It takes a sizable amount of gumption to quit your job, knowing fully that your future is uncertain. I took that leap of faith. After toying with the idea for several months, I finally gathered courage to put down my papers because like every other disgruntled millennial, I wanted more from life. I told everyone that I wanted to travel and I was going to do just that, except, when I left the big city to come back home, the truth that I had imagined in my head was far removed from reality.
I am a small-town girl, I live in a hill-station where the idea of ordering something online and getting anything delivered to your doorstep is a concept as alien as living on Mars-it may happen someday, just not right now. So yes, the initial weeks were challenging. The quixotic idea that I had once forged in my head about traveling, was looking a lot less practical. I had plenty of time but the resources were depleting.
For those of you, tricked by Instagram into believing that an offshore vacation is within your reach after you quit your job, well, it is not. There is a whole lot of planning involved and of course, money is a factor. Thankfully for me, I knew better and that’s when I decided to traverse across the snowy mountains of Sikkim.
It helps when you speak the common tongue and if you have friends living in the place you plan to visit. My grandmother was from Sikkim and Gangtok, it’s capital, has always been like a second home to me. It was only in the year 1975, that the kingdom of Sikkim merged with the Indian union, thus becoming the eighth brother of the Seven Sisters in Northeast India. At this juncture, I cannot stress enough how geographically and culturally challenged most of us are when it comes to the Northeastern States. The diversity of each state is what makes the region so pleasing. There’s a whole new world out there, and it is beautiful.
My friends and I, had a week planned in the Himalayan state. As I mentioned earlier, I got tremendous help from my local friend who also works as a tour operator (Chen Yang, bless her heart!). I’d been itching to go to North Sikkim for as long as I could remember, and this time, everything fell into place…or did it? The entire region of North Bengal and Sikkim had been experiencing off-season rainfall for some odd reason and the timing couldn’t have been more unfortunate. I was worried about the heavy snowfall in the northern region foiling our trip. More rain meant more snow, thus obstructing the roads. It was too late to cancel anything so we decided to brave the situation and head on to our journey, come what may. With special permits in place and with fingers crossed we set off to what would become one of the most memorable trip of our lives.
The distance between Gangtok to Gurudongmar lake in the North is approximately 175 kms, covered in all of 8 hours via road. It is however, impossible to drive continuously for 8 hours, what with the snowy terrain and undulating roads. Therefore, the accepted route while driving to Gurudongmar lake is Gangtok to Lachen to Gurudongmar. The drive to Lachen is pretty alright, for someone who is wont to travelling in the hills, there is nothing out of the ordinary.
Having said that, everything you see and encounter on the road is still quite pretty. It is only when the ascent begins, then you notice the change in the surrounding. For one, you will start seeing a lot of defence personnel, which is unstated, because the further North you go, the closer you inch towards China. We reached Lachen late in the evening. This small town is made up of few local families, ninety percent of who, run hotels and inns. Lachen serves as a pit-stop for travellers, enroute, Gurudongmar.
Still hungover from all the Tongba (millet-beer, locally brewed and savoured), from the previous night, we woke up groggy-eyed at 3 the next morning, and by 4, we’d already left our hotel. It is advisable for the tourists to reach the sacred lake as early as possible, because the strong gust of wind post-noon, makes breathing impossible even for someone with a pair of iron plated lungs. The almost 67 km stretch (3.5 hrs) to Gurudongmar Lake is peppered with picturesque landscape that you don’t get to see very often.
Apart from the army camps and only a handful of yak herders, the region is sparsely populated. It is of course, no mean feat to be able to live anywhere above more than 12000 ft. The pressure drop is very real and very perceptible. For someone living in the cities, high altitude might pose a real problem, but since all of us were mountain-borne, we were good. However, our faces were swollen as a result of high altitude, thus rendering us unfit for selfies.
Here’s a pro-tip while travelling or trekking across high altitude region: keep munching on corn seeds fried in ghee. Those are the good carbs that you want in your body and they work like magic!
No matter how much I wax eloquence about Gurudongmar Lake, it still won’t be enough. Not taking away the glory from other places, but most of have us have seen the famous Pangong Lake in Ladakh, atleast on TV. Now add a couple of more thousand feet to that, with a lot less thousand pesky tourists. That’s Gurudongmar Lake for you. We were told that not many people can make it to the lake easily. Be it altitude sickness, snow, rain, hail, or whatever may be the reason, getting there, isn’t an everyday business.
Maybe it was true, or maybe I’d like to think that we were the lucky few who went to the lake and came back in mint condition, barring the ogre face. While it rained and snowed in other places, we encountered nothing on our way. The roads were clear and the sun was bright. Infact, the settled snow on the roads made for a breath-taking picture.
Gurudongmar Lake is considered sacred by Buddhists all over the world. Legend has it, that Guru Padmasambhava or Guru Rimpoche as he is called in reverence, while on his way back from Tibet, realized that the lake held divine powers and was therefore, worthy of veneration. The lake however, remained frozen most part of the year with no possibility of drinking water for the local tribesmen. Guru Rimpoche thus placed his hand on the small part of the lake, hence facilitating drinking water for the people.
When we reached Gurudongmar, the entire 290-acre expanse of this venerated water body was frozen, except for a small part on the south side. It was magical. The frozen lake was surrounded by snow-capped mountains that appeared so close, you’d think they grew in your backyard! I had never in my life, seen anything like it.
The Tibetan border was only five kms away from where we stood. It was surreal. A little further away from Gurundongmar is another revered lake called Tso Lamo, but one requires an extra special permit to enter that area, and it wasn’t open to general public yet.
The Indo-China war that took place in 1962, witnessed heavy firing from both sides as is the case with most battles. Sikkim was an independent nation and one of India’s strongest allies. The Indian army, took position in North Sikkim, specifically in the Gurudongmar, Tso Lamo region to attack the Chinese side. As we passed through the strong army protected area, we learnt that there were still hundreds of bodies buried deep in snow, unearthed and frozen.
The final ten km tar stretch leading up to the lake is remarkable. Props to the army for achieving the impossible. The long, black road with barren land on both sides with just a tiny stone hut at a distance (I am not making this up. There actually is one, tiny stone hut inhabited by a single family of yak herders living in the Gurudongmar region), surrounded by snowy mountains is a sight to behold. Even the most non-conformist of the lot would want to create an Instagram account just to be able to show the world the visual delight staring down at him/her at 17800 above sea level!
Perhaps it was the beauty of the place, or the mysticism of its being, or, some would say that they were just plan high (pun intended), Gurudongmar is one such place on earth, where you feel closer to heaven, doesn’t matter which God you pray to.