Faeries, come take me out of this dull world,
For I would ride with you upon the wind,
Run on the top of the dishevelled tide,
And dance upon the mountains like a flame.
W.B.Yeats, The land of Heart’s desire
For every traveller, there is that one place that one longs to see so badly, that it becomes the focal point of the trip, almost an obsession. It can be a longing so intense, that one is in danger of being let down very badly, in case the place doesn’t live up to the hopes. Or an entire trip can get ruined, in case one can’t reach that particular place. For me, this place was Gurudongmar Lake. And I believe, it was the faeries that carried me there.
I’d slept badly through thunder and lightning the previous night, amidst fears of not being able to reach the lake. I woke at 3:30 am to leave early enough to see the sunrise on the mountains enroute. Yet, a complex series of events conspired to ensure that we left at 5am, well after the sun was up.
“Good morning,” said the mountains. Hmmmm. No problems, I thought, no cribbing, no complaining; after all, this was D-day. We were all set to climb from 10000 feet above sea level (Lachen, starting point) to 17800 feet above sea level (Gurudongmar Lake) in 4 hours. Excited, scared, petrified, thrilled, that was me. Sleepy was everyone else.
I knew that this drive was supposed to be very scenic, apart from scary and rough, and my eyes were fixed on the road. Sheets of grey clouds floated in the valley, obscuring the snow-capped mountains beyond, hanging on the air here and there. It was breathtakingly beautiful.
There had been a lot of rain in the night and the entire mountainside looked washed clean. There were waterfalls at every turn we took. And the curved convoluted roads stretched out below us.
Suddenly, rain pelted the car and our pace slowed considerably. The waterfalls were larger and more powerful. Water rushed across the road. Visibility was less than 50 meters.
“The road” was practically non-existent. It was more like a flattened portion of the mountain side, terribly bumpy and rough. This was the day that I thoroughly appreciated the Scorpio. After a while, the cold weather, the rhythmic bumping about, and the minuscule sleep I’d had at night, all lulled me to sleep, even though I was determined to stay awake to keep the driver awake.
I woke up after nearly an hour and found a very different looking terrain. We were much higher now, level with the mountains, and snow was right beside us.
It was bitterly cold now, and the kid had whacked my warmest jacket. I desperately needed warm clothes and a loo, but we had to wait another 45 minutes for that. Holding on to my raising hair roots and full bladder, while being tossed about on a ridiculously uneven road took a lot of tolerance, till we finally reached Thangu, the last inhabited village before the lake.
We rushed into the shop where our driver offloaded us, and hurriedly rented jackets. There was a long stove that we warmed ourselves with. They served us chai that cooled instantly, and bread that was heated in a chaini over a kettle of boiling water.
Thanks to Ms tortoise (read kid), we were the last to finish. We rushed towards our car, now impatient to reach the lake. The fog and the drizzle were terrifying to me. I could imagine the road being shut by snow fall at the heights. So close and yet so far, I thought. Suddenly a horrible noise came into the focus of my sleep-deprived dazed senses. It was the sound of the car engine spluttering. The car wasn’t starting. It had become too cold. Oh no, I thought, as the driver kept cranking it. But nothing happened. Hubby and driver climbed out of the car. There were no more cars around, they’d all left already. I was petrified now. What if we couldn’t go ahead from this point? Panic started setting in, butterflies in my stomach went insane.
In the midst of the panic, the kid happily piped up, ” Yaay, we don’t need to go to the lake. We can sit in the hotel room and play Uno.” “Not helping,” I thought. Suddenly, lots of people, including the hubby with the fractured finger, pushed the car. It started rattling down the gentle slope. After 100 odd meters, the car burst to life. Aaahhhh! Music to the ears. We turned back around, and picked up the hubby (much to the kid’s relief, who was terrified that we had deserted the father), and drove onwards.
- The valley beside Thangu, on the way back, with better visibility
On and on we drove, without stopping, past lots of army camps and barracks. The river was constantly by our side, clear and flowing rapidly now. Small suspension bridges crossed the river at regular intervals.
Just a little ahead and a lot higher, all around were dry barren mountains. Frozen trails of rivulets and waterfalls were the only color. There were no trees, no flowers, just a few shrubs.
The road was totally a dirt road with sand and rocks. It was a cold desert akin to Leh and Ladakh. Sand and dust were rising like mist from the ground. The husband was so surprised that he got off to walk on the sand. And so thrilled that he took pictures.
Suddenly the sky seemed to have cleared, the fog lifted. Or was it us that had ascended even above the fog itself?
We drove on and reached Giagaon, the last army check post before Gurudongmar where permits were checked. It was bitterly cold here, but what beauty! The mountains were just beyond the army camp and I felt as though I could reach out and touch the snow.
