India’s North East is opening up to host an increasing number of travelers. The Dialogue Diaries™ – Interview Line, a platform by Unakriti, is delighted to feature early explorers who have ventured inside the region. In this Gurudongmar Lake Travel Guide, Ankit Anil Agarwal talks about his recent visit to North Sikkim with his buddies. He offers a low down on how to plan your visit, costs, and then some. Everything practical. But first…
Sikkim – A quick intro by Unakriti
Did you know that Nepalese is an official language in India? With Bhutan, Nepal and Tibet to its east, west and north respectively, multi-ethnic and multi-lingual Sikkim is one of the smallest states in the country. It holds enviable distinctions of enforcing a smoking-ban in public places in letter and spirit, banning plastic water bottles, and, being India’s first 100 per cent organic state. Check out the travel guide to Sikkim.
What stands out for you about Sikkim, North East India?
If God ever asks me about heaven, I’d think of Sikkim! Glittering lakes, endless pastures, waterfalls at every turn, quiet monastery towns, and scenic drives (on some of the worst roads I’ve encountered – blame the regular landslides!).
What’s your favorite destination in Sikkim and why?
North Sikkim. It is all about snow scalped mountains, arid landscapes, glittering glacial waters and crisp mountain-air topped with a bright blue sky. The picture below and few more in this interview will convey a lot more!
Gurudongmar Lake, a protected site at an altitude of about 18000 feet, considered sacred by Buddhists, Hindus, and Sikhs, is a mind-boggling destination in North Sikkim. It was the show stopper for the six of us!
How would you guide a fellow traveler to Gurudongmar Lake?
A quick Gurudongmar Lake Travel Guide, North Sikkim
This largest district of Sikkim, sharing borders with Nepal and China, is home to places such as Kanchendzonga National Park, Shingba (rhododendron) Wildlife Sanctuary, and Gurudongmar Lake!
When to visit Gurudongmar Lake, North Sikkim?
We visited Gurudongmar Lake, Yumthang Valley, and Zero Point in the month of October, which is one of the best times to visit. I’d say anytime between October to January is good – roads are accessible, weather is pleasant, and the clear winter sky makes it a sheer delight.
PS: Many mountainous routes in the Himalayan region are prone to landslides during monsoons. Sikkim is no different. Therefore, it is best to avoid the wet season.
How to get to Gurudongmar Lake, North Sikkim?
Plan your travels to the North Sikkim district from Gangtok. So, first make your arrangements to reach Sikkim’s capital.
There are a few options for getting to Gangtok. You could choose to fly to Sikkim’s newest Pakyong airport (I flew in to Bagdogra before Pakyong was inaugurated). Or, you may ride a train till Siliguri or New Jalpaiguri railheads and then take a bus or a cab ride to Gangtok.
For the onward journey, given that you are going to protected areas of Sikkim, I suggest you to use a registered tour operator. We did a recce and eventually used an agency named Royal Sikkim Tours and Travel in Gangtok’s New Market and am happy to recommend it.
Do you need special permits to visit Gurudongmar Lake, North Sikkim?
Yes, visitors need a permit to go to Gurudongmar Lake and these are strictly enforced. Any registered tour operator will be able to help you with this documentation. You just need to carry an original and valid identity-cum-address proof and two passport-sized photographs. It takes about day or two to secure these permits and so, you must plan your Sikkim itinerary accordingly.
Note by Unakriti: At the time of this writing, Indians require special permits to make this excursion, whereas foreigners are not allowed to visit this protected area near the international border with China. Click to read more on the topic of permits for Northeast India.
How much does it cost to visit Gurudongmar Lake, North Sikkim?
Costs are ex-Gangtok. Though there’s not a great deal of variability in prices when you ask around, you can always try your luck with a discount or an extra!
The six of us paid INR 29,000 for a 2 nights and 3 days package to Gurudongmar Lake. The price included everyone’s permit, all meals (breakfast, lunch, and dinner), and the to and fro shared taxi from Gangtok. In other words, it cost us about INR 5,000 per person, all inclusive.
Note by Unakriti: As a solo backpacker, you may also rely on your hostel’s / guesthouse’s front-desk to help you with all arrangements. They usually arrange tours for batches of individuals to Gurudongmar Lake.
