Gurudongmar lake: Heaven on Earth

The frozen Gurudongmar lake sikkim

I was inching towards it. It glistened in the sun, its frozen waters reflecting the blue sky. There was no-one in sight. Pin drop silence. Just the wind blowing and prayer flags dancing on the tunes of the breeze. I look at the snow covered peaks surrounding the Gurudongmar lake, standing breathless, gaping at them in awe. Like the prayer flags, my heart fluttered too. 

Breaking this absolute silence, there was music. Loud. Unwelcome music. I look around searching for its source.

My subconscious self tells me to stretch my arm and shut it. How silly! It is the alarm. I wake up with a start, dishevelled.

It was a DREAM! I look around the dim lit room, my roomie sleeping peacefully, my things pell mell, the clock ticking away.

4.15 am.

I had 45 minutes to get ready in this biting cold and report at the reception at 5 am.

But the question was, “Was I ready?”

The four hour journey was said to be arduous. We were at Lachen, North Sikkim at 9000 ft and Gurudongmar lake was at 17800 ft. After the AMS disaster at Nathu La, this seemed daunting.

Flashbacks from the dream kept luring me while I sat evaluating all options. My brain processed bits and parts of warnings from fellow travellers, anxious ‘don’t gos!’ and earnest pleas of thinking logically.

4.30 am. 

I am talking to myself now. “Why am I doing what I am doing?”

A part of me laughed and said “You were always this stubborn, you know right.” 

The other part was silent, ruminating “Why do we do what we do?”

SPLASH. 

A bucket of cold water silenced everything and now there wasn’t any why, what, how, what if, but…

The sun was out and a golden sky welcomed me as I stepped out.

One after the other, four cars left for Gurudongmar, the lake that I had only seen in pictures. Fifteen minutes into the journey, the roads have shed all their niceties and I find myself jumping like a popcorn. 

But the popcorn is happy. Because the milky Lachen Chu is flowing happily alongside, cutting through the ridges.

Snow peaked mountains teased at a distance and at every curve the “WOWs” got a little more prominent. Jagged mountains kept company with waterfalls pitching in every now and then. 

The road went from bumpy to bumpier.

But Mother Nature was balancing it out.

For every bump there was a carpet of purple primulas spread over. Tiny primulas looked like purple stars spread over the green, till as far as the eyes could see.

The Primulas!
Nature’s own carpet

 

Two hours and 4000 feet higher, we stopped at Thangu for breakfast at a small restaurant run by Pema and Doma, two efficient sisters who dished Maggi, tea, omelettes to tourists.

The snow peaks appeared closer now, as puffs of cold air encircled the air we spoke.

As the journey to Gurudongmar lake continued, the green cover slowly started diminishing but the river never left us, first roaring, then bubbling, then gurgling.

 

Clouds replaced the trees and the landscape slowly turned rugged as we entered the alpine zone. 

 

 

There were hardly any people to be seen, just army jawans and check posts at regular intervals. At 15000 ft, we reached an army base camp where there were convenience facilities, a cafe, medical assistance and a bunch f enthusiastic, ever helpful jawans.

The landscape was breathtaking now, a little bit of Ladakh, a little bit of Spiti and a little bit of Sikkim. Miles and miles of  only mountains, clouds and gorgeous blue skies. 

A drive to remember

While one mountain was milky white, another was like black forest pastry and another was a brown velvet carpet.

Nature and its different hues. “This is why I came!” I tell that wicked, pessimistic voice inside me.

We were 9 kms away from the lake and suddenly, the ride felt smoother. Thanks to the perfectly constructed army road. “Why couldn’t the whole route be like this”, I lament.

Roadway to heaven

My heart was fluttering now, just like in the dream. The destination was minutes away.

The car off roaded and stated ascending on a hillock, coming to a halt after five minutes.

There it was. Behind an array of parked vehicles. Overlooked by them.

Gurudongmar lake: panoramic view

A majestic frozen beauty. Doreen cautioned us to walk slowly, no sudden movements and not to linger around for a long time.

As I stepped out, I realised why. With just 3% oxygen and gaining an altitude of 9000 ft in 4 hours, walking at a regular pace was uncomfortable. Breathing heavily, I stood on the edge, gazing at the surreal view.

Is this for real?

