Tourism in North East India is becoming a popular place to visit, with more and more travel bloggers, travel writers, documentary crews and influencers, making their way through the mountains in search of the many spectacular sights of the area, with an interest in the Sikkim area. Which is where the stunning Gurudongmar Lake is located.
In total, North East India consists of eight states. They are Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim, and Tripura. And, it’s Sikkim which has become a popular destination for many travelers and where the famous Gurudongmar Lake is located; which is now considered one of the highest lakes in the world and one of the most beautiful in the world also.
Gurudongmar Lake is one of the highest lakes in the world, sitting at an altitude of 17,000 feet in the state of Sikkim and is part of the village called Lachen.
Thangu, a village located near the pristine lake; which sits at about 14,000 feet, is another popular tourist attraction for any traveler visiting Lachen and Gurudongmar Lake. The strategic location of the lake and its proximity to other popular attractions is what’s making the village, along with Lachen, so appealing to many tourists, making the lake and the surrounding villages, one of the most spectacular places to visit in the world.
Fed by glaciers, Gurudongmar Lake is located to the north of the Kangchengya range, in a high plateau area which is connected to the Tibetan Plateau. Providing one of the main sources of steams which joins the Tso Lahmu and the Teesta River, Gurudongmar Lake remains completely frozen in the winter months; which is between November to mid-May.
The lake itself covers an area of 118 hectares and its peripheral length is around 5.43 kilometers. However, the size of the lake can often appear smaller than normal from many viewpoints, as the larger part of the lake is not visible due to the hilly topography obstructing the view. Evoking the imagination of many tourists, as they make the trip through the mountains in search of the full view of the lake.
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Why you should visit the lake:
Not so long ago, Gurudongmar Lake was a filled with fresh clear glacier water; with the bed of the lake is easily seen from the middle of the lake. Unfortunately, today, due to pollution, the water is now muddied, and the lake has taken on a white tinge, which has obscured visibility. But the lake and the surrounding area is still a spectacular sight to see, with a simple google search of the area proving why Gurudongmar Lake has been rated as one of the most beautiful natural landscape areas in the world.
Considered to be sacred by Buddhists, Sikhs, and Hindus, Gurudongmar Lake is a popular destination for many an intrepid traveler to hike to, camp overnight at and explore the many stunning landscapes surrounding the lake, including the icy blue glaciers which often crowd the borders of the lake.
Although unless you are a mountaineer, camping is not recommended due to the high altitude and of course the freezing night temperatures, where they have been known to drop down to minus thirty degrees in the winter season. Most tourists travel to the area with tour groups and only spend half a day at the lake, to ensure they are back at their accommodation before the cold weather sets in.
Gurudongmar Lake is approximately five kilometers from the Chinese border and can be accessed through the mountain towns of Lachen and Thangu. It was named after Guru Padmasambhava and Guru Rinpoche; founders of Tibetan Buddhism visited Gurudongmar Lake and felt a divine reverence towards the place. And of course, like so many other natural wonders of the world, there is a legend to match this legendary lake.
Legend has it, a well-known Guru called Padmasambhava stopped past the lake on his way back to Tibet. Upon stopping at the lake, the Guru felt the area was worthy of veneration as it represented the divine location of Dorje Nyima; meaning Holy Land and was referred for its beauty and energy as a place where the gods would meet.
As the lake had remained frozen most of the year with no possibility of anyone being able to access the water, the people of the area prayed to Guru Padmasambhava to help them unfreeze parts of the lake, so they could access the water for drinking, cleaning, and bathing. Inspired by the sacred energy surrounding the area, the Guru agreed to help and placed his hands into one small part of the lake.
And, where the Guru placed his hands that part of the lake unfroze and has remained unfrozen to this day. Allowing any visitor who passes by, to use the water. Since then the lake has been considered a very holy place and considered to be sacred and devotees carry the sacred water in containers to their villages daily.
Whether by divine intervention or a humble coincidence, today the lake is revered as one of the most spectacular places to visit in the world and a must for anyone who is willing to make the trek there.
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Safe Hiking to and around Gurudongmar Lake:
For tourists wanting to trek around the lake region, there are several ways to ensure a safe journey whilst hiking. Avoid emergencies by having the right tools, such as carrying a map and compass. Always assume the weather will change; which it does at Gurudongmar Lake due to the high altitude.
Take a pocket knife, fire starting supplies in a watertight container and always pack extra sun protection, rain gear and of course extra layers to protect from any sudden drop in the climate. There are no places in the area of the lake to get food and water, so make sure to pack that also.
Most hikers prefer to explore the region of Gurudongmar Lake during the day because of the rapid change in weather conditions known in the area. So, planning the trip for a safe trip through the region is a must.
Always check the weather before leaving for the hike, leave as early as you can in the morning as weather temperatures rapidly drop in the region after lunch. At what time and date, you are going, in the event of an emergency.
Hiking around the region of Gurudongmar Lake is not recommended for children and many families opt for the guided tour of the lake region with a group for safety. However, should tourists be planning a visit in the area to hike with their children, start with something small and hire a Jeep to get to the lake, before setting off to hike around the region.
This cuts out the travel time of trekking between villages before getting to the lake and ensures children can enjoy the trip as must as the adults, by not feeling overwhelmed and exhausted from the whole trek. With children, it’s about the journey, not the destination.
History of the Lake:
In 1997, an Indian Army regiment of Sikhs constructed a Gurudwara; which is a singular place of worship for Sikhs only. This angered the Sikkimese people of the area, who considered the Gurudwara an illegal construction because their ancient sacred lake was sanctified by the visit of their beloved Guru Padmasambhava.
