In Gurudongmar Lake at an Altitude of 17004 ft

How does it feel to be at the top of the world? Utmost happiness does often lead us to the top of the world but I am talking of physically being on a great height above the sea level to feel on the top of the world. I have not been to many a place with such high altitudes and Gurudongmar Lake in the North district of the tiny state of Sikkim is the highest of all that I have been to. I will take you through my journey to the place of divine beauty at an altitude of 17004 ft – The Gurudongmar lake.

This year has been overly hot with temperatures soaring higher and higher starting from the Spring months. With the sweltering heat in the month of April, I decided to work on a quick plan made by my friend to visit North Sikkim. April being the onset of the summer months, there would be little possibility of road blockage due to snow or landslide due to heavy rain and expected good weather could lead to the clear blue sky which in turn would colour the lake in its pristine turquoise-blue shades. With such wishful thoughts, we started for Sikkim.

Reaching Gangtok is yet another story, so I would rather keep it for my next post and club it with my complete North Sikkim experience. Let this post be on the very special Gurudongmar Lake and the journey to reach there.

With a small introduction of Gurudongmar Lake let me start my story. Gurudongmar Lake is one of the highest lakes in the world located at an altitude of 17,004 ft (5,138 m) fed by the glaciers from the high Tibetan plateaus. This lake, in turn, feeds the stream called Chhombu Chhu that joins to form the Tso Lahmu Lake and finally forms the luscious mountain river named Teesta.

This lake is considered holy by the Buddhist as well as the Sikhs and many legends and corresponding disputes are associated with it. As per the Buddhist belief, Guru Padmasambhava who is also known as Guru Rinpoche, who is much revered and considered as the second Buddha in Tibetan Buddhism, visited Gurudongmar (the place named after the lake) in the 8th century on his way back from Tibet.

Guru Rinpoche had foresight of this being a venerated place and the water of the lake to be divine. On the request of the locals, he touched a part of the lake and thus have it blessed to retain its liquid state throughout the year. This unfrozen part of the holy lake became the source of drinking water for the locals. Thus the name of the lake was coined – ‘Guru’ from Guru Padmasambhava and ‘dongmar’ from ‘Dongmaruophes’ which means red-faced. This is again associated with the red-faced Guru denoting his angry side to ward off all evil spirits around the lake.

The part of the Gurudongmar lake that never freezes
The part of the Gurudongmar lake that never freezes

As per the Sikh belief, it is said that Guru Nanak Dev Ji passed through this place on his way back from Tibet in the 15th century. The locals earnestly requested him to turn this frozen lake to the source of drinking water. To keep the local request he touched a part of the lake with his walking stick and since then that part never freezes and provides the drinking water to all.

The frozen lake with the surrounding mountains
The frozen lake with the surrounding mountains

With two similar folklore the lake was considered holy by both the religion but the dispute started when the Sikh regiment posted on the adjacent border area built a Gurdwara here in the year 1997-1998. The local Buddhist community claimed the construction to be illegal and asserted it to be a Buddhist place that was venerated by Guru Padmasambhava. A committee was formed by the government to look into the case and submit evidence to verify the claim. The Namgyal Institute of Tibetology provided documents to prove this to be the Buddhist religious place and the building was handed over by the Army to the Lachen monastery.

The Gurdwara turned monastery beside Gurudongmar Lake
The Gurdwara turned monastery beside Gurudongmar Lake

With this little introduction of the famed Gurudongmar lake, I get back to narrate my journey to the lake. Lachen is the nearest base to reach Gurudongmar lake and it is also the nearest major town so made it our base and stayed in this small town of Lachen for the night to acclimatise as well as get some rest before we venture to the Gurudongmar lake the next morning. Special permits are required to visit Gurudongmar lake and we had it done from Gangtok. To know more about the permits check this link.

The initial Good to Go sign
The initial Good to Go sign

The time we reached Lachen it was afternoon and the thick clouds on the way made it feel like evening. Drizzling had already started and we had to look for hotels as we had no prior booking. The little town that we could see was just about some hotels and residential buildings on either side of the road on a patch of few metres. With the rain and the cold, it looked like a ghost town with empty roads and buildings with closed doors and windows.

It did not take long to search for a good hotel with all the amenities. By then the weather has deteriorated and it was pouring heavily so was the chill in the air. Nothing else to do the rest of the time we retired back to our room to get a good night sleep as we had to start pretty early the next morning. Seeing the weather conditions we were sceptical about our trip to Gurudongmar.

I always wished to see the lake in clear weather with the blue sky getting reflected in the immaculate water of the lake. My hopes danced on the dark clouds hovering on the sky. The continuous heavy downpour also increased the possibility of landslide and subsequent road blockage. With all such thoughts, I kept checking the weather forecast for the next day throughout the night and could not sleep predicting all unavoidable circumstances and finally the nightmare of a road closure.

Next morning it was a different scene altogether, the sun was shining bright and the sky was clear to show surrounding mountains that were shrouded behind the dark clouds the previous evening. As we gradually ascended through the rough narrow roads the snow clad mountains came closer and finally there were patches of snow all around us.

The daring biker on the way to Gurudongmar Lake
The daring biker on the way to Gurudongmar Lake

The patches were fresh and perfectly snow-white. A young local boy named Tenzing who requested us to drop him at his home in Thangu said this was the fresh coat of snow from last night’s snowfall. He also said that there will be more snow as you go higher. He spoke about the life of the people here the hardship, their hardworking nature and their love for the place. Being very young he had the natural talkative nature and in this short span of the journey, he spoke about his village and his family too.

