There are a few places in India which we mark in our mind as “places to visit once in our lifetime”. From the backwaters of Kerala to the beaches in Goa, Road trip to Ladakh or a cruise to Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Pilgrimage to Varanasi or wandering in Thar desert, the list goes on…
And then ….North Sikkim!
I was fortunate to visit some of the most beautiful places on earth with two of my friends during our week-long trip (Dec 6 to 13, 2014) to the North Eastern Indian state:Sikkim. 3 days of the trip went in covering the Northern part of the state, away from the chaos of city life (or any habitation for that matter), towards the Himalayan range of Mountains, enjoying the pristine beauty of nature. We had two primary destinations in North Sikkim, “Gurudongmar lake” and “Zero point”, both at high altitudes and on the foothills of Himalayas.
This post is about the first destination; Gurudongmar lake.
Located about 180 km from Gangtok; the capital of Sikkim (about 800 km from Kolkata; capital of West Bengal) , this lake is breathtakingly beautiful. Clubbed with its remote location, the high altitude and presence of Kanchenjunga range in the background, you cannot ask for a better experience. The lake is at 17,000 ft above sea level, ( i.e. 5.12 km), with sub-zero temperatures, and low oxygen levels!! If you can spend a proper 15 minutes enjoying the place, (without starting to lose control over your mind and body), you should consider it a life achievement! We, three self-proclaimed healthy guys, fully ready to battle the extreme temperature conditions, almost lost consciousness at the end of our near-20 minutes stay at the place.
The funny part is, while preparing the tour schedule, we allotted more than 4 hours to spend at this place! We even specifically asked our tour operator to make sure the driver doesn’t cut short our stay citing time constrains!!!! Phew!)
The place is near India-China border and hence under the strict control of Indian Army. Needless to say, you need to get permit from the army to visit the place and the same is obtained through many travel agents at Gangtok or other cities in Sikkim/WB. Since there are no provisions for stay or recreations at Gurudongmar, you need to spend the night before your trip day at a Village called Lachen and leave for Gurudongmar by around 3-4 AM in the morning. Distance from Lachen to the lake is under 70 km, but the terrain is so strenuous, it would take least 3 hours to cover the same, and hence the early start. Only vehicles with good ground clearance can ply through these roads.
Reaching Gurudongmar lake:
The usual routine followed by all tour operators is to leave from Gangtok on a given day morning, reach Lachen by evening (During winter, sun sets by 5 and total darkness around 5 30!) and then next day early morning by 3 AM leave for Gurudongmar lake. Most of the hotels/lodges at Lachen will give you packed breakfast and a hot tea before you leave. As the journey unfolds and if you are lucky enough to have moonlight, don’t doze off, the view of mountains and curvy roads lit by moon is unmissable.
Once you reach Gurudongmar, make sure you make the most of it! A bit of advice; Try not to talk with anyone, it will help conserve energy and the scarce oxygen available to you ! The temperature at the time of our visit was somewhere between -3 to +3 degrees. (There aren’t any official temperature sensors at Gurudongmar, but if anyone with a temperature sensitive watch visits the place, please do let me know the temperature recorded through the comments section).
You have to spend more on your clothes than you spend on the trip! If you are from a place where temperatures usually don’t dip much, then you would need a lot of preparation before heading out to Gurudongmar (or any part of North Sikkim in the winter). You would need thermal inner wears, preferably cotton dress, Jackets, Gloves, Boots and woolen socks so on to save you from extreme cold and even frost bite. Have a stock of energy bars and dry fruits throughout your journey, but just make sure you do not litter! (A list of items for a week-long trip will be soon uploaded)
We were fortunate to get a professional tour operator, who offered us possibly the least pricing for the trip compared to many other operators. The tour operators details are given below and do consider them while you plan the trip. The advantage of hiring a tour operator is that they take care of everything: Your transport requirements, stay at multiple locations, necessary permits for all restricted areas, drivers with fluency in local language so on.
(Note: I take NO responsibility for your experience with the above tour operator. It might be mere luck that everything went perfectly fine for us with this operator, but it may end up a total disaster for you. The success and satisfaction/happiness level of your trip depends on the type/quality of car you get, the driver you get, the number of people in your car ( 3 excluding driver the best!), the rooms you get at Lachen, the food you get at Lachen, the then condition of the road, the weather you get, and above all what type of person you are! I hope you get what I mean! So, please do your own research on choosing the tour operator. )
Finally, who should avoid this place:
If you have illness especially on heart or lung, it’s not advised to visit the place. Its better if parents with small kids think twice before planning a trip to Gurudongmar. Travelers have died at the Lake ( as per our driver) unable to cope up with harsh climate. Even on our way back, few people were seeking medical care at a military hospital nearby as they couldn’t withstand the temperature. Around 8 cars reached the place along with us, one car left within 2 minutes of arriving, 5 cars left within 5 minutes and another one within 10 minutes, everyone unable to bear low temperature and oxygen. (Do note that, we visited in Winter, the situation might be different during other seasons.)
On a different note, throughout your journey in North Sikkim, you will pass by a lot of military zones and you will find something very interesting. There are a lot of “sign boards” beside the road installed by the Army and each board usually depicts a message! On one such board, the following can be found:
“Chalta hai nahi chalenge yehan pe” .
The army makes sure that you adhere to it!
This place is so neat, so serene and so secure, that any one who doesn’t have respect for mother nature or to the rules of the land is not welcome here!
Collection of photos taken during the entire trip is here…