Lachen – the land of Big Pass
Lachen, a small Himalayan hamlet at an altitude of 9000 feet is the home to a Sikkimese Buddhist community known as the Lachenpas. The village actually serves as the stopover for tourists visiting the Gurudongmar Lake that is located further up at an altitude of 17,800ft near Indo-China (Tibet) border. But Lachen itself is a beautiful place that demands attention from its visitors.
Lachen literally means ‘big pass’. Lachen stands on a grassy and bushy flat land separated by deep gorges of Lachen-Chu, the mountain river from where rises the pine clad mountains with their snowy peaks and black cliffs. The village has picturesque surroundings with grassy mountain slopes on one side and imposing snow-capped peaks, glaciers and rock cliffs on the other side. Surrounded by the conifer and Rhododendron forests, Lachen is appealing to travellers of all types. Lachen commands a panoramic view of the snow capped peaks and the valley is abundant in wildlife.
Lachen comprises of about 250 families, earlier inhabited only during winters by their owners who spent their summers on the alpine pastures bordering Tibet tending to their yaks. With the influx of tourists, a number of hotels and homestays can now be found at Lachen, but the quaint village still retains its charm. Although Lachen forms the base for visiting the Gurudongmar Lake, Tso Lamu Lake, Thangu and Chopta Valley, you can spend half a day here to explore its beauty. The Lachen Monastery is the most famous attraction here. The Handicraft Centre located in the market area is also an interesting place. Here the handicrafts made by the local people are displayed and sold. Carpets, blankets, bags made of yak wool and sheep wool are made by the local women since long. For the adventure enthusiasts, Lachen serves as the base camp for the Green Lake trek.
Lachen is located about 121 km from Gangtok, but it takes almost 6 to 7 hours to reach depending on the condition of the roads. You have to take the North Sikkim Highway until Chungthang, where the road bifurcates. The one towards the left goes towards Lachen, while the one towards the right towards its sister village, Lachung.
Places to visit at Lachen
Situated at an altitude of 17100 ft, the Gurudongmar lake is the second highest lake in India. Surrounded by snow-clad mountains, the place is a sight to behold. The lake is named after Guru Padmasambhava who had visited this spot on his way back from Tibet. Naturally, the Buddhists, as well as Hindus, consider the lake sacred. During the winters, the entire lake freezes except for a small area. It is believed that Guru Padmasambhava had blessed the lake by placing his hand on a portion of the lake. It is that portion which never freezes, even during the coldest of winters. The water of the lake is also said to have curative properties. You will see hundreds of colourful prayer flags all around the place. Close to the lake, there is a temple named Sarva Dharma Sthal. It is a place for worship for all the religions.
Gurudongmar Lake should be visited as early as possible. It is recommended to start from Lachen before 5 AM towards Gurudongmar Lake as it takes 3 to 4 hours to reach there from Lachen. Also, as the day progresses, the entire region becomes very windy and it becomes impossible to stay near the lake. Also, as there is little or no vegetation at this region, you might experience breathing trouble near the lake.
Chopta Valley is like a dreamy wonderland. Located just 2 km from Thangu Valley at an altitude of 13200 ft, the place is a mesmerizing treat to the eyes. The majestic view of the snow covered peaks, meandering rivers and alpine meadows, Chopta Valley seems to have been blessed with all these beauties of nature. During each season, the valley gets a new look. At the onset of spring, the valley turns into a beautiful carpet of alpine flowers that adorn the valley till the month of August. In fact, during the summer and monsoon, the entire valley remains dotted with flowers of all kinds giving the valley the appearance of a gigantic flower basket. Varieties of rhododendrons, primulas and wild flowers bloom in abundance in the valley between May to September. After that, during the autumn, the weather remains clear and you get a great view of the snow-covered peaks around. You will clearly see the green meadows and the rivers snaking through the valley. Finally, during the winter, the valley gets covered with snow and it provides an opportunity to walk over the frozen rivers. Snow remains till late March. You can visit Chopta Valley on your way back from Gurudongmar Lake.
Thangu Valley looks like it has just come out of a picture postcard. Serene and scenic are what Thangu Valley is. Located at an altitude of 13000 ft and 30 km from Lachen, Thangu serves as a good stopover between Lachen and Gurudongmar Lake. The valley comprises alpine meadows flanked by the shimmering water of Teesta River and the rocky mountain ranges, thus offering a picturesque sight to witness. The change in vegetation can be seen at Thangu itself. The tree lines start disappearing and smaller bushes are seen. During May and June, alpine flowers bloom in the entire valley. The Thangu village comprises of a few houses and a large army base. There are a few shops from where you can have tea and hot Maggi. This is the last civilian settlement on your way to Gurudongmar Lake. Travellers can stay at Thangu, but it requires special permission from the army.
