Sunday, May 13, 2007

Himalayan Holiday - Lake Tsongmo

The next morning we were heading to Lake Tsongmo. This is a high altitude lake not far from the Chinese border. The proximity to China meant that I was required to get a further permit in order to travel there. This was all arranged the day before by our travel agent whilst we were out sightseeing. As we left Gangtok and headed towards the border at Nathula we soon passed our first checkpoint. Forms presented, and the military satisfied, we pushed on.

Tsongmo is approximately 40 kilometres from Gangtok, and at 3,780m the road is ever upwards with constant bends. As the temperature dropped the windows were rolled up to keep out the cool air. As we gained altitude the sides became ever sheerer. You wouldn't want to fall off these roads. The vertiginous drops on the one side were matched by cliffs and waterfalls on the other. We stopped off at a couple of falls and took some pictures. As we neared the destination patches of snow began to appear. This was the first snow I've seen in India - distant mountain tops excepted. Unlike some of the Indian tourists we didn't stop to have our picture taken or write our names in the white stuff.

The snow cover increased from a few fast melting drifts to patchily covered north facing slopes by the time we reached the lake itself. No blue skies; indeed the mountain tops were poking into the clouds. The jeep was parked and we headed out. We were soon surrounded by yaks and their handlers. The yaks come with very fetching wooly horn warmers, and they are saddled up ready to ride. They reminded San of highland cows; although I'm pretty sure no-one has tried to put a saddle on one of those beasts.

San took a ride around the lake, whilst I headed up the mountainside on my Yak. It proved very capable at scaling a steep an narrow path, and we were soon above the lake and on the ridge. There the yak was parked, and we pressed on by foot. Not expecting this impromptu hill walk I was not exactly dressed for the occasion. At least I had a decent light weight jacket as I had been expecting it to be cool, but my shoes offered no grip on the snow that remained on the top. First we headed for a viewpoint a small distance up from our yak. Immediately I could feel the effects of the thin air, as I was breathing very heavily despite the gentle gradient. It wasn't just me, as the yak had been panting pretty hard when it took a couple of breaks on the way up, and I don't think I'm that heavy! The handler however bounded up the whole way without breaking a sweat. There wasn't much of a view because of the clouds so we pressed on for the summit. A few minutes of scrambling up a steeper section and we were there. There was company too, as we met a mixed group of Brits, Germans, Poles and Americans with their guide. They were a bit better equipped than I, and their GPS gave the altitude at a little over 4,000m. Their guide told me we were 15 kilometres from China, and 20 kilometres in the opposite direction would take us to Bhutan.

Going downhill was easier. At one point there was a flash of blue and orange, and a grouse sized bird lept out of the rhododendrons. The yak handler described it as some kind of jungly (ie wild) chicken. He did tell me the name, but it has escaped me. At one point on the ridge the clouds cleared enough to see a more distant hill. the yak handler told be that China was on the other side. The weather then closed in, and it began to snow. I followed the handler back to the yak, and we headed back to the lake. The yak was sure-footed on the steepest parts of the descent, but it was slightly nerve-wracking from my vantage point on its back.

I found San back by the lakeside. The snow had followed me down the hill, so we headed into a shack for lunch. I had my first taste of momos. They are a local dish, a bit like wontons, that I had wanted to try for lunch the day before. The fancy restaurant told us they would take half an hour to prepare, so we chose something else. The lakeside shack provided a delicious plateful instantly.

Warmed up, we headed back to Gangtok. We had some spare time once we got there, so we took in another waterfall and monastery. Our visit to the monastery coincided with prayers so the inner sanctum was full of chanting monks. We then went to a large indoor market that San had spied the day before, and had been eager to visit. There she bought some gum boots, something we've had difficulty finding in Pune, for Roshni to wear in the coming monsoon. She also stocked up on various items of Chinoiserie that she had been keen to purchase.



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