My eventful tour of North Sikkim

Gurudongmar Lake, Sikkim
Gurudongmar Lake, Sikkim

Located in North East of India, the state of Sikkim is blessed with breathtaking waterfalls, lakes, scenic Valleys monasteries and Gompas. There are several exciting trek routes too.

In the year 2010, just after Durga Puja, I got roped into a hurriedly decided tour to Sikkim with some of my young friends who were mostly from TCS. The tour itinerary included the Capital city Gangtok and its outskirts followed by a tour to North Sikkim.

I have been four times unlucky regarding a trip to Gangtok and North Sikkim. So I hopped in, despite the fact I knew only one of the team members.

A typical tour to Gangtok and North Sikkim comprises of several things. To start with there is the city tour which comprises of several Monasteries including the famous Rumtek.

The highlight of North Sikkim tour comprises of the high altitude fresh water lake of Gurudongmar at 17,100 feet in North Sikkim. The lake is named after Guru Padmasambhava who had brought Tantric Buddhism to Tibet in the 8th century. It is said that Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikh religion, visited this lake.

Also added to the tour was a visit to Tsongmo alias Changu Lake in east Sikkim, 40 km from Gangtok. The lake was 40 km from Gangtok at a height of 12,400 ft and is accessed through a treacherous road.

Crawling Traffic at Ranipool Bridge
Crawling Traffic at Ranipool Bridge

Accompanied by my young friends, I reached the very next day after Durga Puja at New Jalpaiguri Station. With a bright sunny weather accompanied by the blue waters of Tista River, we enjoyed a pleasant 4-hour drive to Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim. There is a bridge just before entering Gangtok. The bridge is known as Ranipool bridge and the stream below it as Rani Khola. On crossing the bridge some army men checks car papers. The traffic usually crawls here.

Not great news at Gangtok

On our arrival to Gangtok, we came to know that our hired car from NJP will not be allowed to go further from the Deorali Jeep stand. We had to hire cabs to reach there. The cabs do not run on meter and do not have any fixed rate. Besides that, each cab takes only 4 people. Since we were a group of five, we were forced to take two cabs to reach our hotel.

There was more bad news to come. Our North Sikkim Tour scheduled two days later took a jolt when our pre-booked exclusive tour with a local travel agent was cancelled. Since it was peak season and we had no other options than to convert our exclusive tour into a shared one with another agent. Also, there seemed to be no car or taxi available to take us to Tsongmo alias Changu lake the next day at a reasonable rate.

We went out for a stroll in the afternoon to keep our spirits high. Our hotel was near Tashiling Secretariat. There was a viewpoint near it, but dusk was settling fast. We managed to get in the last ride on the ropeway over the city. It was not very fruitful as the fog was coming down very fast. We got a basic glance of the city from the top and then everything went white.

Viewpoint near Secretriat
Viewpoint near Secretriat
View of Gangtok from Ropeway
View of Gangtok from Ropeway

After getting down from ropeway, we walked down to the most happening place of Gangtok – the M.G. Marg. It is a pedestrian plaza and well maintained. Comparing with Kolkata, this road can be considered as the Park Street of Gangtok. The bus and jeep stands are nearby. Also the famous ‘Lal Market’ where tourists do their maximum shopping is just adjacent to it. There are several hotels on the M. G. Marg. It occurred to me that maybe we should have opted for a hotel at M.G. Road to save the cabby fare up and down to the hotel.

M.G. Marg is the most happening place of Gangtok
M.G. Marg is the most happening place of Gangtok
Lal Market is the best place to shop at Gangtok
Lal Market is the best place to shop at Gangtok
A souvenir shop at Lal Market
A souvenir shop at Lal Market

Since nobody was in a great mood, we decided to have dinner in a good restaurant instead of our hotel. We entered into one of the good restaurants named “Gang Talk”. The ambience was good and so was the food. Some of the team members decided to drown their sorrow with alcohol. It did not have a good effect and the result was that on our way back in confusion escorting our “high spirited” friends we took a wrong pathway to the hotel.

Chance Night encounter strikes rich.

It sounds funny, but getting “lost” in a city that too in the night is rather embarrassing. Worse one of our “high spirited” friends started hailing cabs at random and asking them whether next day they could take us to a tour of Changu lake and Baba Mandir . I was getting irritated and puzzled when a miracle happened. A cab actually stopped and he informed that there can actually be a car available next day to give us a tour to Changu Lake and Baba Mandir! After we reached our hotel, the driver of the said car paid a visit. He took two of our passport sized photograph and I.D. Proof photocopy in order to make Inner Line Permit to visit the lake. The lake falls in restricted area and thus needs a permit. Our tour to Changu Lake for the next day was fixed.

