Sunday, June 7, 2015

Journey to Gurudongmar Lake, North Sikkim (28 - 30 April 2015)


I needed to go to Kalimpong, West Bengal, for some personal work, during the end of April 2015.
I had  always wanted to go closer to the High Himalayas, and on to the Tibetan plateau. Having read a lot about Gurudongmar Lake on the net, i decided to pay a visit,
seeing that it wasn't too far from Kalimpong.

Gurudongmar Lake is a high altitude lake in North Sikkim district, in the state of Sikkim, India. It lies north of the Himalayas, on the Tibetan plateau, at an altitude of 17,000 feet. It is frozen for half the year.

(Please click on the above map to view it in full size)

The Journey

We started from Kalimpong (altitude 4,000 feet)  at 06:15 on 28th April. Weather was fair with intermittent rain showers.

The road wound down from Kalimpong to Teesta, then north east along Teesta east bank  until Singtam. From Singtam, the road started climbing up again to reach Gangtok. This leg took 2 hours 40 minutes. We needed to pass by Gangtok as there was a change of vehicle (Mahindra Scorpio for the onward journey) here along with a new driver who had the all-important 'Permits' for us. 

North Sikkim district lies in a 'Restricted' area, hence, even Indian citizens need a sheaf of permits to visit the region. Our driver would regularly stop every few hours at checkposts of various agencies and hand over a few permits from the pile. Anyone with a fetish for red-tape would love this ritual.

After the detour to Gangtok to pick up the permits, we headed down again and drove north along the east bank of the Teesta valley.

Naga-Namgor was reached in 3 hours 38 minutes (from Gangtok). At Tung we crossed over to the Teesta west bank and followed it north to Chungthang (4 hours 20 minutes from Gangtok), where we again crossed over to the east bank. The road condition along the route varied from good to parts where the definition of 'road' was stretched to the limit !

I may be wrong here, but i got the feeling that the roads would be in much better condition if constructed and maintained by competent private infrastructure companies using modern construction methods. Some of those winding roads had been laid by the British colonial administration at the turn of the last century or even before. We saw groups of local villagers contracted as labourers by the BRO (Border Roads Organization) dotted all along the roads. Some of them were manually carrying rocks in pairs and some were breaking those rocks into rubble using hammers. I'm not sure when, if ever, such methods would yield results. Of course, if the idea is to generate perpetual employment for the locals in need, then that's a noble cause and i won't grudge the methods used.

At Chungthang, the rivers Lachen Chu (from the north west) and Lachung Chu (from the north east) meet to form the Teesta. The Lachen Chu is also called the Teesta.

There is a big dam under construction at Chungthang. In the insatiable quest for electricity due to the burgeoning Indian population,  many dams have been constructed all along the Teesta. This has much reduced the over-ground flow of water in the river - a far cry from the full river seen during annual school vacation visits many decades ago.

From Chungthang, we followed the Teesta (Lachen Chu) valley north west to Lachen. After crossing the river a few times, the road finally crossed over to the west bank and we started climbing up to Lachen (altitude 8,900 feet). We arrived at Lachen at 15:00, six hours after leaving Gangtok. The plan was to overnight at Lachen, for altitude acclimatization purposes.

The weather was quite cold in Lachen, hovering about 0 C, even though it's summer. We were billeted in a clean comfortable hotel, and after an early dinner, called it a day.

We got up very early the next morning, 29th April. We departed Lachen in the dark at 04:00 for the final leg north to Gurudongmar Lake. The world looked quite miserable through the vehicle headlights, in a drizzling rain, moving tentatively along the badly surfaced road. In fact, vehicles could be heard starting off right from 03:00. These were the package tour operators, herding their sardines (err..tourists) to the lake then zooming right back to Chungthang then up the Lachung valley to Yumthang, all within the same day. I like my visits to be a bit more laid back than that !

Soon it was dawn and we could see the surroundings we were passing through. There was a light snowfall and the ground and coniferous trees on the mountainsides were covered with snow. The road was climbing steadily. We reached Thangu (altitude 12,600 feet) at 06:00.  There were army establishments all along the road and photography was prohibited, so i stowed my camera in its bag and sat back and enjoyed the view.

The road followed the course of the Teesta (Lachen Chu) and due to the altitude, our vehicle (and other tourist vehicles) was chugging along slowly, and sometimes billowing thick black smoke through its exhaust. At one point, the engine stalled and we had to get out and place large stones under the rear wheels, until the vehicle got traction again. The driver was diligently following the 'permits' routine and merrily handing over bits of permit  as 'prasad' at various army checkposts along the route :)

The final checkpost was at 15,000 feet and while the driver went to shed some more permits, i got out of the vehicle to stretch my limbs. That's when i felt a bit light in the head due to the rarefied air. I walked slowly to the nearby toilet and was amazed by its floor height (maybe two feet) above the outside ground. Its only when the ice cracked ominously under my feet did i realize that there was a thick layer of treacherous ice over the hole in the ground toilet, so i zipped up and hurried out !

