For those adventure lovers, who have limited time in their hands, a visit to Gurudongmar Tso (Lake) in North Sikkim, a few kilometres short of the India-Tibet border, will prove to be the most rewarding experience
Located at an altitude of over 17,000 ft above mean sea level, Gurudongmar Lake provides one of the source streams of the turbulent Teesta River, which cascades down from these icy heights, through the verdant valleys of Sikkim and touches the plains at the Doors region of North Bengal at Sevoke, near Siliguri.
From Gangtok, the drive to Chungthang via Mangan, the headquarters of the North Sikkim district takes one through green hills interspersed with picturesque hamlets, traditional Sikkimese cottages with curved roofs and Tibetan motifs. Buddhist prayer flags flutter atop wooden poles surrounding colourful Gompas and whitewashed Chortens with golden tops. As one travels, one can see the roaring Teesta way below, while right in front, one is wonder-struck by the awesome splendour of the Kangchenjunga massif.
The drive to Chungthang, located at the confluence of the Lachen Chu and Lachung Chu rivers, takes around five hours. One can stay the night here; but it would be a good idea to drive on for a couple of hours more alongside Lachen Chu to the small town of Lachen for the night halt. At 8,500 ft altitude, night stay at Lachen provides the required opportunity for tourists to acclimatise, in preparation of the sharp ascent to Gurudongmar Lake the following day.
THE GRANDEUR OF NATURE
The travails of the mountain road are amply compensated by the visual splendour of the upper Himalayan topography. Surrounded by mighty snow-capped peaks, the road steadily rises to Lachen, a quaint town, one of the last surviving habitats of the Lepchas in Sikkim. Moving through one green valley after another, one is spellbound by the number of waterfalls cascading down the steep mountainsides, some of them having a sheer drop of more than a thousand feet, ultimately flowing onto the white waters of the roaring Lachen Chu.
The climb from Lachen to Gurudongmar Lake has to start well before daybreak, if one wishes to return to Lachen and back to Gangtok the same evening. As dawn breaks, one realises that the surroundings are rapidly changing.
The road is much steeper and rough. The skills of the car drivers are put to challenging tests on every twist of the treacherous terrain. The snowy peaks, which were seen high above on the previous day, suddenly confront the traveller at eye level. And without any prior notice, all vegetation except grassy shrubs, disappear. The track through high passes is dust-laden and the hills around turn ochre. A few miles further, one touches the cold desert on the southern edge of the Tibetan plateau, beyond the northern slopes of Mount Kangchenjunga.
The last inhabited village on this route is Thanggu at an altitude of 12,500 feet, about an hour’s drive from Lachen. As one climbs higher, gradually the last of the Himalayan peaks withdraw and the plateau expands on all sides, with the Army road bisecting it like a black ribbon.
The last checkpoint on this route is Giagang, a forward outpost of the Eastern Command at an altitude of 15,000 ft. An army medical unit is also stationed here, that willingly helps civilians in case of need.
A PAINTING ON CANVAS
From Giagang, the road gently moves up the sloping plateau to Gurudongmar. The buff coloured hills, capped with powdery snow and the intense sun shining through an indigo sky, is strangely reminiscent of Marco Polo’s description of his travels along the silk route during the middle ages. Here, it would appear as if time has indeed stood still over centuries.
Driving along this spectacular landscape, one can observe the fast receding Himalayan skyline in the south. All round, yaks graze at leisure, on pastures fed by frozen rivers and glaciers, while our valiant jawans of the Indian Army keep strict vigil upon the border beyond.
A small rise to the right of the border road finally takes the visitor to the shimmering, azure lake, partly covered by a transparent ice sheet. Fed by glaciers from the surrounding mountains to its south and east, this ethereal lake has a circumference of 5.25 km. Visitors and pilgrims undertake a walk around its periphery, a Parikrama followed by a holy visit to the Gompa to its north. The Gompa is dedicated to Guru Rimpoche, as it is believed that during his visit in the 8th century, the Guru, in order to provide drinking water to the local people during winter, placed his hand on a part of the lake; this portion has miraculously stopped freezing ever since. It is said that Guru Nanak also visited this lake during his travels. This makes the lake sacred for the Sikhs too.
Sitting along the water’s edge, as one enjoys the breathtaking vista all around – the soothing touch of the gentle breeze on one’s cheeks, the playful reflection of the golden sun upon the lake, the tinkling of the yaks’ bells, the distant aroma of the camphor lamps in the Gompa and the rhythmic flutter of the prayer flags around the lake – the visitor is at once transported to a state of heavenly bliss – to Shangri-la; only to be brought back to the earth, when the hour of return arrives!
Text: Sanjoy Mookerjee, IRAS (Retired)