Every one of us who loves to travel has a bucket list of places we want to visit, likewise every motor biker has this beautiful place listed at the top on his/her bucket list. Gurudongmar Lake situated @17100 ft in North Sikkim is one of the highest lakes in the world and riding there is bliss. The entire stretch is dotted with breathtaking waterfalls, clear lakes, scenic valleys to soak your soul and the terrain is challenging enough to bring out all your hidden skills out in play. However, reaching there in your very first attempt requires luck and blessings as in North Sikkim the weather changes in no time. Road blocks due to landslides and snowfall are not unusual and you won’t be allowed In Line Permit (ILP) until our brave Indian Army clears the road which could take days even weeks. My first attempt in March 2014 was unsuccessful due to obvious reasons, but we utilized it to our advantage and went to Bhutan. The Same year in October after visiting Nathula pass in East Sikkim, again we were not allowed ILP for North Sikkim and we had to return home. Finally, in November 2015 our attempt was successful and this blog post is about the experiences that we have engrained in our journey.
Tip: Do not forget to watch the video log of the trip provided at the end.
Sudipto Chowdhury an IBM engineer who is passionate about speed hence nicknamed “speed guru” and to support his passion he rides a Honda CBR 250 which he has taken to many parts of our country. Priyanka Chowdhury wife of Sudipto a.k.a “kakima” was also in the team as his pillion.
My childhood friend Anil Singh settled in London, was in the country and after hearing about the trip, he wished to join without knowing what he was getting into. As for someone who doesn’t ride a motorbike is always tough and boring as a pillion for hours doing nothing, which I explained to my dear friend but he was stubborn and I couldn’t refuse to my best buddy. On the other hand, I took this as a challenge to carry a 75kg Rajput as pillion to one of the highest places in the world and that too on a Royal Enfield motorcycle which has a history of breaking down for infinite reasons mostly due to punctures. 🙂 🙂
Jokes apart, one thing I must say about Anil that he is an amazing writer and if he would have been in the writing profession, surely he would have had success. So I requested him to write a something about his first road trip which he obliged and out of his busy schedule, he wrote a piece later in this blog “Lachen to Gurudongmar Lake” and emailed me from London.
When we travel we meet new people and make friends and this time we bonded with a wonderful couple who came all the way from Mumbai. Girish and Aparna who were extremely helpful joined us from Lachen and became an integral part of the team till Yumthang Valley and Zero Point.
For Anil and Priyanka as our pillion the journey would be tough. So we planned that Anil and Priyanka will travel on train till Siliguri and then as pillions from there onwards just to spare them the unbearable pain of sitting all through the entire stretch of almost 600 km from Kolkata on the notorious NH34.
Kolkata to Siliguri
It is always fruitful to start early for any road trip. But when it is Siliguri and that too via NH34, it becomes mandatory as there are stretches which beats the most treacherous and dangerous Himalayan roads of our country.
Accordingly, the plan was to meet and start by 5am from the Jessore Road meeting point. I was on time but Sudipto had troubles mounting luggage on his bike and we couldn’t start till 6 am.
We did catch up with time but just after Krishnanagar we were stopped by the local police claiming to check our papers and verify any stolen vehicle. Only when we raised our voice of unnecessary harassment we were given a pass and continued on our journey. Behrampore challenged us with the first major hurdle as the road got worse and it was hard keeping 30 km/h of speed and then a rogue Tata Ace driver smashed Sudipto’s bikes RVM (rear view mirror) luckily he and the bike escaped without a scratch. With safety in mind we had to start looking for a Honda service point to replace the RVM and another two hours slipped from our hands.
Post Behrampore our luck favored as we were greeted by a butter smooth 4-lane road. We grabbed the opportunity and rode nonstop till Farakka where we ran out of luck and the bad roads combined with slow traffic took over. By the time we crossed Malda it was already dark and Siliguri was still a far cry, approximately 240 km away. We realized that we would reach Siliguri late but had the comfort that Anil’s train will arrive well before us and he will book our accommodation in the city.