Could you suggest an itinerary for Gurudongmar Lake?
Even though Sikkim is a relatively small state, you cannot visit places of interest in North Sikkim from Gangtok in a day. The quickest trip to Gurudongmar Lake and nearby destinations, which are the most popular with visitors, takes about 2-3 days. Also, as mentioned earlier, securing a permit takes about day or two. So, plan your Sikkim travels accordingly. A typical itinerary (just like ours) looks like this:
- Day 1 – Gangtok to Lachen: Start by 9 am and reach your first destination before 6 pm.
- Day 2 – Lachen-Gurudongmar Lake-Lachen and then to Lachung: Start by 5:30 am, cross Thangu village to reach Gurudongmar Lake by 9 am or so and then return to Lachen by 2 pm. After lunch, drive to and reach Lachung before 6 pm.
- Day 3 – Lachung-Zero Point-Lachung and then to Gangtok: Start by 6 am to drive across the picturesque Yumthang Valley also called the Sikkim Valley of Flowers and to reach Zero Point – the farthest place civilians can get to on this route in Sikkim. Return to your Lachung hotel for lunch and then drive few more hours to reach Gangtok before 6 pm. Phew!
What are some must-try culinary recommendations from Sikkim?
Gangtok has many restaurants and menu options be it vegetarian or meat. Since you are in North East of India, you are likely to find momos, thukpa, or noodles. We tried a local dish (not sure whether its a Nepalese or Tibetan specialty) called Laphing, a popular street food with lots of spice – a must try!
However, as you head to the arid north, especially in North Sikkim district, you will have to settle for basic food like dal (lentils), rice, chapatis, and one or two vegetarian curries.
What’s the culture and lifestyle of North Sikkim?
I found the lifestyle in Sikkim as relatively simple and people, especially the youth, as fashion trendsetters – with new hairstyles and stylish clothing.
What are your recommended travel tips for Gurudongmar Lake, North Sikkim?
- Look for deals: Sikkim is increasingly becoming a popular travel destination, be it for bikers, backpackers, or package tours. There are chances that tour operators may quote a higher price and it never hurts to haggle a bit or request an extra.
- Get permits early: Apply for permits within a day of reaching Gangtok, in case you have not made prior arrangements. That way, you can be sure to stick to your schedule, if you have one!
- Keep medicines: Gurudongmar Lake is at a high-altitude of about 18,000 feet. Some people may feel uneasy and it helps to keep a remedy handy. Consult a doctor for what’s best for you. I used a Diamox tablet.
What’s your new bucket list for North East India?
- Assam: For its many ancient temples and monasteries (such as those in Majuli), famous tea gardens, and Kaziranga National Park.
- Tripura: Bordering Bangladesh, this state is rich in cultural heritage, temples, handicraft, and is also famous for its wild life sanctuaries.
- Meghalaya: One of the most beautiful states in Northeast India, known for adventure tourism such as trekking or caving.
What’s your favorite festival in North East India and why?
- Hornbill Festival: A high-energy tourism festival (with local music and folk dances) celebrated by the local communities, featuring some mouthwatering delicacies!
- Ziro Music Festival (ZFM): An outdoor music fest in Arunachal Pradesh, showcasing the independent music scene of India.
Think North East India
For those who do not know, Northeast India comprises of eight states – Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim, and Tripura. The Himalayas and its waters define the region’s terrain, climate, rich biodiversity, and the peculiar indigenous lifestyles her people follow.
That North East India is bound by Bhutan, Nepal, and Tibet to the north, Bangladesh to the south and west, and Myanmar to the east hints at the eclectic mix of cultural, ethnic, and linguistic diversity. This is where elements of Asia come together to do what they do best – cast a spell.
The region’s innate charms have remained under-explored. Travelers, who figure out how to backpack in North East India, find gems such as Dzükou Valley all to themselves. Importantly, the hospitable people of the region make sure that visitors take back the choicest of memories.
Meanwhile, pick up a copy of Backpacking North East India: A Curious Journey. It covers over two dozen places and attempts to answer the question – what is it like to travel in the region? Give it a read and make your own choices.
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