80% frozen, covered with a sheath of ice, 20 % water glistening in the sun, the reflection of the sky on the lake. Unlike the dream, there wasn’t pin drop silence and there were quite a few tourists, but this was my moment of bliss.

The wind blew and the prayer flags danced. Every breath was precious. 

In front of me was one of the world’s highest lakes at an altitude of 17300 feet.

Sometimes you are reckless, stubborn and relentless in chasing a destination, that you haven’t even been to, and there it is shining in sheer magnificence, not disappointing, as if answering all your questions and lauding your stubbornness.

Mountain Magic

 

On the left was a gurudwara that is now a Sarva Dharma Sthal (House of worship of all religions) and that was the only structure there. The Gurudongmar lake is considered holy by Buddhists and Sikhs. It is believed that Guru Rinpoche or Padmasambhava (known as 2nd Buddha), meditated here before proceeding to Tibet.

Sikhs believe that Guru Nanak hit a portion of the frozen lake with his dang (stick) to ensure the people have water to drink. While the entire lake remains frozen throughout the year, there is this one portion which never freezes.

Calling it holy was an understatement. Magical would be more like it.

I was at a loss of words. Surreal? Heavenly? Blissful? Ethereal? What could possibly describe this beauty. Enveloped by snow capped mountains, it stood majestically, placid and unruffled. I am fully aware of my breath now, as talking and calling out became a task.

Spot the car!

 

While the heart rejoiced being reckless, the mind went numb. AMS (acute mountain sickness) had started to creep in, slowly. While my breathing was normal, I felt my head was hit by an avalanche.

My hopes of going around the Gurudongmar lake were crushed as I sat in the car trying to fathom what exactly was happening to my head.

It was all worth the sights I had just devoured. We were on the road again and I wondered how Army men lived in the bunkers even beyond the lake at altitudes higher than even Siachen.

We reached the Army check post at Giagong again. With a splitting headache, here is where I was administered oxygen by the jawans and was advised to descend as quickly as I can.

The green, the blue and the raw brown!

 

Back in Lachen, two hours and a painkiller later, life is good. I now have the answer to “why we do what we do”

Sometimes to listen to that inner voice,

Sometimes to silence it.

And sometimes just to pursue a dream you woke up with.

Fact file and Tips:

  • Gurudongmar lake is 4 hours away from Lachen, North Sikkim.

 

  • You need permits to visit it. These can be organised by any of the  Sikkim tourism tour operators in Gangtok.

 

  • It is extremely important to get acclimatised before you go. There is no accommodation in Thangu (wish there was). There are hotels in Lachen though.
For views like this!
  • Drink enough water. Carry AMS medication and do not walk fast when at the Gurudongmar lake.

 

  • It is advisable to leave Lachen early morning to reach the lake early and be back in time.

 

  • Carry packed breakfast with you as there are hardly any restaurants en route. You might halt at Thangu and once at the army check post at Giagong. Basic toilet facilities are available at these two places.

 

  • Hotel Apple Orchard in Lachen is one of the finest hotels you can stay at, with wooden cottages and top notch service.
Hotel Apple Orchard, Lachen
  • Foreigners are not permitted to visit the lake. They can make a day trip to Chopta valley known for its scenic landscapes, 2.5 hours away from Lachen.
  • The roads to Gurudongmar are extremely bumpy. People with sever back ailments will find the journey extremely difficult.
Clear blue skies and treacherous roads
  • If you wish to stay longer at the lake, carry a portable oxygen cylinder.
The journey back

107 thoughts on “Gurudongmar lake: Heaven on Earth

  1. Oh, loved this! The beautiful built road was my favourite image till I saw the lake photo. No words! Know the feeling – when you get the answer to the Why! Good thing the AMS didn’t do much harm.

      1. Gangtok and Lachung. It was one of our early trips and I fell sick with AMS. Really shook me back then. So, I think you’re really brave to the lake. 🙂 Sikkim is one of our favourite places!

  2. The call of nature for you ☺️

    Wish I could get lucky with my trips in India…just a visitor there for now. But even if I can go there, I wouldn’t want to come back…maybe carrying an oxygen cylinder is meant for my sort of crazy ppl!

  3. I am taking deep breaths as I type this. Phew, girl! What an enchanting place you went to and took us along with! Simply jaw-dropping. I was holding on to your vivid words even as tried to drag my eyes away from the beautiful captures. I don’t think I have it in me to travel these difficult trails but I am glad I could see and feel the place through this post!