We reached Siliguri past midnight and started looking for the hotel address which Anil gave us but at that hour Siliguri was devoid of any population. We were circling the streets for some time until another biker pointed us to a direction for the hotel. After couple of turns we parked our bikes beneath a hotel building with a name that was similar to the one Anil gave us. We were exhausted and the struggle felt like finding water in desert and hence a huge relief for us to finally found the hotel. I called Anil, and was told to wait till he comes down for us. Five minutes later my phone rang only to find that Anil couldn’t see us standing outside the hotel. At first it was confusing but then the security guard who was with Anil cleared our confusion that there are two hotels in Siliguri having the same name and unfortunately we went to the other one. Alas if the struggle felt like finding water in the desert, the two hotels with same name was nothing less than a mirage. It was so frustrating that it felt appropriate to park our bike there and sleep on the sidewalk but knowing the feasibility of it we somehow followed the instructions of the security guard over phone and reached our hotel after 15 minutes or so.
Siliguri is always the home away from home as we are the members of the riding community xkmph which was founded here by Santunu Banerjee – A motorbike enthusiast and an amazing photographer. For more about xkmph click here.
We took one day break at Siliguri as Priyanka was scheduled to arrive late at night via train and I also had to service my bike. So we woke up late and after breakfast met with Santunu Da and other friends based at Siliguri. Our very own Arijit (thai baba) was somewhere nearby the city and he surprised us by his impromptu visit. In a nutshell Siliguri was fun as it has always been.
Siliguri to Gangtok
The plan for day 3 was to reach Gangtok as early as possible, so that we can apply and collect our permits to visit Gurudogmar Lake the same day. We woke up early and got ready to be greeted by cloudy weather and drizzle; we put on our rain gear and started for Gangtok. In spite of the drizzle and several photo breaks we managed to reach Sikkim’s capital city on time.
Gangtok is a city which always brings joy and happiness. Vibrant and wonderful city on the hills with lovely people all around. It doesn’t matter how many times you have been to Gangtok, trust me, you will love it every time.
Without wasting much time, we left for the Home Department Government office to apply for the permit but to our surprise it was closed due to a Buddhist festival. We got yet another day to roam around in the city and spent some time at M.G. Marg, the most happening hangout zone of Gangtok. Past lunch we spent our time in the hotel as it was pouring outside and the heavens only put the tap off once it was dark. The possibility of snowfall on the mountains was apparent which could detain us from getting the permits. Panic started to creep up and we started praying “Not Again”.
We decided to give a break to our disappointment with a drink or two and we headed to a nearby wine shop to fetch a bottle of whisky. At the wine shop a gentleman called my name from behind and to my surprise, he introduced himself the father of a very close friend of mine “Sadh”. Well out of alI the places in the world, a wine shop should be the last place to meet one’s friend’s parent, I prayed and hoped that the first impression will not have a lasting impression on me. At the end, he turned out to be a cool person who was looking for a company to enjoy his last night at Gangtok before heading to home. We welcomed him to our room and had a wonderful time hearing his memoirs over a bottle of VAT 69.
Heaven’s floodgates remained opened for the whole night, and it turned out to be a misty morning next day. Keeping our fingers crossed we went to the Home Department and applied for permits. The lady in charge “Reshma mam” was extremely helpful and guided us through the entire process. She even informed us that so far her office has not received any news of roadblocks due to landslide or snowfall which brought smiles to our faces.
We got our permits by noon and our next job was to approve it from the 3rd Mile Check Post which was 10 km from the city towards Nathula Pass. Considering the time, we returned to our hotel, packed everything and checked out to continue our journey towards Lachen but we found the 3rd-mile check post was closed for the day and we had to return and check into the same hotel at Gangtok.
The above incident tightened our schedule. We ended up spending too many nights in Gangtok and lost the luxury of spending an extra night on the mountains up north.
Gangtok to Lachen
Our hotel manager tipped us with very important information that the permits can be approved between 7 and 9 AM in a nearby tourist office based at M.G.Marg. This information saved us almost an hour and the trouble of riding towards opposite end of Gangtok to get the permit approved.
