Sunday, 30 November 2014

Gurudongmar Lake at 17000+ ft above sea level

DAY 4 – GURUDONGMAR LAKE, CHOPTA VALLEY

We had put an alarm of 3:00 am but could gather courage to get out of the warm bed at 3:30 am. Just at that time there was a knock at our door. The hotel boy had come to give us hot tea to start our day. By 4:00 am we were ready and in our car. It was freezing cold. I was wearing two thermals under my jeans, two thermals under a pink colour very warm sweater, three woolen socks, a cap and a pair of gloves. Beside this I was carrying one more pair of gloves, two jackets and a shawl (Just in case I need it).


Snow Capped Himalayas
The Snow Capped mountains
Google Map from Lachen to Gurudongmar Lake to Lachung
Lachen - Thangu - Gurudongmar Lake - Lachen - Chungthang - Lachung
It was dark and the road was very bumpy. After a while we could make out the outline of the mountains, could hear the Teesta River flowing down, and could hear the crumbling sound of the stones under our tires. It is rightly said that when one sense doesn’t work other senses work at twice the efficiency. Since we were not able to see much were able to hear more intently.


En route Gurudongmar Lake
On the way to Gurudongmar Lake
To say that there is a road to Gurudongmar Lake will be an understatement. The road from Lachen to Thanggu is treacherous. It is so bad, that by the time you reach Thanggu your back might be hurting. But it is worth it as with every passing minute you will notice that the scenery is getting more and more beautiful.  

Road to Gurudongmar Lake
The Tough Ride

Road to Gurudongmar Lake
The Dusty Roads
Breakfast At Thangu Village

We stopped at a small village called Thangu for breakfast which is at the foothills of Gurudongmar Lake. It is the last habitable village on your way to the lake. Thangu is the village located at a picturesque location with mighty snow covered Himalayas on all sides. It has its own moment of glory when most of the tourist heading to the sacred lake stops at this village to have breakfast and acclimatize for onward drive.


Thangu Village
View from Thanggu Village
For breakfast Sherpa took us inside a shop which was selling stuff like warm clothes (Jackets, gloves caps etc), popcorn, chips, sweets and candies. Inside the shop was a dimly lit kitchen. In the middle of the kitchen a fire was lit. On this fire there was a pot of water for boiling. Surrounding the fire was a metal sheet which works like a table. Since it is made of metal it becomes warm because of the fire burning nearby and the tourist touch the table to keep their hands warm. The boiling water is used to make tea, maggi, boiled egg etc.  


Thangu Village
Another view from Thanggu
The hut quickly warmed us up and what followed was a conversation with the old man serving us breakfast. He spoke about life here in winters and how they keep themselves warm. There are no schools here and therefore the kids go to hostels located at lower altitude. The kids here start their education late as they should be old enough to be sent to the hostel. Also the kids normally study till Std 8th and then do miscellaneous jobs to earn money. Most of the boys in this area become drivers. In winters majority of the people of this village recede to lower altitude as it becomes unbearably cold here and the entire village is covered with snow.

We had a simple breakfast consisting of bread, butter, jam, maggi, boiled egg and tea. After a warm breakfast and appreciating the natural beauty around, we started our ascent towards the sacred lake.


Thangu Village
At Thangu
Change in Landscape

Post Thanggu, one can notice the change in the landscape as the ascent begins. The lush green mountain gave way to rough brown mountains which are mostly seen in Ladakh region. Trees give way to bushes. After driving for a while the topography changes and the plateau starts. The cold wind of the morning was accompanied with bright sunshine. As far as you can see, you will find barren mountains with shades of several colors. A long, bumpy ride to the lake with nothing but barren mountains with snow scattered over them at some place and a dusty road is a sight to remember and an experience to be felt.

The Army checkpoint after Thanggu is the last point for you to decide whether you want to continue or not. This check point has medical facility that can treat you for Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). There is also a cafeteria where you can have piping hot tea or coffee and warm yourself up.


