Continued from: Breakfast at 14000 feet…
And so duly momoed, Maggied and acclimatized, we begin the second part of the drive towards Gurudongmar lake. Just in case we imagine that the rest of this drive is going to be as easy as it has been so far, our driver warns us to brace ourselves for what is ahead.
Buckled up and bundled up, we are off. The roads vanish rapidly, we are mostly hurtling along on a graveled and pebbled path and in an hour’s time reach the world’s highest cafe at 15000 feet. Managed by the army (and they are extremely proud of this), the cafe has tea and coffee and serves as another break point on this journey.
This stop is brief and our driver is eager to get on. Gurudongmar lake is open for visitors only till around noon, since after that the winds make it impossible to stay on. Stones fly, say locals, and I am not eager to witness that. And so we set off again, the roads getting progressively worse. There are no signboards, no indicators to show where we are headed; our driver plows ahead on what seems like pure instinct. The landscape is stark and stunning, the snow-capped mountains – the Kangchengyao range – seem within touching distance. range. Most of this part of the drive is in monochrome, a dry brown with a few spots of snow visible in the distance. The driver is impatient at the various photo stops I make; wait till you see the lake, he says, you will forget all this.
17000 feet is seriously disorienting. Before we step out the jeep, our driver gives us detailed instructions; breathe easy, take small slow steps, sit down and relax as much as you can. We head first to the small temple managed by the army where the jawans serve us cups of hot tea. And then we walk, er, totter unsteadily, towards the lake. “I am walking somewhere, but my feet are going somewhere else”, I hear a young woman say loudly in Tamil. Indeed. My feet seem to have a life of their own, whereas my brain seems to have switched off temporarily. I even giggle suddenly, at periodic intervals but my husband is too preoccupied – with his own disorientation – to comment on it.
The lake itself is reached by walking down a steep 50 odd steps and one look at it, we turn even paler than we are. So, we decide to take it easy and sit down by the steps, watching the lake and the few tourists who brave the biting winds and buzzing ears to make the descent to the lake.
Like the other Sikkim lakes, Gurudongmar (named after Guru Padmasambhava) is held sacred by locals; indeed, it is the most revered of them all. The lake remains frozen for most of the year but at this time of the year, the waters are a clear, sparkling blue. Prayer flags flutter in the wind, like everywhere else in Sikkim. The wind starts to get bitter, cutting through the layers of protective clothing we are ensconced in. Despite the discomfort, we are loathe to leave so early but it is getting to time for the stones to start flying and we reluctantly head back towards Lachen, and then on back to Gangtok.
And oh, the popcorn motif? We have been advised to carry it with us, as a cure for altitude sickness; keep chewing on popcorn and nothing will happen, we have been told. And for good measure, our travel agent has thrown in a bunch of branded, packaged, sealed popcorn. Well, a few kilometers before Gurudongmar, a loud noise – thankfully not my ears but the bags of popcorn that start bursting under the high pressure – and pop go the popcorn, one after another masala’d pack. And the contents of the one remaining pack that we dutifully chew on, I regret to say, only add to the feeling of acute nausea and discomfort on our way back; so much for home-grown remedies.