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RIDE TO HEAVEN

On the next trip to Sikkim, try biking up north to Gurudongmar lake.

It’s not for the faint-hearted, and that’s the thrill for adrenaline junkies. Riding a motorbike to the lake at 17,100ft in extreme cold — at 8C in summer and 4C in winter — is the kind of high adventure tourists seek. Their numbers are growing, if tour operators in Sikkim are to be believed.

The tourists ride up to see a clear blue lake, ringed with snow-capped peaks.

Too many travel testimonials of Gurudongmar visitors have one word to describe the experience — “heaven”.

The lake is actually a crater full of water that perfectly reflects the blue sky above.

It’s close to India’s border with Tibet so access is restricted and visitors need the Indian Army’s permission to proceed to the lake.

The lake’s surrounding area is deserted, except for an odd Tibetan nomad’s tent made of dried yak skin.

On the way up, travellers only hear the whoosh of the wind. On a bike, it hits the rider fully in the face.

Plus, there’s no clear “road” to the lake. It’s a vast brown stretch of plateau, not something worth staring at after hunkering a motorbike up 17,100ft of precarious, winding roads that are highly prone to subside in landslides.

But the brown stretch suddenly ends.

When you look up, there’s the ring of mountains, bathed in speck-less white. Look down, and there’s the lake. And the feeling of being in heaven.

The road

“Riding motorcycles in the mountains is a common adventure among the youth here. The thrill of negotiating bends and rolling through varied terrain is a different feeling,” says Lukendra Rasaily, the secretary of Travel Agents’ Association of Sikkim.

“Over the last few years, north Sikkim has emerged as the favourite spot for bikers from outside the state. They head for Lachen and Lachung (both in North Sikim), touching Mangan and Chungthang en route. The destination, of course, is Gurudongmar lake at a height of 17,100ft.”

Debasish Sarkar, a youth from Siliguri who has been to Gurudongmar, said: “It is exciting, this sudden change of terrain. On crossing the last village, Thangu (14,000ft), the hilly terrain abruptly changes to brown plateau land with hardly any vegetation. Riding a motorcycle in the cold, seeing numerous snow-capped mountains and ice on both sides of the road is a different experience.”

Debasish said: “The sudden realisation of crossing the Himalayas and entering the Tibetan plateau creates a different feeling altogether. There is, however, equally a feeling of thrill because of the low oxygen level, the motorcycle which despite riding on plain ground does not run fast as combustion of fuel at such high altitudes is slow.”

“From Mangan onwards, till Lachen or Lachung via Chungthang, the road is no less exciting,” said Santanu Banerjee, a bike enthusiast who runs an online community of bikers known as Xkmph in Siliguri and arranges trips to north Sikkim.

“Landslides are frequent so bikers have to take byroads where the terrain is rougher. There are muddy stretches, huge waterfalls, numerous streams and rivulets crossing the roads, bailey and suspension bridges.”

The only disturbance here would probably be a gang of bikers, he said.

From Gangtok, Gurudongmar is 175km away. On the plains, it may not seem like much distance.

But acclimatisation is necessary for such high altitudes. Else, altitude sickness is almost sure to strike.

Army jawans generally halt on the way at Lachen (9,600ft) and Lachung (8,610 ft) while going to Thangu (14,000ft).

According to sources, whenever a team of jawans goes up or comes down, there are at least two halts en route to Gurudongmar. They stop at Lachen and Thangu, spend at least couple of days in each place to acclimatise.

On the bank

Before the lake comes into view, visitors generally see a shrine — the Sarva Dharma Sthal (place of prayer for all religions).

“For Buddhists and Sikhs, the shrine is important. It is said that both Guru Padmasambhava and Guru Nanak visited Gurudongmar. Bikers sometimes collect water from the lake because it is considered sacred,” a local in Lachen said.

There are a couple of smaller lakes near the Gurudongmar, the farthest being Cho-lhamu, the highest lake in India, located at 18,000ft. “It is around 8km from Gurudongmar but tourists rarely go that far. It is also tough to obtain permission from the army to visit the lake,” a Mangan-based tour operator said.

On the return journey, bikers rest at Thangu, a small hamlet. Momos, noodles and tea are quickly downed in three or four shops — the calories required for riding down to Lachen, known for it’s excellent landscape, a small monastery and a handicrafts centre.

Tourism boost

The Sikkim government is giving impetus to bike tourism. “We are trying to promote the lake destinations among youths and bike enthusiasts as well as other destinations in north Sikkim and other parts of the state. Our plan is to develop certain roadside amenities for the benefit of bikers so that they can stop for some time and relax,” said Bhim Dhungel, Sikkim’s tourism minister. “Considering the inflow of adventure tourists, we are planning to promote other adventure sports too.”

Raj Basu, a veteran in the tourism sector in east and northeastern India, said: “This new trend is attracting several youngsters and we feel there is ample scope to develop circuits in north Bengal for them.”

Santanu said “hundreds of bikers from Calcutta, north India and even from Nepal” visit North Sikkim every year. “We are eager to see such circuits develop in other destinations of the hills and Dooars.”