  4. What an amazing journey! The photo of the lake and that closing shot are breathtaking. Obviously not for those with altitude issues 🙂

  5. Half way after reading this I also started asking myself if that amazing landscape was for real! I’ve never heard of this place before so really enjoyed reading your article to know more about this Gurudongmar lake. The Hotel Apple Orchard also looks so nice!

  6. Amazing journey and photos, I love this journeys far from everything, where we almost don’t see people, where we really can feel free and wild. Even with the ice in there I just want jump on this lake 😀 so beautiful

  7. A sheer delight again. The roads are bumpy but that is the fun in such places. AMS looks like a distinct possibility here. Someday will have to try it myself.

  8. Loving the way you’ve shared this experience, every photo I can connect with your narrative – the road that makes you bounce like popcorn, the greenery and white milky river, the changing landscape that becomes less green and more desert-like and finally the arrival at the lake. What a wonderful adventure!

  9. Looks like it takes some rough roads to get to the lake. The views are spectacular but so worth the journey. I love the way you describe things, makes it easy to pretend I am there

  10. Hey, your article is beautifully written and the pictures have come across nicely. I just wish you had put more of your pictures too- I am sure you must have been tired after that 4 hour journey though! Also the feeling of seeing our flag at such a selculded yet scenic location is just inexplicable! Awesome post!

    1. Thank you Prerna. I have just one picture of mine. Will post it soon 😀 Oh yes, meeting the army men and seeing the flag was a proud moment! 🙂

  11. What a beautiful place to visit! I have never heard of it – I have to say it sounds daunting the roads, the height might scare me away! Love your photos this is a gorgeous place, and I am sure a once in lifetime experience for anyone with a chance to visit!

    1. Though the journey is daunting, it is worth all the effort 🙂 Thanks! Glad you liked it. It is indeed a once in a lifetime experience! 🙂

  12. Mother nature did a good job! It must have been nice to switch off and explore what Gurudongmar Lake has to offer. Looks simply beautiful.

  13. This is so beautiful and surreal! I would love to visit a place like this. Did your tour company provide you oxygen tanks? Will you be allowed to linger around the area if you brought your own?

  14. Gorgeous images. I wish I could have taken such pictures when I visited…but my memories and your photos do justice. Did you check out the gaigong lake???

  15. This is truly the kind of adventure I really like. Going here while enjoying those panoramic view will surely leave me speechless. The lake is really beautiful and just so calm. I love to traipse my feet along its innate beauty and just enjoy it.

  16. OMG! Even I am short of words and confused; what should i call it. It is Surreal !Ethereal !Heaven or what. The changing landscapes reminded me of Spiti valley and Chandartal Lake. Glad you listen to your inner voice and went to explore it. The Apple Orchard Hotel looks so beautiful and cozy.

    1. The hotel was beyond awesome. I’d go back just to stay there and have delicious food 😀 I am glad I heard my inner voice too 🙂

  17. Breathtaking. Gorgeous! My heart is fluttering now seeing all your pictures and reading your narrative Divsi, it’s in my dream still, hope to be there someday!

  18. The nature seems almost untouched. Good choice to explore it. I wish I could go there. Want to see something so different to what I’m used to.

  19. Divsi….this is fantastic. I agree with you. This should be called heaven! The views are just so …..pristine, perfect, beautiful. The initial road was no road but it seems to get better 🙂 Glad you could manage this!

  20. It was and is always a pleasure to read your posts. The blissful images of Gurudongmar lake now continue to haunt me and will till I get there. A couple of years ago we had been to Nathula and the old Baba temple and the landscapes were really out of the world. I can visualize what an experience Gurudongmar Lake would be and hope to get there asap.

  21. This is a once in a lifetime experience. I would like to visit this place as well and I think it is well worth the sacrifice of getting up so early in the morning.

  22. It’s such a soothing post Divsi. So calm & peaceful. Good that you went there and had darshan of Gurudongmar lake. I have been to Nathula pass but we never had time to go here. Also more than half the people in our group of 6 weren’t willing in that November cold.
    But sometime I’ll definitely go.
    As usual, gorgeous photos of this barren yet beautiful place. Vasu would have started thinking of his EBC trek. 🙂

    1. Thank you so much! 🙂 Glad you like the pics. it is indeed barren yet beautiful. I have read Vasu’s account of the EBC and have to ask him to write the pending parts:) Hope you get to go here the next time you are in Sikkim!

