North Sikkim, the uncharted territory, has one of most beautiful views of the Himalayas and is home to the third highest mountain peak in the world- Mt. Kanchenjunga.
Almost all of North Sikkim is under the Restricted Area and requires Inner Line Permit to visit which can be easily obtained at the Tourism office in Gangtok. Since this part of Sikkim is highly inaccessible, we decided to go for a Travel Package and chose a two day-one night package to Gurudongmar lake. Though the journey is perilous, Mother Nature makes it enthralling with the views of the surrounding valleys. The magnificent Teesta river graciously making her way down crisscrossing the mountains is breathtaking from all angles and is by far the most beautiful white water river that we have seen. While visiting the lake as a thumb rule you are required to stay overnight at Lachen to get acclimatized to the high altitude.
There are way too many options to explore en-route Lachen such as Phodong Monastery, Enchey Monastery, Seven sister waterfalls. Some lesser known but equally enchanting falls such as Naga falls surpass even the most famous Seven Sister Waterfalls. The Teesta is not just a sight to behold but the music she composes when she kisses the rocks touches your soul.
Our home stay in Lachen was beautiful. We were treated like a part of their family, having conversations at their table while having lunch and were treated to a huge variety of home made pickles. We also learnt how important and sacred the Gurdongmar Lake is for them. The lake does not freeze completely even in extreme cold temperatures as it was touched and blessed by Guru Padmasambhava and this part of the lake never freezes during peak winter.
Like the saying goes "No Pain No Gain," the following day we started our journey to Gurudongmar lake even before dawn could break and the biting cold hits you as soon as you leave Lachen. The journey was adventurous as it was pitch dark and we could not see the roads apart from catching a glimpse of tail lights at a far distance. Our car's headlight gave us a good understanding of how steep, narrow and dangerous the roads were. The roads were pretty damaged to say the least. It would take the experience of a highly skilled driver to be able to reach the lake in one piece.
On the way you will come across a couple of villages and you are left with awe and admiration at their ability to withstand and survive such extreme climatic conditions. At that hour in the night, the chill breeze and winds freeze the flowing river and there comes a point where you can see the complete river frozen with water flowing only at the ends of the bank. The water on the road also seems to be frozen and the driver had to maneuver with extreme caution.
Once you approach closer to the lake, you can catch glimpses of the snowy mountains that looked like a distant dream earlier and now they are so close to you that it is unimaginable. This is a sight to behold. Once, you enter the Army zone, you need to show your permit papers to the Army personnel and then continue your journey to the lake.
As the sun rose, we reached Gurudongmar lake to see the suns rays kissing the icy blue water. It is a beautiful lake surrounded by icy mountains. The lake also serves as a pilgrimage site for the locals and is believed to be holy and grants all our wishes. It is tough to spend more than 10 minutes here as the cold breeze makes your body shiver and teeth chatter. The climate here is inhospitable to say the least.
Like all our other journeys this too would have been incomplete without any drama unfolding. The car that we had hired to take us all the way up to 17000 feet broke down a couple of km from the lake. It was just the two of us and the driver on that deserted road contemplating on how to reach the lake. Our only hope was another tourist vehicle that had room to accommodate us. After waiting for some fifteen minutes at near zero temperature another car pulled over and they were kind enough to allow us to hitch a ride. Luckily by the time we got back from the lake our car was fixed and thus began the journey back to Gangtok.
We got back into the comforts of our car and our eyes were moist with tears and hearts filled with even more respect for the awesome Men and Women of the Indian Army. Imagine them guarding our Borders, far away from their families at unimaginable altitudes and hostile conditions, keeping our enemies off our Mother Land. We were also lucky enough to see ten of Indian Army's Tanks. We were told that the Army was on a routine exercise and we could feel the vibration as the tanks rolled by. However tempting it might be please refrain from clicking pictures of the Army installations or camps as it is considered as a serious offence.
A good breakfast of piping hot maggi and chai was the best way to end this trip at one of the villages on our way back. The frozen ice on the engine and tyres gave us a chilling idea of how extreme the climate was.
We were thanking our stars that we did not do this trip on our motorcycle. Any Bullet lover would not want to put their bike through this treacherous route. It would be best to go with a skilled driver who is well versed with these roads as they are subject to constant landslides, potholes and broken bridges. Please note that when you hire a vehicle you choose a comfortable SUV. The Mahindra Maxx which is very commonly used is not a comfortable option.
Things to consider before doing this trip:
- Terrible roads.
- Extreme cold weather.
- High altitude/ AMS.
- Distance from Gangtok.
- Steep slopes.
- No bike workshops.
- Layers of good Woolen clothes.
- In case you are particular about bottled water, it is a good idea to stock up from Gangtok.
All this put together makes it advisable to go with a packaged tour rather than doing this particular trip on your bike. However, if one can battle their way thru all of the hardships it is one hell of a place to visit.
Next stop Namchi.