All of a sudden, we came onto a proper tar road and the drive eased out. This part was developed and maintained by the army and was simply so amazing. The sky was a bright blue and fluffy clouds were everywhere.
The mountains had shades that were unimaginable.
This was nature at her best. We could see tanks and underground bunkers but I felt a deep sense of sadness looking at them. How can people go to war in a place of such incredible beauty? In view of the recent stand-off with China, I feel even more deeply saddened. Who are we humans to fight for the lion’s share of the pie? Have we missed the timelessness of our surroundings while concentrating on our miserable duration of existence?
But no one can stay pensive for long when they look out of the window to this.
Or see the yak and sheep grazing on terrain that cannot be imagined to be capable of yielding food.
Soon there were milestones counting down to the lake. I couldn’t believe it, we were almost there! Breathless with excitement or maybe the lack of oxygen, I counted them down till I saw the sign to turn to the lake. The road continues onto Cholamu lake, the highest lake of India, but only army personnel are allowed there.
As we swung right to the lake, we climbed up a steep incline, when all of a sudden, the car spluttered, shuddered, and refused to go ahead. The driver let it roll back and tried again. That’s when the car simply shut down. “Oh no, not again,” I thought. As the driver tried again and again to crank the car, I decided that I would walk up the slope, however difficult it was, but I would reach the lake and see it. Fortunately, our driver went back to the road and tried from a different route. And yippee, the car made it to the top.
We’d been warned not to run at this lake, with just 3% oxygen, but we couldn’t, even if we wanted to. When we saw the lake, our jaws just dropped open. We were so transfixed that we could barely move.
The bright blue lake, mirroring the sky above, in varying shades of blue, with the snow-covered mountains behind it, was a view that took our breath away. The waters were crystal-clear. The frozen bit at the far end seemed to blend seamlessly with the majestic mountains behind.
Legend has it that Guru Padmasambhava dipped a finger into the lake to ensure that some part of this glacial lake always stays unfrozen, so that people can always have a source of water supply. Legend has it that the waters of the lake can cure infertility. Whatever the legends, this place was worthy of extreme devotion for sure.
The kid started feeling very uncomfortable, and started begging to return. We made her sit in the car, eat chocolate and smell some camphor. Normally, panic-stricken me would have turned back right away, but some odd sense of calm had claimed me. I assured her that she would be ok, and hubby and I took turns in climbing down the steps to the lake.
The steps were lined by prayer flags and how wonderful they looked, fluttering gently in the wind, like a stairway to heaven. And if there was a heaven, this is what it should look like. The lake looked even more alluring from up close. I could have reached out and touched it but I didn’t. My hands felt unclean to even touch that pure water.
I sat in silence at the edge of the lake. The water lapped gently against the stones, creating magic for my ears. Once again, I felt the peace and the solitude. The barren mountains on one side and the snow-covered ones on the other seemed to represent different sides of the coin to me.
I felt more relaxed than ever. I closed my eyes and felt the cool breeze on my face. I was happy as could be. The cold, the wind, the frightened child, none of these seemed to matter. I saw the prayer stones at the edge of the lake and prayed my thanks to the Almighty.
The pristine white snow seemed to mirror my feelings.
I could have sat here, the world blocked out, for ages, but a buzzing interrupted my peace. The hubby was calling out to leave, that the winds were blowing very strongly. I sighed and climbed slowly up the stairs, my feet moving reluctantly. I took one last wistful look at the lake and we set off.
We drove back in silence, affected greatly by this tremendous beauty, and appreciating the much clearer skies on our way back.
We came upon a large bridge flowing over the now rapidly gushing river. It was such a lovely picnic spot. Had my parents been there, we would have taken out a chattai and spread it by the river side and hogged from the mandatory Gujju picnic basket. But there were 2 punjus and no basket. My mind conjured up the image of many happy childhood picnics and I sat back, satisfied by the memory of those at least.
We passed a few small villages with tiny huts, with prayer flags all around. There was such an amazing beauty to this statement of belief. I hate pompous declarations of religion, be it the clanging of the temples bells, the incessant prayer calls of mosques or the flamboyance of the Vatican. But this very obvious symbol of Buddhism, the prayer flags, just added to the serenity of Sikkim. They made me feel as if they were a reminder of God watching over us.
In this blissful state, we returned to Lachen, amidst heavy rain and fog again. It had been a wonderful 9 hours on the road, where I spent longer trying to absorb the stunning landscape in my heart, instead of on the memory card.
I realised something important on this day. You have to give some to get some. You have to go through the arduous journey, tolerate the bumps, suffer the cold and the full bladder, and live through car break downs to appreciate this lake. Yes, Gurudongmar Lake is a great place, no doubt, but one where the drive is as wonderful as the destination.
Thank you, faeries.