Lachen Monastery is one of the oldest in Sikkim standing amidst a quiet backdrop and spectacular views of the landscape surrounding it. The monastery, when built in 1858, was then just a small hut-like structure having only 6 monks. Later in 1977, the monastery was renovated to its current form with the aid of Sikkim Government. Also known as also known as Ngodub Choling Monastery, it follows Nyingma Sect of Tibetan Buddhism. The monastery has a couple of notable artefacts – A small casket containing a flat stone bearing the amazing footprint of the Kham Gomchen who stayed at Thangu Gompa and a stone shaped like a “Thsebum” or vase of longevity, kept at the altar. The open area in the front of the monastery is a place for peaceful meditation and reflection as you witness the panoramic views of the mountains and valleys.
A relatively unexplored valley in North Sikkim, Muguthang Valley is a quaint place still preserving the murmurs of ancient life. Situated at an altitude of 14850 ft, Muguthang can be reached from Chopta Valley by trekking. The place consists of just a few huts built in Tibetan style with very few populations and abundance of greenery. The place is remote and totally undisturbed by the outside world, with only majestic snow clad mountains, meandering rivers with numerous fountains and wild flowers growing all around the valley. Herds of yaks and sheep are seen all around the place. Rearing the yaks and sheep are the main livelihood of the inhabitants of Muguthang. The yaks are reared for their milk, cheese, butter, meat and skin and the sheep for their wool, thus making life almost self-supporting here. An interesting event that is held every year here is yak racing during the Drukpa Teshi festival. The people here are semi-nomadic. In the winters when the place becomes snow-bound, they move their herds to other places. The place is so simple and untouched by the modernity of life, yet there is a profound tranquility in the place and in the lives of the inhabitants.
Cho Lhamu Lake
Cho Lhamu or Tso Lhamo is the highest lake in India at an altitude of 18000 ft. Located in the extreme North Sikkim region, the lake is currently out of bounds for tourists because of its proximity to the Chinese border. It is located near the Donkiala pass, just 5 km from the India-China border. The Cho Lhamu Lake is fed by the waters of the snow-covered mountains and is the source of the Teesta River, the lifeline of Sikkim. The lake is just a few kilometres ahead of the more scenic Gurudongmar Lake and is totally isolated from the rest of the world. It requires a special Army permission to visit the lake.
The yak race is held every year during the Drukpa Teshi festival in the Muguthang Valley in North Sikkim. The yaks, in general, are very peaceful beasts, though they might look quite imposing in its natural environment. This Buddhist festival is celebrated o observe Buddha’s first preaching of the “Noble Truths” at the deer park in Sarnath. It falls on the fourth day of the sixth month in the Tibetan calendar. A yak race is held on the event of this festival. The race is held early in the morning when the yaks and its riders gather at Lasher. People from neighbouring villages also flock together at the place to watch this surreal event. The entire event defies the notion of a race. The yaks obviously do not always adhere to the rules of the race and run amok. Nevertheless, the yak race at Muguthang valley is indeed an experience for all travellers.
Green Lake Trek
One of the exotic treks in Sikkim, the Green Lake Trek takes you to the base of the Kanchenjunga massif. The peaks of Simvo are a short distance away on the left. At the base of the Kanchenjunga is the Zemu Glacier full of moraines. The Green Lake Trek starts from Lachen with the trail leading to Tallem and then climbs towards Jakthang. From Jakthang the route goes through alpine forests to Yabuk and then finally to the rest camp. From the rest camp, trek to the Green Lakes faces the uphill and downhill trek to reach the Green Lake campsite. The Green Lake is actually not a lake, but a small pond, but the absence of the lake is largely compensated by the splendid views all around. The ridges of Kanchenjunga appear broken and rugged while the Simvo peak looks intimidating. It is here you will understand the beauty of creation. From the Green Lake, the return to Lachen is through the same trail.
This part of North Sikkim is one of the most beautiful areas for bird watching. The high altitude attracts a number of rare species like Snow Pigeon, Blood Pheasants, Himalayan Monal, White-throated Dipper, Spot-winged Grosbeak, White-winged Grosbeak and many more. There has also been a record of Tibetan Snow Cock in Gurudogmar Lake. For anyone interested in High altitude species of the Himalayas then this is one of the favourite sites for birding.