How I learnt Faith can take you places Fear never can, in North Sikkim's Deluge

Monday, May 02, 2016

Gurudongmar Lake, north Sikkim
Gurudongmar Lake, the jewel of North Sikkim
It is surprising how sometimes we set out on paths that can lead us nowhere good but all that misery occasionally manifests into a life lesson and a surreal moment that forces you to wonder if all that happens, happens for good! So, when I missed out on seeing one blue lake, I was hell bent on seeing another blue lake – all of 1000 meters higher than the previous one that eluded me. Trouble was, I was still recuperating, it was pouring cats and dogs and I wanted to head straight into the eye of the storm in the heart of Himalayas!

THE BACKSTORY: To cut the long story short, I made grand plans for a cool expedition. Fell sick, coughed up blood, couldn’t walk without support and made it out alive only thanks to much kindness from friends and strangers. All of this started from a campsite set a kilometre before the iconic Chandrataal in Spiti where I first collapsed in a heap and things unravelled rather unpleasantly from there. Arriving home with tail between my legs and a three-week unused leave, I was a bundle of sadness. Angry and miserable at having missed Chandrataal (and a summit climb the following week), I was furiously looking for equally grand lakes, if not grander. That’s when it struck me I could visit Gurudongmar Lake in north Sikkim – a turquoise blue jewel set in the surreal desertland bordering China. (I actually wanted to visit a lake further ahead of Gurudongmar called ChoLhamu that is supposed to be India’s highest but that was not going to happen, not that time.)
The wild adventure begins
It was the monsoons of 2011 and not a single person said anything good about traveling to Sikkim in July. Until then, few had ever travelled for pleasure to Sikkim in monsoons. Travelling in the rains wasn’t a fad then, as it is now. With stars in my eyes, I set out in pursuit of one of India's highest lakes at 17800feet – the holy Gurudongmar Lake.

With a whole lot of uncertainty and equal parts excitement, I arrived at Darjeeling to find weather gods were already playing havoc with the fickle mountain roads. Arriving at Gangtok after delays, I found out no one was willing to drive us, me and another friend who joined me for this stretch, to north Sikkim. They all laughed at our naivety in thinking Gurudongmar Lake, at 17800 feet, would even be accessible in this gnarly weather. All we could manage was a 20-year-old driver! His inexperience would come back to bite us but at that point, we couldn’t have passed upon this only opportunity.

Mist covered mountains of Sikkim during monsoons
North of the state is the wild frontier of Sikkim. While roads to east and west are considerably well maintained, the road forges higher up into the mountains in the north making maintenance a laboured process fraught with ever present risks. That the roads are nonexistent or pothole ridden at best and prone to frequent landslides made it only worse in the torrential downpour of Sikkim.

Thus, a 20 year old driver and two women in their 20s set out in a deluge to the remote corner of the state where they wouldn’t come across any other traveller for the next 4 days.

The driver, henceforth referred to as the ‘boy’, was already dreaming of cutting the trip short when we were informed of a major landslide on the way to the lake. His reluctance was growing by the hour to take us all the way till Gurudongmar Lake, which usually takes 3 days to reach from Gangtok. Hearing of the landslide, we were expecting one or two anyway, we tweaked the plan a bit to reach a day later at the lake. The rain was pelting hard, even stones fell on to the road due to the forceful winds and there were waterfalls that could only be heard behind the mist-covered slopes.

Brimming streams tumble down into valleys Mist covered mountain slopes
Without another tourist in sight, the offseason adventure was unraveling rather delightfully. The intimacy of a landscape shared only with you and no one else was a rare joy. The obscured mountainscapes and bone chilling weather was no match to the incredible beauty of the resplendent greenery veiled in a coat of grey mist. Driving along the flower filled grazing pastures of Yumthang and the desolate high grounds of Zero Point, we wished with all our might that the landslide would be cleared even as were being lambasted by relentless downpour without a single minute’s respite.

Pristine Glacial Streams flowing through the valley in North Sikkim
Glacial stream in Thangu Valley on the way to Gurudongmar Lake
Arriving at Chunthung, the place where the road forks towards Lachung(Yumthang side) and the other towards Lachen(Gurudongmar side), the boy was raring to go back after he heard the landslide still hadn’t cleared near Chaten. Landslides are a common occurrence in the mountainous region of North SikkimHaving seen the pathetic situation of the roads even as low as at 3500m, he wasn’t exactly looking forward to the prospect of driving to 5400m. I, on the other hand, was definitely not looking forward to abandoning another lake considering a failed pursuit of a similar kind brought me to Sikkim in first place.

Sending out a million prayers silently, we convinced the boy to drive us at least till the landslide. The boy meanwhile picked up few other local boys and they all started to mock us hearing of our plan. Do you know what would have been amazing in this situation? If the landslide was cleared just as we arrived. And that’s exactly what happened! After being blocked for 2.5 days, the road towards Gurudongmar was finally open, minutes before we crossed the bridge before it. Serendipity?

“In your face, you nonbelievers!”

That’s what we wanted to shout, my friend and me. Instead, all we did was breathe a sigh of relief. Waking up at an ungodly hour the next morning when the sky still looked a deep shade of indigo, teeth chattering we bundled into the vehicle for the final assault towards Gurudongmar Lake. After enduring a bone-shattering ride on the slushiest roads ever, Roads under maintenance during monsoons which is the low seasonwith an ever-present danger of earth giving way below our feet or a deluge sweeping us away, we figured the worst was behind us. True enough, the rain stopped. There was even a faint glow in the sky, a break from the looming storm clouds that kept us company throughout that week. Perhaps sun would shine upon us and the lake would reveal its intense blue to us?

