The pristine mountains of North Sikkim are still relatively untrammelled by tourists. Lush rhododendron sanctuaries, rustic hamlets, spectacular Himalayan scenery, exotic flora and fauna and the remote but atmospheric lake of Gurudongmar in the far northern reaches – you have all these and more to explore within a two-day drive from Gangtok.
The narrow NH31A going north past Gangtok towards Lachung and Lachen clings dangerously to steep wooded slopes above the Teesta River, occasionally descending in long coils of hairpin bends only to climb up again. Consider several photo stops along the way via Singhik. At Chungthang, the next settlement after Singhik, the road branches up the Lachung Chu and Lachen Chu valleys (‘chu’ means river).
If you only have time to visit one destination, let it be Lachung, which not only has impressive scenery but is the best base for the majestic Yumthang Valley 23km further north. This point is also the entry to the national parks, reserves and wildlife sanctuaries.
Once you’re done visiting Lachung and Yumthang, you have to return to Chungthang to take the road to the traditional mountain village of Lachen. Most travellers schedule an overnight stop here to acclimatise to the altitude, which increases rapidly on the following day as they venture north toward the village of Thanggu. Past Thanggu, the road climbs into high country, leading into the isolated and hauntingly pretty Tsopta Valley. The prestige act of the journey, the sublimely beautiful Gurudongmar Lake, lies at the end of the road, within shouting distance of the Sino-Indian border.
Soaring rock-pinnacled valley walls embroidered with long ribbons of waterfall surround the scattered village of Lachung. To appreciate the full drama of its setting, take the metal cantilever bridge across the wild Yumthang River to the Sanchok side then climb 1.5km along the Katao road for great views from the Lachung (Sarchok) Gompa, which was established 1880, and houses some refined murals.
Set against a backdrop of pine-clad mountains and snowy peaks, the traditional mountain village of Lachen retains its quaintness despite burgeoning development. Look out for old wooden homes on sturdy stone bases and decorated with colourful Tibetan-style window frames. Logs are stacked everywhere for winter fuel. Mornings and evenings are best for exploring rustic life; ask for permission when photographing people.
Lachen (Nyudrup Choeling) Gompa is a 15-minute walk above the town and is most likely to be open early morning or late afternoon. At the beginning of town, beside a giant cypress tree, is a huge mounted prayer wheel and a spooky collection of geometric threads designed to trap evil spirits. While journeying from Lachen to Tsopta Valley and Gurudongmar Lake, consider stopping at Thanggu (3850m), a 32km drive north of Lachen, for some refreshments on the go. The popular Thanggu Resort, a simple wooden house incorporating a traditional-style kitchen, is a welcome stop for hot tea, steaming momos and Maggi noodles.