As the car climbed up through the winding mountain side, the charming scenery all around suddenly gave way to monochrome. The sudden transition caught us off-guard leaving us tad surprised even though it had been raining off and on for a while now. The day had started bright and sunny but now the sky was overcast. The tall mountains on either side of the tarred road were cloaked in patches of white and grey.
We had arrived at Gangtok the day before with plans of visiting North Sikkim. However, leaving Gangtok without visiting the touristy Tsomgo Lake and Nathula Pass would be sinful – so what if these places are located in East Sikkim! Hence, off we headed towards Tsomgo Lake. Nathula Pass hadn’t opened for the season even though it was the month of April. Last winter was harsher than usual resulting in the Pass being still closed due to snow.
Situated at an altitude of 12,313 ft, the oval shaped Tsomgo is a glacial high-altitude alpine lake. Spread over 1 Km. with a depth of around 48 ft., it is also known as Changu Lake. The lake is considered sacred and located about 35 Km. away from Gangtok. The colour of the lake changes in different seasons and it is said that the spirituals gurus of Sikkim would predict the future of the state by studying the colour of the water. Due to its proximity to China, Protected Area Permit (PAP) is required to visit this place.
The lake looked stunning even though it was teeming with tourists. It was partially frozen making it even more enigmatic and magical. A large part of the surroundings was also wrapped in snow. The spectacular beauty of the lake enticed us but the swarm of people all around was quite a turn off. Tsomgo Lake being a popular tourist destination in Sikkim, the crowd wasn’t surprising and we had expected this. A small bridge connects one side of the lake to the other. We walked over to the other side. One can also avail yak rides to go to the other side.
After a short walk by the side of the lake, the touristy selfie-clicking chattering people got the better of us and we decided to leave. Instead we found a quiet place higher up in the mountain by the side of the road that provided a perfect view of the lake. And there we feasted in the magical scenic landscape of the ethereal lake nestled in between tall gigantic mountains. Everything remained black and white though.
Unfathomable Faith of Baba Mandir
Before spending time at Tsomgo Lake, we had gone to Baba Mandir – a unique temple that houses the shrine of Baba Harbhajan Singh. A very fascinating story is associated with this temple.
Harbhajan Singh was a soldier with the Indian Army. He belonged to the Punjab Regiment. In 1968, he was involved with flood and landslide relief work in Sikkim and North Bengal. During that time, the 27-year old soldier had slipped and fallen into a rivulet while escorting a mule column from Tuku La, his battalion headquarters, to Donguchui La. He went missing and all search efforts went in vain. After 5 days, Harbhajan Singh appeared in the dream of a fellow soldier informing about his death by drowning and that his body was carried 2 Km. away from the site of accident by strong current. Apparently, he also expressed his desire of having a samadhi (tomb) built in his name. His body was discovered exactly at the mentioned place.
Thereafter he came to be known as Baba Harbhajan Singh and his regiment built a samadhi at the place where he was posted during his service. The samadhi is the original temple, located about 10 Km. away from the new temple. This we learnt much later while at Dzongu Valley. The place we visited happens to be the new temple built for the convenience of tourists. I wish I knew about the original samadhi well in time to be able to visit it.
Army folklore has it that Baba Harbhajan Singh still guards the international boundary between India and China. Apparently both Indian and Chinese armymen have seen a human figure riding a horse along the border at night. It is also believed that Baba appears in dreams of fellow armymen warning about any untoward activities happening at the border. Chinese soldiers also set aside a chair for the Baba whenever a flag meeting is held between the two countries.
The Army payroll still has his name and he receives his salary, due promotions, and is also granted leave as per policy. All this intrigued me and I googled later to learn that the Baba goes home on September 13th every year when a berth is booked for him in Dibrugarh Express. Army officials take his portrait, uniform, and other belongings to his village Kuka, in Kapurthala district of Punjab. The same soldiers carry the belongings back to the Sikkim, once the leaves get over.
