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Enigmatic Lake @ 18K Feet - Gurudongmar, North Sikkim

A jewel hidden at height of 17000 feet is the Gurudongmar Lake - an enigma in itself with religious, natural and strategic significance.
While researching for destinations in North East India, we came across a name multiple time - Gurudongmar Lake. There were many reasons which made this lake special and most accounts made the destination sound like a challenge to achieve. To reach a location situated a height of about two kilometers above ground, logistical and physical hardships were bound to be a reality but what is the fun if there isn't any of these. Hence we decided to include it in our itinerary and we travel to this exotic destination in this article - on May 10, 2017.


A video blog on the journey to Gurudongmar Lake


We had our night halt on the way at Lachen, a beautiful countryside village which brought together the entire beauty of nature in its raw form. Read more about Lachen at Countryside Village up North - Lachen, Sikkim. We had an early start to the morning and were up by a quarter to 4 and readied up for the exciting journey we were going to embark on. We prepared our tea – we do carry ready-to-make tea pouches on journeys – on the electric kettle and began our day in the lap of nature. As we stepped out of the hotel to see the freshness of an early morning, we were amazed at the tranquility that was on offer. The morning mist was still dripping from the dark green leaves of the pines and the cold was at it extreme best. The multiple layers of clothing were barely enough to prevent shivering. But even at this point in time, we were not the lone ventures. Most of the tourists were up by then and looking for their vehicles. For those who had meals as part of the room package, the hotel packed bread and butter for the route. Another interesting fact that we realized is that children below 8 are not allowed at Gurudongmar because of the altitude and hence the ladies stayed back with children at the hotel. They apparently are served proper breakfast later.

The Free Flowing River Adding to the Charm
The driver was ready with the car – the car takes about 10 minutes for a warm-up after rattling to be ready for the drive – and we boarded the vehicle to kick-off the journey. The driver informed us that entire region north of Lachen is a “no-bottled-water” zone and all plastic bottles we had needed to be dumped. He himself checked around the vehicle to remove any such bottles as apparently there are heavy fines in case authorities discover them. As we moved out of Lachen, bumpy roads welcomed us and this continued throughout the journey. Those from the plains who complain about rough patches would find this four-hour journey a large rough patch. However, the roughness below was pretty well compensated by the surroundings around. The route was scenic at its best and heavy vegetation covered the slopes of mountains. The chill in the wind was refreshing and clouds seem to flow with the wind at a level below us. The view – both far and wide – was heart filling and addictive. The vehicle kept struggling through the treacherous roads and maneuvered through the curves and tunnels through the way.

One thing to notice as you travel in North Sikkim is heavy army presence. The entire district is predominantly a cantonment area and camps of various armed units are scattered all around. One needs to be careful to some extent as most of these camps prohibit photography and trespassing. There are large boards informing tourists about these restrictions which sometimes if ignored lead to penal actions by forces. Our first stop was an army check post at about 12,000 feet (4000 meters) where the driver stopped the car by the kerb and went inside for the formalities. We stepped down the car to straighten legs and take a quick break. We were in between hills with snow capped peaks looking at us with a smile – as if welcoming us to their area. It took about 15 minutes to complete the formalities post which our journey continued.

By about quarter to 9 AM we had reached the altitude of 15,000 feet (5000 meters) where a large rock with the altitude message welcomed us. This is the place where there an army establishment designed to support tourists. The driver parked the car and proceeded to the office for completing formalities. As we stepped out of the vehicle, we immediately realized that we were in unchartered territories. A slight something in the mind told us that we needed to take it slow. We took the support of the vehicle and spent a few moments getting through the imbalance that was gripping the brains. These were the first signs of the body reacting to the high altitude. It took us a couple of minutes for getting used to the height and then we made a move away from the vehicle. Army runs a small caf̩ РDaredevil - here where they serve complimentary warm water, tea and coffee along with light snacks at nominal costs. We had tea and aloo chops (a fried potato snack) while chatting with other tourists and army personnel there. Army people are really friendly, helpful and ready to offer tips to cope with hardships. These people have come over from all parts of the country and live there away from their families. They consider the tourists as an extended family and extend all possible support. The setup also offers a waiting room for tourists to rest for a bit before continuing their drive.

