The Lachung-Lachen region in North Sikkim is blessed with rhododendron sanctuaries, magnificent Himalayan landscapes, rich biodiversity and absolute peace. Lachung, also accessible from Mangan like, Lachen, offers access to Shingba Rhododendron Sanctuary, Yumthang Valley and further up to the Zero Point. Almost all houses in the village are either homestays, hotels or have the locals running small eateries or general stores. Much larger and a bit more happening than Lachen, Lachung sits at 8,610 ft amidst sky-touching peaks, gurgling streams and beautiful apple orchards.
Nestled on the banks of the Lachung chu (river) which divides the village into two parts, the popular hill resort is famed for its apples, peaches and apricots. The major attractions here include the Lachung Gompa and the Handicraft Centre. What makes Lachung truly unique is the fact that the village still lives by the old Sikkimese traditions. For example, it is the only place in the state which continue to follow a unique system of self-governance called the Zumsa, where disputes of the villagers are resolved by an elected body headed by the Pipon. Most of the traditional houses at Lachung are made from pine wood.
The entrance doors of these little but beautiful houses, are most often covered with a Lungta or curtain featuring Tibetan designs and patterns and most commonly images of Tibetan deities. The fences of their balconies are decorated with gorgeous flowery plants, while logs of wood stocked outside for winter use. You will hardly come across more than five to six people in total if you decide to take a walk around Lachung during post-lunch hours.
While Lachung too lacks a happening night life, the Yarlam Resort has a great bar and spa facility too. A stay at this grand property allows one to experience luxury at its best with exciting DVD rentals, a great library and a gaming zone with TT and Snooker tables.
THINGS TO SEE
On the way from Lachen to Lachung, on the road connecting Chungthang to Yumthang valley, lies the grand Bhimnala Waterfall also known as Amitabh Bachchan Fall by the locals, thanks to the towering height it falls from. They lie half an hour drive away from Chungthang and Lachung is another half an hour drive from these falls.
There’s a small wooden bridge in front of the waterfall from where you can take pictures. As you move ahead, you will cross the Bitchu Bridge and just a few metres ahead a gate awaits you with the words ‘Welcome to Lachung’ written bold and bright on its arch. Lachung is 4km from this point. Lachung, thrice the size of Lachen, is divided into five parts: Bitchu, Singring, Sharchok, Katau Road and Faka. Before heading to your hotel and calling it a day, take the metal bridge over the raging torrents of Yumthang River and reach Sanchok. Climb 1.5km along the Katao road to reach the peaceful Lachung Monastery.
The magnificent monastery of Lachung is known for its exquisite murals and ancient statues. Every year, monks perform religious dance on the 28th and 29th day of the Tibetan Calendar (usually December) drawing visitors from all corners of the country. Surrounded by tall trees to its left and a prayer hall right opposite to it, the monastery usually remains closed during the entire day and only Buddhists are allowed to enter inside the main shrine during the early morning hours when the monastery is open.
Lachung serves as a basecamp for visiting the Shingba Rhododendron Sanctuary, Yumthang Valley and Zero Point. Leave your hotel at 7am and travel straight to Shingba, which will be your first destination for the day. After driving through the fairy-tale landscape of the sanctuary, you will reach Yumthang. Don’t stop here to visit the majestic valley and continue your ascent to the Zero Point.
Once you are back in the valley in time, you are free to spend as much time getting drenched in the serene environs of this gem of a valley. End your trip with a dip in the Yumthang Hotspring, followed by lunch at the Yumthang Cafeteria. Even after covering all these spots, you will make it back to Lachung maximum by 2pm. You can spend the rest of the day taking rest or taking a walk around Lachung.
Shingba Rhododendron Sanctuary
On your way from Lachung to Yumthang Valley and then further up to Zero Point, you will first have to drive through the drop-dead gorgeous Shingba Rhododendron Sanctuary, which lies only 8km ahead of Lachung. Blessed with a landscape that looks more Japanese than Indian, the sanctuary offers amazing views of snow-covered peaks as you drive along myriad rhododendron trees. Surrounded by the Chuba-Sagochen mountain ranges on its east and Chomzomei Tso extending till the Lava Pass on its west, the sanctuary sprawls across an area of around 43 sq km and is perched at an altitude of 3048m-4575m. The landscape is dotted with massive grey rocks covered with red algae.
