Kavita Kanan Chandra
Serene and spectacular, the Gurudongmar Lake, at an altitude of 17,100 feet in North Sikkim, looks ethereal in all its pristine glory. The three-hour arduous drive from lush green Lachen village to the cold desert via alpine meadows is worth it. Due to its proximity to the China-Tibet border, only Indian citizens with inner line permits can visit the place. Just a few kilometres apart is glacial freshwater Tso Lhamu (the Cholamu Lake) that remains frozen for the better part of the year. Hardly 4km from the Chinese border, getting permission to visit this place is even tougher.
Both these lakes are beautiful — they literally take away your breath as you grapple with low oxygen level. As you breathe in deeply the crisp mountain air, while lost in the enchanting world of lofty mountains, glacial lake and clear sky, chances are the high altitude will hit you hard, ensuing splitting headache. If you are not a mountain person, then take precautions as tourists are often seen fainting or getting sick. Acclimatise yourself, drink plenty of water and eat carbohydrate rich food. Breathe and walk slowly to take in the view and savour these moments of joy.
Holy to Buddhists & Sikhs
The colourful rows of Buddhist prayer flags and the serenity of the Gurudongmar Lake lend a touch of spirituality to the place. In the stark barren land, an overpowering calm envelopes you. Named after Guru Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche), founder of the Tibetan Buddhism, the lake is also revered by the Sikhs, who believe it to be blessed by Guru Nanak. Legends and myths abound around it. In fact, most lakes in the Northeast have tales and fables woven around them. According to a legend, a part of the Gurudongmar Lake doesn’t freeze because Guru Rinpoche dipped his hand into it; and the Tsomgo Lake is frozen as once a crown prince had drowned in it. The Tsomgo or the Changu Lake in East Sikkim could be visited by foreigners after obtaining necessary permits. The 1km long oval lake lies at an altitude of 12,313 feet. A Shiva temple by the lakeside, refreshment stalls, yak rides and lot of bird’s species make it a tourist hotspot.
The glacial lakes in Northeast are enchanting, but one needs to endure inhospitable terrain, rough roads and inclement weather en route. The beauty of the Sangestar Lake in the Tawang district of Arunachal Pradesh has lured even Bollywood despite its remoteness and difficulties involved in getting there. Thanks to Bollywood actress Madhuri Dixit, who shot for one of her movies here, the lake is also known as "Madhuri lake". The picturesque lake, with surrounding mountains and bamboo poles jutting out of it, has been a huge attraction for tourists. For history buffs, the nearby Bum La Pass holds a greater significance. The Dalai Lama escaped from Tibet to India through this pass; and in the 1962 India-China war, the Indian Army fought heroically at this spot.
From high altitudes as you descend into the Himalayan foothills and valleys and river basins, the lakes and its vicinity are replete with exotic flora and fauna. Many of them being biodiversity sites, they support local economy in a big way, creating livelihood and recreational opportunities.
The 220 sq km Umiam Lake in Barapani, Meghalaya, was made by constructing a dam across the river Umiam. Known as ‘water of tears’ in Khasi, it’s swollen during the monsoon. It had the first hydel power project in Northeast. The sylvan surroundings of East Khasi hills, Lum Nehru Park by the lakeside and water sports facility have made it a happening tourist spot.
The largest freshwater lake in Northeast, the Loktak Lake in Manipur is also a source for hydro power generation. Famous as a floating lake, this Ramsar wetland (a wetland site designated to be of international importance) contributes to irrigation, drinking water and fishing. This is the only home to endangered brow-antlered deer or Sangai.
It’s floating ‘Phumdis’ (heterogeneous mass of vegetation, soil and organic matter in various stages of decay) have huts where fisherfolk lives. But nowadays the environmental degradation has impacted the lake’s biodiversity and the fishing community is worried. Along with Loktak, the other two Ramsar wetlands of Deepor Beel in Assam and the Rudrasagar Lake in Tripura also have great biodiversity but are environmentally threatened. Deepor Beel means the ‘lake of elephants’ in local dialect — it’s named so as a major elephant corridor passes through Deepor Beel sanctuary. The Northeast’s first Ramsar site, in 2002, the lake has abundance of fish, aquatic vegetation, fauna and a 414-hectare birds’ sanctuary. Some 219 bird species have been sighted there, including many threatened endemic and migratory birds like spot-billed pelican, baer’s pochard, lesser adjutant stork, among others.
The Rudrasagar Lake is a natural sedimentation lake that looks impressive with the majestic Neermahal situated in its Northeast bank. An important birding site in winter, the lake is threatened by solid waste, weeds and use of pesticides in the adjoining areas.
In Nagaland, the Doyang Lake and the Shilloi Lake, nestled in the valley with pine trees, are important bird sites. The longest travelling raptors, amur falcons, fly from Mongolia to South Africa, stop to roost at the Doyang Lake. Mizoram’s Palak Lake, not far from the Myanmar forest, is a winter stopover for migratory pintail duck and host to number of wetland and hill birds.
The Chandubi Lake in Assam’s Kamrup district, lying in the foothills of Garo hills, and the lake in Kaziranga National Park are also a birdwatcher’s paradise. The rolling tea gardens en route these lakes in Assam make an excursion even more enticing. The lakes of Northeast are not only delightfully charming but also a breeding ground for a plethora of wildlife. Often situated amid lofty mountains or dense forest, the calm and peace make them irresistible for any nature lover.
Gurudongmar Lake, Sikkim
Location: 190km from Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim Altitude: One of the highest lakes in the world, situated at 5, 183m from sea level Best time to visit: October to April How to get there: Stay overnight at Lachen, a small town about 50 ahead of the lake Start early in the morning, and do not stay for more than half-an-hour at the lakePrecautions: Cover yourself in woollens, and do not forget to carry medicines for motion sickness
Sangestar Lake, Arunachal Pradesh
Location: In the Tawang district of Arunachal Pradesh, 543km from Guwahati Altitude: One of the remotest high-altitude lake, it’s 3,078m above sea level Best time to visit: October to May How to get there: Either by helicopter from Guwahati, or by road from Tawang, a small town. The lake is just half-an-hour away from the town. Precautions: Carry warm clothing and sufficient drinking water while visiting this beautiful lake