Snowflakes and Coffee - All at 15000 Feet
Altitude of 15,000 feet is not an easy feat and many tourists had started feeling the pinch of the height. Many elderly people complained of breathlessness and uneasiness and some kids were crying, unable to communicate the exact issue. Army personnel informed us that the air we were inhaling was already short of oxygen by about 2% from ground level (where it is at 21% of air composition) and that matters would simply worsen as we progress. A few tourists decided to stay back at the camp while some returned back from there not willing to risk going further. There is also a medical unit at the camp which serves tourists feeling sick because of the lack of oxygen. We spent over about half an hour there and this was crucial acclimatization before we moved higher.

We started the final leg of the drive and fortunately, the road improved as Border Roads Organization (BRO) has built a metalled road for army movement along the border. It took us about another half hour on the polished road when we took the final turn and again got to the dusty path – the last mile to the final point. Around 9:45, the driver parked the car by a water body, the one for which we traveled all this far.

As soon as we stepped out of the car, we were standing to a panoramic view – spectacular and alluring as one we hadn’t seen ever. There was a lake, partially frozen, pristine and inviting behind which there were mountains – capped with sparkling snow and covered with lush green forests on the slopes. The view of Mount Siniolchu and Khanchendzonga is breathtaking from that point. The whole scene presented to us made us forget the tiredness of journey and the dizziness of altitude. The purity of the gift of nature gave us the strength to beat the effects of dwindled oxygen levels in the atmosphere. We took some time to get over what had stricken us by the beauty and then took a lot of pictures – of the scene and areas around.

Gurudongmar is a high altitude lake close to Tibet border in North Sikkim. It is the land of Yaks, blue ships and other high altitude animals of Sikkim and Tibet. The snow-fed milky water of the lake is one of the major sources of Teesta River. Named after Guru Dongmar, the lake has a religious appeal. Surrounded by snow-clad mountains and crystal clear icy water, it is considered to be a very sacred lake. Legend has it that, Guru Padmasambhava (also known as Guru Dongmar), touched and sanctified the lake, and thus, even in extreme winter, a portion of the lake does not freeze. The water of Gurudongmar Lake is said to have curative properties and many tourists carry the water with them on their way back.  Close to the lake, there is a 'Sarva Dharma Sthal', and as the name suggests, it’s a place of worship for all religions.

The Perfect View - Gurudongmar Lake at 18000 Feet
We had been there for about half an hour when our mind reminded us of the difficult terrain we were braving. The extremely low temperature and chilly winds were only a part of the hardship. Significantly low oxygen level was taking its own toll and sending our mind to numbness. We realized that it was time for us to return – we were advised to do so based on all the research we did on high altitude travel. For those who felt issues, the drivers are able to bring you down to the army camp at 15,000 feet very quickly. We were still in better position and began our return journey at about 10:30 AM. For those visiting such locations, the trick is to wear warm clothing and keep car windows open so that you continue getting acclimatized on the way. Also, you should take two or three stops on way and get down to straighten legs which make it easier to adapt to the lowering oxygen. We reached Lachen by about 2 PM which marked an end to this part of the excursion. Most of the tourists head back to their hotels when back in Lachen – either to have lunch as part of the room package or to pick families they left back. I would recommend not wasting time returning to the hotel – at least not for lunch. We proceeded on our journey further – to Lachung and Zero Point – that is something to talk about in our next article.

There is still a long road ahead ...........
But before you close down this window, it’s time to oblige us with a comment – a word of two on how this article came across? Did it make you dream of the destination? Do you think we could do a better job? Have you been to a similar destination? Talk about anything – both criticism and praise encourage us equally!! 👍

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