The trip planned for the day is to Yumthang valley and we have moved to Lachung village from Lachen the earlier evening in preparation. After that nerve-wracking ride to Gurudongmar Lake and all the discomfort caused by high altitude, we are sure that this drive is going to be easy. And so it is, comparatively speaking.
For one, it is a mere 24 kilometers away from Lachung village. Also, Yumthang is at a much lower altitude (just less than 12000 feet – which is cold by any standards but we are feeling complacent, having bravely borne the highly disorienting altitude the day earlier).
This route is very pleasant, through roads lined with rhododendron trees in full bloom on either side. Dubbed the ‘valley of flowers’, this area comes under the protected Shingba Rhododendron Sanctuary (home to over 24 species of this flower) and is especially pretty during the early summer months when the ground is covered with flowers of all colours. Herds of yaks graze peacefully along the sides, unfazed by curious visitors who point their cameras at them (the driver says that this used to be only a grazing pasture for yaks before tourism suddenly burst into the scene).
Yumthang valley itself is the stuff of picture postcards – ‘alpine meadow’ is a term used by guides and guidebooks in describing it. Snow-capped mountains surround the valley from all sides while the Yumthang river flows placidly in the middle. And tiny flowers blossom in clumps from the green grass, small carpets of yellow and purple as far as the eye can see.
It is the ideal picnic spot; children screaming and running around while adults look on in amused indulgence. The water of the Yumthang is crystal clear, a blue-grey speckled with green and looks deceptively inviting. However, it is freezing cold (even though it is peak summer), as we discover when step into it tentatively.
The other must-do thing in Yumthang valley is the hot sulphur spring across the river accessed through a rickety wooden bridge. Known locally as Tsa Chu, the spring is believed to have curative and healing properties. As everywhere else in Sikkim, colourful prayer flags flutter in the breeze across the bridge, waving out to visitors. At this spot, there are several small stalls selling tea and snacks along the banks of the river and the tourist groups make their way here from the open valley for refreshment.
Yumthang Valley is best visited in summer to experience the flowers in bloom and enjoy the mild, slightly sunny weather. However, in summer, there is no snow in this region and eager tourists usually head further up to Katao (roughly 15000 feet), known locally as Yumsedong or ‘zero point’ and said to have snow through the year.