18th March 2016, Friday…Day (28) Lachen-Gurudongmar Lake-Gangtok 240 km
Situated at a height of around 9000 ft ASL, Lachen, meaning big pass, is a town and hill station in north Sikkim. It is a gateway to Gurudongmar Lake, Chopta Valley and Thangu village, venue for annual yak race. Most of the travellers heading for Gurudongmar Lake stay for the night at the place.
I don’t know why it is so, I got up exactly at 3am morning without any alarm. One of the co-passenger also came to wake me up simultaneously. Another surprise, one of the hotel staff was up with hot cup of tea as well.
When I reached near the cab at 3.45am, our driver was ready too, the remaining passengers arrived in time as well and we began dot at 4am morning.
It kept raining throughout the night and was still raining when we began from our hotel in Lachen. Everyone was packed with double layer of woolen clothing as it was chilling cold. Despite rain, everyone was excited and expected the weather to clear in time enabling us to reach all the way to the lake.
It was pitch dark outside, the road was bumpy, steep and potholed. Our driver was skillfully navigating the steep gradient though. The surroundings looked ghost like in the pitch darkness. The gain in height was continuous as we were to climb max height of 17800 ft near the lake beginning at 9000 ft from Lachen.
We reached military check post near Thangu at 5am morning after driving for 30 kilometers in 2 hours. In the twilight, the snowy misty landscape looked just awesome. It was like a dream. Raining stopped too and we felt as if we were a different World.
After getting our permits checked at the military post we drove further and stopped at a village, perhaps the last village enroute, Thangu. Few shops run by local women were serving hot tea, coffee and maggie. Sipping hot tea in such a cold weather with piece of bread in such hostile conditions in the early morning hours was such a luxury.
We were done with tea and bread by 7am and hit the road again. This time the drive was even more steep, on freshly fallen snow, slush and hardened black ice. A number of cabs were racing along, so never at any time we felt lonely or in fear as has been the case many times when I drove solo in similar conditions in the past. Instead it was more fun.
The landscape around was very unique and one of its kind. Everything around was snowed, the mountains, valleys, trees and fields were laden with fresh snow. A thick layer of mist and cloud was formed blocking the rays of sunlight hitting the ground.
As we neared the lake, suddenly, Sun came out in full glory. Most of the mist and clouds were gone, instead clear blue sky filled the vast horizon. As has been the case many times in the past, Mother Nature, in Her countless mysterious ways, has a always showered special favour on me.
After crossing the military run ‘Cafe 15000’, landscape became so rugged, vast and beautiful, it belies any description. The road was butter smooth and ran through vast snowy plateau with unending vastness. It was so huge that nothing was visible for miles together other than the vastness of snowy fields, snowclad eerie mountains far and wide.
We reached the lake at 8.40am well in time. Sun was shining in full glory, sky was azure blue and partially frozen lake draped in pure white and emerald green. The mountains in the background seemed rising from a fairy land, the scenes hard to describe.
Our driver parked the car at the parking lot and asked all of us to enjoy ourselves. For quite some time we were all dumbfounded and could hardly believe we were actually at the sight. After a while, the reality hit us and we began scattering here and there, some began clicking pictures and some smoking, strolling and relaxing.
Situated at a height of 17800 ft ASL, Gurudongmar Lake is one of the highest lakes in the World. Lying just 5 kilometers inside from the Chinese border, the lake is held sacred by Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs alike.
The lake is named after Guru Padmasambhava, also known as Guru Rinpoche, founder of the Tibetan Buddhism who visited the lake in the 8th century. The first Guru of Sikhs, Guru Nanak Dev visited the lake on his return journey from Tibet in the 15th century.
After spending some time with the group and other fellow travellers I walked across a little stream and climbed a small hill to click pictures of the lake. A group of yaks were lazing around on the hill while being taken care of by a local nomad.
The vistas around were just out of the World and once a lifetime experience. I was enjoying the whole scenario while clicking pictures when I heard loud voices yelling. The driver of our cab and one of the passengers from Behrampur were yelling at me furiously asking me to hurry up and return back.
Immediately, I packed the tripod and began walking back towards the parking lot. As I walked back their yelling became sharper and louder and I could hear the foul language they were using. When I reached near the cab, the driver drove the cab for about half a kilometer and made me run after the cab.
When I finally took the seat, the driver shouted at me that I was delaying the departure and that we were getting late. We had reached the Lake at 8.40am and we began driving back at 9.30am after spending 50 minutes including the episode of yelling. The weather was good, Sun was shining brightly and many cabs were still arriving at the lake.
Surprisingly my fellow travellers were silent and did not speak at all, neither in my support nor the driver’s. Later when I checked with the tourism office in Gangtok, they told me that the driver needs to give at least one hour to the tourists at the lake unless weather was bad.
On the way back, in the glorious sunshine, the landscape became even better. Despite mood off and none of the other occupants of the car interested in stopping enroute or clicking pictures, I did manage some from the moving car.
The simple lunch at our hotel in Lachen took just 15 minutes. Our driver and few others went walking and smoking and returned after an hour. On the way, our driver again visited his home in Chungthang for half an hour while we kept waiting in the cab.
It’s a paradox of sorts, while the state was marketing tourism for employment generation to the locals, ‘athithi devo bhava’ being our culture and a 55 year old solo traveller from a far off place like Punjab is rebuked by a 21 year old local driver for being late by ten minutes and that ten minutes too designed and decided by him ex post facto.
Later I rang up the concerned tour operator, he said he was busy and would call me back later but never did. I went to tourism office and complained, they told me to send a detailed email, which I duly did followed by 2-3 reminders, but no action taken so far, not even acknowledgement.
This was the only bad incident that happened to me during my 48 days solo driving trip and perhaps ever in my 35 years of travelling experience.
We reached Vajra Taxi Stand, Gangtok at 7pm. I ran to the place where Lalpari was parked. Meeting her and seeing her in good condition after three days of separation was such a relief, for she has become more than a mode of travel, a trusted friend, my navigator, my home, my security and such an important vehicle of my freedom.
I felt so good and emotional and touched her with love and affection as if I was meeting her after a long long of time. It was so good to see her hail and healthy. I went walking to Roshan’s shop and met Manoj as well. Thanked them whole heartedly, as both of them really took good care of my Lalpari in my absence.
Later in the evening I went walking to MG Road and sat on one of the clean benches, aloof and in solitude, watching the people making merry of the good weather, good food, good environment, with friends and family, contemplating on life and the next part of the trip.
It started drizzling in the evening, took dinner and walked back in the light drizzle to car parking at Vajra Cinema, drove the car on the far end of MG Road, parked the car in parking, slipped into the car, pulled the covers over, locked it from inside, changed the clothes, slipped into the sleeping back and went to sleep listening to the sound of falling rain getting harder and harder…………..!!!