The Sikkim government then constituted a high-level committee to examine the issue and submit a report of a complaint about the Gurudwara. The report detailed to the committee how the area was a religious place to Buddhists and allowing such a place of worship was illegal.
This was accepted by the committee and the building constructed by the Sikh regiment was then handed over to the Army to the Lachen Monastery on the 6 July 2001. The monastery placed a lama as a watchman at the lake, entrusted with the task of maintaining it and stopping anyone else from any other religion from building a place of worship; much like that of the Gurudwara.
The building is no longer there – it was removed and today the lake remains in pristine condition, without any buildings or dwellings.
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How to reach:
Getting to Gurudongmar Lake requires a special permit called an Inner Line Permit, which allows you to access and prevents hordes of tourists trekking there and disturbing the natural habitat. The permit is given to tourists through an authorized tour operator; which you can arrange with your travel agent. However, special permission does need to be acquired for international tourists in order to visit Gurudongmar Lake.
Special permission is often limited to documentary crews, but that doesn’t mean if you are an international tourist, you shouldn’t try and gain access, to see such a magnificent place of wonder. If you can’t obtain permission to access the area of Gurudongmar Lake, international tourists will be limited to the Chopta Valley area, which is only a few kilometers from the lake and still just as spectacular.
This often does require a lot of paperwork, as you need special permits to enter the region where Gurudongmar Lake is, which is because the lake is holy. Indian tourists have full access to Gurudongmar Lake, but they do still need to gain a special permit to enter the region.
The lake itself is in an extreme corner of India, with the nearest tourist accommodation being in a village called Lachen; which is approximately 68 kilometers away, which is around three hours from Lachen. The following transport options are available for travelers wishing to explore the area:
BY AIR: The nearest Domestic Airport is Bagdogra Airport, which is around four and a half hour’s drive from Lachen. Taxis can be hired for transport to and from the airport and Jeeps are also available to hire for transport to the lake from the airport, for travelers not staying in Lachen; or any other neighboring town.
BY RAIL: The nearest Railway Station to Gurudongmar Lake is Darjeeling Railway Station which is connected to most of the cities of Sikkim and is at 171 Kms.
BY ROAD: Lachen is connected through Sikkim State Road Transport Corporation (SSRTC) and some private travel services to all the major cities of Sikkim. Regular buses travel from Lachen to these states. From Lachen, Jeeps and taxis can be hired to reach Gurudongmar Lake.
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Getting to Gurudongmar Lake:
After an overnight stay at Lachen, a mountain town which sits at around 8800 feet. The first phase of the journey to Gurudongmar Lake starts early, in order to be back to Lachen around lunch time. This is because the weather is at high altitude and can be highly unpredictable at the best of times.
Temperatures of the area are typical of what you would expect in a high-altitude location, which ranges anywhere between minus thirty at night in winter and minus one in the day at winter. The best time to visit Gurudongmar Lake is between the months of November and June. The weather is quite pleasant at that time of the year, with summers being moderate and quite pleasant in Lachen.
After leaving Lachen, travelers arrive into the next town of Thangu which sits at thirteen thousand feet. The more altitude gained, the lush green forest below in lower altitudes gives way to smaller trees and bushes. And, beyond Thangu; in the second phase, the road towards Gurudongmar Lake then starts to pass through high alpine pastures, carpeted with occasional rhododendron bushes.
Here a traveler can get a prized view of the rare Sikkim Rhubarb; which is often seen peeping through the bushes in inaccessible terrain or spot a herd of mountain sheep grazing in the distant valley. There is little to no vegetation or people in the area, apart from the Indian Army. And, the gravel road through the valley gives a unique view of barren land before making a sharp turn which then leads to Gurudongmar Lake.
The terrain leading up to Gurudongmar Lake is hostile, to say the least, but beautiful none the less, with the land resembling that of a Tibetan plateau. Vegetation may be limited along the road to the lake, through the stony moraine-like unpaved path.
A word of warning though, due to the proximity of Gurudongmar Lake region being so close to the Chinese border, landmines are not uncommon, so the Indian Army is always present. And due to the high altitude, many tourists do suffer breathing a variety of breathing problems which may vary from slight to serious, depending on the health condition of the traveler.
Tourists are always recommended to stay for more than one night in the town of Lachen to stabilize their breathing in moderately high altitude and try not to spend all day at Gurudongmar Lake to prevent any further medical issues with breathing, should any arise.
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Features of the lake and area:
Gurudongmar Lake is a visual treat for the eyes and manages to please everyone and anyone who visits. With many visitors enjoying a long trek from the lake since it is the base station for several treks. Making it easy for travelers to explore the area for many days, using local towns as their accommodation and spending countless days learning about the area and immersing themselves into the surrounding culture, whilst absorbing the many breathtaking views of the region. The Sarva Dharma Sthala, which is a famous spiritual attraction for peace seekers, is popular and well-known as the temple for all religions and is located quite close to the lake.
In addition, the Tso Lhamu Lake; which is the main water source for the Teesta River, is located about nine kilometers away and can also be explored, along with the main attraction of Gurudongmar Lake.
Other places which can be visited around the lake area are the Lachen village; which is where most recommended tours book accommodation for travelers or Thangu village. Both villages are around three to four hour’s drive away from Gurudongmar Lake. In summer, the exciting annual Yak Race called the Thangu takes place at the Lachen and is visited by numerous people who wish to enjoy this amazing festival.