The new Baba Mandir has three rooms in a straight row. The room at the center has an idol of the soldier along with Guru Nanak Dev Ji, the founder of Sikhism. The room on the right has a chair and a table that represents the Baba’s office. It also has a heater to keep him warm. The room on the left, is filled with water bottles. It is believed that water kept in the shrine is blessed by the Baba and if consumed after 21 days cures all possible ailments. Hoards of tourists and devotees visit the temple and offer things like toothbrushes, slippers, etc. One can also send letters to the Baba, which are opened by other soldiers.
Pic 9: The office
Pic 10: The room with bottles of water.
The original samadhi has a room that has everything that may be required by the Baba, such as, neatly ironed uniforms, slippers, shoes, camp bed, etc. Indian Army soldiers polish the Baba’s boots, keep his uniform clean, and make his bed. The soldiers have apparently reported crumpled bed linen and muddy boots.
All of these would appear delusionary to a pragmatic mind. The Indian Army, however, believes in the spirit of Baba Harbhajan Singh. Everything in the universe cannot be fathomed by our limited understanding, hence let faith triumph over logic for this bizarre place of worship.
My sister couldn’t contain her joy and even did a little dance in the back seat of the car where she was seated alone. I was occupying the front seat with our driver, Lalu. Her fervent and silent prayers had been answered. Lalu had just received a phone call that the road to Gurodongmer Lake had opened up.
Gurodongmer Lake was one of the main reasons I had planned our Sikkim trip. Situated at an altitude of 17,800 ft, Gurodongmer is one of the highest freshwater lakes in the world. It is considered sacred and is located in North Sikkim, just 5 Km. south of China border. Having experienced the divinity of another such high altitude holy lake, Chandrataal in Spiti Valley, I was keen on experiencing the same at Gurudongmar.
However, just a week before leaving for Sikkim I got to know that the road to Gurudongmar was closed. Usually it opens around March end but the heavy snowfall that happened this winter was responsible for this. I was upset but kept thinking that it may just open by the time we go. While I made peace and decided to be open to possibilities, my sister (my travel companion yet again) sent out silent prayers to the mountains to make it happen for us. And serendipity happened! The day we had Gurudongmar on our itinerary, the roads miraculously opened up.
Legend About Gurudongmar
Gurudongmar Lake is named after Guru Padmasambhava or Guru Rinpoche, the founder of Tibetan Buddhism. Dongmar means ‘red face’, and the lake supposedly represents the angry side of Guru Padmasambhava. Apparently, Guru Padmasambhava visited this lake on his way from Tibet and had felt a divine reverence towards the place. The lake used to remain frozen for most part of the year and could not provide drinking water to the local people. They prayed to the Guru, who placed his hand on a part of the lake and ever since that part never freezes even in sub-zero temperatures. Gurudongmar Lake has been revered and respected since then. The Sikhs believe that Guru Nanak, the spiritual leader of Sikhism, had once passed by this lake when he had traveled to this part of India and had blessed it.
Nature conspired and things worked out according to our wish. We felt blessed. Not only did the road to the lake open up, we woke up to mountain peaks glowing in the morning sun – indications of a bright and sunny day. And, it was just that! The sky remained a clear blue throughout the day, something which never happened any other day during our stay at Sikkim.
The lake is about 67 Km. from Lachen and the entire route is exquisitely gorgeous. We started from Lachen at about 5.00 AM. As the narrow bumpy road snaked up, the snow draped mountains started making their grandiose appearance and with every turn the mountains got bigger and prettier. I was busy gorging on the surreal surroundings when, Lalu called out that the temperature was 4 degrees. “No wonder I’m feeling so cold,” I said aloud to myself! At some places either side of the road wore a purple hue with a liberal dose of Primulas scattered all around.
Soon we were at Thangu, the last civilian inhabited village before the lake. Here we ran into a traffic jam as a vehicle had gotten stuck in the muddy road. We stepped out of the car. The sun shone sharp but the cold was sharper! We couldn’t stay out for long and had to get into the vehicle. After about an hour here, we continued our journey and arrived at the Giagong check post at 15000 Ft., 11 Km. before Gurudongmar Lake. The Army checked our permits and we continued to the final stretch where the dusty bumpy road gave way to sleek tarred road. On some stretches, there were heaps of snow on either side of the road, clearly indicating that the road had just been cleared.
