Next morning we prepared for our trip to Tsomgo Lake, Baba Mandir and Nathula in a shared vehicle. A popular and probably the best day tour from Gangtok is a trip to Tsomgo Lake – a glacial lake about 35kms from Gangtok and at an altitude of about 12,310 ft. The same day trip also covers the fabled Baba Mandir. You can additionally cover Nathula Pass which is further up and about 52kms from Gangtok and see the Indo Chinese border and the Chumbi valley through which the old Silk Route (i.e. the trade route between India and Tibet) passes. We finished our breakfast at around 9 am and took a packed lunch with us.
Tsomgo Lake and Baba Mandir combination takes more or less 5-6 hours round trip (including the time it takes to see the places). With Nathula it becomes a full day trip. Note that you should take a large vehicle like Scorpio, Jeep, etc for these places due to the road condition and steep hill. All these places (Tsomgo, Baba Mandir and Nathula) are restricted areas and only Indians are allowed to go to with necessary permits.
How to reach Tsomgo Lake, Baba Mandir and Nathula
You can take a round trip tour package from an authorized tour operator in Gangtok. Vehicles from Sikkim government-approved tour operators are only allowed for Nathula. Click below for some of such well-known operators.
From Gangtok shared jeeps and reserved vehicles like Scorpio, Innova, Bolero, sumo, etc are available for group tours that operate on per person rates. Nathula is on Gangtok-Nathula Highway. It will need a full day trip from Gangtok to go to Nathula. It is typically combined with visits to Tsomgo Lake and cake Mandir.
The road condition is not good. Only jeep or SUV kind vehicles (like Bolero, Scorpio, etc) ought to be taken to approach Nathula. Sometimes because of snow, landslides and different road conditions, traffic gets held up for hours on this route.
The cost can vary depending on the season. During the season (like April to June, and October to November) shared vehicle would cost about Rs. 700/- per person for Tsomgo lake, Baba Mandir and Nathula including permit fee. A reserved vehicle like Scorpio or Innova would cost around Rs. 7,000/- including all permits. Reserved Sumo or Max would cost Rs. 5,500/-. In low season, shared vehicles are usually not available. Reserved vehicles cost lower (rates negotiable).
Note that Nathula is a protected area. Foreign tourists are not allowed here. Indians need a valid Protected area permit (PAP) to go to Nathula. A permit is issued by the Sikkim tourism Department in Gangtok. You can get it done through a registered tour operator. You can visit Nathula solely by a vehicle provided by one of the Sikkim Government approved operators. You can not simply take a taxi or another vehicle and head for Nathula… you will not be allowed.
You will need photo ID proof (PAN card not accepted) and two passport size photos each. You should apply for the permit at least one day before your planned visit. If you plan to visit Nathula the very next day you arrive at Gangtok, you should then send your documents and photos to your tour operator in advance to get the permits done before you arrive. Permit cost is Rs. 200/- per person. Permits are not required (or issued) to children below 4 years. You can, however, take an infant at your own risk.
Note that Nathula Pass being an Indo-Chinese border area, photography and videography are not allowed. However, tourists do take pictures and this prohibition is not strictly implemented. Shared Jeep for Tsomgo, Baba Mandir, Nathula (from Gangtok stand): Rs. 700/- per person including permits.
Tsomgo Lake- Our first point is Tsomgo Lake.One of the very famous tourist attractions in Sikkim.Which is only 40 km from the state capital of Gangtok. Situated at an altitude of 12,210 feet, the Tsomgo Lake, the lake can be reached by two hours by jeep ride. This one-kilometer long oval-shaped lake is fifty feet deep. Regarded very holy by the locals, the lake is a residence of Brahmini ducks along with being a stopover for numerous migratory ducks. The lake is at its scenic best between could and August for an array of rare flowers as well as the rhododendrons, primulas, iris and blue and yellow poppies bloom here during this period. An ideal environment of the red panda, the lake also shelters a number of other birds and aquatic species. Falling during a restricted space on the Gangtok Nathu La route, the lake can only be visited by prior permission of the authorities. Foreign nationals will only visit the lake having obtained a no objection certificate from the managing authorities of the lake. The calm water of the lake gets frozen in winter. The Tsomgo lakeside is also characterized by a small temple dedicated to Lord Shiva. The temple serves as a famous pilgrimage center for Shaivites visiting Sikkim.
Nathu La-Nathu La is a mountain pass in the Himalayas. It connects the Indian state of Sikkim with China’s Tibet Autonomous Region. The pass, at 4,310 m (14,140 ft) above mean sea level, forms a part of a subsidiary of the ancient Silk Road. Only citizens of India can visit the pass, and then only after obtaining a permit in Gangtok.
Nathu La is one of the three open trading border posts between China and India; the others are Shipkila in Himachal Pradesh and Lipulekh (or Lipulech) at the trisection point of Uttarakhand–India, Nepal, and China. Sealed by India after the 1962 Sino-Indian War, Nathu La was re-opened in 2006 following numerous bilateral trade agreements. The opening of the pass shortens the travel distance to important Hindu and Buddhist pilgrimage sites in the region and was expected to boost the economy of the region by playing a key role in the growing Sino-Inditrade. However, trade is limited to specific types of goods and to specific days of the week.