Now that the photography ban was over, i got out the camera again and started shooting. We had cut across the eastern Himalayas and were nearly on the Tibetan plateau. There was no vegetation to be seen and the light brown land was dusted white due to the recent snowfall. The land was opening up and the valley was wide and flat, unlike the steep narrow valleys further below in Sikkim and North Bengal.

Soon we were on the plateau and the road turned east for the final 12 KM to Gurudongmar Lake.

Along the north was a range of low hills dotted with posts manned by the army, beyond which lay the international border and Tibet. Along the south were the Himalayas, dominated by Kangchengyao (altitude 22,595 feet). In front, looking east, was a wide open plain, albeit one at an altitude of 16,000 feet (and higher). The Teesta ran between the road and the hills to the north, a shallow stream, compared to the mighty river it becomes downstream.

A surreal slight in this monochromatic landscape was a brightly coloured windsock.

It denoted a temporary helipad. Helicopters to such high altitude helipads, and much higher mountain posts, are flown by Army Aviation pilots, the gurus of extreme high altitude mountain flying.

The 'road' was just a track over which vehicles plied, but soon it changed into a smooth bitumen strip, but within a minute, there was an exit to the right, which led up a shallow climb to Gurudongmar Lake. We arrived at 08:00, four hours after leaving Lachen.

There were lots of tourist vehicles parked in the car park and an intermittent stream of vehicles arriving and leaving. There was a religious shrine on the left.

I got out of the vehicle, and, almost instantly, fell short of breath due to the low pressure atmosphere. I had to breath deeply and deliberately. The lake lay 10m below the car park. The sky was overcast with a light snowfall and a moderate breeze, and the lake was frozen over and one couldn't discern where the lake ended and the mountains/sky began. But it was a beautiful expansive sight.

In these kinds of places, no photo or video can even begin to match the feeling of being in the midst of nature's grandeur. Anyway, the next thing on the agenda was to go down to the lake bank, as that's what i had come for all this way. I must admit i had to will myself to go, as the lake bank looked impossibly far below, due to this novel feeling i.e. the lack of oxygen. Walking just a few steps felt as if i had completed an exhausting workout. I went down the 30 or so steps, breathing heavily all the while. All i had with me was my backpack, weighing maybe 3 kg, containing the camera gear.

There were 4 tourists on the frozen lake, and seeing that one of them had a DSLR, i felt confident enough to entrust my D750 to him and requested him to take a shot of me, for the record. Then i clicked some photos and a video. By then, i was alone on the lake bank and my uncle was yelling from the car park telling me to come up. Well, i was a man on a mission as i wanted to take a 360x180 4-shot panorama of the lake, as i'm not sure if such an image has ever been taken at this altitude (17,000 feet). By then my uncle had come down to bodily drag me up, so i took the opportunity to remove the 28-300mm lens and place it in his care, then fit the 8mm Samyang lens on to the D750 then do the 4-corner dance to shoot the requisite images. Here is the panorama after stitching the images -

Please view it in this interactive online panorama viewer.

I also saw some birds, Horned Larks,  flitting in the sparse grass near the lake bank.

Climbing up the thirty odd steps seemed like a herculean task, but it was done taking two steps at a time. Finally, we got into our vehicle and drove down (relatively) to the plateau, bidding goodbye to Gurudongmar Lake. From doors open to doors closed, we had been 20 minutes at the lake. My uncle collected some holy water from a corner of the lake that was not frozen. I'm not of a religious bent of mind, so i can't vouch for the efficacy of said water.

By the time we headed back west on the plateau, the sun had come out and the scene had totally changed. The light dusting of snow on the ground and hills had evaporated and everything was brown except the snowy Himalayan peaks and the deep blue sky.

We stopped to take some photos and video. There were yak herds grazing on the sparse yellow grass on the hill sides and these were the first yak i'd seen  in real life.

On the topic of yaks, i'd always assumed that they grazed high in the mountains in summer, then moved down in winter. When we stopped at the final army checkpost on the way to the lake, a pujari at the Gurudongmar shrine, hopped a ride with us. He was a Lachen Pa i.e. a native of the area. On my asking, he said in fact they do exactly the opposite i.e. they have community enforced rules that forbid grazing the higher areas in summer, so that the grass there can be saved for the yak to graze in winter. He spoke fluent Hindi and i'm sure i didn't misunderstand him, but maybe i did.