Just before the lake, the landscape changed dramatically to a barren desert land with patches of snow. Pretty soon we were close to our destination. The deep blue sky playfully provoked us and we decided to get off the car and walk the rest of the way. The thin air was apparent and every step seemed like a huge effort. We climbed a little hillock and there it was, silent and quiet right before our eyes.
I expected still blue waters, instead all I could see was a huge expanse of white – the lake was completely frozen. The frozen lake was nevertheless enchanting exuding a charm of its own. The part of the lake that does not freeze did have the azure blue water though. We walked around for a while. The temperature was -2 degree centigrade. The sun was blindingly bright, the skies were clear, and the wind was cold. The peace emanating within us is something that no words can explain. Numerous colourful prayer flags fluttered, as if sending messages of peace and calm to all the visitors. We sat down for a while exchanging no words taking in the glorious surroundings – the frozen lake with the rugged snow-covered mountains at it’s far end.
I found myself silently wondering if I wanted to come here again to feel the stillness of the unfrozen blue waters or if I wanted to keep this frozen view in my mind forever.
High altitude alpine lakes hidden well within the majestic mountains
I stood there staring at the Sindh River gushing away right next to our tents. Even a week before I didn’t know that I would be here. Life is uncertain and sometimes in a nice way, I thought to myself. We were at Shitkadi basecamp from where we would trek a good 75-80 Km. up to an altitude of 13,800 ft. in search of six beautiful alpine lakes hidden in the nooks and corners of the tall, jagged, and near barren Kashmir Himalayas.
The Kashmir Great Lakes (KGL) trek happened to be one of those spontaneous and impulsive decisions that I sometimes undertake without much thought. This was nowhere in the radar, especially after having just done Rupin Pass in May. My rash and impulsive self, sprouting from acute impatience, sometimes turns out to be quite a boon. The thought of KGL occurred and in just five days, I found myself in an airplane towards Srinagar. The thought was, of course, fueled by certain other situations happening in my life.
These are things that make me believe that it’s the mountains who decide when, where, and how one sets foot on them.
KGL, labelled as moderate to difficult, is said to be the prettiest trek in India. And, it indeed was! Words are not enough to describe the pristine beauty of this Himalayan fairyland with stretches of meadows dotted with colourful flowers, tall mountains of various shades, blue/green lakes nestled quietly here and there, wild horses lazing around, grazing sheep making the most of all the greens, twinkling streams that appear, disappear, and reappear, and so much more.
In this post, I will write about the lakes. The meadows and the rest will follow in another post.
[Note: I have shared pictures in another post, will share some more and this time with descriptions.]
Peace and Tranquillity at Vishansar Lake
It was Day-3 of the trek, when we encountered Vishansar Lake and it was the first lake of the trek. We had camped at the base of a hill, on the other side of which lay this lake. Vishansar, with its scintillating radiance glimmering in the soft afternoon sun stole my heart at the very first glance and remained my most favourite lake of the trek. It was late afternoon and at that hour the lake appeared a greenish blue with the Kishansar Peak standing tall across the quiet waters.
Situated at an elevation of 3710 m. Vishansar, also known as Vishusar, literally translates as the lake of Lord Vishnu. Fed by Kishansar Lake and many glaciers, it is the main source of Neelam River, which is a tributary of Jhelum River. The lake freezes during winter and is home to many fishes, including the Himalayan Brown Trout. At this time of the year, the month of September, it was surrounded by lush green meadows that provided the perfect pastures to flock of sheep and goat that pass by.
We spent the entire afternoon and evening walking by the side of the lake soaking in the stillness of the quiet valley. The only sound that pervaded this silence once in a while was the bleating of sheep and the whistling of shepherds. The tranquility and calmness appealed to my senses in a way that I can still feel the same when I imagine Vishansar.
As evening crawled in, it started drizzling forcing us to leave the lake side and walk back to our camp.