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The Yumthang Chu (river) meanders through the sanctuary adding to the beauty of the breathtaking landscape. Blessed with a rich natural vegetation cover and a rich wildlife, the sanctuary is famous the world over for being home to over 40 species of rhododendron shrubs and trees. Apart from the Rhododendrons which bloom from mid-April to mid-July, the sanctuary is also dotted with other trees including poppies, aconites, saxifrages, gentians, potentillas among many others.
The best time to visit Shingba is during the spring season when the sanctuary comes to life with rhododendron flowers that sprawl far and wide and paint the landscape in a riot of colours. The sanctuary falls under the East Himalayan Mixed Coniferous Forest, Birch-Rhododendron Shrub Forest type and Alpine pastures type.
The sanctuary is also a paradise for bird watchers and some of the commonly spotted birds here include the blood pheasant, alpine accentor, rufous bush robin, White wagtail, yellow-bellied fantail, rufous gorgeted flycatcher and firetailed sunbird among others. The sanctuary is also home to a number of mammals including musk deer, blue sheep, serow, himalayan black beer, goral, Tibetan wolf, otter and if you are lucky, you may even spot a snow leopard or even the untraceable red panda!
It is advisable to keep to the permitted treks and trails, carry back your tins and plastics and keep the noise levels low. Visitors are not allowed to organise merrymaking like camp fire, play loud music and pluck flowers. When done, soaking in the beauty, head to Zero Point.
A trip to the Zero Point is usually clubbed with the Shingba Rhododendron Sanctuary and the majestic Yumthang Valley. To visit all these places, you will have to be stationed at Lachung. When you leave from Lachung, you will first cross the Shinghba Rhododendron Sanctuary, then Yumthang and the last stop would be the Zero Point. It’s best that you travel to Zero Point first and explore Yumthang Valley during your return journey.
Reaching Zero Point, the last outpost of civilisation, is an adventure in itself. The route is embraced by soaring snow-capped peaks adorned with chimal trees in green, red and yellow hues. Carpets of red moss beautifully decorate the roadside as you drive up towards the scintillating Zero Point. The way to Zero Point offers brilliant valley views and is lined with myriad trees.
Gorgeous yellow coloured snakebark maple trees follow you all along as you drive through the fantastic curves and deadly hair pin bends. Then there’s the prunus cornuta or Himalayan bird cherry, abies densa or Sikkim fir, populus ciliata or Himalayan poplar, pleione praecox or peacock orchids and trees of the acer family, to name a few. On your way to Zero, stop at the Daring La Café near the Shiv Mandir Check Post for a quick breakfast. The café is run and managed by the army. Just a few kilometers above this café, you can stop at the Yumthang Valley View Point to witness the unparalleled beauty that North Sikkim continues to offer visitors, in glorious abundance.
Snow-capped mountains being kissed by floating clouds and helicopters hovering over the picturesque landscape will increase your excitement to reach Zero. You will also encounter a large number of Yaks grazing in pristine grasslands on your way. As you approach Zero Point, you may start feeling a bit nauseated but the floating clouds by your car window will change your mood as they wish you a happy and safe journey. And finally, you will be at the Zero Point bustling with tourists. On the left of the Zero Point stands the souring Dongkila Peak, while to its left is the Khargula Peak.The parking stand has a number of small eateries and it is advisable to sip hot coffee or tea or a bowl of maggi to maintain warmth in your body. You can even have a peg of the classic Old Monk for Rs 70 while a cup of coffee would cost you Rs 20. You can also munch on some popcorns and chocolates to avoid any kind of high-altitude sickness. If you have forgotten to bring woollen clothing with you or have left your caps or mufflers at your hotel room, you can still buy them from the small eateries at the parking area. The natural magnificence and chilly winds at Zero would leave you smitten by the sheer majesty of North Sikkim.
Located at an altitude of 15,000ft, the place where Zero Point lies is known as Yume Samdong and it would take you around 1.5 hours to reach here from Yumthang, which is at a distance of 23km. The place is called Zero Point because this is where civilian road ends and civilians are not allowed to go beyond this point. The international border of China lies at a shouting distance from here. The area remains covered with thick snow most times of the season, which is why tourists flock to it in droves. It is considered to be one of the best places in Sikkim to enjoy snow.