Once our permits got approved we left Gangtok by 8 AM and headed towards Lachen. The morning was misty; with clouds hovering in the valley. The first half of our journey was smooth, we even took couple of breaks for pictures, and however just before reaching Mangan it started raining. The roads became skidder covered with mud and every now and then I had to glide down the road using my legs as ski, several places the pillion has to get down and walk few meters in order to maneuver the bikes through those muddy stretches.
Somehow we reached Mangan and had our lunch break at a road side kiosk. Any hope of rain fading away was gone. The kiosk owner panicked us even more as he mentioned the diminishing chances of visiting the Gurudongmar Lake in such weather. After lunch we decided to continue our journey further and hoped to reach Lachen by dark. But the rain slowed us down, the terrain got worse with traffic blocks carrying out road works. Soon it was dark and Lachen still 30km away with the rain a continuous companion, we were sodden and shivering in cold.
Around 9 we reached Lachen and checked in to a hotel. We parked our bikes beside an Enfield with a registration plate of Maharashtra. We were cold, drenched in rainwater and there was no way we could continue our journey next morning wearing the wet clothes and shoes.
As we were unpacking our stuff a guy knocked on the door and introduced himself as Girish, owner of the Enfield mentioned above, he was traveling all the way from Mumbai with Aparna. He offered a pack of bin bags to use as insulation for the feet and preventing our socks getting wet next morning while traveling towards Gurudogmar Lake. He even tipped us to hire a heater by paying 100 bucks so that we can dry our gear overnight.
Girish and Aparna were of great help that night and they became our travel buddy for the rest of the trip till our final destinations do us part. I thank them from the bottom of my heart and wish to meet them again somewhere on the road in future.
We were hours away from the journey that we have been longing for a long time. Lots of stories we have heard about this stretch from “Lachen to Gurudongmar” and finally it was our time to experience the moment of truth. The hardest part of the ride is not the road conditions, what challenges you is the altitude. Lachen is at 8800 ft above sea level while Gurudongmar Lake is at 17100 ft, and this steep climb in altitude is covered only in 65 km. Not enough to acclimatize yourself with low oxygen in high altitude and could be fatal. Though Ladakh offers you the same altitude it gives you enough time to acclimatize to the conditions., hence this ride is different.
Lachen to Gurudongmar Lake
I woke up around 4:30 AM and the audioception sense superseded all other senses as it was the sound of pouring water, since the night was very cold all the windows and doors were tightly closed, I guessed it must be the rain that never stopped from yesterday afternoon. The sound felt like shedding water on our dream. I pulled myself out of the double blanket and headed towards the terrace to check the fall, to my surprise I found jet black canvas sprinkled with stars and the moon which was full and painting silver hue on that canvas. I realized the only sound in that eerie silent of the pouring water could be that of river Lachen gushing and cascading down the valley making that burbling sound. The sight and sound really lift my mood and with spring in my stride, I went inside to wake my other roommate and to get ready for the journey to Gurudogmar Lake.
An hour later once ready I went out in terrace again to witness the sunrise. The jet black drape started disappearing showing the silhouette of mountain peaks and layers stacked on top of each other, the stars were going out now one by one, the fallen night was getting defeated by rising dawn, the outlines of those mountain peaks and houses started becoming clearer, the first light of orange-hued dawn kissed the snow clad mountain peak, making it shine like a golden crown, the golden and orange hues suddenly became radiant silver and the sun fully revealed itself shining brilliantly.