On the way back, we saw signs demarcating mine fields. Homo Sapiens the untameable !

Maybe this is why mankind invented the concepts of heaven, paradise and such - because even in this pristine rarefied environment, peace and co-existence is a brittle commodity.

We went back down the same route, with the advantage now the sun was up and it wasn't snowing so we could clearly see the scenery. We picked up yak herders at points along the way, waiting for a ride in the middle of nowhere (almost). Some of them rode all the way down to Lachen. On being questioned why they didn't live at lower altitudes (like Lachen at 8,900 feet), they said they couldn't bear the heat there :)

On the way, at some army base we saw a lot of army Maruti Gypsies and soldiers scurrying around.  There was a gleaming open top white Gypsy with 3 stars on a red star plate waiting alongside a long red carpet leading up to a dais. Obviously, some Lt Gen was paying a visit :)

We stopped for tea/late breakfast at a hamlet at 11,900 feet, 6 KM south of Thangu.

The human body, an extremely complex bit of machinery, has superb adaptability. By the time we reached this hamlet, we started shedding layers of clothes as it started to feel hot. Just the day before, Lachen at a much lower altitude, felt very cold ! By the time we arrived Lachen at lunch time, i was in my shirt sleeves. I didn't shed any of the lower layers for fear of being arrested for indecent exposure :)

The rest of the day was spent re-living and savouring the lake visit in our hotel in Lachen. One incident that sticks in my mind is one ruddy-cheeked little girl arriving at our room door and happily reciting her name "My name is ..." in fluent English and Hindi. Before i could get over the surprise and pose her for a photo, she had run down the steps and out the door. Such innocent behaviour is unheard of in a big city.

The next day at 06:00 we left Lachen, bound back to Kalimpong.  The scenery was green forested hills and mountains and rushing streams, interspersed with views of Himalayan peaks in the distance. We passed Singhik at 08:40 (2 hrs 40 mins from Lachen). At Singhik, we had a superb view of Kanchenjunga (altitude 28,169 feet), highest mountain in India and third highest in the world.

After that, the journey went downhill, both literally and figuratively. Bypassing Gangtok, arrived Singtam 11:10, Teesta 12:07 and Kalimpong 12:40 i.e. 6 hours 40 minutes after leaving Lachen. I always seem to feel progressively depressed whenever i leave the hills and mountains, for the plains with its unnerving summer heat and humidity, noise, dust, pollution, overcrowding, and squalor. Anyway, this time the journey ended in the hills in Kalimpong, so all's well with the world :)


For this trip, i carried my usual travel kit i.e. the Nikon D750 DSLR, Nikon 28-300mm lens and Samyang 8mm wide angle lens. I carried 2 sets of 2 x 64 GB SD cards, but used only one set.

After reading a lot about the ill effects of low temperature ( i assume it was -15 to -20 C at the lake) on batteries, i carried 3 spare batteries, in my inner pockets (to keep them warm with body heat). But, i didn't need to use any of the spare batteries. 

The camera performed flawlessly and i even changed lenses in a light snowfall and moderate breeze, without problems. I didn't use a lens hood, but the next time i will use one to prevent snowflakes sticking on to the front of the lens.


On advice by my uncle (an experienced outdoorsman), i wore 5 layers for the top half - inner, shirt, t-shirt, sweater, jacket. 3 layers for the lower half - thermals, tracksuit pant, jeans.

Folded up balaclava for the head.

2 layers of socks within Timberland Chocorua hiking boots. I had bought these shoes two years ago, thinking i'll be using them someday. They were extremely comfortable and insulating.

I had gloves but didn't use them as it was inconvenient to manipulate the camera controls. I just put my hands in my jacket pockets whenever they felt too cold holding the camera.

I'm not sure if the 5 layers was overkill, but i felt very comfortable and not at all cold, except the hands and face exposed to the cold wind.

On the other hand, our driver wore just a shirt and jacket, jeans and single layer socks and sneakers, and seemed to be just fine. But he didn't venture out of the warm vehicle at the lake, though he did stand outside on the plateau.


Altitude sickness is caused due to low atmospheric pressure at high altitudes. It is also caused by ascending rapidly to high altitudes. I had read a lot about this topic on the net and it seemed Diamox 250 mg could be used as a prophylactic to try to prevent AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness). On consulting a doctor, he recommended against using it. The problem is that most doctors in the plains are not well versed with AMS. Later, on consulting another doctor, just returned from duty in Leh, he said it's ok to take this drug as a prophylactic. It is not recommended for persons with Sulfa allergy. As a test, i took half a tablet at home. It had no ill effects, other than a slight tingling in the finger tips. It's recommended to take half a tablet (i.e. 125 mg) every 12 hours, starting at 24 hours before moving to high altitude. So i took the first dose on the evening of 27th April and stopped on the evening of 29th April when i returned to Lachen from the lake.