The next morning started very promisingly. To start off we were treated to an awesome sight of Mount Kanchendzonga and other peaks shining brightly amongst floating clouds and lush greeneries right from our balcony. The scenario was looking like an oil painting and it was not till clouds covered the snow capped mountains, we thought of getting ready for our tour to Changu Lake. After a hearty breakfast, we had a talk over the phone with our driver who asked us to join him at the private bus/jeep stand opposite to Hungry Jack Hotel. It was walking distance from M.G. Road.

Mt. Kangchenjunga and other peaks as seen from out hotel balcony
Mt. Kangchenjunga and other peaks as seen from out hotel balcony
Zoomed view of Mt. Kangchenjunga as seen from out hotel balcony
Zoomed view of Mt. Kangchenjunga as seen from out hotel balcony

We walked from our hotel to the M.G. Road. In the day time, the path looked pretty easy and we reached the Jeep Stand in no time. Our driver arrived sometimes later with a Mahindra Maxx. We had intended to visit Nathula pass too. However, it was not possible as we came to know that the pass remains open only to Indian nationals on Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Sadly it was Tuesday, so we had to drop the idea.

Tsongmo alias Changu Lake and Baba Mandir

We started at 10:00. Another fellow came in and handed over the inner line permit to the driver. It was sunny all around with clouds floating. The zigzag pathway with greeneries all around was a treat to the eyes.

Inner Permit for Changu Lake handed over to our Driver
Inner Permit for Changu Lake handed over to our Driver

After a drive of one and half hour we stopped at the check post where there was a huge line of cars. Our driver went to see the permit, whence I notice small waterfalls beside the road. It looked pretty and in a jiffy I was on the road armed with my camera and tripod. As soon as my photo session was over, the driver came back and we resumed our journey.

A small waterfalls on our way to Changu Lake
A small waterfalls on our way to Changu Lake

The road was a mixed affair. At some place it was pretty descent, while it was extremely difficult to negotiate at some other. We needed some military men to push our vehicle at a point. We came to know that there was a landslide yesterday and the cleaning process was going on. We saw some road repairing machines on the way.

Road to Changu Lake from Gangtok
Road to Changu Lake from Gangtok

Meanwhile the weather God played foul with us. As we were proceeding towards Changu, it became cloudy. By the time we had reached, the place was full of fog and mist. It was drizzling a bit too. The water of the lake was yet unfrozen. The glacial lake is at a height of 12,400 ft and about 40 km from Gangtok.

Changu lake on a cloudy day
Changu lake on a cloudy day

We loitered a bit around the lake, plainly disappointed as the weather was dull and full of mist. There was a small wooden bridge with lots of coloured flags. We strolled over the bridge a bit and went back to the car and drove off to Baba Mandir. On our way back I was lucky to spot and shoot Rainbow at Changu Lake which for me was no less than a miracle.

A Rainbow at Changu Lake
A Rainbow at Changu Lake

The legend of Baba Mandir is quite famous. It was built in memory of Baba Harbhajan Singh, a soldier in the 23rd Punjab Regiment of Indian Army, who was drowned in a stream near the spot. In fact, there are two Baba Mandirs at Sikkim. The original Baba Mandir has been built at the site of the bunker of Baba Harbhajan, where he served during his tenure at the army. The new one has been built close to Changu Lake. It is around 20 km from the lake at a height of 13000 feet. Tourists traveling to West Sikkim at Nathang Valley, Kupup Lake visits old Baba Mandir. The new temple is always crowded with Indian Army Soldiers who believe the soul of the departed soldier still guards the frontier. A huge number of devotees visit the temple during peak tourist season.

Baba Mandir with Indian Soldiers around
Baba Mandir with Indian Soldiers around

I found this blog to be useful about facts on Baba Harbajan Singh http://sikhim.blogspot.in/2008/06/baba-harbhajan-singh-story-of-dead.html

North Sikkim Tour

Shared jeep travel in Gangtok means 10 passengers other than the driver in a Mahindra Maxx. Since we were first to arrive, we got the best seats. Two of us sat beside the driver and two positioned themselves in the middle seats. The other passenger took some time to come and it was not before 12 noon we started our journey.

We were to first reach Lachen (8838 Feet or 2694 Mtrs), which was 123 km from Gangtok. On the way to Lachen, our first stop was the Seven Sisters falls. Located 32 km from Gangtok, the waterfall gushes down against a green backdrop. There were quite a lot of tourists climbing up a staircase to reach near the waterfalls. I managed to get some good shots fixing the tripod some way on the stones.

