Standing at the reception desk, I let my eyes wander over the pictures of “must see destinations in Sikkim”, secured with pins on a soft board and hung right beside the wall clock. My uncle was busy with his customary small talk with the receptionist while 2 gangly boys were carrying our luggage to our rooms.
“You must visit Gurudongmar Lake! You can miss everything else, but not Gurudongmar Lake!” said the receptionist, almost wetting himself with excitement.
My uncle closed in. “See, that is why I asked you! I knew you’d be able to guide us the best!” He knew exactly which spot to press.
“Hehehe.. You don’t worry! I will arrange you the car. And get you discount on fare also! You are good people,” said the receptionist, looking almost bashful.
“That’s done then!” said my uncle with a winning flourish and shook hands.
I looked back at the picture board and located the Lake – a harmless mass of striking blue waters, amidst a rocky, hilly backdrop. Not a speck of greenery around. But beautiful, in a “see, don’t touch” way.
Gurudongmar Lake is one of the highest lakes in the world, located in North Sikkim at an altitude of 17,100 ft. A fact that the receptionist had kept to himself. We were at Lachen, and from there one can reach Gurudongmar Lake via Thangu in 3-4 hours. If you’re demented enough to go there straight from Gangtok, prepare yourself for an 8-9 hour long, pretty uncomfortable drive.
Early next morning, we set out in our rented Sumo. Our driver was a 19-year-old, hormonal and lecherous young man. The moment I took the window seat, right behind the driver’s seat, he promptly adjusted his rear-view mirror to get an uninterrupted view of my scowling face.
I would still have been okay with it, had he not been driving like Sikkim’s version of Schumacher. Lachen is at approximately 8800 ft. There are loads of narrow, winding roads, blind turns and deep trenches you do not want to end up in. There should be a rule against teenagers driving. Especially the ones, who spend less time looking at the road ahead and more time staring at the rear view mirror.
We stopped at the village of Thangu, which is at 13000 ft., for breakfast. I opted for the familiar bread and butter. Rest of my family had these BIG bowls of soupy Maggi, which seemed to be a favourite there. The driver had both the bread and the Maggi, along with a couple of boiled eggs. All that death-defying driving must have worked up his appetite.
As we set out from Thangu towards Gurudongmar, I noticed the visible change in terrain. The lush greenery and waterfalls had given way to a more rugged terrain, with alpine pastures, smaller trees and bushes. Soon, even the bushes were becoming sparse and barren lands took over. It looked pretty enchanting, though quite unwelcome as well.
Since Gurudongmar is located close to the Indo-Tibet border, one needs a permit to go there. We were heading over to get the permits at a place where army officials were stationed. I got down from the car, and a blast of cold air hit me, right in the bones. I tried to take a deep breath to steady myself, and that is when I noticed the discomfort. My breaths had become laboured and I could feel the bread churning in my stomach. Not a good sign.
Soon, we got back into the car, and the moment it started going up the gravel roads, all hell broke loose. My dad and aunt started making the sort of gagging and gasping noises you do not want to hear in the enclosed space of a Sumo (because it usually precedes a puke-athon). My sister started clutching her stomach and crying – demanding we go back. Uncle’s face was almost white. My mother was passing bottled water to everyone. And I was resolutely staring out of the window, praying for this ordeal to end.
The car took a turn and continued its uphill journey until we reached the Lake. The moment we reached, I jumped out of the car – to let the ones who were planning to puke, do so in peace. And 3 of them did.
The cold air was hostile there. And the difficulty in breathing was a lot more noticeable. I walked towards the Lake, to catch a quick glance of it and get it over with. But I ended up lingering there for a while.
The water was SO beautiful. Bright blue and still. The contrast was even more magical, due to the barren, rocky backdrop there. If not the thinning oxygen and the altitude, the sight would have taken my breath anyway. This lake is fed by glaciers and is located to the north of the Kanchenjunga range in a high plateau area, connected to the Tibetan Plateau and is one of the sources of the River Teesta, which flows through Sikkim.
Legend has it that Guru Padmasambhava (also known as Guru Dongmar) touched and sanctified this lake, and hence, even in extreme winter, a portion of this lake does not freeze. But you definitely would, given the biting chilly wind that blows in this region.
Shivering and trying to breathe normally, I turned back and started walking towards the Sumo. I found my father and sister lying on the seats, looking livid for being brought here. My aunt was still busy puking. And then I spotted the driver, leaning against the car, staring at me.
You have to give it to men like these. They won’t let anything come in their way of ‘admiring’ women – not even the lack of oxygen at 17,100 ft.
Within 10 – 15 minutes of reaching the Gurudongmar Lake, we were on our way back. In fact, it is recommended that you spend as less time there as possible. The paucity of oxygen really does make you feel sick.
The moment we re-entered the greens of Lachen, I let out an audible sigh of relief. The Lake was a stunning specimen of nature’s extremities. The dry, stony landscape, bone-chilling winds, laboured breaths and the vibrant blue lake – the entire experience had a beauty of its own.
But I was glad to be back in the lands where breaths come nice and easy. I really was.
May, 2008. (Hence the lack of digital pictures. These two were the only grainy, physical copies I could find)