Nathu La Pass is around 56 km from Gangtok and takes about 3 hours to reach. The roads are mostly bad and there is a lot of construction going on all through the way. Add to this the complications of fallen boulders, landslides, etc and it was a slow journey. The trucks are mostly army vehicles. If I was in the army I would probably be really annoyed with the hordes of tourist jeeps visiting there every day, which probably makes their daily job difficult.
When we reached the pass, the weather was very good. It is at 14,500 ft altitude. Some of us had a slight headache and the kids were feeling a bit nauseous, due to altitude sickness. Gangtok is about 4500 ft, so just in 50 km we end up climbing almost 10,000 ft and some people cannot handle that. To reach the top, you have to climb steps which are slightly very tiring because of the low oxygen. It was a thrilling and awesome experience for me to see the border posts and the flag flying. Also felt deep admiration for the army and the soldiers who not only face the enemy but also have to brave the weather and the terrain every single day to keep us all safe. We walked around, took a few pictures and made a quick stop at the cafe. By now, clouds were everywhere. It was very windy and the wind was kicking up the snow all around, making visibility very poor. Apparently, this is what happens around noon every day and the rest of the day is downhill weather wise. That’s why the guides insist on early departures from the hotel so that we can visit at a good time.
Baba Mandir-Our last point is Baba Mandir. Located between Nathula and Jelepla pass at an altitude of 13,123 ft and about 52kms from Gangtok, Baba Harbhajan Singh Temple is popularly known as Baba Mandir. One usually covers this temple along with a visit to Tsongmo Lake or Nathula Pass. The Old Baba Mandir is about 60 Km, on the route to Nathu-La. The new temple is near the Menmecho lake, about 40 Km from Gangtok.
There is a story behind Baba Mandir. Let us share that. A young soldier, carrying supplies to a remote outpost, was lost. It was wartime, and with the bad weather and difficult terrain, it was clear he was no more, but his body wasn’t found. This, while a sad incident, was not really news. A few days later, a colleague had a dream, directing him to the place where the body lies. The body is indeed found at the exact spot mentioned in the dream, and the story now became news! The soldier’s body is cremated with full honor, but the story doesn’t end there. A few weeks later, as the war continued, another soldier had a dream, in which his dead colleague warned him of an awaiting attack by the enemy. The force sets out with its doubts, just in case, and the enemy is taken by surprise. The doubts vanished, and the young soldier is now a hero. His warnings continued, and rang true; even the enemy began to see his shadow on the borders, and he now makes the transition from hero to saint. His colleagues built a shrine for him, and thousands of people made the difficult journey to gain the blessing of the young patriot. This is the story of young Major Harbhajan Singh, a soldier with the Indian Army, who met his end at the age of 26, while posted at the Nathu-La pass in Sikkim in 1967. The shrine dedicated to him has located about 60 Km from Gangtok, near the site where his body was found. For the convenience of visitors, another shrine has been built at a lower altitude, so that people don’t have to travel this far. The old temple, as the original shrine is called, is a replica of the bunker the young soldier lived in, along with his colleagues. This shrine is like a museum to his memory, preserving most of his personal belongings, such as his clothes, his photographs, bedding, etc. Thousands of religious made the long journey to ask for his blessings and pray for their wishes to come true. It is believed that water kept in the shrine overnight and drunk the next day, has the capacity to cure all illness.
I was most enthralled by the story, as it illustrated the power of faith and belief, and the ease with which we accept miracles and myths. The bulk of the visitors at the shrine are army men, from regiments across India. Their faith in their colleague is complete, and there is no room for doubt in their minds. Each regiment on duty takes its turn to maintain the shrine, and duties are assigned accordingly. The army itself helps take the story ahead, by keeping his memory alive, by treating him as an active soldier, paying his family his salary, and even booking tickets for his return home each year! A few of his colleagues make the journey home every year, ensuring that the seat reserved for him goes empty, and is not allotted to anyone else! Even more interesting is the fact that even the Chinese Army accepts his presence. Chinese soldiers are said to talk of a lone soldier patrolling the border, of whom only a shadow is seen! A chair is set aside for him during the weekly flag meetings at Nathu La, even after all these years! The temple site is picturesque, surrounded by the snow clad mountains and the Kanchenjunga in the distance. The long road journey is however tiring. I can appreciate the story of a man whose soul refuses to rest and continues the duty he wished to perform alive. However, I cannot understand the idea of always looking for a shortcut, or looking for saints and Gods to solve our problems. We can look to them for inspiration, but the solution has to be our own. They can show us the way, we have to live our life ourselves. The young soldier finds a way to do his duty, even after death. Can’t we find our own way, while we are still alive?
Now the question will come,
When to visit Nathula?
First, you should note that Nathula is open only from Wednesday to Sunday of the week. It’s closed on Mondays and Tuesdays to the public. Good time to visit is between May to October when the temperature is around 10 to 15°C. On a clear day, you can see the entire pass and the landscape with towering mountain peaks in the background. You won’t usually get any snow during this time.
Winter starts from November and peaks between December to February. This is when heavy snowing takes place and the temperature can easily go below -25°C. Often the route to Nathula remains closed during winter when it snows heavily. However if the route is open and you make a visit during the winter, pick up snow boots and heavy winter-wears along the way. There are stalls that offer such snow gears on rentals. The two months – November and March are a good time to see Nathula covered in snow. The route usually remains open on these two winter months.