En route Gurudongmar Lake
Views en route Gurundongmar Lake
Finally, It's Gurundongmar Lake

After a post card perfect pictures of the region, we finally reached Gurudongmar Lake which was sheer beauty. At 17,300 ft above sea level with snow capped mountain in the background, it was a sight to behold. With its blue and mirror like water the lake is splendid.  The colour of the water is a different shade of blue which cannot be described. We looked at the lake spell bound for a few minutes to register the sheer beauty of this place. We were under the spell of Mother Nature; it is a place which you would never want to leave. It was silence all around; complete peace prevails at 17,300 ft.

Gurudongmar Lake
Paradise on Earth

Gurudongmar Lake Information Board
Want to know about the Lake?

Gurudongmar Lake
At 17,100 ft above sea level
Sherpa was quick to advise us not to stroll down to the lake (some 50 ft below us) as ascending back might take a toll. The oxygen level is only 4% here as compared to normal oxygen level of 21%. You can make a visit to the Gurudwara located near the place where the vehicles are parked. The location of the lake is sensitive, China being some 10 km away.


Gurudwara at Gurudongmar Lake
Gurudwara at the Sacred Lake
The lake is considered sacred by the Sikkemese people. Legend says that hundreds of years ago the lake used to be frozen throughout the year. Once when a renowned priest was passing through the area, the local people requested him to help them in this matter. The guru is said to have touched a part of the lake and blessed the locals. It is said that since then that part of the lake does not freeze even in extreme cold conditions.


Teesta River
Teesta flowing in full swing
Back to Lachen

After spending some 20 mins with one of the most beautiful thing I have seen, we started our return journey to Lachen. On our way back we came across several groups of Yaks. We again stopped at Thanggu for tea. The drive on these mountains is very tough. Therefore it is advisable to let the driver relax and rejuvenate with a cup of tea as often as he wants.


Yaks in Sikkim
It's breakfast time for Yaks
On our way back, we saw Chopta Valley which was nothing exciting.


Chopta Valley
Chopta Valley
The return journey was uneventful. All of us were quiet in our own world. Reached our hotel at 1:00 pm; just in time for lunch. At 3:00 pm we headed to Lachung which is another small town where we will rest for the night. For going to Lachung we again have to go to Chungthang and then proceed to Lachung.


Local kids in Sikkim
Taashi with local kids
Lachen Village
Lachen Village
Lachen to Chungthang to Lachung

Our room was booked on the top floor of Hotel Fortuna. It was dark by the time we reached Lachung and the entire town was already in their respective homes.


Car washing in Sikkim
Drivers washing their SUVs

Fire to keep warm
Burning waste to keep ourself warm
Lachung is a simple village with no four/five star hotels, posh restaurants, resorts or flea market. This place was making me feel close to nature. And trust me, it’s a good feeling.

Fuel Filling in the car
Filling fuel bought in black
Washing car at a waterfall
Car being washed near a waterfall on the roads
It was not as cold here as Lachen or probably we have become used to the cold by now. Our room was on the third floor and the dining area was on the second floor. Since it was evening and we were hungry, we called for pakoras and tea.

At 8:00 pm sharp we went to the dining area to enjoy the delicious soup. We were the only people in the hotel and thus there was no buffet but we were served al-a-carte. After the soup we had vegetable, dal, chapatti, rice, papad and salad. After a fulfilling meal, we called it a day and headed to sleep.

Read about our journey from Gangtok to North Sikkim.

Points to remember:
1. As the sun sets early here start your day early.

