Saturday, 24 January 2015

Memorable Trip to Yumthang Valley: The valley of flowers and Zero Point Part- II

In the last post, you read about the unforgettable night, we spent in the scenic and picturesque Lachung village with torrential rains accompanying us and without electricity entire night. As our hotel was near to Lachung river, the gushing sound of the river was complementing the thunderous sound of rains, thus making our night at Lachung a special one. Though, we were inside a hotel room, we were sleeping literally in the lap of nature. Finally the long winter night gave way to a pleasant sunny morning and we were greeted by morning sunshine having energizing effect on us. Now was the time to get ready for our adventurous day in Yumthang valley and zero point. As i mentioned that it was raining whole night, the electricity had still not turned up and we were not courageous enough to take a bath in near-zero temperature without geyser's help :-).

Getting freshened ourselves, we came out from our rooms, only to find a magnificent view of mountain peaks glowing in the sunshine. That was really refreshing for us and i was thinking, what effect it may have on local fellows, who see it daily. Mornings in Mountains are a visual treat, especially when you are at altitude of around 10000 ft from sea level. We had completely forgotten by seeing the crystal clear sky of that glorious morning that it was heavy downpour since last evening.

Morning View from Lachung
By 7:00 AM, we started our journey for Yumthang valley, hoping to see the wide varieties of primula and rhododendrons. However, the journey seemed to be inviting us along the way to catch hold of some breath-taking and mind blowing scenery along the road and we could not resist the temptation to capture those eye candies in our camera frames. The experience of being there amid milky peaks, fast flowing river and lush greenery was so overwhelming and out-worldly that it can't be described exactly through words and images. I can say that for a person living in cacophony of a bustling city, spending few days in such far-away places in nature's lap will have some medicinal value. These are the places, where the most powerful person on the planet will feel himself a mere mortal in front of nature. 

We halted at a place before Yumthang valley to feast on the beauty of natural landscapes and there were plenty. We had tea at a small shop and luckily gum boots used for walking on snow were available in the tea shop itself and we took it on rent of Rs. 50/- per pair. The weather of valley was at it's best that day, thus offering magnificent  and scenic views along the way. During entire journey of North Sikkim, we found many small but beautifully designed small bridges on Lachung and Lachen rivers, which were accentuating the natural beauty of the place.

Snow caped mountains and a lively river : What else one would require to get entranced

Serpentine Roads leading to Yumthang Valley
                                                 Primula at Yumthang Valley                        Image Courtesy :
By 9:00 AM, we had reached Yumthang valley, however, we could not see the wide range of flowers specially Rhododendrons, for which it is famous for. Though, we could see four to five varieties of Rhododendrons along the road near Yumthang. 

The valley surrounded by Himalayan Mountains is situated at the altitude of approx. 11000 feet and around 150 km away from Gangtok. It is popularly known as Valley of flowers, as the region blooms with over 24 varieties of rhododendrons, primula, poppies and other floral species during spring season.

We proceeded to Zero point from there by 9:30 AM and planned to spend more time discovering flowers in Yumthang while returning from zero point, as the weather gets worsened at high altitudes after noon. Zero Point, also known as Yumesamdong, is a beautiful place located at the height of around 15800 feet near Indo-china international border. The place remains covered in snow whole year, however it has been relatively less trodden and unexplored territory. After crossing Yumthang valley, our vehicle started moving on an upward road with numerous hairpin bends, as we had to go up by around 5000 feet with in an hour. Snow caped mountain peaks and trees were visible now. 

Road to The Ice Kingdom
We had seen those peaks and snow on the way to Gurudongmar lake, but they were maintaining a safe distance from us. However, at zero point, our proximity with the snow had increased exponentially. As we were moving forward, everything from roads and trees to mountain ranges were looking whiter and brighter. Our poor eyes had really tough time adjusting to the reflection of sun rays in the snow. But, that didn't us stop us to have our share of enjoyment sliding and gliding in the snow. In fact, we like many other enthusiastic tourists were fascinated by the scenery unfolded before our eyes and started playing in the snow with a child's enthusiasm. The little bit of apprehension and reluctance was soon replaced by the jest and adventure of youth, once we started walking in the snow. Here are some glimpses of wonderful zero point for you to visualize the lifelong experience, one can have by unraveling such gem of a place.

Black patches on everything white

Only the object in motion will have it's way

Our fun moment in the snow
After spending fun-filled time at zero point, we were feeling tired physically and weather was also changing it's colours, so we decided to return. It was 12 PM when we reached near Yumthang, while returning and we had still some time to have a look on the flowers of North Sikkim. There were many trees of Rhododendron on both sides of the road and this tree had a magnificent background.
Rhododendron tree with mountains in the backdrop
After seeing many trees of red rhododendrons, we saw some pink ones too.