I usually don't feel motion sick for short trips in the hills on winding roads. But this time i felt quite nauseous when moving up from Siliguri to Kalimpong. So, in order not to screw up my lake trip,  i took Avomine to prevent motion sickness.

Diamox is a diuretic so one urinates more than usual. This is what helps prevent AMS. So one must also make it a point to drink enough water to compensate, in order not to dehydrate. So other than the urinating and slight tingling in the fingers, i suffered no ill effects. I had a slight temporary headache when coming down from the lake, but i'm not sure if it was due to the altitude or the long exciting trip. It disappeared without medication.

WARNING - every body is different. Please do NOT take medicines just by reading stuff on the net. ALWAYS consult a doctor.

On the other hand, my uncle (from Kalimpong) who is a fit 60 year old, didn't take any medications nor did our driver (who might have been well acclimatized due to regular trips to the lake), and neither of them suffered any ill effects.


The highest altitude i had ever gone to previously (other than sitting inside a pressurized airliner) was 11,200 feet while flying a glider over South Australia. 

Hence, the lake trip was quite a jump in altitude over the previous one. As previously mentioned, i felt as if i had done an exhausting workout even while walking a few steps. 

Also, the mind becomes a bit foggy due to the low oxygen, even though i felt absolutely alert at the time. But later when i reviewed my photos at home, i found, i had set the exposure compensation of some of my photos at the lake to  an insane +1.7, though it never struck me as wrong while taking the shots. Also, there's some shots taken at a focal length of 36 mm instead of the zoom lens at its widest i.e. 28 mm, but i never noticed it at the time.


I kept my phone in my shirt pocket and switched on its GPS and gps logger app. This helped me log all the route legs, even where there was no network coverage. Later on, seeing the log traces in Google Earth, helped me correlate the images, places and altitudes, based on time.

Here's a screenshot from Google Earth of my GPS position and altitude trace from Lachen to Gurudongmar Lake and back.

The altitude of Gurudongmar Lake is erroneously mentioned as 17,800 feet in Wikipedia and also the Sikkim Tourism department website.  The pressure altimeter in my watch showed the altitude as 16,600 feet and by cross checking along the way, i knew it was under reading by a few hundred feet.
The gps logger showed a maximum altitude of 16,900 feet and Google Earth also shows the lake altitude to be about 16,900 feet. Hence, i have rounded the lake altitude to 17,000 feet, i.e 100 feet above the recorded data and way below the 'official' altitude.


Route distances and times

Leg Distance (KM) Time
Going up to Gurudongmar
Kalimpong - Gangtok 74 2' 40"
Gangtok - Naga Namgor 66 3' 38"
Gangtok -Chungthang 82 4' 20"
Gangtok -Lachen 107 6' 00"
Lachen - Thangu 35 2' 00"
Lachen - Gurudongmar 66 4' 00"
Return journey
Lachen - Singhik 51 2' 40"
Lachen - Mangan 56 2' 56"
Lachen - Singtam 104 5' 10"
Lachen - Teesta, base of Kalimpong hill 135 6' 07"
Lachen - Kalimpong 150 6' 40"
Kalimpong - Bagdogra Airport (incl. 1 hr traffic jam due to landslide) 78 3' 43"


  • Koko Singh - Driving Holidays in the Himalayas - Sikkim.
  • Sujoy Das, Arundhati Ray - Sikkim, A Traveller's Guide.
  • Harish Kapadia - Across Peaks & Passes in Darjeeling & Sikkim.
  • There's also innumerable informative blog posts and articles on the net.

Related Links

  • Youtube video of the trip


  1. A very enjoyable account of a visit to an area which is now accessible by jeep - wintry conditions continue to prevail even at the end of April ! Its a pity that the restricted area permit does not include Lake Cholamu.

    1. Thanks Sujoy.
      Yes i heard that one needs special permission to visit Cholamu :)

  2. very nice white balance and exposure on those pics. The colours look great.

    Have you thought about setting out the itinerary in days / places near the start? I found it a little difficult to appreciate how far you went and for how long!

    1. Thanks Dave.
      I'll add a graphic or table giving an overview of the route.

  3. WOW!!! What a the photos and the comment about the word 'road' was stretched to the limit!! Nice one Farm.....

    1. Thanks Tharshan.
      One positive aspect of parts of the road being in bad shape was that the vehicle needed to move slowly, which increased the time taken to reach the lake. This might have helped a bit in our altitude acclimatization. The driver mentioned that if the roads were good all through, he would take tourists from Bagdogra airport (near sea level) to the lake within a few hours. I'm not sure if that's a good idea :)