2. Only SUVs are allowed for excursion to North Sikkim.
3. To visit Gurudongmar Lake you need to be an Indian citizen and should have valid permits. The permits can be arranged by the travel agent through whom you are taking the North Sikkim Trip.
4. Book an Innova, Bolero or a Xylo for a comfortable travel. As the roads are bad travel in Sumo or Maxx can be cumbersome.
5. You start very early (ard 3:30 am or 4:00 am) in the morning from Lachen for Gurudongmar Lake. As the day proceeds, the conditions at the lake are in hospitable and wind blows at high velocity.
6. Gurudongmar Lake is at an altitude of 17,000 + ft above sea level. People having breathing or heart problem should avoid visiting this place. Children too are generally not allowed.
7. If you feel the symptoms of AMS, don’t proceed to Gurudongmar Lake. There is no medical facility at the lake and AMS can be life threatening.
8. Although the distance between places is not far because of the rough terrain it takes a considerable time to go from one place to another. So plan accordingly.
9. Please carry warm clothes including sweater, jacket, cap, mufflers, socks and gloves. 10. Wear shoes and not sandals or chappals. It is very windy so plan accordingly.
11. Be easy on steps and while walking. Avoid brisk walk or running at high altitudes as the oxygen level is low.
12. If you are feeling mountain sickness have chocolate of popcorn. It helps.
13. Sikkim is plastic free zone. Please don’t litter and maintain the beauty of nature.
14.Expense of the day:
We had booked the North Sikkim Tour with Tibet Tours & Travels for Rs. 9,450 per person. This covers the cost of travel in Bolero (Zero Point and Mt. Katao in Lachen is not covered in this package), 1 night stay in Lachung, 2 night stay in Lachen and food.
Therefore, today there was no expense other than already paid to the travel agent.




Thursday, 27 November 2014

On our way to Untouched North Sikkim

DAY 3 – GANGTOK TO LACHEN

Not the ones to be confined to malls and markets we dedicated three days of our trip to North Sikkim. The attraction of tough terrain, Leh – like plateaus, sacred lake and enormous heights seemed very exciting and thrilling.


Bridge in North Sikkim
One of the many bridges that we crossed

Bridge with prayer flags
Bridge with beautiful prayer flags
We had already booked our North Sikkim Package through Tibet Tours & Travels. A 3 nights & 4 days package for Rs 37,800 (Rs. 9,450 per person) included travel in Bolero, stay and food for four people (and a 3 year old child). Gurudongmar Lake which is some 65 kms from Lachen is off limits for foreigners and Indians need to take permits to visit the Lake which will be arranged by your travel agent. For the permit you need to provide 2 passport size photographs and copy of valid photo ID. Foreigners can now visit till Thanggu village on Lachen route and till Zero Point on Lachung route (Earlier they could visit only till Chungthang).

Road to North Sikkim
Road to North Sikkim
We wanted to start early around 8:00 am but the travel agent told that he has to take the permit and will be able to leave at 10:00 am. At 9:50 am I received a call from him saying that he has procured the permits and is on his way to pick us up.

Sherpa (I call him Sher Khan Sahab) - our Bolero driver – was the best thing that happened to us. Knowledgeable, polite, a local Sherpa and a very careful driver – Sherpa provided us the true essence and insights on Sikkim. 

Bolero Driver
Sherpa - Our Sher Khan Saab
Our first destination was Lachen, 180 kms from Gangtok, where we are going to spend our night. We started from Gangtok at 10:00 am with the required permits in place. Just on the outskirts of Gangtok we saw our first point – Tashi View Point.
 
Tashi View Point
Tashi View Point
After driving on the curvy road for an hour or so we saw Seven Sister Waterfall.  The seven sister waterfall is not seven waterfalls as the name suggests. It is a waterfall which falls on seven steps. The same cannot be seen from the road. One has to climb up through the stairs near the waterfall to witness the same.

Seven Sister Waterfall
Seven Sister Waterfall

Distance Sign board
Taashi next to a road sign at Seven Sister Waterfall - Lunch after 37 Kms & Tea after 65 Kms
The road to Lachen is full of lush green landscape and numerous waterfalls and bridges.  We stopped over for lunch at 1:00 pm at a small village called Mangan. The place for lunch was pre decided by the travel agent and was a part of the package. After a delicious meal and a well deserved break from the car we were again on our way to Lachen.


North Sikkim
Welcome to 'North Sikkim'

En route Lachen
En route Lachen

En route Lachen
En route Lachen

From Mangan to Chungthang the road is really rocky. Debris and loose rocks all around. We took a tea break at Chungthang from where the road splits – left for Lachen and right for Lachung. Please be aware that you mobile network will work only till Chungthang. Post this only BSNL networks work.