Rhododendron in full blossom
In a three day's trip from Gangtok, we had managed to explore Lachen, Lachung, Gurudongmar Lake, Yumthang valley and Zero point. We started our return journey from Yumthang at 2:00 PM and by 9:00 PM, we reached Gangtok. Till date, it is the most fulfilling and memorable voyage of my life. I am sure that in the days to come, i will be able to witness more vibrant colours and hues of  natural beauty.

Here is some useful information for fellow travelers, who would like to explore North Sikkim.

How To Reach Yumthang Valley and Zero Point

By Air – The nearest airport is Bagdogra Airport. Take taxi to Gangtok nearly 120 kilometers via national highway 31 A. Chopper service is also available for Gangtok from Bagdogra. From Gangtok, one has to hire a taxi to Lachung to visit the valley of flowers and zero point. Gangtok to Lachung is 5 - 6 hours journey. For travelling to Lachung and some other regions of North Sikkim, one needs to obtain Inner Line Permit.
By Rail – The nearest major railway Station is New Jalpaiguri Railway Station (NJP), around 120 km away from Gangtok. From New Jalpaiguri Railway Station one has to hire a taxi to Gangtok. Shared taxis are also available at NJP or Siliguri Bus Stand.
By Road – Roads till Gangtok is national highway 31 A. From Gangtok, vehicle with army permit has to be booked for visiting Lachung. Yumthang valley is 25 km away from Lachung and zero point is another 25 km from the valley.

Itinerary for those, planning to visit Gurudongmar Lake and Yumthang Valley :

Day 1 - Reach Gangtok. Night stay at Gangtok.
Day 2 - Travel Gangtok to Lachen; overnight stay at Lachen
Day 3 - Lachen to Gurudongmar and Chopta Valley and Back. Continue travel to Lachung; overnight stay at Lachung
Day 4 - Visit to Yumthang valley and Zero Point. Back to Gangtok

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Saturday, 17 January 2015

Trip to Yumthang Valley : The Valley of Flowers and Zero Point

After feasting on the magnificent and breathtaking landscape of Gurudongmar Lake for hours, we had returned to Lachen to collect our luggage from the hotel and the same day, we had started for Lachung for our next part of itinerary of North Sikkim covering Yumthang Valley and Katao. 

As i mentioned in the last post that while going to Lachung, it had started raining heavily, but this time, we were more than happy to welcome the rains, though it might have been difficult for our driver to drive on serpentine roads with numerous hairpin bends, that too in torrential rains. Perhaps, being able to behold the pristine lake and the landscape filled with snow-clad mountain peeks had it's intoxicating effect, that's why, while returning from the lake, when we started singing with gay abandon, we were not aware that the tourists coming from opposite side travelling to Lachen were throwing a curious glance on us and must have thought, what had happened to us. If only they could know, what was in store for them on next day!

The distance of around 120 km from Gurudongmar Lake to Lachung  via Chungthang was covered in around 5 hours. Obviously, we stopped occasionally in the way  to capture some natural view in our camera.

Amitabh Bachchan Waterfall (Naga fall)
On the way to Lachung from chungthang, we like many other travellers stopped to see this mighty waterfall fed by numerous streams. The fall is named after Mr. Amitabh Bachchan, the legendary actor owing to it's height. Given the remoteness of the place, Mr. Bachchan might not be aware that a waterfall on his name exists in this world. However, it gave us some laughter moments, as we proceeded. At some distance from this waterfall, we saw a small waterfall and immediately a new name was coined for it. No prize for guessing friends! The name given to the fall was Jaya Bhaduri fall :-). We had another such funny moment, when we saw one more waterfall, taller than the previous one and it was named on evergreen actress Rekha.

By 6:00 PM, we had reached Lachung, a small town situated at elevation of around 9600 ft and started looking for hotel for our night stay. As it was still raining heavily, we didn't spend much time on exploring our options. In stead, we settled in the first hotel, we entered. It was an average accomodation, good enough for one night halt, but i must loud the hospitability of young folks running the hotel. 

