North Sikkim is on its way to becoming a top-notch tourist destination. However, the earthquakes in 2011 and 2012, which resulted in flash floods, caused dramatic and tragic loss of infrastructure in the region. With ongoing efforts to stabilise the region and to avoid a situation where its residents might be completely cut off from the rest of the state (as they had been due to the floods earlier), things are now looking up. Today, north Sikkim is slowly getting back to normal, but still, it is not recommended that tourists travel on their own. Luckily, there are several tour operators in Gangtok who organise trips to both Lachen and Lachung, varying from four days to over a week. This option also saves you from the hassle of arranging permits required to visit the area. A 2N/ 3D trip can cost around â‚¹30,000—35,000 for 2 pax, all inclusive.
With a dramatic backdrop of pine-clad mountains and peaks covered in snow most of the year, Lachen is a picturesque village that has seen some development, but not enough to scar its natural beauty. Lachen and its environs are best visited on a four-day itinerary. Set up base at Lachen and visit both the stunning Tsopta Valley and Gurudongmar Lake.
Things to See & Do
En route to Lachen
The road leading from Gangtok to Lachen, via Chungthang, has several important stops on the way;
therefore you are likely to only reach Lachen by the end of the first day. Only 17km north of Gangtok is the Phensang Gompa, a small gompa approximately 300 years old, belonging to the Nyingmapa School. Established in the 17th century, it was unfortunately gutted in a fire in 1947. It has since been restored and decorated beautifully, and the prayer halls are well worth exploring. The annual festival of Chaam is celebrated here on the 28th and 29th days of the 10th month of the Tibetan calendar.
Close to this gompa is Kabi Lunchok, the site of a treaty signed in the 13th century by the chiefs of the Lepchas and Bhutias, Thekong Tek and Khye Bumsa respectively. Today, this site has several memorial is a peaceful spot, and a pleasant place to head to for a short break.
Around 30km away from Gangtok, is the Seven Sisters Waterfall, a lovely cascade of pristine water that “cuts a chasm above a roadside cardamom grove and plummets into a rocky pool.” Stop by here for some spectacular views and great photo opportunities, as well as a hot cup of tea at the government-run cafeteria.
Phodong, eight kilometres away from Gangtok, lies on a spur of the hill one kilometre away from the main road and commands superb views. The Phodong Gompa is considered one of the six most important monasteries in Sikkim. It consists of a simple main temple, some outhouses and residential quarters. Inside are extensive murals, as well as a large statue of the ninth Karmapa; it is said that there is a room in the back with a hidden statue of Mahakala, the protector. The gompa was built in the early 18th century and was Sikkim’s most famous Kagyu monastery until the growth of Rumtek in the second half of the 20th century. As is the case with Rumtek, the Phodong Gompa hosts lama dances every December.
4km ahead lies the Labrang Gompa, an unusual octagonal-shaped monastery. This gompa was established towards the end of the 19th century and is currently home to 100 monks. Walk around the main building and examine the inner walls, which are said to represent over 1,000 icons of the revered Padmasambhava.
A cluster of chortens between Phodong and Labrang is said to mark the ruins of Tumlong, which was Sikkim’s capital city for a large part of the 19th century.
Phodong is a great option for a stopover for those travellers who want a substantial meal and some time to explore the sites here with ease. Otherwise, Chungthang, located at the confluence of the Lachen and Lachung chus (chu translating to river) is a major town in north Sikkim. It is best known for having been visited by two prominent people: it was blessed by Guru Padmasambhava when he stopped here en route to Tibet; and Guru Nanak rested here awhile on his epic Himalayan odyssey and defeated two demons before proceeding further. From Chungthang, it is a short drive to Lachen (27km), at around 2,750m, in a beautiful valley.
Visitors can while away half a day in the village of Lachen, walking past old wooden homes built on stone bases and decorated with bright, multi-hued window frames constructed in the Tibetan style.