The Sweet Waters of Kishansar Lake
It was Day -4 and we woke up to a bright day. The sun shone softly, interrupted by occasional clouds and the gloom from the previous evening had disappeared. This was a day of steep ascents and descents. The first stretch of climb led us away from Vishansar, which was a deep blue at this time with the early morning sunshine. Viewing the clear reflections of the Kishansar Peak, from the mountain top made for the start of a very beautiful day.
Soon, we came upon Kishansar which was smaller in size as compared to Vishansar. Most people in our group were satisfied with the far away view we had from the trail. Wanting a closer view, I walked off the trail towards the lake when I spotted a fellow trekmate headed in the same direction. Now there was no stopping and the two of us went up to the shore of the lake.
The sparkling clear waters shining in the morning sun was divine. We felt compelled to cup our hands and drink the water. It was the sweetest water I ever tasted and I couldn’t stop at one. Every sip seemed sweeter than the one before. This is attributed to the oligotrophic nature of these lakes.
[Oligotrophic lakes have low nutrient content resulting in low algal production, and consequently, have very clear waters with high oxygen content that is of high drinkable quality.]
Kishansar literally translates as the lake of Lord Krishna and its divinity is for one to feel. Situated at a height of 3710 m above sea level, Krishnasar is fed by melting glaciers. It outflows to Vishansar Lake and Neelum River. This lake also freezes during winter.
A very steep ascent followed Kishansar that took us up to Gadsar Pass. It was a tough climb but the fascinating view of the twin lakes from the top of the pass was more than worth the trouble. I will let the picture do all the talking here.
The Uneasy Quiet at Gadsar Lake
The wind was blowing hard at Gadsar Pass. After spending a couple of minutes soaking in the spectacular sight that seemed more like a dream than reality, we moved on. Passing through a steep and tricky descent through dry scree, we walked through endless meadows and reached Gadsar Lake.
At an elevation of 3810 m., the spectacular Gadsar looked like a huge bowl of moss green water that was perfectly still. Gadsar literally translates to lake of fishes and it is a natural habitat for trout and other types of fishes. There were tall mountains across the lake where we could clearly see the glaciers with a continuous flow of water towards the lake.
The scene in its entirety was glorious but somewhat intimidating. The lake seemed to be of indefinite depth and it made me feel a little uneasy. Possibly it was the story narrated by our guide warning me not to go down to the lake as I had done at Kishansar. Apparently, Gadsar lake is referred to as lake of death and it is also known as Yemsar, which translates into lake of demons. Locals believe that there lives a huge monster at the lake, which is something like an Octopus that drags creatures with its tentacles. Shepherds refrain from grazing their flocks at the shores of this lake.
Such little anecdotes don’t fail to fascinate me though! And I so love them.
Flocks of Sheep and Goat at Satsar
Crossing an army camp situated atop a hill, we noticed the sparkling colourless waters of a lake lying against the barren mountains. We briefly walked over boulders sharing space with shepherd families, who were migrating and moving out as winter was soon approaching. Just behind us was a flock of 200-300 goats, manned by shepherds and sheep dogs. An equally large flock of sheep was also walking on the flat land right beside the Lake.
This was one of the Satsar Lakes. Satsar literally translates as seven lakes. It is actually a collection of 7 water pools in the narrow alpine valley that are connected to one another through streams. However, we could see only three. Two had dried up as it was the fag end of monsoon. Two lie behind the mountains, not easily accessible though we did plan to attempt it after getting done with lunch at our campsite. However, the Rain Gods decided otherwise and poured their hearts out forcing us to remain in our tents.
All Pervading Divinity at Gangabal Lake
We were in for a visual treat once again from the top of Zajibal Pass. The twin lakes of Gangabal and Nandkol were like two gems of shining sapphire embedded at the base of Harmukh Peak. The backdrop of Harmukh Peak, partially covered by clouds added to the surrealistic character of the moment. Harmukh glacier hung on the rocky edges of the mountain quietly and happily feeding the two lakes.
Each one of us enjoyed the splendour in our own way. Some of us sat quietly soaking in the spectacular sight, some others were capturing the moment in various ways with their cameras. It was a cloudy day and the Pass was really cold, we had to leave sooner than we would have wished to. Besides these two lakes, there were two others almost hidden in the mountain pockets. I noticed them only when they were pointed out to me. These two were greyish black in colour and known as Kalasars.
