We awoke at 3 am the next day, got ready, heavily cursed the cold and left at 4 am for the easily the high point of the trip (literally and figuratively) – Lake Gurudongmar. There were practically no roads at all and Gurudongmar was a good 125 km away. We were also initially scared out of our wits when Tenzing announced that he is sleepy. Anyway, several bad turns and multiple scary passes later, we were more or less used to it. Also the sun rose and gave us some pretty amazing views of the mountainside. More importantly we kept looking up at the magnificent views rather than down at the deep valleys no more than a few feet away from the car. We steadily climbed upwards through the mountains and those of us who were awake saw ice on the road, frozen puddles and snow-capped mountains all around. We soon went past the Indian army’s highest transit camp at 14000 ft and then stopped at a very small village called Thangu. When we got out here, it was about 6 am and here is where we realised how cold it was. There was ice all around, and even under 4 layers of clothing I was still shivering. I reckon the temperature could not have been more than 2-3 deg at that point. The stop was basically for breakfast which was served in a small hut no more than 6 X 6 ft in area. The lady there gave us hot tea and steamed bread with molten butter. I don’t think I have ever been this happy to drink tea. We went out and got gloves, woollen socks and rented jackets which added an extra layer to our shivering bodies. I could now (finally) feel my toes!
After this stoppage, none of us slept. The beauty around was breath-taking. All this while we had been driving next to the river Teesta. As we were going upstream, the river was getting smaller and smaller as we drove on. We saw hordes of yaks roaming about. This is also where we were told that the Yak is eaten only this high in the mountains and will not be eaten ‘down’ i.e. at Gangtok. On the way we came across an upwards sloping section which had ice all over it (water from a stream flowing down it had frozen). The cars (there were about 8 groups including us) stopped and the drivers refused to go forward citing that the cars would slip. There were several arguments and after long discussions 5 cars went back. We refused to leave for we could see the army trucks climbing the same section with ease. In the 30 minute standoff, we got to go to the banks of the Teesta. Now it was barely 8 feet wide, with ice at its banks. It was at the most 8 feet deep either and even in the turbulent flow, the water was blue. I have never seen a river this shallow with blue water, nor been able to see to the bottom of any river (however shallow). That’s how pure the water was. The ice on the banks stuck on and spread further outwards while the river stubbornly flowed on between the two walls of ice. I, in a misplaced sense of adventure, put my finger in river only to not be able to move it for the next 10 minutes.
Finally the drivers realised that we were not going to back down and decided to take us to Gurudongmar. We met some personnel of the army who gave us chocolates, juice and dry fruits. One officer from Pune was elated to talk to me in Marathi. I guess the army also knows that it is the only hope if anything goes wrong here. They were also very friendly and spoke to us like members of their own family.
After driving for a bit longer, we came across another army establishment where we submitted our travel permits (security in these regions is very high due to the proximity to the Chinese border) and also saw the world’s highest café at 15000ft. The drive onwards was simply amazing. Even as we tired and sleep deprived souls tried our best to catch a wink or two, someone would yell out, “ Dude, look to your left. What a sight!”. The views were simply magnificent; the mountains, layers of them in different colours, distances and types of vegetation adorning them, were all around us and treated us to glorious sights almost continuously. After driving for an hour or so (between mine fields and what not) we finally reached a small plateau on which a sign read “Gurudongmar lake Height in metres: 5136, Height in feet: 17100”. We had arrived! The sight at Gurudongmar was so beautiful that I cannot possible do justice to it in mere words. As I said we were on a plateau, all around us were mountains; there was not a human in sight. There was a huge mountain on the front face of which a glacier moves slowly downwards. The glacier melts and forms Gurudongmar lake which is a mass of sparkling blue – the bluest I have ever seen any water body. It’s almost as if the blue sky challenges the water to replicate its colour and the water accomplishes this task with aplomb. On the other end of the lake, a small one foot wide stream emerges. It’s hard to believe, almost gives a sense of wonder that this is what eventually becomes the mighty river Teesta – our faithful companion on this journey.
There were a few traditions of the lake, such as making a pile of stones for good luck, which we performed obediently. We also tried to walk to the edge of the lake itself, but were called back as some of the group were feeling giddy in the thin air (all in the mind if you ask me) and we had to turn back from within touching distance of that sparkling blue mass. Sigh… now I will have to go to Gurudongmar again. I have unfinished business; I have to touch the water of that lake.
The silence was most peace inducing and quite lovely. We could literally hear our hearts beating. It is the best place possible to let everything in your mind go and just take in the beauty.
After a few more minutes of soaking in what can be called the definition of heaven, we reluctantly head back to Lachen.