Seven sisters falls
Seven sisters falls

Around 2 p.m. we halted for a lunch break at a pre-arranged local house at Phodong, 40 km from Gangtok. Soon after leaving Phodong, the road turned from bad to worse. It was a two way narrow lane with thick mud all over. Worse, in some places there were abandoned military trucks on the road. We literally crawled up to Mangan, the district headquarters of North Sikkim. There was a round of permit checking after Mangan.

Scenic fields at Phodong
Scenic fields at Phodong
The road turned from bad to worse after Phodong
The road turned from bad to worse after Phodong

After Mangan, we passed by the gorgeous Naga falls which flows over the road. Unfortunately, the light was very low now, so we could not stop to have a good view. Our final checking was at Tung check post before entering Lachen. It was around 6:00 when we reached Chungthang , where there are two pathways. The left goes to Lachen and the right to Lachung. The road was very dangerous here as there were no street lights. On our right side, below the valley, we could see a hydroelectric project under construction.

The village of Lachen
The village of Lachen

We reached Lachen at around 07:30 p.m. The accommodation was reasonably good at Lachen as we did not expect such a well-furnished room with Geyser facilities for bathing. It was extremely cold outside and we had earlier thought of skipping bath these days. After a nice bath and a simple dinner, we went to bed early.

Gurudongmar Lake

Next day in our journey for Gurudongmar Lake started at 04:00 a.m. The road condition was the worst and for the first time, I was feeling scary. There were numerous waterfalls on the way. We reached Thanggu at 06:45 a.m. It was still quite cold. The hot breakfast and tea at Thanggu tasted heavenly. Foreign Nationals cannot proceed after Thanggu as they are not permitted to visit the lake. They visit Chopta Valley instead.

Early morning at Thanggu
Early morning at Thanggu
Our breakfast getting ready at Thanggu
Our breakfast getting ready at Thanggu

It was getting cloudy and the terrain after Thanggu was very much like Ladakh. The clouds were getting dense and it was drizzling a bit. We were stopped at a military post where army men asked as whether we were feeling fine. There were bunkers and heavy artillery around us. None of us dared to take out our camera here. This was the final checkpoint and after that, the road was like a massive field from one horizon to the other. On our right, we could see snow clad mountains. Here we took out our cameras and started shooting.

The terrain from Thanggu to Gurudongmar Lake
The terrain from Thanggu to Gurudongmar Lake
The massive open field on the way to Gurudongmar
The massive open field on the way to Gurudongmar

We reached Gurudongmer lake around at 09:00 a.m. The time allotted was 1 hour. The clouds were clearing a bit but the snow clad peaks were not clearly visible. I climbed down a steep wooden staircase to reach the banks of the lake. There were colourful prayers flag around the lake. Keeping a sharp watch on the time, I decided to take a stroll around the giant waterbody.

Close view of Gurudongmar Lake
Close view of Gurudongmar Lake

At 17,100 feet, it is not surprising to have breathing trouble. Especially when you have gained that altitude from 9022 feet at that early part of the day in just about 5 hours !

My friends decided to stay up and not risk it. I walked to the left of the lake and crossed a small bridge. The colour of Gurudongmar Lake was greenish blue. With the clouds clearing from the snow clad mountains beside it, the place was looking out of the world. I have no idea what heaven looks like, but it must be something like this. Half way down the lake, I decided to turn back as it was getting late. A major disadvantage of a shared trip is you do not seem to get enough time anywhere.

Gurudongmar Lake Panoramic view
Gurudongmar Lake Panoramic view

After I climbed up the stairs, I found that it was the correct light to take my desired panorama shot of the lake. I took some other shots too as the driver was pursuing us to get in. Two of the fellow members were not feeling well and it was time to go. There was a small temple of Buddhist Guru besides the temple, where we made a hasty visit.

Landscape Near Gurudongmar
Landscape Near Gurudongmar

The sun was shining brightly now, and with great despair I climbed into the car. On our way back the valley was looking nothing less than Ladakh with the snow clad mountains shining on the horizon underneath the blue sky.

Going back I was feeling like having something extremely tasty but not having enough of it. One hour in heaven was bit too less.

Visit to Yumthang Valley and Zero Point

We reached Lachung (8610 Feet or 2624 Mts) the same afternoon after having a brief lunch stop at Lachen. I found Lachung more scenic and spread out than Lachen. The dinner was excellent today with Rumali Roti and Chicken Curry. Thankfully next day we were not supposed to start in the dark, but around 07:00 in the morning.

Lachung was more scenic than Lachen. That yellow two storied house was our lodge
Lachung was more scenic than Lachen. That yellow two storied house was our lodge

Next day the weather did not clear and Yumthung Valley was a big disappointment. We did not expect any flowers at this “Valley of Flowers” of Sikkim in October, but the bad light made the scenary look extremely dull.It had not snowed there as well. We strolled down to the river and had some slow shutter shot.

