Friday, June 08, 2007

Guru-Dongmar lake is now open to tourists

At 17,800ft above sea level, dizziness and sudden blackouts due to lack of oxygen are not uncommon.

The reward for all the hardship, however, is an extraordinary view of the tranquil, blue waters of Guru-Dongmar (North Sikkim) stretched out against the backdrop of snow-capped peaks that guard over the lake from three sides.

The fourth side is completely barren and gusts of wind from that direction buffet the lake in the afternoons. Welcome to the highest tourist destination in the eastern Himalayas located on the India-China border, 187 km north of Gangtok.

Foreigners are still not allowed to visit this restricted area, but with the Union government issuing permits to domestic tourists, thousands of them are now visiting the holy lake every season.

“Earlier, we had to get special permission and since these permits were not guaranteed, we could not market Guru-Dongmar. However, the Sikkim government has worked hard to promote tourism and nowadays we can get permits from Gangtok without too much hassle,” said Karma Tashi Bhutia, vice-president of Travel Agents’ Association of Sikkim.

The popularity of the spot is also changing the fortunes of the Lachenpas and the Lachungpas, the hardy people of the adjacent Lachen and Lachung valleys. They have the tourism sector to themselves as outsiders are not allowed to buy and sell property in the restricted area.

“This small place now has about a dozen lodges and nearly 50 taxis, which are used to ferry tourist,” said Phenso Dorji Lachenpa, a resident-cum-tour operator of Lachen. Lachen is about six hours’ drive (126 km) from Gangtok and tourists are advised to spend a night there to acclimatise before driving north for three more hours to reach the lake.

The area is only 10 km from the border with China and the Indian Army decides how much time one can spend at the lake. In fact, apart from the grazing sheep and yaks, the army jawans are the only souls who can be seen in the surrounding hilltops.

Stretches of the barren landscape are dotted with minefields, bunkers, artillery guns and tanks. The lake, believed to have been touched by Guru Padmasambhava when he visited Tibet in the 8th century, is revered by both Buddhists and Hindus.

There is a small temple-cum-monastery nearby which is maintained by the army. A walk around the 2 km periphery of the lake, however, proves impossible because of the thin air and lack of time.

The road back to Lachen follows the Teesta river, which originates from Tso-Lhamu, a lake situated north of Guru-dongmar. From Lachen, tourists invariably visit Lachung located 47 km away.