Pink Tree
Isn't the tree beautiful?
We reached Lachen around 6 pm and it was pitch dark. It is a small town at an altitude of around 9,000 feet. The town was silent and there was no soul on the road.

On the way to Lachen
Scenery while driving

To North Sikkim
View from road
The travel agent had made our one night stay arrangement in Hotel View Point. Our room was view facing and on the second floor. The room was huge (spacious 1 room kitchen by Mumbai standard) with wall to wall carpet, TV and geyser. (Pls note getting a geyser and a TV is a luxury in this part of the country). It was very cold here. All of us changed in our warmest clothes and ordered for hot tea. It was so cold here that the tea has to be consumed as soon it is poured in the cup or else the tea will be ice cold.

Roads to Lachen
The narrow roads
Lachen is a simple small village with simple people. It is one of the most idyllic hilly villages I have ever visited. It’s simplicity was its charm.

Hotel View Point Lachen
Hotel View Point, Lachen
The dinner was served at 8:30 pm on the fourth floor restaurant. Please note that packaged water is banned in Lachen. Even after wearing so many warm clothes we all were feeling cold. Post our dinner we called it a day as we were all very exhausted after eight hours of bumpy ride.

We all were very excited for tomorrow as this will be the day when we will scale to an altitude of 17000+  ft above sea level to the sacred Gurudongmar Lake. And to reach the lake we have to start our drive early… very early…

Points to remember:
1. As the sun sets early in this part of the world, start your day early.
2. Only SUVs are allowed for excursion to North Sikkim.
3. Book an Innova or a Xylo for a comfortable travel. As the roads are bad, travel in Sumo or Maxx can be cumbersome.
4. Although the distance between places is not far because of the rough terrain it takes a considerable time to go from one place to another. So plan accordingly.
5. You require one full day to reach Lachen. There are travel agents who might suggest to start late from Gangtok. It is recommended to start early and enjoy the beauty of the terrain and keep taking breaks and do justice to them and your health.
6. Only Indians can visit Gurudongmar Lake. A permit is required for the same which will be arranged by your travel agent. You need to provide 2 passport size photographs and copy of photo ID for the permits.
7. Please carry warm clothes including sweater, jacket, cap, mufflers, socks and gloves. Wear shoes and not sandals or chappals.
8. Be easy on steps and while walking. Avoid brisk walk or running at high altitudes as the oxygen level is low.
9. If you are feeling mountain sickness have chocolate of popcorn. It helps.
10. Please remember that most of the day will go in travelling in the car. Make regular stops en route to exercise those weary limbs and to enjoy the magnificent views.
11. Your constant companion, your mobile network will work only till Chungthang. In Lachen only BSNL network works that too occassionally.
12.  Sikkim is plastic free zone. Please don’t litter and maintain the beauty of nature.
13. Expense of the day:
We had booked the North Sikkim Tour with Tibet Tours & Travels for Rs. 9,450 per person. This covers the cost of travel in Bolero (Zero Point and Mt. Katao in Lachen is not covered in this package), 1 night stay in Lachung, 2 night stay in Lachen and food.

Therefore, today except spending a little on mineral water and snacks there was no expense other than already paid to the travel agent.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Excursion from Gangtok

DAY 2 – NATHULA PASS, BABA MANDIR, TSONGMO LAKE AND TUKLA VALLEY

In the morning, I woke up to the majestic view of the Himalayas. The sun was out and it was a perfect day for excursion to Nathula Pass, Baba Mandir, Tsongmo Lake and Tukla Valley.


Tsongmo Lake
Tsongmo Lake
We had already booked a taxi for our excursion today through the hotel itself. For a visit to Nathula Pass one need to have a permit. The permit is easy to obtain. You need to provide two passport size photograph and one valid ID card (Voter ID or Passport. Pan Card and Aadhaar Card are not acceptable). Leave the hassle of taking the permit to the taxi operator.

We had our breakfast on the terrace restaurant of the hotel, soaking in the sun and the captivating view of the Himalayas. I was ready and looking forward to a day of exploring.

