surrounded by glacial peaks; (above) a herd of grazing yaks
The first sign that this would be no ordinary hill station trip came from a packet of chips.
We had reached Lachen, a sleepy hamlet in North Sikkim, close to dinner time. Except for a huge boulder that missed our vehicle by a whisker and blocked the cars coming with us from Gangtok, the journey had been uneventful.
The altitude was almost 10,000ft. Up at 4:30 am the next morning for our trip to Gurudongmar Lake, we were ready for the cutting cold, even in May. But despite reading up articles on reduced air pressure at high altitudes and the consequent health risks, we were not prepared for the sight of the chips packet. It had bloated up completely. We could not sense it yet, but it was obvious that our bodies too had a lot more air pressure in them than that outside.
The day had dawned cold, dull and grey and at 5:30 am, we left the basic comforts of Hotel Bayul and clambered into the Tata Spacio. The steady drizzle added the last dampener. But our climb that morning would take us much higher than the rain clouds. At 17,100ft, Gurudongmar is the highest lake in North Sikkim, on the Indo-China border.
By 7:30am, there was no sign of the rains. We had reached Thangu (13,000ft), our first halt. Shivering with cold, we were taken to the dark but warm interiors of a fog-wrapped wooden cabin. Time for breakfast: a welcome mélange of steaming soft bread, bananas and apples, tomato soup and coffee. Almost in that order, since the friendly locals serving the food were few, and several carloads of hungry, demanding tourists appeared out of thin air.
Buy popcorn packets, advised our guide Dinesh, barely past his teens and a reed-thin powerhouse of bubbling energy. And this (a garland of solid yak milk chunks). They are the best for folks climbing high altitudes. A single rock-strong chunk would later give me a serious jaw ache, but then, I was neither a local nor a yak calf.
By 9 am we were climbing higher and a herd of yaks scurried off the winding dirt road up the mountainside to make way for our SUV. A rugged terrain bereft of vegetation led us up to Café 15,000. Rows of Indian Army bunkers stood formidably behind it. On the other side, snow-laden mountain ranges stood like natural sentries guarding the frontier.
A counter at Café 15,000, run by the Army Wives Welfare Association and manned by soldiers, sells handicrafts. A certificate signed by the garrison commander stating that you had climbed to 17,100ft to visit Gurudongmar Lake is yours for Rs 100.
|A view of the Lachen village; (top) tourists stop for breakfast at
restaurants near Thangu
The rarefied air at 15,000ft made us pant with the slightest activity. But Dinesh had warned us that if you displayed fatigue, the Army would summarily send you back. Sure enough, a hawk-eyed young soldier checked us out through the drivers window. We faked huge smiles. Reassured, he said in the gentlest of tones, Any sign of nausea or collapsing, do return immediately.
Soon, the dirt road gave way to a stony plain dotted with landmines. Even where there was the semblance of a dirt track, our guide coaxed the driver into shorter, bumpier detours. Confident of skirting the landmines as if he had laid them himself, Dinesh pointed out well-camouflaged Army bunkers on the distant mountain ranges, and the remnants of a brick--kiln checkpost built by the British.
We sensed we were almost there when to our right appeared a stunningly beautiful snow-covered ra-nge. The brilliant sun — this was the closest we had ever got to it — lent its radiance to the peaks against the azure sky.
Around 9:45 am, the plains ahead seemed to fall away into nothingness. Quite a distance below us lay the placid blue-green Gurudongmar Lake, surrounded by the Tibetan plateau on one side, and the Kangchengyao range with the Raja-Rani peaks on the other. A steep flight of steps led down to the lake. Colourful prayer flags fluttered in the gentle morning breeze.
The lakes water is considered sacred by Hindus and Buddhists. Even in winter, a portion of the lake does not freeze. Its believed that Guru Dongmar/ Padmasambhava had touched and blessed this portion. There is also a Sarva-Dharma Sthal.
The prevailing calm was deceptive. As the day progressed, the wind turned fierce. By noon, it could lift stones, and even cars. The Tibetan flying lama in Satyajit Rays story did not seem so unreal anymore!
Tourists are advised not to spend more than 10 minutes by the lake, because the lack of oxygen causes Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). It begins with nausea, headache, irritability, sluggishness, and may lead to cerebral or pulmonary oedema, the former usually fatal.
We already felt sluggish. There was this immense sense of tiredness. I remembered what Eric Shipton, team member on all four Everest expeditions during the 1930s, had said in Upon That Mountain: I doubt if anyone would claim to enjoy life at high. There is a certain grim satisfaction derived from struggling upwards… but altitude has the same effect on the mind as on the body, ones intellect becomes dull and unresponsive.
Physical unease notwithstanding, the view simply mesmerised us. We shot some photographs, tottered to the SUV with its windows pulled up, and sank into our seats for five minutes. Repeated process. After 40 minutes of this, Dinesh insisted we return. Smoky clouds had already begun to loom over the range.
The return journey to the hotel and onward to Lachung saw us pay for our recklessness with severe headaches, a sinking feeling and decreased coordination. But nothing could beat the joy of reaching a place thats almost at the same altitude as the Everest Base Camp (17,400ft). It sure was a top of the world feeling.
P.S.: The chips were no worse for the climb.
Getting there: There are flights from Calcutta, Delhi and Guwahati to Bagdogra airport, 124km from Gangtok. A helicopter service is also
available between Bagdogra and Gangtok. The nearest railway stations are Siliguri and New Jalpaiguri. Gangtok to Lachen is a five-six hour drive.
The best time to visit: Between April and May, when the rhododendrons are in full bloom.