We finished our breakfast in the hotel, put on our riding gears, added four layers of thermal clothing to counter the freezing temperature, and grabbed the required permits, feeling nothing less than knights on a mission to conquer our dream. We will have to ride 58 km and climb 8000 ft. a journey which will last for three to four hours each way. With the leg hand coordination, we kick start our motorbikes and left it on for a while just to provide some warmth to the battery after the chill it experienced yesterday night. Few army trucks also passed through heading towards the altitudes a common site we experienced throughout the journey in North Sikkim. Our journey started from Lachen which is a very tiny hamlet, and in the next few minutes the small houses started disappearing we were cutting through the treacherous mountain pass (wouldn’t call it a road, and it wasn’t in any form of imagination) which was made up of small rocks and mud, continuously bumping the tyres, part of that pass were literally mud puddles thanks to the rain yesterday evening, making it skiddier every now and then, we have to use our legs as skis to glide through those muddy paths. The path was a steep climb following the course from where river Lachen was cascading down the cleavage and curves of the valley, hence we had the river for a company for the most part of this journey and so was her rumbling sound. At this point, the view of the valley was narrow with steep sides, covered in the rug of lush green trees, with the bare snow-clad mountain tops in distant. We hardly found any habitation in our path only couple of army settlements with fuel disposal pumps which were thoroughly fenced with huge notice of restricted area.
After a couple of hours of continuous climbs on the motorbike, we reached Thang which was 30 km from Lachen at an altitude of 13000 ft. Like a construction workman whose entire body throbs and vibrates while using an electronic jackhammer, our body has become numb to the continuous bumpy vibration which travelled throughout the body while riding on that bumpy path, constructing our way towards the altitude of India’s second highest lake. It was post 9 AM beautiful under the glare of the sun but unnaturally cold, the weather has complete disregard for the sun and was over ruled by the surrounding mountains, the temperature still in subzero. River Lachen, which was seen deep down in the valley from Lachen is now literally running parallel to the path, the valley was widening too and the lush green vegetation was thinning, totally barren mountains covered in snow are visible in full now. If Lachen was a tiny hamlet, Thangu is a Nano one, comprised of few houses draped in prayer flags on almost every pillar and nook and corner of this hamlet. The place is also known for trekking routes in Chopta valley. We bumped into few fellow bikers retreating from Gurudogmar Lake and had an idea of better road conditions ahead. As we rode further, we found the road side was decorated like a birthday cake, frosting everywhere and the mountains have turned into charcoal colour, completely bare, adorned with ice, sparkling like diamonds in coal mines. Amid such a lovely landscape we also saw few army tanks and army personnel, a reminder that the place is very close to the Chinese border. We reached the final check post at Giagong, situated at an altitude of 15000 ft. showed our papers and also treated ourselves with portable warm water, coffee and momos at the café maintained and run by Indian Army. At this point, we were again reminded of lack of oxygen at this altitude and beyond and about altitude sickness.
The last stretch
We head on to cover the last few kilometers which were dusty to start with but soon bitumen used road took over like a welcome mat. By now we have reached on top of the plateau the valley has widened and the landscape has changed completely, a mountainous arid landscape which has every vivid colour, changing like a kaleidoscope, because the mountains were totally barren they looked more like a soul ready to fit in any skin and the sun and clouds were painting them in different shades, and then there were other mountain tops heavily laden with ice. The last few kilometers were a smooth ride and we stumble on the small sign posted to turn right off road for Gurudogmar Lake. The main road was leading to Tso Lhamu- highest lake in India which is another 5 kilometers from the milestone but a restricted area by Indian army. The motorbike was struggling to climb the last few meters; lack of oxygen was having an effect on its engine, the pillion had to come off and push it a couple of times and there it was our dream and burning desire- yesterday’s fantasy was today’s reality.
The landscape was utterly alien, a world of uneven ground of treeless mountains but still very pristine and serene, a landscape which makes one say silently ‘this is heaven’. Under the blue and sunlit sky, the view was wondrous to behold, the clouds were like white marble on blue satin sky taking off from the radiant glaciers on the grey mountain top, rays of lights danced exquisitely across the blue serpentine lake, birthed from the afternoon sun which was right on top of our head. The only sound was that of whooshing wind sweeping across the valley with a couple of ecstatic bikers, who were making sounds of triumph of having conquered their dreams. We did feel some dizziness because of lack of oxygen and kept on sucking that cold air which felt like tonic. Our eyes quickly soaked all the beauty around and brain stored most of it in a very secret safe while we decided to capture few more on our camera and then we retreated back to where we came from reciting the same views yet again and reminding me the quote from John Huskin ‘Mountains are the beginning and the end of all natural scenery’.