It was raining since noon and the electricity had given up, so we were literally heading towards a biting cold and dark night. Some of us were feeling the urge to have tea and there was a small hut-cum-tea stall near our hotel, we went there braving rains and darkness. The shop was manned by two girls and there were some locals as well as some tourists sitting inside. The tiny shop had really the wide range of drinks available, from tea and coffee to bear and whisky. I was not surprised, as i believe, in Sikkim, consumption of liquor is more than that of tea. We had discussions with the girls managing the shop, while having our tea and we came to know the level of hardships faced by them in their daily lives. Apart from the harsh climatic conditions, poor accessibility is a big problem faced by the villagers. One astonishing fact was that they had to travel to Mangan, the district headquarter of North Sikkim, 60 km away from Lachung for purchasing grocery items.

We had returned to our hotel rooms and were discussing our travel plan for tomorrow in a candle light. After having delicious dinner cooked by young and jovial fellows, we had gone to bed for the night. 

The incessant downpour had enhanced the coziness of the bed and suddenly a beautiful melody of Hemant Kumar came to my mind, "Ye Raat Ye Chandni Fir Kahan, Sun Ja Dil Ki Daastaan". Romanticism of the song had increased manifold in the tranquility of that memorable night. Crooning the song, I had gone to sleep, waiting a new dawn. The night spent at Lachung was really a special one for all of us.

Lachung Factfile

Lachung is a small village rather hamlet of North Sikkim, 125 km away from Gangtok. The village is situated at the confluence of two rivers Lachen chu and Lachung chu, both tributaries of River Teesta. Lachung is a Tibetan word, which means Small Pass. The Lepchas and Bhutias are the main inhabitants of this place. Lachung has been described by many as the most picturesque  village of Sikkim and rightly so. During the winter, the whole village gets covered in snow.

The best time to visit Lachung is from October to May.

In the next post, i will take you to the valley of flowers and then will have some fun in snow at zero point. Till then adios!

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Sunday, 11 January 2015

A Trip to Sacred Gurudongmar Lake : Paradise of Eastern Himalaya! - Part-II

As the temperature was falling rapidly with the darkness, we were forced to rush towards our hotel rooms. After having dinner at 8:00 PM, we retired to bed by 9:00 PM, as we had to leave for Gurudongmar Lake by 4:00 AM in the morning. Before we could sleep, rain had started pouring in and our hope to see the pristine lake in it's glorious best was diminishing. Praying for good weather for tomorrow, we had gone to bed, leaving everything at God's will.


It was agonizing wait for the rain to stop, but all in vain. It was heavy downpour all night. The rains in mountains have got their own distinct character. When it will start raining and when it will stop, only weather god knows. We woke up at 4:00 in the morning and it was still drizzling outside. Our driver told us that we should start our journey without delay, as we had to cover distance of 70 km from Lachen to reach Gurudongmar. It was severe cold weather due to high altitude and continuous rains and we ran towards the vehicle braving the rains. As we had to reach at the altitude of 17000 feet from the 8000 feet, our vehicle had begun plying on serpentine mountain roads. As we were going up in the hills, the vegetation was reducing and the height of trees was also getting shorter. Within one and half hour, we had reached Thangu, a tiny hamlet at the height of 13000 feet. We saw a small eatery along the road and stopped for breakfast. The temperature would have been near zero at that time. Options for breakfast were very limited and we went for maggi and tea. Some tourists prefer to make night halt at Thangu instead of Lachen while visiting Gurudongmar Lake.

Having Maggi & Tea at Thangu
After energizing ourselves during our Thangu halt, we resumed our journey. As we knew that we had come closer to the lake, our excitement was palpable and knew no bound. That's the reason, we dared to venture out of the vehicle in the freezing cold to have some photographs with the Teesta river flowing amid snow-laden mountain peeks. May be, the current and speed, with which the river was flowing, saved it from freezing.

After Thangu, the rain had stopped, though weather was still very cloudy, but finally the sun smiled on us and weather became pleasant and sunny, as we reached nearer to the lake. There was no habitation except Indian Army after Thangu and concrete roads had given way to roads made of mud and gravel. 

All Nature, No Human Intervention
The last army checkpoint in the route had come and we had to stop for verification of permits. In the meantime, we enjoyed coffee at the world's highest cafeteria run by Army personnels and seeing the sign board declaring the cafe as the highest cafe in the world, i could not hold back my wish to get photographed with the same. That required permission from Army personnels deployed there and with little reluctance, they allowed us to have photographs with the signboard.
Feeling at top of the world
After a brief halt, we moved along the unpaved path and we felt that we had reached to the top of Tibetan Plateau, the roof of the world. The horizon seemed to be broadened. The view of barren lands was looking complete with herds of Yaks and blue sheeps grazing  nearby. 

Herd of Yak grazing near Lake
We knew that the lake is in the close vicinity from us, yet it was out of the sight. All of a sudden, our vehicle turned to the right from the gravel road and there it was, covered in the snow and bounded by snow laden peaks from all the sides. We had reached Gurudongmar Lake after all.

Frozen Gurudongmar Lake
At an altitude of 17100 ft, Gurudongmar is one of the highest lakes in the world and 2nd highest lake in India. The sacred freshwater lake freezes during the winters except at one spot. 
The blessed water of the lake is believed to posses the miraculous power of granting children to childless couples. Interestingly, the myth and legend of Gurudongmar is believed as reverentially by the Hindus and Sikhs as by the Buddhists. As one legend goes, Guru padmasambhav, Buddhist Monk visited the lake during his visit to Tibet and blessed the lake by touching it. That portion of lake never freezes even during peak winters. Hindu and Sikh Devotees link this incident to Guru Nanak Dev. The lake is a panoramic landscape for many like us, while it is a pilgrimage centre for many others. We saw some tourists carrying the water of the sacred lake in the bottles way back to their homes.

Sign board displaying history of the lake

Magnificent View of Gurudongmar Lake
We were in trance by just observing the surroundings of the lake and busy in capturing the lake in our camera frames. As the lake was frozen, tourists were taking a walk on the lake surface. We were advised by  an army personnel to avoid walking on the frozen surface, as it may be risky. However, seeing many tourists taking photographs posing in the lake, we also went there to have some fun in the snow. We heard some strange sound coming from deep inside of the lake, but could not understand, what was that.
Unfrozen Portion of the Lake
Gurudongmar Lake is one of the sources of River Teesta, other being Tso-Lhamu Lake. One has to seek permission from army for trekking to Tso-Lhamu lake from Gurudongmar Lake. Vehicles are not permitted to ply on this route. The Chinese Tibetan boarder is just a few kilometres away from the lake. The presence of tanks and bunkers on both sides of the roads made us notice that we are near Indo-China border.

Panoramic View of Snow-laden peaks
There is a place of worship called Sarva Dharma Sthal near the lake, where soldiers and tourists of all faith offer prayers. We also offered prayers there.
Sarva Dharma Sthal

In the company of two (rather three) Buddhist Pilgrims
 People face difficulty in breathing at such high altitude and hence it is advisable that we should not stay there for long period. At such altitudes, the weather worsens after noon and strong winds starts blowing (up to the speed of 180-200 kmph). It was 11:30 AM and the winds had started gaining velocity, so we decided to say bid adieu to the lake and started our return journey to Lachen and then to Lachung. Our trip to Gurudongmar Lake was not finished yet and while returning to Lachen, we were taken to Chopta Valley by our driver.

Chopta Valley

By 2:00 PM, we had reached our hotel at Lachen, had lunch there and then we proceeded to Lachung. It had started raining again, but this time, we were not that much apprehensive, knowing very well that the weather in hills can change anytime. 

Itinerary for those, planning to visit Gurudongmar Lake and Yumthang Valley :

Day 1 - At Gangtok
Day 2 - Travel Gangtok to Lachen; overnight stay at Lachen
Day 3 - Lachen to Gurudongmar and Chopta Valley and Back. Continue travel to Lachung; overnight stay at Lachung
Day 4 - Visit to Yumthang valley and Katao. Back to Gangtok

In the next post, we will begin journey of Lachung, Yumthang Valley and Zero Point. Till then adios!

Sunday, 4 January 2015

A trip to Sacred Gurudongmar Lake : Eastern Himalaya's Paradise

After taking you along on odysseys to various places of Sikkim, now is the time to take you on one of the best voyages of my life, North Sikkim, where travelling is as wonderful and memorable as the destination is. Certainly the best part of Sikkim and one of the best in India. It seems that the Mother Nature has bestowed undivided attention and care in decorating this part of Sikkim with all the jewels, she has, and has made the place her own abode, like a mother, who has soft corner for one of her children. North Sikkim is the place, where you will feel yourself one with the nature and will find least human intervention. I genuinely feel that the upper part of hilly state will give any other contenders of "paradise on Earth" title, a run of their money. Having said that, it is also a truth that the patchy and treacherous roads leading to North Sikkim will give you an adrenaline rush and keep you on the edge due to the area being heavily prone to frequent landslides and earthquakes. North Sikkim is for avid travelers and adventure seekers, who are young at heart. And believe me, you will be amply rewarded with the fulfilling and lifelong experience, if you decide to travel to this part of Sikkim overcoming these small barriers. If North Sikkim happens to be the crown of Sikkim, then Gurudongmar Lake must be the brightest pearl of that crown. 

