altitude of 4,500m above sea level, Nathu La was on the legendary Silk Road route, between India and Tibet. On a clear day you can see this route winding down the valley. To your east lies the magnificent Chomolhari peak of Bhutan. You have to climb up a long stairway to get to the fenced Indo-China border. The guards on the Indian side are quite friendly, behaving almost like tour guides, answering all the questions coming from pesky tourists. The Chinese side, in contrast, is quiet, with hardly any tourists around. They obviously take their border more seriously than treating it as a mere tourist spot.

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The Indian side also sports blown-up visuals of structures like the Bahai Temple and Red Fort, and bhangra dancers, for some reason. Look out for an engraved stone — it is called the Nehru Stone to mark the visit of the first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, who visited in 1958. The affable guards on the Indian side will tell you that mail gets delivered across the border on specific days of the week, they will point out the gate that is opened to let in goods from the Chinese side — limited trade between India and Tibet of China goes on with items such as wool, raw silk, yak hair, China clay, horses, sheep coming from China and clothes, tea, coffee, rice exported to China.

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The trade market operates for a limited period — from June 1 to September 30, Mon to Thurs. You can see the Indian trade mart at a place called Sherathang, about 3km below Nathu La. It has a shopping mart and the country’s highest altitude Internet cafe. Close to Sherathang is Kupup, which has the second highest golf course in the world. And the Gnathang Monastery, and Gnathang War Memorial, built in memory of the British soldiers who died in the 1800s war with Tibet.

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In recent times, there have been two incidents of strife here — in 1965, firing took place because of a dispute around the location of the fenced border. And in 1967, a major confrontation happened here between the two countries when many lives were lost. Look for the memorial constructed in honour of Indian soldiers who lost their lives.

At an altitude of 14,450ft, the road to Nathu La is one of the highest motorable roads in the world. On the way to Nathu La, stop at Thegu to withdraw cash from the highest altitude ATM in the world. It operates on a generator with special fuel that does not freeze. Or just check your balance and take the slip as a souvenir.


When To Go 

Nathu La is open only from Wednesday to Sunday. The best time to visit is between May to October when you won’t get any snow and can see the entire pass and landscape with towering mountain peaks in the background. The route to Nathu La sometimes remains closed during winter when it starts to get heavy snow. The snow stops around the month of May.

Foreign nationals are not allowed to visit Nathu La. It is open to Indian nationals on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sundays. To get the permit to visit, apply to the Tourism and Civil Aviation Department through a registered and recognised travel agency or tour operator. Your hotel can fix that for you. Taxi Charge (2pax) Rs 6,500 includes transportation and permit same-day return same day. No overnight trip.

The high altitude means extreme cold and low oxygen levels. It is advised that children, the elderly, and people with heart or lung or other health issues avoid making the trip. If you start having breathing problems, come down immediately. You could travel with portable oxygen cylinders — pick them up at the medical shops in Gangtok. If you don’t have adequate clothing to combat the cold, you can rent hooded jackets, caps and even snow gear from roadside stalls along the way.

The cold also means pressure on your bladder — several roadside restaurants have pay and use toilets — basic, but clean. Avoid the ones at touristy places like Baba Mandir — they are dirty and stink to the high heavens. This is the Indo-Chinese border area, and hence, photography and videography is not allowed.

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