Although the residents are very pleasant, it is best to ask permission before you photograph: whether you want a picture of or with them, or the houses or farms.
You might want to visit the village on your first day here, since it is a good idea to let your body acclimatise to Lachen’s height of 9,000ft, before you head to Gurudongmar, which is at a staggering height of over 17,000ft.
The Nyudrup Choeling Gompa is a 20-minute walk ahead of the town, and is best visited either early morning or late afternoon since the doors to the main temple might be closed in the afternoons. The gompa enjoys a gorgeous location, with panoramic views of the surrounding hills and countryside. thanggu and tsopta Valley 32km ahead of Lachen is Thanggu,located close to the Tibetan Plateau. This is as far as foreign tourists are allowed to go. Indians can take a break and enjoy a hearty meal here before making their way to the Tsopta Valley, only 2km away from Thanggu by road (or 5km one way as a great day-hike option). This spot is rich in alpine vegetation, including stunning orchids and rhododendrons.
Past Tsopta Valley, about 30km north, is the Gurudongmar Lake located right on the border with Tibet. One of the highest lakes in the world, it enjoys a stunning setting, with perennial snow peaks all around. While some attribute the lake’s name to Guru Nanak, others claim that it is named after Guru Rinpoche. However, this lake is a popular pilgrimage site for both Buddhists and Sikhs.
Tip: It is advisable to spend no more than an hour at the lake, as the altitude can be dizzying
Where to Stay in Lachen
Both Apple Orchard Resort (Cell: 09474837640; Tariff: â‚¹9,619, with meals) and Lachen View Point (Cell: 08676513511; Tariff: â‚¹3,000—5,000, with full board) are decent options. In all likelihood, your tour operator will choose a hotel for you.
At the fork in the road at Chungthang, the one to the right climbs rapidly to a group of settlements known as Lachung, or ‘the big pass’, which is located merely 15km away from the international border between India and the neighbouring Tibet.
Across the Yumthang River from the main settlement is the Lachung Monastery, a two-storey gompa established in 1880, belonging to the Nyingmapa sect. Its murals are stunning and definitely worth the
trip. The metal cantilever bridge you must take to get to the other side of the river is fascinating in itself. Head further north from Lachung to admire the beautiful Yumthang Valley, about 10km from Lachung proper. This juncture is also the entry point for the Singba Rhododendron Sanctuary, which is a treat when the flower is in bloom between March and early May. The sanctuary has a number of hiking trails, a great chance to give your legs a warm up after all the driving. As you drive around, the valley will get wider and flatter, with stunning vistas of jagged mountain peaks and rich pastures.
Fourteen kilometres ahead of Yumthang Valley is Yume Samdong or Zero Point. At a dizzying height of 15,200ft, this is the spot from which to stare slack-jawed at the sharp peaks that rise towards Tibet. This is the farthest point that tourists can travel up to. Note that the road is often completely blocked by snow during the winter.
Where to Stay & Eat
Unfortunately, the best way to see Lachung is to book the whole trip with a travel agent. Most hotels have
blocked bookings with tour operators, and it might be a problem to get an independent booking, especially in tourist season.
Yarlam Resort (Cell: 09434330033; Tariff: â‚¹10,000—15,000, with meals) is the best accommodation option in Lachung. Modern Residency (Kolkata Tel: 033-40620911; Tariff: â‚¹6,200, with meals) in Singring village is 3km south of Lachung. Both these establishments have restaurants. Le Coxy Resort (Gangtok Tel: 03592- 205113; Tariff: â‚¹6,300) offers 20 well-kept rooms. Cliff View Residency (Cell: 09434023384; Tariff: â‚¹4,500 6,500, with meals) is located near the monastery. It has a restaurant and Wi-Fi, and offers sightseeing and trekking services as well. The Fortuna (Cell: 09434024070, 09832087334; Tariff: â‚¹15,000—33,900) located near the checkpost, has a restaurant.