Google Map from Gangtok to Nathula Pass
Gantok - Tsongmo Lake - Nathula Pass - Baba Mandir
The hotel had arranged for a taxi (Sumo for Rs 5000) for our excursion. We started from our hotel just after 8:00 am. After picking our permits we were on our way to Nathula Pass which is 56 Kms from Gangtok. Since I had already researched a lot, I asked the driver about Tukla Valley, Memencho Lake, Jelepa Pass.


Road to Nathula Pass
The Winding Roads
The roads are mostly bad and there is lot of construction work going on. On top of that there are landslides and fallen boulders. The road are in shambles and are very narrow. It is a very slow journey. At some places the roads are very narrow. It is a class act to see how two trucks or jeeps that come face to face maneuver each other. The Border Road Organisation (BRO) is doing an amazing work of making the roads and we could see lovely stretches of road in some areas.


Road to Nathula Pass
The "Good" Road

Rough terrain to Nathula Pass
The "Bad" Road
Muddy Road to Nathula Pass
And the "Ugly" Road
On our way we gave a lift to an army jawan – Mr. Ansaari who is from Varanasi. He was carrying a gas cylinder uphill. The same was required to make the white lining on the sides of the road. He told us that he has been stationed here for 3 years out of which he has already finished 2 years. He also said that Indian Army allows the jawans to go home after every three months.


Jawan at Nathula Pass
Jawan waiting....
We first headed to Tukla Valley. Had to pay Rs 1,200 extra to the driver to visit Tukla Valley as it is not a part of the package. While heading to the Valley we crossed Tsomgo Lake but the driver said that we will halt here on our way back.


Tukla Valley
Tukla Valley
You get the best view of the Himalayan Range at Tukla Valley. The view from this point was mesmerizing. We could see the entire range of mountain covered in deep sheet of snow… fully white.. we were speechless.


Tukla Valley
View from Tukla Valley
It was very cold and windy. So make sure you have your warm clothes on and a good set of cap and gloves. 

While heading to Tukla Valley we crossed Baba Harbhajan Singh Mandir – A memorial to the soldier Harbhajan Singh. This is the temple which has been made for the tourist as it is easily accessible. The original Mandir is post Tukla Valley. Our driver took us to the original temple. The temple is very small perched on top of a hill. You need to climb few steps to reach the temple. Be careful as the oxygen level is low. Take the steps slowly. Inside the temple there is a small room where a bed etc is placed. Inside the room there is another room which is the temple. There is a specific arti also for this temple.


Baba Mandir
Baba Harbhajan Mandir

Baba Mandir Steps
Steps to Baba Mandir
Walk down the steps and on your left you will be given a prasaad of delicious halwa.


Baba Mandir
Flags hovering a midst clouds at Baba Mandir
Post Harbhajan Singh Temple we headed to Nathula Pass. We again crossed the newly constructed Baba Harbhajan Mandir which we gave a miss. One of the boards on the way back read "Caution! You are under Chinese Observation!". The road is picturesque and inspiring.


Army Jawans
Jawans working hard to build the road
We saw many beautiful lakes on the way. We got a glimpse of Memencho Lake and Biton Cho which is also known as Elephant Lake.
Elephant Lake
Elephant Lake

Momencho Lake
Momencho Lake
We then headed to Nathula Pass which is located at an altitude of 14,500 ft above sea level. Gangtok is around 5,000 ft above sea level. So in just 50 kms we have climbed 9,500 ft approx.

Nathula Pass is opened till 1:00 pm and is closed on Monday and Tuesday. We reached the place at 1:00 pm and had to coax a jawan a little in order to let us see the pass with the promise that we won’t take long. To reach to the top of the pass you need to climb few steps which can be very exhausting because of the low oxygen level. It was very windy here and it is absolutely must to cover your ear in order to avoid severe headache. The cold winds here were numbing.


Nathula Pass
Nathula Pass
It was a different feeling to see the border and see our National Flag flying in the wind. I also felt a deep sense of gratitude towards our Army and Soldiers who endure the tough weather and terrain of Sikkim every day to keep us safe.

