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One of the highest elevation lakes in the world and the second-highest in Sikkim province, Gurudongmar Lake is nearly inaccessible to the average Indian traveler and officially off-limits to those traveling from a foreign country. Located at 17,150 feet, the beautiful lake maintains a milky hue year round due to the glacial flour in the melt waters that fill it. Named in honor of Guru Dongmar-also known as Guru Nanak, founder of the Sikh religion-legend describes the Guru visiting the lake and bestowing blessings on the local herdsmen. The lake lies below a mountain peak of the same name. The stream leaving Gurudongmar Lake contributes to the headwaters of the Teesa River.
Frozen much of the year, the lake contains a small area that never freezes. This open water is attributed to Guru Dongmar who performed a miracle so that local herdsmen would have water for their stock year round. The Guru also gave special properties to the lake's water to bestow virility, as these same herdsmen complained that the high altitude had affected their ability to sire children. Because the lake was revered by several religious sects, the Indian government constructed a small gurdwara (place of worship) for use by all religions near the lake. Devout visitors often carry small bottles of the lake's waters with them when they depart. No permanent inhabitants live at this high altitude, and the gurdwara is the only permanent structure. The lake has regular visitors, however, but most stay for only a short time; the oxygen level at this altitude is so low that altitude sickness almost invariably occurs within a couple of hours.
Due to Gurudongmar Lake's proximity to the Tibet border, the entire area is under the control of the Indian Army. Permits are required to travel to the lake and must be obtained by a licensed tour guide. Located 95 miles north of the city of Gangtok, the rough track is passable by vehicle most of the year, except monsoon season (June to September). Temperatures are moderate during the spring (May and April) and autumn (late September to early December). Gurudongmar Lake is beautiful in the winter, but temperatures can be inhospitable.
The bone-jarring route to the lake passes several lovely waterfalls among the lush green mountainsides at lower elevations. One that visitors usually stop at is called the Seven Sisters. This is actually a single waterfall that consists of seven stages and is best seen during wet, rainy weather. These and a few other sights are accessible by foreign tourists as far as the village of Thangu. Most visits to the area stop overnight at the village of Lachen which is supplied with several small guest houses. Although the distance isn't far, the trip will take three to four hours due to the condition of the road. Shortly beyond Lachen, visitors must produce three copies of their Sikkim police permit and an army letter of permission at a military checkpoint in order to continue on.
Although foreign tourists cannot visit Gurudongmar, one place in the vicinity they can enjoy is Yumthang Valley-the 'valley of flowers'. Located a few hours north of Gangtok after the road forks toward Lachung, Yumthang Valley is home to the Shingba Rhododendron Sanctuary. Again, this trek usually takes two days, and permits are required of all visitors, obtained through tour guides. After an overnight visit at a guest house in Lachung, visitors eventually reach the 'valley of flowers' alongside the Teesa River, showcasing 24 different varieties of rhododendrons, a profusion of bright poppies, iris, primula and other blooming plants. The Kashmir state flower, the rhododendron, has admirers around the world, and over 1000 named varieties have been cultivated. A rest house is the only permanent residence in the valley, and the entire valley is closed between December and March due to heavy snow. Skiing occurs on the slopes surrounding the valley.
Even though foreign tourists are limited in areas near the Indo-Chinese border, there is still plenty to see and do in these high mountainous areas. A number of hiking trails are available into the Himalayan foothills closer to Gongtok. Many temples, stupas and monasteries are a cultural delight to visit. Small museums dedicated to the several religious sects that share the area are a pleasure to visit as their colorful artwork is a unifying cross-cultural visual treat. Festivals are often in progress, with colorful costumes and unusual customs and rituals on display.
Handicrafts and local artwork can be purchased for reasonable sums. Different ethnic dishes delight the palate, and numerous small hostels and guest lodgings are available to those adventurous enough to risk a less-than-five-star experience. The people of Sikkim are friendly and the atmosphere serene. The trek to Gurudongmar Lake may not be available to everyone, but other attractions in the area make up for its loss. Make sure any trip to India includes at least a visit to North Sikkim and the majestic Himalaya Mountains. You will find plenty to pique your interest and engage your senses. Come see the rhododendrons and stay for the festivals.
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