Sikkim is a small hilly state in the north-eastern part of India, with Bengal on the south and Nepal, China and Bhutan on the other three sides respectively. The land locked state is completely located inside the Himalayan range, and has mountains ranging from a 3000 ft to 18000 ft. Though this tourist friendly place has beauty to behold the visitors eye on every corner, the best tourist places of Sikkim are mostly in the North Sikkim.
North Sikkim in general is at a higher altitude from the other districts, and the snowline is very close. Also, the vegetation of the area is different. Some of the most attractive tourist spots of North Sikkim are Lachung, Lachen, Yumthang, Gurudongmar Lake, Katao. Mangan is the district headquarter of North Sikkim and can serve as a gateway to North Sikkim.
Understanding and planning for the Best Places of North Sikkim
As discussed in the previous section, Mangan can serve as a gateway to the best places of North Sikkim – Yumthang Valley, Gurudongmar Lake, Katao. The towns to halt for the night are Mangan, Chungthang, Lachen and Lachung. A visitor can choose to stay in any or all of these places depending on the duration of stay and plan. A detailed tour planner for Mangan can be found in this link.
For ease of understanding, the following map is attached:
The most commonly followed tourist circuit in North Sikkim is as follows:
- Travel from Gangtok to Lachen and break for the day
- Visit Gurudongmar Lake from Lachen, come back and head to Lachung. Night halt at Lachung
- Visit Yumthang, come back to Lachung and head back to Gangtok.
- Alternatively, you may stay back at Lachung and also visit Katao. In this case, head back to Gangtok the next day.
The other circuit is based out of Mangan
- Local sight seeing of Mangan – this includes visit to the traditional Lepcha village in Sankhalan, and visit to Mangan monastery
- Do a day-trek to Samartek (optional)
- Travel to Katao, and Yumthang valley. Night halt at Lachen / Lachung
- Visit Gurudongmar Lake, come back and head to Lachung / Mangan
Travel Tip 1: North Sikkim being at proximity to China, you would need permit to vist Gurudongmar Lake. Permits are available at Gangtok and at Mangan.
Travel Tip 2: It is advisable not to go directly from Gangtok or Mangan to Gurudongmar Lake. This lake is at an altitude of more than 18000 ft and lack of oxygen can cause nausea and vomiting. It is therefore recommended that you break in Lachen for the night and acclimatize.
Some detailed description of the places in North Sikkim
Lachen and Gurudongmar Lake
Gurudongmar Lake is situated at a height of 18000 ft in the extreme northern part of Sikkim, and can be reached from the state capital of Gangtok via Chungthang, Lachen, Thangu and Giangong. Gurudongmar is a holy lake for the Sikkimese people. Legend has it that a few hundred years back the lake used to remain frozen throughout the year. Once when the high priest, Guru Padmasambhava was coming from Tibet and and passing through the area, the local people requested him to convert snow of the lake to ice. The guru is said to have touched a part of the lake and blessed the locals. Since then, half of the lake remains frozen, and the remaining half has water in it. Mystically, scientific explanation for the natural phenomenon is still lacking.
As I mentioned earlier, a night stay at Lachen is mandatory for high altitude acclimatisation. Lachen is a small village at an altitude of 12000 ft, where temperatures are nail-biting even in summers. The few small hotels in Lachen offer basic amenities to the traveler. There are no luxurious hotels on offer. The food quality there can also leave the traveler unexcited. However it is the night atmosphere that more than makes up for the lack of amenities there. Especially the adventure loving travelers are adviced to take an evening walk in the hilly roads around the town. The cold, biting wind, the clear night sky, the moon light and the thunderous roar of the Lachen River makes the entire environment seem so un-earthly.
The journey to Gurudongmar starts very early in the morning from Lachen, with breakfast at Thangu, a small hamlet at 14000 ft. After that, the topography changes very drastically as the ascent begins. Coniferous trees give way to bushes. By the time the journey reaches the forward army check-point of Giangong, cold deserts are to be found everywhere. The bitter cold winds of the morning are accompanied by bright sunshine. Not a spec of cloud is to be found anywhere. As far as the eye can see, there is nothing but barren mountains and dusty roads with snow scattered over them at some places.
The lake is another two hour drive from Giangong. Gurudongmar is an awe-inspiring sight. We looked at it with dropped jaws for quite a few moments to register the beauty of the place. The clear blue lake is covered with a thick layer of ice for a major portion. The other half is water. It is surrounded by snow capped mountains on the far side. There is a mall temple at a distance from the lake. Though one can reach the edge, no one is permitted to touch the holy water. The entire place and the atmosphere overwhelm the visitor, and the place has absolute silence all over. Complete peace prevails at 18000 ft.
Lachung and Yumthang Valley
Lachung used to be a village of some importance to the local people of the area, the Lachung Pas. They usually stay higher up in the mountains during the summer months, where their main living comes from live-stock rearing. However, with the on-set of winter, and as the snow starts setting in, they used to come down from the higher mountains to this small village. Over the last few years, apart from being the winter destination for the Lachung Pas, the town has also started becoming a tourist destination. A few hotels have come up in the area. However, a small word of caution to the would-be traveler to Lachung Fooding, especially the non-veg variety can be prohibitively expensive, and might not always be upto the standard one might expect.
Yumthang valley is another extremely beautiful and popular place for tourists. The valley remains closed during the winter months as it becomes inaccessible due to snowfall. It can once again be reached from the month of February, when snow starts receding. The entire valley seems like it has been white-washed then. Come June, and the place seems to undergo a complete metamorphosis, to become the Valley of flowers with flowers starting to cover the valley. Yumthang valley can be reached from Lachung. The valley also houses a small Buddhist Gompha, the Gods of which must be extremely benevolent, because without their blessings, a place as beautiful as this could not exist.
Katao, the highest point of the region, and also the international border with China, lies to the north of Lachung. If you are planning to hit the best places of North Sikkim, you cannot miss this place. Katao is at an altitude of 14000 ft above sea level. It would not be out of place to call this place India’s answer to Switzerland for its fabulous beauty and the snow covered mountain peaks. The perfect white of the place and the feel of snow makes the traveler spellbound. Katao also houses the forward positions of the Indian Army, the men guarding the treacherous borders in such harsh climatic conditions 24×7.
Chungthang is an important town in the North Sikkim district. It serves as a base station for the troops of Indian Army serving the advanced bases along the Sino-Indian border. It is also the base station for Indo-Tibetan Border Police (The Himveers). Geographically, Chungthang is the meeting points of Lachen Chu and Lachung Chu (Chu means river in the local dialect). Chungthang is also the point from which Lachen and Lachung can be reached.
Mangan is a small town in the North district of the hilly state of Sikkim. The district HQ of North Sikkim, Mangan is also known as the Cardamom Capital of the World, as it is the worlds largest producer of large cardamom. Mangan can be reached from Siliguri by passing through Rangpo, Singtham, Dikchu and Makha. In fact, the town lies in the route which connects Gangtok with the extreme northern towns of Sikkim, like Lachen, and Lachung.