I must confess that North Sikkim and particularly, Gurudongmar Lake, was the main reason for my going to Sikkim. The gleaming-white snow-capped Himalayan mountains and the pristine blue lake had captivated me enough to brave my fears of flying and falling off the cliff. And I must say, it surely lived up to the great expectations.
The first leg of our journey was Gangtok to Lachung (to get to Yumthang valley and zero point). We would stay there for 2 nights and then onto Lachen (the village to reach Gurudongmar Lake). Most tour operators choose to go to Lachen first, but we opted for the other way around so as to acclimatize better. We also spent more time in North Sikkim than most people normally do, so as to have some rest. Despite that, we were travelling for hours every single day.
The car for North Sikkim was an old, rickety Scorpio, that wasn’t even cleaned well. While I silently cursed him, I realised later how good the driver was and how stable the car was on the terrible dirt tracks, sorry, roads. Soon, we were off, with ondem and avomine in our systems and camera in hand. The driver went to fill fuel and I noticed a shocking thing. He filled a can with diesel and put it in the dickey of the car, since no fuel is available anywhere in North Sikkim. While I was trying to recover from the shock, it struck me that if we fell off the cliff, we’d surely die. Cool, now there was no fear of lying alive and undiscovered in the bushes of Sikkim.
As we left Gangtok, I was surprised to see the surroundings totally barren. There were tall bare trees and small brown shrubs. The whole road was rocky and dirty and narrow.
I saw a few Altos and Wagon r and wondered how these unstable vehicles could go high up in the mountains. It was later that I realized that they were the means to travel between the villages and didn’t go all the way up. In fact, frequently, I saw parents dropping off their kids at schools in such vehicles and realized what a hard life they had compared to me.
Soon, we were fairly high up and the valley looked like a small speck below. Almost like a bottomless pit. Small waterfalls lined the road, some tiny trickles, some larger falls splashing onto the road that the car drove through.
As we drove further North, the topography radically changed. Suddenly all was green. Trees were all around, the falls were larger, the air was cooler. And we passed this board.
Every few turns saw us driving over a small green, almost rickety bridge over a rivulet. The waters were strong, powerful, gushing, fuelled no doubt by the heavy rains of the past few days.
Now, we had ascended significantly from Gangtok. We could catch sight of a lovely green river, crystal-clear in the bottom of the valley, way, way below. It was beautiful and cool, and if I had my way, I would have stopped every few minutes to just get out of the car and breathe in the atmosphere. This was a place where my black, carbon-filled lungs could turn pink like a newborn’s.
Suddenly, we started descending sharply. A swift, twisting, turning descent. Hairpin after hairpin, we went lower, almost 12 feet at a time, till we were level with the bubbling waters. On both sides around us were tall, lush, deep green mountains with clouds all over their tops.
As we drove on, we climbed a bit higher and suddenly came upon a huge tall gushing waterfall. And what a fall it was! Starting at the top of the mountain high up, it thundered down over huge rocks and continued below the bridge we drove over, at a great force, to join the more placid river lower down.
A small wooden rickety bridge was built over the waterfall, where the hubby dragged the frightened kid and took lots of selfies. It was only when I got there that I understood why the kid was so scared. It was a narrow, shaky bridge made up of rotting planks joined together with small gaps between them. There was minimal side-rail support and you could look straight into the face of the waterfall. One tumble and good-bye world.
Now we ascended higher again with the green-blue river as our constant companion. The road curved even more now and was even narrower. Gentle rain was falling. Soon we were near the top of the mountain and could see the river like a shiny white ribbon in the valley. Further on, we could see the clouds in the valley like little fluffy blobs stuck on the trees or floating in the valley. It was stunningly beautiful.
Clouds moved in and out of our path. Visibility dropped for a while and then out cleared a bit. All around was greenery. Trees were tilting over the path. Flowers of all colors grew on the sides. No amount of craning my neck was enough. The whole place looked like it had been thoroughly washed and re painted a vivid green by the rains. Fabulous.
Soon, the rain got heavier and the visibility poorer. It was now too cold for me to even pull down the windows to take pictures. At this scary point, prayer flags on the roadside were certainly very reassuring.
The kid was so happy to see the clouds move in front of our path that she wanted to grab the clouds and take them home. I don’t blame her, they were so pretty! Even I wanted to grab them, it was like driving through the clouds!
Many hairpins higher, the driver stopped at a dirty looking village with lots of tourist vehicles for a lunch break. We got off in the pouring rain to enter a tiny, dark, yuk-looking restaurant with an overpriced fixed lunch menu that they optimistically called a buffet. We turned up our noses and sat down to eat, but the food was surprisingly good, fresh and hot. Even more surprising was to see Cornitos chips. I had carried some packs thinking we wouldn’t get any in Sikkim and here they were at this remote place in the middle of nowhere. I now assumed that we should thank the bus loads of Veena and Kesari for this stocking.
From here on, the turns were very sharp and the climbs steep. There were places where the rocks suddenly jutted out as overhanging projections on the road and the car almost squeezed itself under the large rocks. Terrifying to me but not to Mr. Passang, our driver. He was merrily driving with one hand and scrolling down his play list with the other, unbothered about the repercussions on himself or us. More prayers.
We had reached Chumthang, the place where the road bifurcates to Lachen and Lachung and the site of a dam over the Teesta. This pretty town with multi colored buildings was a very welcome sight to my eyes, not only because of how charming it looked, but also because it meant that our end point was only an hour and a half away.
After Chumthang, the car rapidly ascended the mountains. High and low, round and round, we went on narrow, awful roads over bridges and streams, not realizing that at least these were roads. And that soon, there would be journeys over carved out mountains and rocks, not roads.
Alongside, we could see small cultivated areas of land with a few villages.
We stopped for a bit by another tall waterfall, aptly titled Amitabh Bacchan waterfall by our driver. We were too cold to get too close however.
A few turns ahead, all of a sudden, I saw high up in the sky, peeping out of the clouds, the snow-covered mountain peaks. The first heart stopping moment for me. And there were many more to come.
Thrilled, I craned my neck this way and that, not wanting to lose sight of them. With the mountains by our side now, we reached Lachung soon. Our driver pointed out Mt Katao, looming large, suggesting we drive up there to see the snow on the trees, but we declined that day, only to go on a sunnier day, without any snow by our side.
We reached our hotel and it looked lovely from the outside, with pleasing wooden architecture and the snow-covered mountains right behind. A small black puppy welcomed us by pulling at our shoe strings and we went to the reception hoping for a room with a view.
We couldn’t have been more wrong. We got a match box sized room worthy of RMO quarters with a window opening onto the corridor. The bathroom leaked. And it was freezing cold in the room.
Anyways, we stepped out for tea and maggi and rented clothes and boots for the next day, and enjoyed watching the sun setting over the mountains, that seemed near enough to touch.
We also enjoyed walking along the main road that led to the distant township, along the Lachung la river, in the freezing cold.
After loafing about a little, we had dinner in the restaurant which had an actual fireplace and served warm water and delicious food, and a warning.
In fact, the meals here were the best of the trip. We were still very very cold despite the piping hot food, and retired to a very cold room early, ready for the next day.
Good night mountains!
P.S. Apologies again for too many pictures. Thanks again to Yogesh Shenoy for editing the pictures.