After a tricky descent through the steep mountain side, we walked beside a stream and came face to face with Gangabal. The shores of Gangabal, named after River Ganges, exuded divinity with the cloud-covered Harmukh Peak looking on. Feeling compelled to experience more of the quietude, I found myself a flat rock, opened my shoes, soaked my feet, and drifted to a different world. While some of my trek mates went on to take a dip in the lake, some others joined me in my reverie.
Gangabal is large at a length of 2.5 Km. and a width of 1.0Km and drains into Sindh River. Locals worship Gangabal and Nandkhol and indulging in a parikrama or a circumambulation seemed to be the most logical thing to do. However, that would easily take an hour and after the long walks that we already had, most of us preferred just sitting down.
Sheer Elegance of Nundkol Lake
A sizzling stream connects Gangabal to Nundkol. We walked from Gangabal, crossed the stream at several place and arrived at Nundkol. At Nundkol the dark clouds hovering around Harmukh Peak gave us a small window to catch a glimpse of the massive mountain.
Nundkol was as elegant as all the other lakes but there were tents dug up all along the shore, which was an eyesore to this scenic place. It was surprising that camping is allowed on the shores of this pristine lake.
Our tents were away from the lake and the following morning I accompanied a fellow trekmate to Nundkol again. Remnants of camping were strewn all around. There was plastic and various kinds of non-degradable items lying at the shore of the lake that really saddened us. We had walked on the other side of the lake the day before and that was cleaner. The sight was so disheartening.
I really wish I could do something, at least collect a few of the garbage but we had already packed and the team was ready to leave, I had no time to do anything. This still makes me feel terribly guilty. I can only hope that the authorities take note of this and camping in the periphery of the lake is completely prohibited.
“You cannot stay on the summit forever; you have to come down again. So why bother in the first place? Just this: What is above knows what is below, but what is below does not know what is above. One climbs, one sees. One descends, one sees no longer, but one has seen.” – Rene Daumal
Nature has that power to enable unburdening of our hearts leading to joyous experiences of inner peace. What better place to experience nature than the higher reaches of glorious mountains! My sincerest gratitude to the mighty Himalayas, to whom I humbly surrender each time I set my foot on them.
Coined from the Sanskrit words of ‘hima’ meaning snow and ‘alaya’ meaning abode, the Himalayas are the loftiest mountain system in the world. With more than 110 peaks rising to elevations of 24,000 ft. (7,300 m.) or more above sea level, the Himalayan Range includes the highest mountains in the world.
My first encounter with the magnificently regal Himalayas happened rather abruptly – one fine day, I randomly decided to go for a trek. It was just an impulse act and I had no clue what high altitude trekking entailed. In fact, I had never trekked anywhere before. I have been a nature-lover forever and that was all I knew. That incident turned out to be the beginning of a new chapter in my life.
I will not hesitate to say that the mountains changed me in ways more than one and I have become a much better person today (at least I’d like to believe so). Many things I do today, I owe to the Himalayas – this blog for instance.
The snow-clad Himalayas are mystical mountains associated with divinity and spirituality. And, I do find the divine in them. They seem like a living-breathing entity to me watching over me, blessing me, and helping me. Possibly, it’s their tall and grandiose appearance or perhaps just the initial intimidation when I look up at them.
I always feel they have a mind of their own. I firmly believe that you can set foot on them only if they allow you do so. You can plan and desire and do what you want but in the end it’s their wish and not yours. With that in mind, I truly feel fortunate and privileged. In the last two years, I have trekked in the Himalayas five times. Without blessings from the majestic mountains, that would have never happened. Each time the mountains ensured that everything worked in our favour, which is especially true with respect to the unpredictable weather.
Earlier this month I discovered the Northern Himalayas as I trekked in Kashmir savouring the gorgeousness of the high altitude glacier-fed alpine lakes. Here are some pictures of Kashmir Great Lakes. I will write a detailed post later.
[All of these are unedited photos clicked through iPhone-6.]