Sikkim – Yungthang, Guru Dongmar, Nathu-la (2007)

Sikkim – Yungthang, Guru Dongmar, Nathu-la (2007)

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Imagine yourself at a height of 18,000 feet on a rocky ledge overhanging a precipice. A good 4,000 feet below, the ledge is the seemingly endless Tibetan plateau stretching as far as the eyes can see. Behind you, a chain of frosty peaks tower at least a couple of thousand feet above your ledge. You feel as though you’re standing in your very own box in the magnificent theatre of nature. You will be forgiven for thinking you’re a character in The Lord of the Rings. But then, what celluloid can conjure up can never measure up to the real thing. Not even Bollywood, that masterful and imaginative designer of divine abodes can match the magic of this setting. And best of all, it is in our very own backyard, in northern Sikkim, accessible in just two or three days from virtually anywhere in India.

I am breathless, not just at the scenery, but because the ambient atmosphere is sparse in oxygen. In the space of five hours we have ascended 8,000 feet and it is taking its toll on me. Don’t be impressed. No, we did not trek up, but just drove in a four-wheel drive on rocky mountainside where a road must have existed once upon a time. Or at least that’s what Dantak, the Border Roads Organisation’s Sikkim project claims. But now all you have is a dirt-track punctuated by frequent rockfalls and a few waterfalls and that too only part of the way. The rest of the road is just notional. The best part of this entire cliff-hugging, hair-raising drive is that you encounter few other vehicles or humans. Who would be foolhardy enough to venture into such wilderness unless they had prior knowledge of the drop-dead gorgeous views from the ledge? Thankfully, it is Sikkim’s best-kept secret. But for an insistent friend, I would have missed it too.

Hidden treat

After the brief peregrination, we are now back on the dust track leading to Gurudongmar, a remote Himalayan lake tucked away in the folds of quartz somewhere near the clouds. Gurudongmar may not be as well-known as its grander Tibetan cousin Manasarovar, but it is no less enchanting. A turquoise jewel nestling amidst snow-dusted barren hills at 17,000 feet in the Geegong plateau, the lake is believed to be the source of Teesta river. Gurudongmar is sacred to Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs alike and beckons the adventurous among pilgrims. Legend has it that Guru Gobind Singh visited the lake and threw his baton into it to prevent its waters from freezing. Hence the name “Guru dong mar”. Buddhists claim it was their Guru, Padmasambhava. Locals confirm that the lake never freezes over even in peak winter when temperatures plunge several degrees below freezing point. Unlike the brackish Pangong Tso in Ladakh which also does not freeze over, the water of this lake is sweet.

Gurudongmar is a two-day drive from Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim and you need an official permit to visit this lake. You have to obtain this permit in Gangtok itself. Foreigners are not given permits which is why the hordes of Israelis, Europeans and Newzealanders who throng Ladakh every summer are missing from this part of Sikkim. And consequently, the costs of travelling in northern Sikkim are still affordable to the ordinary Indian traveller wishing to experience a slice of our very own Shangri-La.

First you drive upto Lachen, a five-hour refreshing journey from Gangtok through lush emerald hills. The road is excellent and relatively free of diesel fume spewing traffic. The river Teesta provides delightful diversion all along the winding road. The Lepcha and Bhutia faces along the road are invariably wreathed in broad smiles. Their quaint homes are as yet untouched by concrete and chrome.

There are a few lodges in Lachen, and a lovely gompa. But we stay in the literally one-street village of Chaaten, three kilometers before Lachen. It is a picturesque village with just a handful of Lepcha houses and a lone prayer wheel. Like most hill houses, Lepcha homes are made of wood and are built on three levels. Firewood and harvest is stacked on the ground floor, the livestock stay on the first and the people on the second. The pace of life is rather leisurely and the village is dotted with innumerable snow-melt waterfalls and glacial springs. Suspended dewdrops diffuse into weak rainbows. Cool mist caresses your face ever so gently, melting away accumulated stress. Black butterflies flutter and flit from one wild flower to another. The valley is rent by the calls of colourful birds and the verdant slopes are dotted with black furry yaks grazing away contentedly in this land of plenty. Beyond the precipice roars Lachen, a tributary of Teesta. Pastoral symphony, this.

Refreshing break

The next day we leave early for Gurudongmar since weather can turn very foul and unpredictable by noon. But this is eastern India and here, even at 6 a.m., the sun is up and about, drenching the peaks and valleys in his first golden rays. For the first couple of hours, there is some semblance of road even if it meanders impossibly. We take a brief break at Thangu. This is an army camp at 14,000 feet and a lone windmill sticks its head out of the khaki and green tin shacks. At the officers’ mess, we’re treated to a breakfast of hot upma and sambar. The repast is so refreshing that even amrit could not have tasted better, especially when there are no commercial eateries anywhere within a hundred kilometre radius. Leave alone eateries, there are not even villages anywhere within this radius. Within two kilometres of Thangu, we hit the end of the treeline and from now on, vegetation gets progressively dwarfish. Rhododendrons give way to junipers and tamarisk bushes and even these disappear altogether eventually. Mother earth has shed most of her garb and even her viscera seems exposed at places as you ascend further. This is nature at her rawest.

We reach the lake five hours after we set out from Lachen, driving right up to its banks. The drive has been spectacular and now, the destination, spell-binding. A vanilla ice cream glacier straddles two ominously grey peaks watching over the lake like silent sentinels. The lake is placidity personified, nary a wave nor ripple. The colour of the water is smoky aquamarine. Other than the flutter of colourful prayer flags, there is not a sound. It is truly an exhilarating experience being in front of this jewel tucked away in nature’s womb, inaccessible to all but the most persistent. There is an interfaith temple where our escort Pandu offers prayers. Then, to our surprise, he takes off his shoes and launches on a barefoot parikrama of the lake, joined by my son. It will take a good two hours for them to return, and we can do nothing but wait. But who would complain about being stranded in paradise?

(Published in The Hindu dated July 29, 2007)

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