Tenzing with his snowman
Tenzing with his snowman

With the road conditions prone to landslide and rock slip there is always a team required to be ready to clear the roads to maintain the flow of the traffic. In such a situation Tenzing showed us the Sarpanch of his village clearing the road blockage and the snow to ensure the running of the vehicles. I was overwhelmed to see the high profile people engaged in such petty yet immensely vital work. He said the people there irrespective of their social or financial position does all sort of work.

He kept us engaged in his non-stop conversation, he said his elder brother was in Indian army so many of his family and friends asked him to join the army too but he loved to stay in his village with his family and yaks. He added, “you do not need to be in the military to serve your nation you can always do it in your own way by being a good citizen”. I was immensely pleased by the thoughts of this little guy who has such a realisation at this tender age that many experienced and aged people lack.

Pile of woods covered with snow
Pile of woods covered with snow

In this way winding through the bad to worse roads we were within the snow. The snow-covered mountains and the trees that we were seeing from a distance were within our reach. It was a lovely sight with the fresh coat of purest of white snow covering every little thing on earth. The large to tiny branches of trees and shrubs were all bent with the burden of the snow. The flaky snow slipped off from the branches from here and there, it was an amusing sight to keep watching.

The ladder also got its share of snow
The ladder also got its share of snow

The roof of the houses, piles of woods, ladder and even the thick electric wires, nothing was spared and all were painted white. I was surprised to see a man hitting the electric wires with bare hands to shed off the snow. I had previously seen snowfall, I had also been to snow-covered places but have never been to a place after a fresh coat of snow. The green landscape yesterday has turned to white, everything around looked magical.

In this chilling environment, having a simmering bowl of the all-time favourite Maggi sitting beside a Bukhari (a traditional room heater) was like elixir served in heaven. Then the final entry done in Thangu Checkpoint that was at the altitude of 12700 ft, we were in a landscape that was gradually becoming devoid of any trees. It was the village of out little wise companion, he returned back home and we went ahead towards our destination.

Now it was all defence land, we sensed that we were nearing the border, still a long way to go. As we gained altitude, the topography changed more and more. The lofty mountain tops were little hills very close to us and we were driving through some plateau-like area with the mountains on either side. After all the bad patch of the route, we were on well-paved roads. Yaks were seen foraging in different patches, but there was no grass visible to us. The patches of snow were the only thing that showed up on the barren floor.

The landscape was so similar to the pictures of Ladakh. I have never been to Ladakh and what I can do is just compare it to the pictures of Ladakh that I have seen. I was curious to know how these yaks and the sheep survive the harsh winter with everything covered under the thick sheet of snow. This year the winter has lingered for a longer period and so it has been snowing till late April and we consider ourselves lucky to witness the snow and the snowy landscape.

Yaks grazing on the barren land
Yaks grazing on the barren land

The weather was still very clear and the sky was blue, our heart was pumping fast as we were approaching the lake. Things were going the way we wished for – there was no road blockage we reached Lachen and also to Gurudongmar without any landslide or road closure and subsequent delay, there was no rain and the best part was the sun shining bright and the sky, blue as we dreamed for. But what happened was least anticipated, the lake was completely frozen. In aghast, we watched the thick white blanket covered Gurudongmar lake.

Spot the yak on the frozen lake
Spot the yak on the frozen lake

We still could not come into terms with the reality when I started feeling dizziness and suddenly I felt the loss of coordination and had trouble in maintaining balance while walking. I understood that it was because of the high altitude or rather I was suffering from altitude sickness. I kept calm and walked back to the car and rested for a while. The highest altitude that I had previously been to was at 13700 ft in Sela Pass in Arunachal Pradesh (read my journey to Sela Pass) and the next highest was at 11371 ft at Jungfraujoch in Switzerland (read my experience in Jungfraujoch) but never did I cross the limit of 15000 ft.

For the safety of the visitors
For the safety of the visitors

This was the first time I was having the problem but I was well acclimated before reaching this great height. I could not spoil the opportunity to see the lake properly blaming my physical problem so I risked getting down and managed to walk around to see the temple and the stairs going down to the part of the lake where the water never freezes as said in the legends. It was biting cold and maintaining balance to walk down was just not possible I hardly could manage to walk back to the car with a heavy head and non-coordinated steps.

DSC_9569

We did not wait there for long and started our descent. Our driver immediately gave me a cup of hot water from his flask saying it will help. As I sipped the boiling hot water we were few kilometres away and some hundreds of feet down from the lake. I was still having a strong headache combined with nausea. Now I repent how I missed the opportunity of enjoying the feel of being on the top of the world (as this was the highest of the altitudes that I have been to). I understand how altitude sickness could have dire consequences but luckily we were safe.

The headache and nausea continued for the rest of the day, but I tried my best to overcome my physical sickness and witness the natural beauty that I never know if I can make it again. While we were descending the snow has all melted to make the previous dirt track watery, muddy and slippery. A huge army van was struck in this mud and after a lot of effort the wheels were out and the road was cleared. We were lucky to have an efficient driver who skilfully managed to get our vehicle out from every tricky situation even where much-experienced drivers got struck.

We were climbing down a different landscape as there was no sign of snow thus no similarity to the scene in the morning. Nature has bestowed us with divine blessings to show us its various moods, we had seen it in the clouds, in the rain, in the sun, in white and in green. Every different condition had a separate feel. I was overwhelmed to watch it all, I was happy and blessed to experience it all like almost every little thing fell into place except the unpredicted frozen lake. Alas, this year the winter lingering longer was the only reason for the frozen state of the lake.

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Even with the unforeseen frozen lake, it was an astounding experience and one of the memorable journey of my life. The credit goes to my friend who actually proposed the plan and finally, it was executed well. I would like to end the post with a special thanks to her and the bountiful nature to bless me with this divine opportunity to witness the surreal landscapes and experience an exciting journey of my lifetime.

Snow land
Snow land

North Sikkim at a glance, with travel information.

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