We were not allowed to take pictures here. There is a cafĂ© where you can enjoy a hot cup of tea and coffee.  We again gave lift to three jawans who were headed to the check point where the inner line permits are checked. We were more than obliged to give them a lift.

After dropping the three jawans we again give a lift to a Sardar jawan who wanted a lift for few kms. Post that, we headed to Tsomgo Lake. We had earlier crossed this lake while heading uphill. This lake is at an altitude of 10,500 ft above sea level. The lake is quite scenic with lots of colourful player flags enhancing the beauty of the lake. Enjoy the beauty of the serene lake on the backdrop of mountains. You can take a ride on one of the many beautifully decorated yaks. Get yourself clicked wearing the traditional Sikkimese clothes. It will add to your collection of memories from Sikkim.


Tsongmo Lake
Tsongmo Lake
The weather throughout was good. Post the lake we headed downhill and stopped for lunch. It was very cold by now and we savored a hot cup of tea, a plate of magi, boiled eggs and omelette. 

On our way to Gangtok we had to park our car on the side of the road many times as there were big military trucks with big machinery and ancillary making their way up. We were back in our hotel by 6:00 pm.


Teesta River
Teesta River
In the evening we went to the famous upscale M.G. Road of Gangtok. It is a 15 mins walk from our hotel and is opened till 9:00 pm. It is lined with shops, branded showrooms, restaurants and clubs playing live music. A portion of the road is pedestrian only and this portion of road is cobble stoned with fountains in the middle and number of green painted benches to sit and relax. It is a nice place to spend the evening.


M.G. Road in Gangtok
M.G. Road

M.G. Road in Gangtok
M.G. Road in Gangtok
It is a perfect place to buy warm clothes and souvenirs like prayer wheels, lucky coin, statue of a monk, wind chimes etc. You can buy warm clothes at very economical rate here. The souvenirs are also reasonably priced. Just after M.G. Road, is Lal Bazaar which is said to be more economical as compared to M.G. Road. You can try it.

After a brief shopping spree and a fulfilling dinner, we went back to the hotel. The night was spent relaxing and sleep came quiet easily. 

Points to remember:

1. As the sun sets early in this part of the world, start your day early.
2. In order to see Nathula Pass you need to be an Indian Citizen and should obtain permit for the same. Ask your travel agent to arrange for the required permit. Also remember that Nathula Pass is closed on Monday and Tuesday. Also, it is opened till 1:00 pm only, so visit this first before Baba Mandir, Tsongmo Lake, Tukla Valley or any other point. 
Carry two passport size photographs and copy and original photo ID proof. (Voter ID or Passport)
3. Only SUVs are allowed for excursion to Nathula Pass, Baba Mandir and Tsongmo Lake.
4. Book an Innova or a Xylo for a comfortable travel. As the roads are bad travel in Sumo or Maxx can be cumbersome.
5. Although the distance between places is not far because of the rough terrain it takes a considerable time to go from one place to another. So plan accordingly.
6. To visit Tukla Valley you have to pay extra to the driver. I recommend a visit to this valley. The view from here is worth every penny.
7. You require one full day to see Nathula Pass, Baba Mandir, Tsongmo Lake and Tukla Valley. There are people who might suggest you to finish these points in half a day. It is recommended to take an entire day for these points and do justice to them and your health.
8. Please carry warm clothes including sweater, jacket, cap, mufflers, socks and gloves. Wear shoes and not sandals or chappals.
9. Be easy on steps and while walking. Avoid brisk walk or running at high altitudes as the oxygen level is low.
10. If you are feeling mountain sickness have chocolate of popcorn. It helps.
11. Sikkim is plastic free zone. Please don’t litter and maintain the beauty of nature.
12. Expense of the day:


For 4 ppl
Per Person
Breakfast in the hotel
            500
              125
Taxi for Excursion to Nathula Pass, Baba Mandir, Tsongmo Lake & Tukla Valley
        6,200
           1,550
Lunch
            350
                 88
Dinner at M.G. Road
            540
              135
One night stay at the Hotel
         3,600
              900
TOTAL
      11,190
           2,798