Day trip to Tsomgo Lake, Nathu La Pass, & Baba Mandir from Gangtok
Gangtok is the gateway to the rest of Sikkim, and you can’t leave Gangtok without doing this extremely popular day trip. This trip takes you to Nathu La Pass, Tsomgo Lake (locally known as Changu Lake), & Baba Mandir, which is all on one route.
How to get to Nathu La Pass, Baba Mandir, & Tsomgo Lake from Gangtok
There are many tour operators that will take you to these three popular sights just outside of Gangtok. MG Marg is home to multiple tour operators, check with multiple operators to find one that fits your budget. Do keep in mind that most operators, even though they charge similar rates (there were people in the group who paid 1000-2000rs more than what I paid) will be putting you in a Bolero/Scorpio, or vehicle of that sort with 10 passengers + a driver. So it is a rather uncomfortable ride for most. If you want more comfortable transportation, ask specifically for it, and be ready to pay a lot more for it.
I paid Rs.600 for this trip, and it was the cheapest deal I could find, so it was expected that the ride was not going to comfortable.
The tour agent tells you the morning of the trip whether Nathu La is open for visitors. Since adverse weather conditions can mean that it remains closed.
Scam to avoid
If the tour agent tells you that Nathu La is open, believe him. The driver of my vehicle was trying to convince all the 10 of us passengers that Nathu La is closed, but since he has some connections in the army, we might be allowed in! (I mean COME ON! Who would believe that, you would think! Apparently, except for me & one other traveller, everyone else did!)
He wanted extra money ‘to pay off the army guard’ to let us in! This seriously was the worst bluff ever, but I & the other traveller refused to pay a penny more. Everyone else did!
I had a heated argument with the driver in whatever Hindi I could come up with, and flat out refused to pay him more money.
He also threatened that he would not take us to Nathu La if we didn’t all pay him extra- sometimes you just have to stand your ground when you know that you are being cheated.
It was a difficult situation, since all the other passengers were asking me to pay him the money as well.
When we reached Nathu La, surprise, surprise, it was open not just for us, but for everyone else who decided to visit that day. The other passengers in our vehicle were not amused, since they got fleeced Rs. 1000 each!
This pristine glacial lake is 40km from Gangtok at an elevation of 12,400ft. It is considered sacred by Hindus & Buddhists. Surrounded by snow capped mountains, the beauty of the lake is unsurpassed. During spring & summer, the mountains around the lake are reflected in the lake, creating stunning photographs. During the heights of winter, the lake freezes over, & you can even walk on the frozen lake!
I was there at the end of April, it was still quite cold, the mountains around the lake had a fair bit of snow on them, and it was a stunning sight! There is a path around the lake which you can take to walk till almost the mid-point of the lake. Alternatively, you can also choose to ride a yak through that distance. I walked through the slushy path, stopping every few metres to enjoy the view and click pictures.
One of the most popular activities around the lake is the yak ride, and there are several locals who are parked alongside the lake with their yaks, offering to take you around. The yaks look beautiful adorned in colourful gear, and make for the perfect picture!
Nathu La Pass
Nathu La Pass is the passage between India & China, located 57km from Gangtok at an altitude of 14140 ft. It was snowing heavily when I went, and the official rule is that photography is prohibited, so I left my camera & phone in the car, but when I got there I saw everyone taking pictures on their phone, and felt silly having left all my gear behind.
There isn’t much to see here, other than the fencing at the border. There is a long staircase to the border which was extremely crowded to get through on the day that I was there. All the tourists had a ball of a time playing in the snow, but I ran back to the car-I’m not a big fan of the cold, and for that reason I didn’t climb up to the border, just saw it from below.
Things to keep in mind/Tips
-You do need to get permits from the army to enter Nathu La as well, for which the tour company that is taking you there will assist you.
-Carry multiple copies of your IDs & passport size copies with you, as all permits require ID proof & photographs.
-If you don’t have passport photos or IDs on you, there are many shops in MG Marg, Gangtok that take and print pictures for you in less than an hour
-Only Indian citizens are allowed to visit Nathu La pass.
Due to adverse weather conditions Nathu La Pass may not be open on some days. It is closed on Mondays & Tuesdays.
*Once you are in Gangtok, ask your tour operator what the rules are, and whether what I have mentioned here has changed.
Baba Harbhajan Singh Mandir or Baba Mandir
This is a shrine built in honour of an Indian Army personnel named Harbhajan Singh, who died near Nathu La in 1968. The original Baba Mandir is further north near Kupup valley where he was posted, the new one near Tsomgo Lake was built for easier access.
The legend goes that Baba Harbhajan Singh guided rescue workers to find his remains 3 days after his death. It is said that he warns the Indian Army of any impending danger from China. Apparently during flag meetings between China & India in Nathu La, the Chinese set a chair aside to honour him.
Every year three soldiers accompany the personal belongings of the Baba by train from the nearest station from Nathu La to his hometown in Punjab, to visit his mother & to give her a small some of money from the soldiers posted in Nathu La.
Is the trip worth it?
Overall the trip was worth going for, as the stops were well worth the visit, but the journey was quite uncomfortable (at Rs.600 I can’t expect much more). There is a lot of traffic on this route as all tourist vehicles head out here at the same time.
It is essential that you leave for this journey early in the morning, as the afternoon brings with it a lot of fog, and driving becomes really difficult. Army personnel start to send everyone off before the fog sets in.
Hassles of the trip
On the morning of the trip, you are expected to show up at the taxi stand at a certain time, but what was really frustrating was that I had to wait for more than an hour to finally start the journey. We were waiting for all the other passengers to arrive, and then the paperwork hadn’t come through-overall it was a mess.
Is the trip safe?
Since the Bolero is packed with 10 passengers + 1 driver, it is stuffed beyond its capacity. The only thing that you can do to be safe is to keep the doors locked and not lean onto the doors- now this will seem a little infantile, because you might think why I even bothered to say this.
BUT, we were stuck in traffic for a while because a woman fell out of a moving jeep in front of us! It was quite the scary sight as you can imagine. According to our driver who went to investigate what happened, she was trying to lower the window, and instead pulled on the door handle! She was lucky that the route had high traffic, and the vehicle was moving fairly slowly. She had only minor injuries from what we could see.
I would recommend getting a private tour to these spots if you can afford it. Else suffer in silence like I did! :p