North Sikkim is on its way to becoming a top-notch tourist destination, but travel infrastructure can still be touch-and-go, and travelling by yourself might be more trouble than it is worth. In addition, the earthquakes in 2011 and 2012, which resulted in flash floods, caused dramatic and tragic loss of infrastructure in the region. However, 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 ₹30,000–35,000 for 2 pax, all inclusive.

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Pristine waters of Gurudongmar Lake
Pristine waters of Gurudongmar Lake

Though there has been a push to make Lachung, down the other fork in the road from Chungthang, the premier tourist destination in north Sikkim, Lachen and its surrounds are nothing to scoff at. 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 is 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 AND 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 the north of Gangtok is the Phensang Gompa, a small gompa, approximately 300 years old and 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 beautifully deco-rated, and the prayer halls are well worth a walkaround. The annual festival of Chaam is celebrated here on the 28th and 29th days of the 10th month of the Tibetan calendar.

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The façade of Phodong Monastery near Lachen
The façade of Phodong Monastery near Lachen

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 stones commemorating the treaty. It is a peaceful spot, and a pleasant place to take a short break.

Further down the road towards Chungthang, 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 equally impressive photo oppor-tunities, as well as a hot cup of tea at the government-run cafeteria.

Eight kilometres away is Phodong, which 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 residen-tial quarters. Inside are extensive murals, as well as a large statue of the 9th 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.

Four kilometres ahead lies the Labrang Gompa, an unusual octagonal-shaped monastery. It 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 Padmasambhava.

Courtesy Apple Orchard Resort
A cottage at the Apple Orchard Resort
A cottage at the Apple Orchard Resort

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 good option for a stopover for those who want a substantial meal and some time to discover and 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 known for having been visited by two famous 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 Chungthan, it is a short drive to Lachen (27km), at around 2,750m, in a beautiful valley.

Lachen Village

Visitors can pleasantly 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. As always, when in other peoples’ space, it is best to ask permission to 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 best to let your body acclimatise to Lachen’s height of 9,000ft, before you head to Gurudongmar, which is a staggering height of over 17,000ft.

Lachen Gompa

The Nyudrup Choeling Gompa in Lachen is a 20-minute walk ahead of and above 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 at the top of the town, with panoramic views of the surrounding hills and countryside.

Thanggu and Tsopta Valley

Another 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 lovely 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.

Gurudongmar Lake

Past Tsopta Valley, about 30km north is the awe-inspiring 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. Carry lots of drinking water and warm clothing. Start early in the morning and be back to Lachen latest by lunch time

WHERE TO STAY AND EAT IN LACHEN

Apple Orchard Resort (Cell: 09474837640; Tariff: ₹9,619, with meals) is a comfortable option. Lachen View Point (Cell: 086765-13511; Tariff: ₹3,000–5,000, with full board) is another decent option here. In all likelihood your tour operator will choose a hotel for you.

FAST FACTS

When to Go March to August, or between November and December when the weather is freezing but the landscape is stunning

Restricted area: Best way to arrange a trip here is through a regis­tered travel agent

GETTING THERE

State Sikkim

Location Located in the district of North Sikkim, Lachen lies at an elevation of 8,500ft

Distance 117km N of Gangtok

Route from Gangtok via the narrow NH 31A or North Sikkim Highway 

Road Driving is pretty much the only way to explore north Sikkim. It is best to hire a jeep or share one from Gang­tok rather than try to drive yourself