Visiting Nathu La and Tsomgo Lake is unlike any other experience in India. You’ll have to apply several days in advance through your hotel or a travel agent, get up at the crack of dawn, get in a long line of cars, and slowly inch your way past the checkpost, all before 10.00am, because after that no cars are allowed to head that way.

Tip Private vehicles are not permitted to go to Nathu La. Foreign tourists are unfortunately not allowed. There is a tight restriction on the number of vehicles allowed every day, so make reservations as early as possible

Entry Two passport-sized photos and ID Timings Wednesday–Sunday

When you first leave the stacked buildings and roads echoing with the cacophony of horns and start to drive upwards towards the border, there’s a fair chance you’ll be so awestruck at the surrounds that you’ll forget to photograph the moment.

With army barracks being the only populace in the region, the drive to Nathu La can feel like driving to the end of the world. That is, of course, if the Chinese army monitors the end of the world, as a signboard will ominously warn you 5km short of Nathu La.

Saibal Das
Yaks standing patiently by the Tsomgo Lake
Yaks standing patiently by the Tsomgo Lake

Standing at a height of 14,140ft, and located a farther-than-it-sounds 54km from Gangtok, Nathu La, literally translated to ‘the listening ear pass’ is the Indian border post with China, and perhaps the only spot where soldiers stand on either side of what actually is just a barbed wire. It’s one of the three trading posts between India and China, reopened for border trade in 2006, and has now become a tourist destination. On the other side of the pass is Tibet’s Chumbi Valley, heavily manned by Chinese guards.

The pass is an offshoot of the historic Silk Road. Before it was sealed during the Sino-Indian War in 1962, mules carrying goods walked the pass between the two countries. After the Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1950, Tibetan refugees used the pass to flee to Sikkim. The pass was also used by the Dalai Lama himself in the year 1959 when he fled China and sought exile in India.

The skirmish in 1962 that resulted in several deaths on both sides have been commemorated at two war memorials, one at Nathu La and another at Sherathang, 5km below Nathu La.

The ascent to Nathu La is dramatic. When you get there, you will be warned by all – from the driver, to the soldiers and even signboards – telling you to watch your steps as you climb the 90 steps to the border sketched by barbed wires.

Additionally, people are advised not to spend more than 20–30 minutes on the top, so you will have to figure out ways to navigate the steps, sometimes slippery from the melting snow, and always crowded. Now, get on top and see ‘China’ on the other side. The view is a reminder that borders are really, truly artificial and that the mountain range on the other side is the same as the one on which you stand – and will be walking down.

Baba Harbhajan Singh
Baba Harbhajan Singh

The road forks into two at the first Nathu La checkpost. The other road leads to what has come to be known as Baba Mandir. Dedicated to ‘Baba’ Harbhajan Singh, a soldier in the Indian army who died close to the Nathu La Pass, the mandir comprises a shrine built at the site of the bunker where Singh was posted here. However, the increasing tourist interest and activity in this region has resulted in the construction of a new mandir dedicated to Singh, called New Baba Mandir, and located at the junction of Kupup Gnathang Road and the trail leading to Menmecho Lake.

You will drive past Tsomgo Lake to go up to Nathu La; but rest assured, there will be enough time to come back down, park your car, climb onto a yak, amble past the lake, marvel at the vistas and the clear water (unless you’re standing at the edge where trash abounds). Located at a dizzying height of 12,400ft, it’s a stunning sight to behold. The water comes from the snowy mountain slopes, so the lake never dries up completely. In winter, the lake is often entirely frozen, but this is sadly changing with new climate conditions.

WHERE TO STAY AND EAT

It is mandatory for all taxis to be back in Gangtok latest by 4.00–5.00pm, so there are no options of accommodation here. For food, there are small cafes at major sites, and also between Gangtok and Tsomgo. Some people experience altitude sickness at this height, so do carry lots of water and some salty snacks – it helps.

Baba Harbhajan Singh

Harbhajan Singh was born in present-day Pakistan, in Gujranwala District, to a Sikh family in August 1946. He enrolled in the Punjab Regiment of the Indian army as a sepoy in 1966. In 1968, Sikkim and north Bengal were reeling under a series of natural disasters, including floods and landslides that claimed thousands of lives.

Singh was part of the army personnel that helped in the rescue of thousands of people. On 4 October 1968, while he was escorting a line of mules from his battalion headquarters to Donguchui La, he is said to have slipped and fallen into a fast-flowing nullah, ultimately drowning. The current of the water was so strong that his body was carried 2km away from where he had fallen. A Samadhi was later built near Chhokya Chho at an elevation of approximately 13,100ft, now known as Old Baba Mandir.

FAST FACTS

When to Go All year round; best in summer

Tourist Office

Sikkim Tourist Information Centre, MG Marg, Gangtok, Tel: 03592-209090, W sikkimtourism.gov.in

GETTING  THERE

State Sikkim

Location India-China (Tibet Autonomous Region) border

Distance 54km E of Gangtok

Route from Gangtok Take Gangtok-Nathula Highway to Nathu La Pass

Road Both Nathu La and Tsomgo Lake can be visited by hiring a gov­ernment-approved taxi operator. The cost is ₹6,000 for 5 pax, or ₹600 per head. Price includes vehicle permit