Our visit to Changu Lake was very much a last minute decision put together the night before while on the phone to our driver. “Is there any chance of visiting Changu Lake?” – “I’ll try, but the roads were blocked today, landslides, it’s dangerous in rainy season… but things maybe better tomorrow”. It is early in September, low season in the Sikkim region, and weather isn’t at its best. It is also too early for the iced lakes and snowy peaks which the Changu Lake area is famous for, but we push on anyway. “To visit the area you will also need a permit… and to hire a guide… I’ll sort this for you”. So this permit stamp is in addition to the ‘Sikkim Inner Line Permit’ which we had picked up earlier on our entry to Sikkim, on the road to Gangtok. For travel to Changu Lake the route follows the same (only) as used by old silk road explorers, and while there’s a new road being built, this will only bypass all the fun. So the road leads not only to Changu Lake but further on to the Nathula Pass a Himalayan mountain pass connecting Sikkim, India with Tibet, China. However, Changu Lake is the furthest visitors can travel and only citizens of India can continue to the Nathula Pass.
We make an early(ish) start and after a quick breakfast we find our driver waiting in the hotel lobby. “Are we good to go?”, “I’ve phoned around, no bad news… yet”. It’s all a bit hit and miss for Changu Lake in low season, one short spell of rain could muddy the trails, or bring potential land slides, but again we push ahead anyway. So our first stop is in Gangtok town centre at the MG Marg central market area where we organise our permits (permit info here). Here the driver does the legwork poking between shop fronts as we sit by the roadside watching local oddballs. The permit, from what I remember, was free (or included in the driver’s fee where we pay $30) and to obtain it you need the Sikkim Inner Line Permit, passport photos and your passport. Tourists also need an official guide when travelling to Changu Lake which will sets you back an extra $10 fee (it’s cheap in these parts). After roughly 40 mins of preparation our permit and everything is ready, and away we go.
This for me was the best part of the trip; bumpy, dangerous, exciting and adventurous. We navigate winding, bumpy roads up and up, above the clouds and keep on going. Continuous mountainous landscapes dotted with mountain goats, army camps and local labourers who chip away at the mountainsides in a seemingly hopeless pursuit. So the path is no doubt dangerous and this became apparent when passing a squashed SUV… flattened like a pancake. “What happened there?”, “Accident…”, “Accident?? I’ve not seen car crushed like that since Jurassic Park”. Landslides aren’t too regular here, but they are to be wary of, not just because of dangers but because there’s only one way to the top, as we find out. About half way to the top we are held up by a controlled landslide, an explosion used to preempt future disasters. With no other routes we have no option but to wait a good hour as diggers get in place to clear away rubble the size of a small house. This made the perfect photo-op for Fanfan to show her new hat.
It’s a nice lake… I guess. If it was iced over, surrounded by snow-capped peaks, it would no doubt be beautiful but again, we travel to Changu lake in Low Season. After the excitement on the road and with a bladder close to explosion, we were ecstatic to arrive (and find a bush). We pass no other tourists on the day and the only person we pass is a local nomad who leases rides on his Yak, at extortionate tourist prices (we pay for a quick photo-op). So we walk the perimeter, tie prayer flags brought by the driver and the guide, then we just take in the views. From here the Tibetan borders are less than 5km, and a short bit further finds Bhutan. Geographically its quite exciting (to me). The area is also known for border feuds and Nathula Pass has hosted many standoffs and skirmishes in the past (none while we were there). Otherwise there’s not much more to it so go in search of eats.
As expected, settlements are few and far on the road between Gangtok to Changu Lake. The first chance for a pit stop we find is arriving to the top and the pleasure of peeing in bushes. There’s also a small village just before the entrance to Changu Lake which caters to those visiting the area. It brings a handful of small eateries, trinket shops and Himalayan local life; kids playing cricket, mountain goats butting heads, all the cliches. We take refuge in one of the roadside eateries, a rustic, tin roofed hut with drying yak cheese (Himalayan candies) strung between rafters. We order a mix of steamed and deep fried momos (Himalayan Dumplings) and I shoot a few Indian Whiskys (here for our Himalayan food guide) before embarking back on the downward journey. Note, whiskeys aren’t a great idea with such a long wait before the bottom again (also peeing off a cliff face when drunk is a little bit terrifying). All-in-all it was a worthwhile trip, not just for the lake but the excitement which comes with. However, Changu Lake in low season is not the best time to visit.