North Sikkim: To the Heaven and Back
Every one of us who loves to travel has a bucket list of places we want to visit and just like that every motorcycle traveler has this beautiful place listed at the top on his/her bucket list. Gurudongmar Lake @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, 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 InLine 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. 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.
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, UK 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 it is always tough and boring to sit 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 an 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 make friends and just like that 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 for them compared to us. So we planned that Anil and Priyanka will travel till Siliguri on the train and will join us from there 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 5 am from the Jessore Road meeting point. I managed to reach on time but Sudipto was late as he had trouble mounting luggage on his bike and we couldn’t start before 6 am.
Even starting late, we were going fine but right after Krishnanagar, we were stopped by the local police claiming to check our papers to verify any stolen vehicle. Upon arguing we were given a pass and we continued our journey. The first major hurdle we faced when we reached Behrampore, the road got worse it was hard keeping 30 km/h of speed and on top of that due to a rogue Tata Ace driver Sudipto’s RVM (rear view mirror) got broken luckily nothing happened to him and since it is absolutely not safe to ride with a broken RVM we had to start looking for a Honda service point which further delayed us almost by two hours.
After Behrampore our luck favored as we were greeted by a butter smooth 4-lane road. We utilized the opportunity and rode non stop till Farakka from where bad roads and slow traffic took over and by the time we crossed Malda it was already dark. Siliguri was still a far cry for us approximately 240 km. We realized that we would reach Siliguri late but that didn’t worry us as we knew that Anil’s train will arrive well before us and he will book our accommodation in the city.
We reached Siliguri after 12 am 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 a motorcyclist pointed us in a direction of the hotel. After a couple of turns, we parked our bikes beneath a hotel building with a name that matches with the one Anil gave us. We were tired and it was a huge relief for us to finally found the hotel. I took out my mobile phone and called Anil, he asked us to wait till he comes down for us. After 5 minutes or so my phone rang and it was Anil on the other end asking us about our location as he 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. 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 the phone and reached our hotel after 15 minutes or so.
Siliguri has always been our second home as it is the capital of xkmph.com. The riding community of which we are members, founded by Santunu Banerjee who is not only a great rider but also an amazing photographer. For more about xkmph click here.
Next day was our off day at Siliguri as Priyanka’s train was scheduled to arrive at night and I also had to service my bike. So we woke up late and after breakfast met with Santunu Da and other friends of Siliguri. Our very own Arijit (thai baba) was somewhere nearby the city 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 start early and reach Gangtok as early as possible so that we can apply for our permits and receive it the same day. Accordingly, we woke up early and got ready but Siliguri was cloudy and it was drizzling, we covered ourselves with our rain gear and started for Gangtok. In spite of the drizzling and several photo breaks, we managed to reach the capital 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 permits towards Home Department Government office building and to our surprise, it was closed due to a Buddhist festival. So we had the whole day ahead of us to enjoy. We roamed all over the city and spent some time at M.G. Marg which happens to be the most happening hangout zone of Gangtok and after lunch, we returned to our hotel when it started raining. The downpour was heavy and did not stop before dark. The possibility of snowfall on the upper hills was apparent which could detain us from getting the permits. Panic started to creep up and we started praying “Not Again”.
Keeping aside the possibility of not getting hold of our permits which was not in our hands anymore we decided to have a good time over a bottle of whiskey. A wine shop was just there beneath our hotel where we went to pick up a bottle. As we were choosing which one to buy someone called my name from behind and to my surprise he was the Dad of a very close friend of mine “Sadh” who was at the shop for the same. We were embarrassed and puzzled looking at each other being clueless. But Sadh’s dad is way cooler than Sadh himself. He understood our state of mind and told us that he was looking for a company to enjoy his last night at Gangtok before heading home. We welcomed him to our room and had a wonderful time hearing his travel stories which he shared with us over a bottle of VAT 69.