Be careful while crossing the little wooden bridge over the crystal-clear waters of the river and don’t go too far from the parking area. Also, it is advisable not to try and climb the naked mountain peaks with your friends. Remember, it is a highaltitude region and you don’t want to invite trouble by stressing yourself out too much, so, trek in moderation. Regardless of that, no matter how challenging or tiring the route to Zero Point may be, but the absolute brilliant landscape definitely makes it worth the run.
Yume Samdong Hotspring
On your way to Yumthang valley from the Zero Point, you can take a small detour to the peaceful Yume Samdong Hotspring, also known as Momay Samdong. A challenging drive leads you to the hot spring set amidst a picturesque landscape. The hot spring is located at the base of the Donkia-la Pass. The drive to the hot spring is as scintillating as the place itself. The drive through the serpentine mountainous roads amidst the souring naked peaks is a thrilling experience.
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After a bumpy ride to the hot spring, the moment you step into the hot waters, it will wipe out all your fatigue. It also helps in reducing body pain. Locals believe that the hot spring has greater medicinal properties during the months of July to September. Locals also worship the place before entering the hot spring. It has always been kept as a secret. Till two years ago, vehicles were unable to reach here and one had to walk 3km to 4km which would usually take 1 to 1.5 hours, given the high altitude and the slow pace required to ascend.
Now, the army has managed to create a narrow but rugged route for vehicles which has made things easier for tourists. Sitting under the lap of mammoth snow-capped peaks, the hot spring comprises of three to four ponds in open, which can be used by men. For women, a small hut has been made.
Prayer flags flying swiftly add to the beauty of the landscape. People have used small stones in odd numbers (3 stones or 7 stones) to create little chodins and tied khada on them to make a wish. They have to come back if their wish comes true. This would take you back to your childhood days of playing satolia or pithu. It’s a very peaceful place where the silences are audible.
The place deserves absolute silence for one to meditate and feel the true essence or magic of the hot spring. You will see small ponds with their inner edges covered with green algae; little bubbles popping up in their boiling waters (the water is so hot that one could actually boil eggs in it).
Tall mountain peaks covered with pine trees stand proud while a river gently flows right through the valley. Yaks graze in flower-spangled grassy plains with the bells around their necks creating melodious sound. Describing valleys as beautiful, as serene and as tranquil as the Yumthang valley can be quite a task, to be honest. Sitting at an elevation of 11,800 ft, the enchanting Yumthang Valley, also known as the Valley of flowers, is truly a sight to behold. Nothing less than a paradise for nature lovers, the valley is blessed with a fascinating blend of flora and fauna. Primulas and rhododendrons paint the valley in varied hues during the spring season.
The valley is strangely situated at what we call ‘the tree-line’, a term used to describe the altitude above which no trees are found. This is what makes it truly unique. While it has trees and rhododendrons, it also abounds in tiny, low-growing Himalayan flowers. The valley is blessed with a rich biodiversity, with over 24 species of rhododendrons adorning its vast stretches.
The valley turns into a collage of colourful little forests during spring. In monsoon, the valley blooms with tiny Himalayan flowers like louseworts, cobra-lilies, cinquefoil and primroses. In addition to a vast green meadow, lush green forest abounding in pine and silver fir trees throngs the place. The large grass meadow at the valley is dotted with greyish-black boulders — some huge, some little and some covered in red moss.
Rows of white prayer flags unfurled at straight bamboo shoots add to the beauty of the valley. The valley is a perfect place to spend quality leisure time with your loved ones. Take a Yak safari on a beautifully draped Yak for Rs 100 or just sit and admire the views from the iron benches placed near the river stream or stroll through the cute little bazaar. The Yumthang Valley is one of those places where one doesn’t feel like doing much. Just admiring the clear blue sky and soaking in the fresh wind that caresses you would be enough.
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After visiting the beautiful Yumthang valley and enjoying at the little market at Yumthang, head to the Yumthang Hot Spring to experience a profound sense of isolation. While driving back from Yumthang valley to Lachung, right after the food kiosks and souvenir shops, a hiker’s pathway on your left leads to a small pedestrian bridge beautifully lined with prayer flags.
This bridge takes you to the hot spring hidden in a brown wooden house towards the right side of the bridge. The water here remains warm even when it’s freezing cold outside. Locals also believe that the water has medicinal properties and is a great healer because of its rich sulphur content. Allow at least half an hour to take a meditative dip in the refreshing water of the hotspring.