Treasures of the Snow
We arrived at Lachen just before the evening. Lachen is a tiny mountain village situated at an altitude of about 8500 ft. The name Lachen stands for ‘the big pass’. Lachen is home of the Lachenpas, a community of Sikkimese Bhutias. The village is located within green conifer forests and steep hills covered by forest. Behind the hills you can see snow peaks and glaciers glistening like silver. The few cottages are scattered among the green forest on the hill slopes.
Lachen towards Gurudongmar
Colorful prayer flags were fluttering seeking the blessings of Lord Buddha. Some of the village homes also function as small provision stores, eating joints or liquor shops. Thanks to the tourist traffic, Lachen offers fairly nice accommodation facilities and there are a few hotels scattered around the Lachen road. The hotel buildings look newly constructed and are brightly colored in Sikkimese style. The Lachen post office is housed in a hotel building, perhaps the last one on this route. The hotels are typically run by the families owning the hotel. The front rooms of the hotels serve as small shops selling local souvenirs and some essential items for tourists that you might have missed out. I picked up a pair of gloves at a reasonable price from one of these shops. To visit these areas you normally have to tie up with a tour operator in Gangtok who provides you a package of transport-accomodation-meals at a reasonable price. The operator also arranges for the necessary permits required for the visit. The hotels are basic but clean. Sikkimese food is quite tasty, may be a little more hot and spicy than Bengali cuisine.
The evening was chilly and fog was slowly creeping down the green hills. We had a sumptuous dinner with rice and chicken curry at a makeshift kitchen on the roof of the hotel. Late in the night the weather was clearing up and we were thrilled to spot a few stars in the sky, a welcome change after rain washed last night at Gangtok.
Lachen Post Office and hotels
We woke up early and got prepared for Gurudongmar.
Early morning in Lachen
None of us had gone to such high altitudes earlier and armed ourselves with layered clothing, woolen caps and gloves. As a good remedy for altitude sickness we had a hearty breakfast of toast, boiled eggs, plenty of water and hot sweet tea.
The rains had stopped and sky was clear. It was a perfect sunny morning. From the rooftop kitchen, we had a magnificent view of Lachen. The small cottages on the forest slopes were punctuated by fluttering prayer flags in a multitude of colors. Like every Lepcha village Lachen has a monastery atop a hill. We climbed up for a visit to Lachen Gompa but it was closed.
Our group assembled and we started the steep climb towards Gurudongmar. It is extremely important to start early for Gurudongmar Lake, because the weather becomes very unpredictable with advance of the day and the whole area becomes very windy. Being very close to border the entire area is controlled by army. Many tourists are routinely returned back by the army if the weather conditions are not good.
Conifer forest towards Thangu
The road was narrow and steep but reasonably well maintained. Down below the Lachenchu stream was giving us company and glistening in the morning sun like a bright silver strip.
Lachenchu dancing down the gorge covered with dense forests
A closer look at Lanchenchu, the mountain river stream, showed its water coursing through the boulder strewn bed.
Lachenchu river stream
As we climbed up, the forest covers grew thin and gradually the conifers gave way to Junipers and shrubs.
On the way from Lachen to Thangu
White mountain peaks were glittering in the morning sun behind the black ranges. Just beyond Lachen is Zema, the place where you can turn left and trek the route towards Green Lake. This is also the route taken by early mountaineers attempting a climb to Kanchenjunga via Zemu glacier.
We took a brief halt at Thangu to acclimatize. A signboard indicated we were at 16,000ft. There were a few cottages scattered around the grassy slopes. The stream Lachenchu was gushing down the side of the road.
Thangu, dancing stream, black rocks and snow mountains
There is no large tree at this altitude. On top of a mound was a small shrine adorned by Mani Stones.
Mani Stones are slabs of rock on which are inscribed in Tibetan script the mantra of Avalokiteshwara – ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’ that literally translates to ‘Hail to the Jewel in the Lotus’. These stones are usually places near shrines, rivers, on the roadsides, in cairns and sometimes in long walls. The Mani stones are to be passed or circumvented only by the left side i.e. clockwise direction in which the earth and universe revolve according to Buddhist doctrine.
A shrine with Mani stones
It was sunny and quite chilly at the same time. The mountain air was crisp and fresh although containing less oxygen. Every breath you take seems to cleanse your inside and give more energy. A few local children were playing happily.
Smiling children at Thangu
Several yaks were grazing although there was very little greenery. A quiet morning full of expectations.
Yaks grazing near Thangu
This is the last habitation on this route. We had reached quite near to our destination. Snow mountains shining in the morning sun seemed standing just around the corner.
Thangu towards Gurudongmar
A few hours more to reach our coveted destination.
To be continued...