Last night it almost rained whole night which we felt form our beds by the sound of it. However, in the morning when we woke up it wasn’t raining but it wasn’t sunny either there were clouds all over and the weather app on our phones was showing rain. 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. The plan was to continue the journey forward as much as we can. If not Lachen, at least Mangan but when we reached 3rd mile check post it was closed and we had no other option than to return and checked in to the same hotel at Gangtok.
The above incident made our schedule tight. Instead of one we spent two nights in Gangtok, as a result we lost the luxury of spending an extra night if we fancy on the hills above.
Gangtok to Lachen
Our hotel manager tipped us with a very important information that we do not have to go to 3rd Mile check post next morning to approve our permits. He told us about a tourist office right beside M.G. Marg, walking distance from our hotel which remains operational from 7 to 9am and after which the 3rd mile check post opens. This information saved us almost an hour and the trouble of riding towards east and then come back again to Gangtok for our journey towards North for Lachen.
In the morning by 8 after approving our permits we left Gangtok towards Lachen. It wasn’t raining but the weather was foggy, clouds were hovering above us indicating of downpour anytime. The first half of our journey was fine, the road was as expected, nothing too bad, and we even took couple of breaks for pictures, but just before reaching Mangan it started raining and the road became horrible due to mud. My bike was skidding every now and then and it was hard getting the grip specially while gliding down, due to which in several stretches I had to ask my pillion to get down and walk few meters.
Somehow we managed to reach Mangan and stopped for lunch at a road side kiosk. We hoped that the rain will stop by the time we finish our lunch but that didn’t happen. The kiosk owner panicked us even more by saying that if it rains like this then chances of visiting the Gurudongmar Lake is very thin. 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 every now and then. Soon it became dark and Lachen was still 30km away. The rain was continuously hammering over us, we were totally drenched and shivering due to cold.
Around 9 we reached Lachen and checked in a hotel. We parked our bikes beside an Enfield with a registration plate of Maharashtra. Our condition was pathetic, inside out we were drenched including the boots and no way we could continue our journey towards Gurudongmar Lake wearing those next morning.
As we were unpacking our stuff there was knock on the door a guy stepped in and introduced himself as Girish owner of the Enfield parked beside ours, came all the way from Mumbai with Aparna. Seeing our condition, he rushed in his room and bought a pack of bin bags. Which will prevent our socks from getting wet upon layering it inside our shoes keeping our feet warm, he even tipped us to hire a heater by paying 100 bucks so that we can dry our gear as much as possible.
Girish and Aparna was of great help that night and after that we were together for the rest of the trip till they depart for West Sikkim and us for home. 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 ride into it. If you ask me the hard part of the ride is not the off-road, what challenges you is the altitude. Lachen is at 8800 ft above ASL and Gurudongmar Lake is at 17100 ft, only 65 km from Lachen which includes 15 km of butter smooth road after the final check post. This depicts that you are gaining 8000 ft in only 58 km which is not enough to acclimatize yourself with low oxygen in high altitude and could be fatal. Something which is not the case if you compare it with Ladakh.
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 a moon which was full and painting silver hue on that canvas. I realized the only sound in that eerie silence 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 at 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 those passes 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 company for 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 rug of lush green trees, with the bare snow clad mountain tops in distant. We hardly found any habitation in our path the 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 a motorbike, we reached Thangu 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 traveled throughout the body while riding on that bumpy path, constructing our way towards the altitude of India’s second highest lake. It was past 9 AM beautiful under the glare of the sun but unnaturally cold, the weather has complete disregard for the sun and was overruled 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 player 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 roadside 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 about 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 the 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 the uneven ground of treeless mountains but still very pristine and serene, a landscape which makes one say silently ‘this is heaven’. Under 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 mountaintop, 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 the 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 a 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 to 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 into 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 sometime 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 tire 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 a vehicle 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 less vehicles for Siliguri. After an hour or so an Innova with a Sikkim registration plate came and stooped 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 opens overlooking a river flowing below with some wonderful people from Bihar. Seeing me one of them sacrificed his bed, gave me his blanket and adjust with his friend.
All together an awesome experience which will always glow in my memory. Don’t forget to watch the trip video below: