May 27th, 2023
We at OurGuest Travels believe in exploring exciting destinations at remote locations, finding unique activities and bringing them to our guests all over the country. The annual Yak Race at Lashar Valley, North Sikkim and the Green Lake trek were two such events which we have always wanted to promote but were sceptical due to the high altitude terrains and the trek involved. This year however, we have done our homework beforehand, got the guides ready and prepared an exciting fixed departure to the mystical Lashar Valley for our guests during the time of Dukpa Tse Chi – An important festival for Tibetan Buddhists around the world.
What is Drukpa Tsechi?
This Buddhist festival is celebrated to observe Buddha’s first preaching of the “Noble Truths” at the deer park in Sarnath. It falls on the fourth day of the sixth month in the Tibetan calendar. According to the English Calendar, it falls somewhere around July or August each year.
Why is Drukpa Tsechi celebrated?
After his enlightenment the Buddha preached his First Sermon Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta or ‘Turning the Wheel of Dhamma’ to five ascetics, who had previously been his companions, in the deer park near Varanasi on the eve of Saturday, the full moon day of July. The sermon contains the fundamental principles of his teaching expressed in the Four Noble Truths: life is suffering, the cause of suffering, cessation of ends suffering, and the way to end suffering is to follow the Noble Eightfold Path of right views, right aims, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration. While listening to his discourse, the ascetics became the disciples of the Buddha.
In which state is Drukpa Tseshi festival celebrated?
At Lashar Valley, Sikkim this festival is celebrated by the Dokpas ( yak heardsmen). A yak race is held on the event of this festival and is a delight to watch. The local herdsmen (Dokpas) ride their yaks in a unique spectacle called the Yak Race.
The Yaks don’t take too well to being sprinted down a line, and make their displeasure known by running amok. With a thunderous rumble, they disperse at will, scattering the crowd and dislodging riders at times! In all the confusion, there’s only one rider who eventually manages to somehow stay on course and cross the line. With no concept of a runner-up, the prize distribution begins even as the other riders are strewn all over the valley trying to get their yaks under control!!
'ZACHU' - THE LASHAR VALLEY
The Yak race and offering of prayers have been part of the Drukpa Tshechi festivities in the valley for generations, adding a sense of adventure and mysticism. Located at an altitude of about 15,000 ft, Zachu is home to the ‘Dokpa’ – a dwindling nomadic tribe who have roamed the cold deserts of North Sikkim and the Tibetan Plateau for generations. For a few months during the summer, the valley is ideal pasturelands with plenty of nutrition for the animals and great sources of drinking water.
What you can expect in Lashar Valley Trek with OurGuest?
Lhashar Valley,or locally known as ‘Zachu’ is located at an altitude of about 15,000 ft and is home to the Dokpa – a dwindling nomadic tribe who have roamed the cold deserts of North Sikkim for generations. It is not accessible by road and one has to trek across a ridge for 4-5 hours to reach the other side of the valley. High winds, cold climes and unique flora and fauna are all part of the Lashar experience and this is one of the few places one can get off a vehicle and trek directly into such altitudes in the Eastern Himalayas!
Post breakfast we depart for an early day of hiking to the campsite. The day starts with a 1-hour drive to the starting point of the trek called Thangu, which is the last civilian settlement in the area located at approx. 14,800 ft. which we may have visited the previous day for acclimatization hikes.
The trek climbs to a ridgeline from where one follows an old trail down to the other side of the valley.
Scenic views of the Himalayan range and a picture perfect Wide valley with OX bow lakes will greet you as you wind your way down.
Trek duration approx. 4-5 hrs. Depending on fitness levels.
The day is the occasion of Drukpa-Tsechi which signifies the first teachings of the four noble truths by Lord Buddha. On this day here, one will witness some offerings to the local guardian deities and also some celebrations in local dance and meals.
Crowds from the lower village of Lachen start gathering at Lasher before daybreak amid mounting excitement. The sight of the yaks, egged on by their riders, prancing around in the shadow of Mount Ghyaokhang that looks bright red against the rising sun, is too surreal to describe. And the event itself, once it begins, defies the very notion of a race. The yaks obviously do not always adhere to the rules of the race and run amok. The herdsmen-the Dokpas race their yaks across the valley floor-the winner who enjoys bragging rights and a chance for some fun and frolic.
Enjoy some time with the Dokpas as this is one of the only times outsiders get an opportunity to meet in person these ancient nomadic people.
For centuries, Dokpa migration routes spanned the rugged frontier between Tibet and the Kingdom of Sikkim. Their transnational existence persisted until the early 1960’s, by which time Tibet had fallen under the control of China and Sikkim had entered into a special relationship with India, retaining its independence (until 1975) but relying on India’s army for its defense.
Many Dokpas – who are also known as Doksas or Drokpas – liked to spend summers in North Sikkim, where the alpine valleys provided rich grass for their herds. They’d retreat to Tibet in winter, when the Sikkimese valleys would be buried by snow. Meanwhile, as the masters of this difficult terrain, the Dokpas dominated the region’s trans-Himalayan trade, running goods between Tibet and Sikkim and guiding merchants, travelers, diplomats and pilgrims over the mountains.
Army deployment began with full time monitoring of the frontier and the area was heavily covered by land mines.Those Dokpas who happened to be on the Sikkimese side of the line were stuck and their usual migration and trade routes severed. It was assumed that as Tensions died down the routes would soon be opened up and the one would go back to the old ways but this sadly never happened and now the border remain closed, tightly, to this day.
No longer able to access Tibet, life for the Dokpas in Sikkim, which was never what one would call easy, became increasingly challenging. With the demise of their trading operations, the lifeblood of their economy ceased to flow. Their nomadic range was drastically reduced in size, yet they still had to move seasonally with their yaks. Since the valleys – which sit between 14,000 and 16,000 feet above sea level – catch and hold snow, by the end of October most Dokpas shift to pastures at around 18,000 feet, where the terrain is flatter and the wind is so fierce it blows the snow off of the ground, revealing just enough grass for the yaks to survive. The Yak are the lifelines of the Dokpas and to them their existence literally depends on the Yak they herd – from a source of protein, milk and even for clothing.
In May the Dokpas descend again, as the snows melt and good grass once again emerges in the valleys. They are the rare group of pastoralists who migrate to higher altitudes in winter and lower altitudes in summer.
The term Lachen in local dialect means “big pass”. The town is located at the base of Chopta Valley and Gurudongmar lake. Lachen stands on a grassy and bushy flat land separated by deep gorges of the Lachen-Chu. The village has picturesque surroundings with grassy mountain slopes on one side and imposing snow-capped peaks, glaciers and rock cliffs on the other. Surrounded by the conifers and Rhododendron forests, Lachen is appealing to travellers of all types and visitors throng this settlement that acts as a base for all trips to the famous Gurudongmar lake further up.
PLACES TO VISIT AROUND LACHEN
Situated at an altitude of 17100 ft, the Gurudongmar lake is the second highest lake in India. Surrounded by snow-clad mountains, the place is a sight to behold. The lake is named after Guru Padmasambhava, a philosopher and a buddhist saint known widely for his amazing skills in the practice of Tantric Buddhism and had visited this spot on his way back from Tibet. Naturally, the Buddhists, as well as Hindus, consider the lake sacred. During the winters, the entire lake freezes except for a small area. It is believed that Guru Padmasambhava had blessed the lake by placing his hand on a portion of the lake. It is that portion which never freezes, even during the coldest of winters. The water of the lake is also said to have curative properties. You will see hundreds of colourful prayer flags all around the place. Close to the lake, there is a temple named Sarva Dharma Sthal. It is a place for worship for all the religions.
Gurudongmar Lake should be visited as early as possible. It is recommended to start from Lachen before 5 AM towards Gurudongmar Lake as it takes 3 to 4 hours to reach there from Lachen. Also, as the day progresses, the entire region becomes very windy and it becomes impossible to stay near the lake. Also, as there is little or no vegetation at this region and one may experience breathing difficulties near the lake due to the altitude.
Chopta Valley is a dreamy wonderland. Located just 2 km from Thangu at an altitude of 13200 ft, the place is a mesmerizing treat to the eyes. The majestic view of the snow covered peaks, meandering rivers and alpine meadows dominate the landscape and one can spot wandering Yak grazing in the colorful expanse.
During each season, the valley gets a new look. At the onset of spring it turns into a beautiful carpet of alpine flowers including Rhododendron, primula and other alpine flowers that last right through till August. The autumn months of October and November promise snowy peaks and clear blue skies which slowly give way to a winter wonderland December through till march where snow is the dominant feature and one can walk over the frozen rivers! One can visit Chopta Valley on your way back from Gurudongmar Lake.
Serene and idyllic is what Thangu represents! Located at an altitude of 13000 ft and 30 km from Lachen, Thangu serves as a good stopover between Lachen and Gurudongmar Lake especially for a quick bite! The change in vegetation can be seen at Thangu itself where the tree lines start disappearing giving way to stunted bushes. During May and June, alpine flowers bloom in the entire valley. The Thangu village comprises of a few houses and a large army base. There are a few shops from where one can enjoy a hot cup of tea and some familiar maggi. This is the last civilian settlement on your way to Gurudongmar Lake. Travellers can stay at Thangu, but it requires special permission from the army.
Lachen Monastery is one of the oldest in Sikkim standing amidst a quiet backdrop and spectacular views of the landscape surrounding it. Built in 1858, the monastery was just a simple structure housing merely 6 monks and a fairly basic hostel. Fast forward to 1977, it was renovated to its current form with the aid of the Sikkim Government which also provides regular funds for the upkeep and maintenance. Also known as ’Ngodub Choling’ Monastery, it follows the Nyingma Sect of Tibetan Buddhism and has a couple of notable artefacts – A small casket containing a flat stone bearing the amazing footprint of the ‘Kham Gomchen’ who stayed at Thangu Gompa and a stone shaped like a “Thsebum” or vase of longevity, kept at the altar. The open area in front of the monastery is a place for peaceful meditation and reflection as you witness the panoramic views of the mountains and valleys.
Cho Lhamu Lake
Cho Lhamu or Tso Lhamo is the highest lake in India at an altitude of 18000 ft.
Located in the extreme North of Sikkim, the lake is currently out of bounds for tourists because of its proximity to the Chinese border. It is fed by the melting snow and glaciers of the region and is the source of the Teesta River, the lifeline of Sikkim and also holds spiritual significance.The lake is just a few kilometres ahead of the more commercial Gurudongmar Lake and is totally isolated from the rest of the world. It requires a special Army permission to visit the lake hence is usually out of bounds for tourists
Green Lake Trek
One of the most exotic treks in Sikkim, the Green Lake Trek takes you to the base of the Kanchenjunga massif. The peaks of Mt. Simvo are a short distance away on the left and at the base of the Kanchenjunga is the Zemu Glacier – Sikkim’s primary glacial massif and a crucial reservoir of fresh water for the rivers downstream!
The Green Lake Trek starts from Lachen with the trail leading to Tallem and then climbs towards Jakthang. From Jakthang the route goes through alpine forests to Yabuk and then finally to the rest camp.
From the rest camp, trek to the Green Lake involves a fair amount of climbs and drops in terrain and as any avid trekker would agree, the journey through such untouched and pristine territory makes this one of the most beautiful treks in the region!