  23. Wow I can throw away the virtual reality goggles and view the amazing pics. That is an amazing geographic feature of a lake at that high of an altitude. I recall climbing Mt. Fuji up to 12388 feet and can attest the struggle is real! No oxygen since I didn’t have local currency to buy them and how it was a struggle for each step has my head pounded and jarred from the altitude. An amazing journey and views. Thanks for sharing. My hope they ease restrictions on foreigner visits in my lifetime.

  24. Wow, wow, wow! I had never heard of Gurudongmar Lake before your post and now I feel like I HAVE to go there! Your pictures are stunning!

    1. Thank you Cali, I am afraid Non Indians aren’t allowed here (its on the Indo-china border), but you can visit the rest of Sikkim, it is beautiful:)

  25. Wow what a journey to get there! But beautiful panoramas and landscapes along the way (the primulas are stunning!) Gurudongmar lake is the most incredible lake I think I’ve seen – scary though that AMS hit. At least you were fine when back at a lower altitude. Thanks for sharing this stunning part of the world 🙂

  26. What an evocative account of this journey! I am glad to have read this twice at one go… this travelogue reminds me of my own journey back in 2012. The concluding part is magic. The photographs are incredible and that newly built road snaking through to the snowy peaks is out of this world. AMS can be scary, glad to know it was taken care of in time. Wonderful post.

    If I may, I remember reading a signboard at Gurudongmar Lake on which 5140m and 17100 feet was written. Basic accommodation options do exist at Thanggu village, our family of six had stayed at a small guesthouse and were lucky to have been invited for dinner by the Army guys! It snowed that night in May making my mom crazy happy.

  27. Great reading this my dear popcorn 🙂 So much like a poem which urges me to pick my bags and travel to see for real.
    I remember seeing the frozen Changu lake from chopper. Never been on foot to such places. Thanks for those tips, saving them up for myself.

  28. What a truly amazing destination. Every bit worth the effort of getting there to see such sights that relatively few ever see. I do hope some day foreigners are permitted to travel there as I would love to experience this also. For the time being I have at least really enjoyed your wonderful post and fabulous photos of such stunning landscape.

  29. Such poetic language. You really did take me there with your words! Of course, the photos helped too but primarily your prose made the whole piece come alive!

  30. You are right, the landscape is breathtaking. It looks like an amazing adventure. The lake is really majestic. One day I want to see a line with those colorful Tibetan prayer flags myself, in a real place like this.

  31. Splendid scenery. Very true after viewing your photographs you will be short of words.. I am too finding it from my vocabulary. Frozen beauty of Gurudongmar lake is so enchanting that it is worth you took it so trouble to get there and it is worth. Hard work got paid in terms of visual treat. I am jealous of you. Primulas on land is really a nature’s carpet.

  32. Gurudongmar lake looks amazing. The primulas look wonderful. I cannot really imagine finding a small restaurant in this place but at least you found one. It must have felt really good to eat something while enjoying the beautiful surroundings. The photo which shows 80% frozen and 20% water looks surreal. You got lucky. I think only a few have a chance to visit this place.

  33. I can to some extent understand your feeling about waking up early in that situation! I feel it when trekking and I get tired and begin to wonder why the hell am I doing it but once I reach the peak I forget it all!!!
    80% frozen? Wow! That one heck of a paradise like beauty!!! Totally with waking up!

  34. Totally worth the early morning wake up. And the bumpy butt bus ride. Your photos alone show this to be a beautiful place and worth it all!

  35. Wow that lake looks beautiful I have never heard of it before so thank you for sharing. I would love to stay on one of those wooden cottages looks so cosy.

  36. Sounds like an amazing adventure! The pictures are beautiful. I have been to Ladakh 6 years ago and some of the landscapes were similar. Sorry to hear that you were not feeling well…

  37. You account of the trip to Gurudongmar makes me want to kick myself because I went so close to it, to as close as the Tsopta Valley and Thangu but I wasn’t able to proceed further because I was in the company of foreigners. What a sight would that have been for you. I know exactly what you mean by those questions which I had too when I battled it out on my treks in Nepal and Ladakh. That one question, why do we do what we do. And the answer to that is just like you put it, “to pursue a dream that you woke up with”. I hope and pray I get a chance to visit this lake sometime soon.

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