Part VI in a series on Sikkim
Until now, I’ve written about planning a trip to Sikkim, making Sikkim itineraries and booking North Sikkim tours. In the last post, we left Gangtok and arrived at Lachen at a height of 9500 ft, our final halt before attempting Gurudongmar Lake. The story continues from the next morning…
3am: We drag ourselves out of bed and get dressed. If weather permits us to reach Gurudongmar today, we are going to need to be dressed in woollens to cater for sub-zero temperatures at 17000 ft. Layer after layer of woollens envelop us: from double thermals to double sweaters to double leggings, double socks and boots! We are pleasantly surprised to receive a cup of tea from the hotel staff, who has also woken up at this unearthly hour to serve us tea and pack breakfast for the onward journey.
4am: Khum-sum is all ready and waiting for us on time and we set off in the dark. The reason for such an early start, Khum-sum tells us, is that one needs to reach Gurudongmar and leave by 9am or 10am max, post which the winds become so strong that they even lift small pebbles! The drive, though only about 70kms, is going to take 4-5 hours. The reason is evident soon enough, when shortly after we exit Lachen, we find ourselves on one of the worst roads we’ve ever driven upon. We are tossed around in the car ruthlessly with nothing to even look at owing to the darkness.
5am: With the first rays of light, we get our first glimpse of snow since we enter Sikkim. The mountains around us are snow-capped!
5:30am: Dawn breaks to reveal a sprinkling of snow around us. We get off to click pictures and spot soft wisps of snow falling from the sky.
6.15am: We pull into Thangu valley at about 14000 ft- the last human settlement on this route. In fact, between November and April, this village is almost deserted with the denizens retreating to Lachen to survive the winters. Swamped in snow and with no electricity round the year, this village is definitely not an easy one to live in.
A sole shop is open with a lady serving breakfast to us passing tourists. Being early in the year, we are about 10 cars attempting Gurudongmar Lake that day. In any case, even in peak season, not many tourists come to North Sikkim, and of those who do, even fewer venture on the route to Gurudongmar, with most preferring to visit the less extreme Yumthang Valley.
The lady has a tiny hovel of a shop with water on a continuous boil to keep it from freezing. She heats the bread each of us is carrying from our respective hotels and hands it to us with jam and a cup of tea. Wai-wai is available on request as well! Chilled to the bone, we are happy to snuggle in front of the coal heater and sip our cups of tea, even though the food turns cold faster than it is heated. We feed our left over breakfast to some friendly mountain dogs outside the shop.
It is now time for our final run-up to Gurudongmar.
7.15am: We have barely driven out of Thangu and crossed a few curves before we see two cars that had started ahead of us returning. The drivers exchange a few words in Nepali with Khum-sum and move on. Khum-sum is non-committal, but confesses that the vehicles are returning on account of the snow ahead. We move on and soon reach a bend in the road where a couple of the SUVs have halted. The one furthest ahead is attempting to climb an icy slope and is skidding back. Khum-sum tells us that it snowed the previous evening and now the snow has started turning into ice because of the cold.
With sinking hearts, we watch two of the vehicles turn around and leave. We are now about 6 cars parked on the bend and the drivers get off to confer among themselves. We too get off to walk around. As we click a few pictures, we are feverishly praying that we don’t have to return from here. It seems such a shame to have spent a day and a half to reach up till here and then turn back without seeing the famed lake.
7:30am: A few military men from a nearby camp are about to walk past us. We strike conversation with them and ask them if there is any chance for us to make it to the lake today. They look amused at our concern and encourage us to go right ahead, assuring us that the snow peters out a little further. A little sun, they promise, and the way would be absolutely clear. We head back to our car with renewed hope and tell the driver what we have heard. Khum-sum immediately hops onto the car and sets off behind 3 other vehicles that have started moving.
He tells us that the cars that hastily turned and left earlier did so because the drivers don’t want to go the entire way. They get the entire payment in advance, irrespective of whether or not one is able to make it all the way, and hence they are able to save on diesel and time. They didn’t even wait long enough to check if the route was indeed inaccessible. We feel sorry for the tourists in those cars who had to turn back.
With fingers crossed and a constant prayer on our lips, we hope for two things: the sun and a successful drive all the way to the Lake. And a miracle does indeed take place… within minutes we start seeing the sun glisten on the snow all around us! Oh! What a beautiful sight… An expanse of white snow surrounds us, the pristine River Teesta still flows along and the sun starts emerging from behind the mountains. I am overwhelmed at the sheer beauty of it all.
8:30am: We stop at the last military check-post before Gurudongmar Lake to show our permits. We are now at 15000 ft. A small cafe here proudly states, ‘The World’s Highest Cafe’! Photographs, however, are not allowed. A quick visit to a terribly dirty loo and we’re on our last leg to Gurudongmar: another 10 kms to go.
9am: The moment has arrived. Our vehicle climbs a soft slope and before we know it, we are dazzled by the sight of a large frozen lake with big white glaciers rising up behind it. Words cannot describe the scene and I murmur to myself, “Truly, the abode of the Gods”.
To know what we saw and did at Gurudongmar, check out my next post in the Sikkim series.
PIyushi Dhir is the author of the romantic novels, 'In Search of Love' (2014), 'I'm Yours, The Next Time' (2015) and 'Enmeshed Evermore' (2015). A voracious reader, a keen traveler and an ardent dog-lover, Piyushi currently resides in Ivory Coast, Africa. A nomad at heart, she loves to discover new places and capture the hues of life with her pen.