A visit to Gangtok would not be complete without seeing the mountains. Views of the mountains are easily seen in the city but to get closer to the mountain range requires a half day excursion out of Gangtok. The half day excursions are typically visits to Changu Lake and Nathu La Pass. What makes these visits interesting is the close distance to the border of India and China’s Tibet Autonomous Region where one can see both Indian and Chinese soldiers guarding the border at 14,140ft above sea level. On the Indian side, Nathu La Pass is only 54km east of Gangtok, just an hour journey from the city.
Only Indians are allowed to visit Nathu La Pass. Foreign nationals like me are not allowed, hence I’m not able to share with you my experience of the pass. However, foreigners are allowed to visit Changu Lake which is en route to Nathu La Pass.
Since Sikkim is under restricted area regime due to its proximity to China, bureaucratic formalities are to be expected. In fact, there are many places in Sikkim where foreigners can travel to and explore but certain areas are defined as Protected Areas and/or have special army deployment, thus off-limits to foreigners. But to know which areas are accessible or off-limits, one needs to check with travel agencies in Gangtok.
To enter the state of Sikkim, foreigners are required to obtain a Inner Line Permit or Restricted Area Permit. And to travel around Sikkim (excluding Gangtok), foreigners are required to obtain another permit. This permit is only allowed in groups with two (minimum) and has to be applied via the travel agencies in Gangtok.
This requirement can be a little tricky for solo travellers. For example, if you are a solo traveller wanting to go to Changu Lake, you will need to check with the travel agency if there is another foreigner wanting to do the same as well. If there is, then it’s well and good, and the cost of the tour can be shared. If there isn’t space in the vehicle for you, then you can hire your own guide and driver, and the travel agency will combine your permit and the permits of foreigners in the other vehicle, as a group travelling together. The vehicles must travel at the same time. The disadvantage with that arrangement is that you won’t be able to save cost for that excursion.
Travel agencies will not combine Indian and foreigners in the same group because locals and foreigners have different formalities, and Sikkimese adhere to the formalities very strictly. As for travelling to other parts of Sikkim, the solution is to probably join a group tour organised strictly for foreigners.
Formalities aside, the short journey to Changu Lake was memorable. We drove on several hairpin bends, a highway cut through the mountains, and traversed past several army cantonments. Halfway through the journey at an altitude of 10,400ft, we stopped at the 15th Mile checkpost for a quick meal of instant noodles and cups of hot chai.
Shortly after the 15th Mile checkpost, we reached Changu Lake. Changu Lake or also known as Tsomgo Lake is situated at an altitude of 12,313 ft. My trip was at the end of October 2015, and just my luck, it snowed the moment I arrived at the lake. In fact just a day before my trip, folks in Gangtok suspected that it would be snowing in Changu because they felt the cold snap coming through the city.
The water of the lake comes from melting snow of the surrounding mountains, thus the lake never dries up. During the winter, the lake is frozen, and sometimes till April.
Friends were surprised that I had spent so much time and effort to apply for that additional permit to go to Changu Lake on a half-day excursion. Hmm, there are times I’m not able to justify logically, and simply because I just wanted to see the lake and to get closer to the mountains. There is no doubt that I wanted to see the rest of Sikkim but had found out about the formalities much too late on that trip. Anyhow, there’s something magical about the Himalayan mountain range – no matter how illogical the efforts and journeys – it will always draw you in and ensure that you never forget it.
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