Lachung to Yumthang Valley, Zero-Point
The journey from Lachen to Lachung was uneventful till Chungthang, where Sudipto noticed that his CBR’s fuel indicator was hovering near the empty mark and there is not a single petrol pump on the entire stretch till Lachung. The only fuel station is in Mangan which falls on the route towards Gangtok or Siliguri. We asked the locals for assistance but they too directed us towards Mangan. Turns out our only way to refill was to ride 30 km till Mangan and back for Lachung.
It wasn’t smart for all of us to ride till Mangan, so, we botched up a plan. Anil borrowed a jerry can from Girish and went to Mangan with Sudipto. I took Priyanka as my pillion and rode towards Lachung with Girish and Aparna.
I knew that Sudipto loves this kind of circumstances where there is a need for speed and with no Priyanka at his back, was like extra Cheese on a Pizza. I don’t know how he did but he came back to Lachung in 45 minutes after we have checked in the hotel with signs of satisfaction all over his face.
Next day was our last day at Sikkim as Anil and Priyanka’s train was scheduled to depart from Siliguri the day after and it was mandatory for us to reach Siliguri by that night after Yumthang Valley and Zero-Point. Girish and Aparna had plans for Mangan which is a short journey and they had the luxury of time but for us, it was a long ride till Siliguri. Keeping that in mind we started early for Yumthang and Zero-Point. A smooth ride with green valleys and snow-capped mountains all around was enchanting. The only hard part was a stretch where we had to ride over boulders of a dried river.
In North Sikkim after Gurudongmar Lake, I liked Zero-Point the most as it gives you the feeling that you have reached the start/end of the world hence the name Zero-Point. It’s like, you are riding on a road and reached to point where the road ends and you see a huge mountain in front of you just like a full stop at the end of a book and beyond that there is nothing.
On our way back from Lachung, Girish and Aparna rode with us till Magan where we bid them bye and continued for Siliguri.
After a short tea break in Rangpo we entered West Bengal from where Siliguri was not far. Suddenly my bike started to wobble and in a moment it started to jiggle, even more, I realized I had a flat tyre. I honked like a maniac to inform but Sudipto was way ahead to hear it. It was dark and the stretch was devoid of any population. I got up from my seat and sat on the fuel tank so that I can glide a little longer till a point where I can find help but with a pillion like Anil, it didn’t roll long. In a moment I felt the rim kissing the road and I had to stop in the middle of nowhere.
At that moment the priority was for Anil to reach Siliguri. He had a train to catch 5 am in the morning and the only way he could reach was by getting a lift from any passing by vehicles. We waited there for some time but no one was stopping until a truck which stopped for help. He told us that after 5 km there is a place ‘Milli’ where I can fix my puncture and till there he has no problem carrying Anil. Anil went up on the truck and I glided the bike towards Milli. Upon reaching I stopped at the puncture shop and felt relieved, the repair guy was having his dinner so I started to wait. The truck that was carrying Anil also came in unloaded Anil and left. After dinner, the repair guy came and gave a good look at my bike and said that he couldn’t fix it as he has never opened a rear tyre with a disc in it and I have no other option than to spend the night there till his brother comes next morning who can fix. In the meantime, Sudipto called, I informed him about the situation and advised him to move forward to Siliguri for the safety of Priyanka.
Spending the night there was not a problem for me, the problem was to arrange transport for Anil so that he could reach Siliguri. There was a canteen beside the puncture shop, the owner called few of his contacts but no one was available that night. Being Sunday there were fewer vehicles for Siliguri. After an hour or so an Innova with a Sikkim registration plate came and stopped for dinner. Seeing us in trouble he agreed to take Anil to Siliguri and charged only Rs 100/- which after we insisted. Later Anil told me that he reached Siliguri comfortably by 11 and tipped him Rs 100/- extra for his service which he refused and took only the amount which was agreed and left.
In Mili I spend the night in a shack, one side open, overlooking a river flowing below with some wonderful people from Bihar. Seeing me one of them sacrificed his bed, gave me his blanket and adjusted with his friend.
All together an awesome experience which will always glow in my memory.