Yumthang Valley was a big disappointment because of bad weather
Yumthang Valley was a big disappointment because of bad weather
River at Yumthang Valley
River at Yumthang Valley

The driver had already told us that if we were to proceed to Zero Point, we have to pay extra Rs 500 as it has not part of original plan. Reluctantly we paid him the money, but it turned out worth going to reach Zero Point. The road was zigzag and narrow. Since it was a two way road, driving was really difficult.

Road to Zero Point
Road to Zero Point

Although weather did not clear and we could not see any snow clad peaks, it had snowed heavily at Zero point and everyone had their share of fun with snow and ice in the area. We took a stroll in the snow, but I advised not to cross the bridge over the icy river as fog was getting in.

Tourists at Zero Point
Tourists at Zero Point
A Kid enjoying with snow at Zero Point
A kid enjoying with snow at Zero Point
A bridge at zero point
A bridge at zero point

Three of our fellow passenger ventured across the bridge and we had to wait for long before they came back. By that time all other tourist jeep has left and it had started snowing again. As we were about to lose our patience they came back strolling lazily. Well, you have to face such troubles while going in a shared car.

Our lone car at Zero Point waiting for our fellow mates to return
Our lone car at Zero Point waiting for our fellow mates to return

The visibility was getting down from bad to worse as we drove on through that zig zag road with walls of ice beside us. Finally, we came down to a normal road and drove without much event to Lachung. After a quick lunch, we drove back to Gangtok. The road was worse while returning. One vehicle had got stuck in the mud and everyone gave a hand to heave it. We reached around 11 in the night at the city.

After a day of local sightseeing at Gangtok including a visit to Rumtek and Ranka Monastery, we headed for New Jalpaiguri Station the next day.

Rumtek Monastery
Rumtek Monastery
Ranka Monastery
Ranka Monastery

The Manager of our lodge, Hotel Pomra promised to get us an SUV, but ended up providing us with a Tata Indica. We had a heated argument, but at the end, we were forced to board that car as there was not much alternative. My friends had done truckload of shopping at Gangtok, and it was really cramped inside the car.

We learned the lesson in the hard way that at Gangtok, one should arrange the vehicle on their own instead of depending on hotel managers.

As we reached New Jalpaiguri, one of the team member said – “We managed a car out of the blue for going to Changu Lake, survived a shared trip to North Sikkim after our tour agent duped. At least, we had a ready car to drop us at New Jalpaiguri. Thank God the worst is over.”

Actually at that time fate must have looked upon us and said “Picture abhi baki hai mere dost” (the show is yet to go on), as we were completely unaware of the events which were about to happen within another two hours.

But that is another story. Maybe in some other blog post, I will share it. Look out for that adventure or should I say a misadventure.

Neccessary information

North Sikkim

To reach Gurudongmar Lake and /or Yumthang, it is mandatory to do the trip of North Sikkim with tour operators recognized by Sikkim Government. If budget permits, try to go for an exclusive tour instead of a shared one. I recommend that you book your tour from travel agent based in your city or at Kolkata instead of directly booking through a Gangtok based agency. The drivers of Sikkim may be champion of the roads, but most of the Gangtok based travel agencies are extremely unreliable.

People having a heart problem or breathing trouble should not attempt this journey. You should carry enough warm clothes anytime you visit this lake. You need to carry your identity card (Voter’s card or Pan Card preferable) and two copies of your passport sized photograph as you will need a permit to visit this lake. Normally your local tour operator is supposed to get you the permit. Keep more photographs with you in case you need it.

Gurudongmar Lake is very near to China border and a high-security zone. Be careful not to take photographs of bunkers, heavy artillery and other military buildings. You may be heavily penalised for this.

Usually the best time to visit North Sikkim is the end of April to mid of June and October to the first week of November. But nowadays the perfect months to get together the flowers in full bloom at Yumthang and also relatively clear Sky at Gurudongmar is end of April to the second week of May.

Gangtok

You can reach Gangtok in 4-5 hours either by hired car from NJP station/ Siliguri or by Sikkim transport’s Bus from Siliguri. There are several trains reaching NJP station in the morning from Howrah / Sealdah. Preferable time of visit is March to June and November to December. October is a good time too, but due to late monsoons it may be dicey.

At Gangtok, I will advise staying at a hotel near M.G. Marg. It is walking distance from the Deorali Bus /Jeep Stand. Also since M.G. Marg is at heart of Gangtok, you get easy access to every amenity. Lal Market is a good place to shop, but one needs to bargain hard and do proper quality check before closing the deal.

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