We arrived at the Giagong check post, 11kms before Gurudongmar Lake and the army was aghast that someone would even dare to visit in this weather, let alone two women accompanied by a boy who seemed to be just sprouting facial hair. They reliably informed us the road is still under maintenance but it is open. All formalities done, we proceeded towards the lake. Surely nothing could go wrong now, could it?

Halfway through, the boy realizes the road, meaning a flattened track of mud in that vast desert was all dug up. Monsoons being the low season, PWD was doing its maintenance work. A small bump to the underbelly of the vehicle and he panicked refusing to move another inch ahead on that road. All sorts of pleas and reasoning went in vain. The boy wouldn’t budge!

We were still 7kms away from Gurudongmar, reaching 5400meters high in a day, we wouldn’t even be able to walk in thin air without any acclimatization. Just when we were about to give up, a PWD jeep lumbered towards us. Hitchhiking to Gurudongmar Lake in North Sikkim

We finally hitched a ride to the lake, he agreed to drop us but we would have to figure out our own means to get back to Giagong. Blindly we jumped at his offer, this meant that we might have to walk back the 11kms to the army check post since hitching a ride would be impossible considering Sikkim in monsoons was as deserted as a shopping mall on a Monday morning. And walking in the thin air meant either one of us could collapse in a heap, again!

Finally when we arrived, the sweet relief of reaching the turquoise blue waters of the holy Gurudongmar Lake after a week mired in quandary felt like the heady hangover of a hard-won battle. Breathless from the altitude, I stood there in disbelief that something this magical could be conjured out of a wretched trip that made me miserable just few weeks ago. It was consequential enough that I remember that feeling even five years after. After all, our best memories stem from the incredible joy of the unexpected or the gratification of a long awaited dream. This was the latter, I’ve dreamt of a cerulean lake far too many times I can care to admit.

Gurudongmar Lake, resplendent with greenery during monsoons

Sauntering along the lake that was lined with fresh monsoon greenery, Gurudongmar that looked every bit like an oasis in the heart of the cold desert was how the universe decided to reward me I suppose. An army jawan posted at the lake even corroborated my hypothesis when he told us that it was the first time in over a month that the skies cleared up to reveal the lapis lazuli splendor of the holy waters. The smile plastered on my face was refusing to fade away. Meanwhile as if the universe conspired to make everything all right at once, we were also offered a ride back, in one of the mighty STALLION'S - the army’s preferred workhorse!

Isn’t it strange, despite all the detours how things always fall into place towards the end?

The unrelenting rains, the unpredictable landslides, the uncooperative driver and the uncertainty in general notwithstanding, traveling to Sikkim in monsoons taught me that half the time our fears are unreasonable. All along I was driven by a fervent desire to reach the lake but what the experience brought to me in disguise was a life lesson that sometimes you can will things to happen. Little did I expect that a series of misadventures would ultimately lead me to where I was - a glorious place of understanding where I found reverence for both the spectacle of nature and the kindness of strangers.

But most of all, I’m left wondering if it was faith all along that got me this far or was it pure serendipity?

“Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

Also see:
Goecha La Trek: Surreal Beauty Of Sikkim, In Pictures
A Scary Day And A Haunted Night At Pelling, Sikkim
Monsoons Of Sikkim - Photos Of Nature Extraordinaire

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  1. Loved your trip Neelima. Incidentally, I was planning to visit the lake next month. Love the adventure, your courage, the way you put it in words...

    1. Thanks Prasuna, this is one of my most memorable trips ever! :) I wish you a wonderful trip when you visit the lake next month.

  2. Covered north sikkim march 2016

  3. Love your spirit Neelima... More power to you

    1. Thanks Anubha, I need to get back to these kind of explorations more for sure! :)

  4. Lovely write-up Neelima! Love how you willed this...

    1. Thanks Chaitali, either that or the universe conspired! We can't be sure. ;)

  5. Wow. Incredible adventure,awe inspiring photos and a very fearless spirit. I have been religiously following your journeys since your Mongolian adventures and your posts never fail to make me wanderlust. More power to you.

    1. Thanks so much Svetlana! This comment of yours made my day, also reminding me of the kind of travel I used to do and why I enjoyed that the most. :) I do hope to get back to such explorations more in future.

  6. It's your will powered by your faith that made you see what you always wanted to. To that, I would say that the amount of time you had spent thinking about that tranquil azure lake brought all things fall in the right place. Such is the power of mind & faith.
    Well written blog. I really liked it.
    So keep your will & faith intact.. You will go miles!

    1. Thanks Amrita, I'd like to think so too, that faith can make things fall into place. :)

  7. What a beautiful story and such wonderful pictures... Thank you for sharing!

  8. The title and the introduction paragraph got me hooked! Amazing story Neelima. I have been to Gurudongmar in the month of November and even then it was one head churning experience. While you did, have some scary experiences, I think, you have witnessed it in the best possible way. :)

    1. Thanks Deepika, loved visiting Gurudongmar in monsoons. :) Next I'd love to visit in winters too though, must have been beautiful!

  9. I have just booked the travel for Sikkim. Your experience will help us immensely.

  10. That was an amazing adventure,our driver politely refused to drive past chungthang towards lachung(2014-December),as fate would have it missed i missed out on gurudongmar. The longing has been growing leaps and bounds ever since.BTW the lake looks nothing similar to the pictures on the internet.It would be great if you could spare us a few more pictures of the lake.

  11. Ah. So this is the actual story of your North Sikkim trip. Sounds adventurous. I remember your response to photos from when I had been there in summer. And brought back some great memories too. This is one heavenly place!!

  12. Amazing...!!!! While reading, I felt like that I'm on the way to Gurudongmar. Beautifully written. Loved it. :)


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