During my three year's stay in Gangtok, visiting Gurudongmar Lake was on top of my wishlist since the very beginning, but ironically, my wish came true only during the fag end of third year of my stay. The delay in fulfilling my wish may be attributed to reluctance of my colleagues and fellow travelers due to rough terrain and harsh climatic condition of the place. Whenever, i used to raise the issue, they used to say, it's very difficult to visit the lake, as it remains cut off from rest of Sikkim most of the year due to heavy snowfall and landslides. A major Earthquake at North Sikkim in September 2011 also discouraged us to venture into that dreaded path. However, as the saying goes, "Better Late than Never", I along with four travelers managed to explore most of North Sikkim and it is my best travel experience till date. I am yet to see a place, which has elicited more wows and adjectives like beautiful, superb, wonderful, mesmerizing, magnificent etc. from me than that elicited by North Sikkim. Now Let us come to my travel memoir, otherwise, the adjectives will fall short in describing the beauty of the place.

On a sunny day of April 2014, we 5 people started for Gurudongmar and Yumthang Valley on a 03 day's trip taking our reliable and expert driver Mr. Tularam with us after obtaining all necessary permits required in order to travel to North Sikkim. Tourists need to obtain tour permits from Department of Tourism office, situated at M G Road, Gangtok. Foreign Tourists are not permitted to travel upto Gurudongmar Lake. 

We started our journey by 8:00 AM and reached Mangan, the district headquarter of North Sikkim (68 km from Gangtok) by 10:30 AM. As we left Mangan, the natural beauty of North Sikkim started unfolding before our eyes. The Purity of air had kindled the child inside us and that was the reason, whenever we saw any waterfall, we started screaming with joy.... Oh waterfall! What a fall! We kept screaming with unbridled joy, as this part of Sikkim had plenty of waterfalls and hot springs. We had really lost count of the waterfalls in our journey to Lachen and Gurudongmar.

Thundering Waterfall on the way to Chungthang

Waterfall in closeup

After getting photographed in various poses with mighty waterfall in the backdrop, we proceeded further only to find a feisty river called Teesta making it's way in the mountains and dense forests.

Teesta River flowing with full force

By 12:00 PM, we had reached Chungthang, a town of North Sikkim, which is situated at the confluence of two rivers - Lachen chu and Lachung chu (Chu means river), both tributaries of Teesta river. Chungthang is a small town from where the road bifurcates into two, with one road leading to Lachen and other to Lachung. 

Chungthang has fair share in myths and legends surrounding Sikkim. As one legend goes, Guru Padmasambhav, Buddhist Guru, visited the town before going to Tibet and left his footprint on a rock where he once rested. Around the rock some paddy is grown, which is supposed to be a miracle as paddy does not grow in these conditions. We also saw a Gurudwara in Chungthang, which suggests that there are also some legends related to Guru Nanak Dev.

We had stopped at a road-side eatery at Chungthang to have lunch, but the food was not readily available. We were told that today tourist inflow was higher and there were very few hotels at Chungthang, so it will take some time for food to be cooked afresh. After having sumptuous lunch at Chungthang, we left for Lachen, 25 km from Chungthang. By 2:30, we had reached Lachen village, where we had decided to stay for the night and start for Gurudongmar Lake next day. Lachen is also a very beautiful village and in winters, village becomes inhabitable for locals and a picturesque spot for tourists due to heavy rainfall. Lachen has all budget hotels starting from Rs. 800/- per room. After settling in a hotel, which was more like a home stay, we had enough time left for exploring the village and we didn't waste any time. 

Hotel at Lachen

As the evening had set in, dense fog had started engulfing the entire village and before that could happen, we were able to catch some glimpses of the village and it's surroundings.

View of Lachen Village

Our cameras were searching for snow-clad peaks, as we were at the height of 8500 feet, and soon we were greeted with the spectacular sight, which increased our excitement for tomorrow.

Snow-clad Peak as seen from Lachen
As the temperature was falling rapidly with the darkness, we were forced to rush towards our hotel rooms. After having dinner at 8:00 PM, we retired to bed by 9:00 PM, as we had to leave for Gurudongmar Lake by 4:00 AM in the morning. Before we could sleep, rain had started pouring in and our hope to see the pristine lake in it's glorious best was diminishing. Praying for good weather for tomorrow, we had gone to bed, leaving everything at God's will.

In the next post, i will share my travel memoir on Gurudongmar Lake. whether, Weather God smiled on us or remained in sulking mood in the form of torrential rains, you will come to know in next post.

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