Above the rain clouds
Oct 04 2013
Travelling through north Sikkim is not for the faint-hearted, especially the trip to Gurudongmar, the highest lake at 17,100 ft on the Indo-China border
7.30 am: No sign of the rains now. We reach 13,000 ft, our first halt at Thangu. Shivering with cold, we are taken to the dark but warm interiors of a fog-wrapped wooden cabin. Time for a breakfast of steaming, soft bread, bananas and apples, tomato soup and coffee. Almost in that order, since the friendly locals serving the food are few, and an overwhelming flood of hungry, demanding tourists appear out of thin air.
“Buy this,” advises Dinesh, our guide, swinging a garland of solidified yak milk chunks. “Helps you climb high altitudes.” A rock-strong chunk will later give me serious jaw ache, but then, I am neither a local nor a yak calf. With thick down jackets rented from a shop nearby, we feel well-equipped for our onward journey.
8.45 am:. A herd of yaks scurry off the winding dirt road up the mountainside to make way for our SUV. The rugged terrain is bereft of vegetation as we move up to Café 15,000, named after its altitude. Rows of army bunkers stand formidably behind the café. Here, for Rs 100, you can get a certificate signed by the garrison commander stating that you had climbed to 17,100 feet to visit the Gurudongmar lake.
The rarefied air makes us pant at the slightest activity. But Dinesh warns us that unless we look fit, the members of the Indian Army will send us back summarily to the lower strata. So we fake bright smiles at the hawk-eyed soldier checking us out through the driver’s window. Reassured, he lets the car proceed.
Soon, the dirt road gives way to uneven, stony plains dotted with landmines. Then, on the horizon to our right, there appears a stunningly beautiful snow covered range.
9:45 am:. The plains end abruptly, seeming to fall away. Quite a distance below us lies the placid blue-green 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 lead down to the lake side.
Even in winter, a portion of the lake never freezes. It is believed that Guru Dongmar / Padmasambhava had touched and blessed this portion with his hand.
Colourful prayer flags border the lake, fluttering in the gentle morning breeze. Later in the day, the wind will turn fierce. It will be strong enough to move boulders and even tourist-packed SUVs foolhardy enough to linger till noon! Tourists are advised not to spend more than 10 minutes by the lake, because the lack of Oxygen in the air can cause Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS).
10:30 am: 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... altitude has the same effect on the mind as on the body, one’s intellect becomes dull and unresponsive.” But the place has a hypnotic effect, and we overstay until smoky clouds begin to loom over the range.
Lachung village, 9:30 pm. The return journey and onward to Lachung saw us battle severe headaches, and a “sinking” feeling. Much later, we would feel elated to have gone up to an altitude close to the Everest Base Camp (17,400 ft). But right now, I am simply going to crawl between the thick woollen blankets of the Kanchenjungha Resort room, and hopefully fall into a deep, dreamless sleep.