Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Gurudongmar Lake, Sikkim

North Sikkim Travelogue Part 1

Yumthang Valley and Gurudongmar Lake had been on my travel wish-list for a long time. Both of these places are in the Northern part of the Indian state of Sikkim, high in the Himalayas of North East India. Our travel agent in Calcutta suggested we add Dzongu, a forest valley that has been reserved for the Lepcha peoples of Sikkim, to our itinerary. Since I am not the type who treks, me and my friend Prasenjit chose to do the normal tourist thing, i.e. travel from Calcutta to Bagdogra via air, and take a car from there to Gangtok, Sikkim’s capital. A four by four would then take us for our week-long vacation in the mountains. I don’t know why, but to me, music always sounds better in the mountains, and I find myself quietly staring out of the car window at peaks and valleys, listening to classic rock. Sikkim is magical, they say, and the first piece of magic happened as we pulled in to Gangtok. I had just turned on Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy album on the iPod, and as if on cue, as the first strains of The Rain Song started playing, it began to rain! We arrived at out hotel as it was getting dark, to the sounds of thunder echoing in the mountains.

Thunderstorm in Gangtok

We spent the night at the Sonam Delek Hotel on Tibet Road. Plush but cosy, with good service and great food, one of the unique features of the Sonam Delek is that every single room has a view of the Kangchenjunga Mountain, the third highest peak in the world. Thanks to cloudy weather, we were unable to spot the peak the next morning but the view was superb nonetheless. We had picked a room which had a large veranda extending out over a valley, which allowed us to set up a tripod, for some great night-time photography. After a breakfast of pancakes and bacon, we set out towards the little hamlet of Lachen, where we would stop for the night before heading to Gurudongmar Lake. On the way, we would be visiting the Tashi View Point and a number of small and not-so-small waterfalls. But as we proceeded further north, the roads started deteriorating. There was a major earthquake in Sikkim in 2011, and while much repair work had been done, much remained. Thankfully our exceptionally handsome and exceptionally well dressed driver Wangchuk Lepcha took everything in his stride, and we rolled over some of the worst roads I have ever travelled on, without any incident. But if bouncing around in a car is a problem for you (motion sickness and all that) then you may need medication.

One of the many waterfalls on the way to Lachen

We stopped en route for lunch at a small hotel serving hot, fresh, Indian meals, and reached Lachen late in the evening. At an elevation of 9022 feet (2750 metres), Lachen is a small village with a population of 1000, that acts as a base for visits to Gurudongmar Lake and Yumthang Valley. For those interested in trekking, Yumthang can be reached from Lachen in two days. We had a room on the 3rd floor, overlooking a beautiful valley with a snow-capped mountain. As I set up my tripod for a shot of Lachen by night, I suddenly became aware of the intense cold. My fingers were going numb! For the rest of the evening, I and Prasenjit were constantly sipping rum. Our buffet style dinner was wonderful as well. Rice, dal and vegetable and chicken curries. But such was the cold that we went to bed in our jeans and our thermal inner-wear. Room heaters and thick blankets can only do so much when the temperature dips below 0°Celsius.

The rising sun turns the mountain-top orange in Lachen

We were woken up very early the next morning by hotel staff who handed us cups of tea, and packets containing our breakfast. Inside the packet was an entire 400 gram loaf of bread (very fresh, very soft), 100 grams of butter (frozen solid), bananas and boiled eggs. We chose rum instead, saving the solid food to munch on the way. We stopped for a second hot breakfast at 12,500 feet (3810 metres), where after gulping down hot noodle soup and coffee, I was intensely grateful for the presence of a basic, but clean and usable toilet. This was the last chance! We were stopped at 15,000 feet at the army check post. This being within walking distance of China, security is tight, and Indians need an Inner Line Permit to visit. Foreigners are not allowed. As we proceeded to Gurudongmar Lake I noticed that the landscape was different from yesterday. It was harsher, rockier, more desolate, and there was nothing on the roads; no dogs, no people, no huts, nothing save the occasional presence of the Indian Army. Huge mountains and valleys, and not a single sound save that of our car’s engine! Frightening and fascinating at the same time. What would it be like to live here? Without a mobile phone network, there would be very few distractions. A better life? Perhaps. But all these thoughts had to be put away as we began spotting snow on the roadside. We were in the mountains, in the very snow-capped peaks we had been staring at for the last two days!

On the road to Gurudongmar Lake

Our car pulled up right outside the temple on top of the hill next to Gurudongmar Lake. The temple has an interesting but confusing history. According to the board outside, it is one of the most sacred lakes of Sikkim and receives around 15000 visitors annually. The Guru in the name is the Buddhist Guru Padmasambhava, who is said to have visited this place. Dongmar means “red face”, and hence the lake represents the angry side of Padmasambhava. But Sikhs from the army say that the Guru was a Sikh, probably Guru Nanak himself, who visited this part of India on foot. Apparently local shepherds appealed to him to arrange for a source of water for their animals, and the Guru struck a corner of the frozen lake with his staff and the thick ice cracked and water spewed forth. One corner of the lake never freezes, even in winter, and this is seen as confirmation of this legend. A more rational explanation would be the presence of a hot spring under that part of the lake. The temple’s walls are filled with marble plaques naming Indian Army regiments and personnel who have repaired and renovated the temple at various times. Steps lead down from the hill to Gurudongmar Lake.

The temple at Gurudongmar Lake

A word of caution here; at 17,100 feet there is very little oxygen in the air. For people from the plains, it is advisable that you walk slowly, speak softly, and be cautious. The slightest bit of physical exertion at this height can cause panting and dizziness. Do not even think of smoking. In fact, it would be better if you quit smoking a few months before you considered visiting Gurudongmar. If the weather is sunny, apply sunscreen on all exposed parts of the body as sunburn at this height is very common. We found the lake completely frozen solid in late April. The sun was blindingly bright, the skies were clear, and the wind was cold. Not a single creature in sight, no trees or grass, no one anywhere except tourists and their chauffeurs. We chucked a few pebbles on the ice to confirm that it was solid enough and then tried walking on it. It was fun, but keeping in mind that if it was to crack, and we sank into the freezing water, no one would be able to save us, we stepped off the ice soon. Take some time at Gurudongmar, sit down, breathe deeply, look around and take in the scenery. It is empty, quiet, and beautiful. In the distance army trucks move towards the China border, looking like little ants. If the weather is right, the sky is a shade of blue that one can never see in the cities. The stream that flows out of the lake joins another from Tso Lhamo Lake to form the Teesta river. For reasons of health our tour operator had warned us not to stay at Gurudongmar for more than 45 minutes. We ended up staying 2 ½ hours and had a wonderful time, except for when I had to climb back up the stairs to reach the car, when it felt like my lungs would explode like a Diwali firecracker!

The completely frozen Gurudongmar Lake

Sipping rum, we bid goodbye to the frozen wonderland. Wangchuk Lepcha put on his shades, and gunned the engine. We set off towards Lachung and our next destination, Yumthang, the valley of the flowers.

…to be continued

- by Deepanjan Ghosh


  • Bookings and planning handled by Desh Duniya Tours. Check out their official website
  • Sikkim transport, stay and permissions (I.L.P.) arranged by Galaxy Tours and Treks. Check out their official website
  • Many thanks to Amrita Dutta for liaising with the local guys and always being available on the phone for us.
  • Thanks to Prasenjit Das for the company, and to Santanu Dutta for originally suggesting the trip.

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