Tuesday, October 23, 2007


Most of the monsoon clouds reaching the Lachung valley precipitate before Yumthang but those venturing further north towards the Tibetan plateau have to encounter the last bastion in the valley- the Donkiala pass at 18400 ft. Overlooking the Cholamu plateau and the Roof of the World, and surrounded by snowy peaks most notably the Paunhri (Lonpo Kyangzong), the Donkia pass is like a nozzle that feebly sprays the plateau with what ever moisture that remains in the spent monsoon clouds.
Similarly mortals wanting to cross over from the Lachung valley to the Cholamu plateau have to encounter the Donkia pass and once they have done it they are depleted of energy and it takes them quite some time to get their breath back. Donkiala pass separates the upper reaches of Lachen valley from the Lachung valley and Hooker in his book "The Himalayan Journal" has rated it the most treacherous pass he ever traversed.
The motorable road ends thirty kilometres away from Yumthang via Yumey Samdong at a place called Zadong-at an altitude of about 16030 ft. We disembark from the vehicle and ask the driver to reach Cholamu via Lachen by the next day to receive us. From here to Cholamu Lake via the Donkiala pass is about a 8 kilometers trek and takes 5 to 6 hours for the average walker. We start walking along the narrow Donkiachu river. The climb is moderate but the progress is relatively slow because of rarefied air. The hillside is carpeted with alpine vegetation in a riot of colours – acononites, the rare blue poppies and a lot of other colourful flowers – I wish I could identity them. And dominating them like sentinels, are the yellow giant rhubarbs growing to about three feet in height.
After walking 2 hours, the Donkiala pass becomes visible. It looks quite near but takes a full hour to reach. We come across two small muddy lakes from which the river Donkiachu originates and flows into the Lachung valley. Glacial lakes look deceptively calm but are in a state of continuous flux and excessive melting of the glacier can cause them to burst their banks wreaking immense damage downstream- a phenomenon known as Glacial Lake Outburst Flooding (GLOF). A few years ago the glacial Tenbawa lake close by burst causing flash floods in the Yumthang and Lachung valley. A wall of water that gushed down, washed away bridges and caused a lot of damage to property. There is a need to monitor these lakes on a continuous basis through Satellite imagery and Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR): any change in their size would be a signal for imminent disaster.
The last stretch of 100 metres to Donkiala pass is very steep and involves almost a vertical climb. Our bodies suddenly seem to weigh more than a ton and the legs almost crumble as the stress caused by rarefied air begins to take effect. Gasping and panting for air and feeling like a fish out of water, we finally reach the pass. But all our tiredness vanishes at the sight of the spectacular scenery around. Above the Donkiala pass spires of peaks rise their gloomy granite brightened by snow. The peak of Pauhunri (Lonpo Kyangzong) is silhouetted against the eastern sky. The relatively low altitude Chola range that delineates the eastern border of Sikkim suddenly soars up in the North to Pauhunri - the highest peak on the Eastern border of Sikkim – its ramparts scarred with many glaciers. From the Donkiala pass the view of the Tibetan plateau and its portion that juts into Sikkim as the Cholamu Plateau below us is marvellous. The plateau is flat as far as the eye can see but is broken here and there by small hillocks peppered with snow. Through powerful binoculars we can see the habitations at Tarksing and Geru in the Tibetan side. About 300 metres below is the lake of Cholamu and a smaller un-named lake above it. -both looking like emeralds . Slightly towards the west Tista meanders and breaks into many channels enclosing small oases of green vegetation.
As we stand marvelling at the scenery below it begins raining heavily in the Lachung valley, whereas above and over the Tibetan plateau in sharp contrast it remains bright and sunny. I had read in books about how the high mountains of North Sikkim prevented moisture laden clouds from reaching the dry and arid plateau, but here I was seeing it actually happening before me.
A knee wobbling downhill walk of another one hour and a half takes us to the Cholamu lake. The reflection of the surrounding mountains doubles its beauty. Now, about the source of the Tista. Many consider Cholamu as the Source of the Tista. This is not true. The source of a river is defined as the furthest point from where a river starts flowing. Cholamu is one of the lakes in the river system that flows out as a stream to meet the Tista just a few hundred metres away. After walking the full length of the Cholamu lake we turn right and cross Tista and reach the Army Camp at Kerang. A cup of hot tea with the jawans and a rest of about an hour and we move onwards to explore the source of Tista. We walk for about slightly over an hour on the gently undulating land and are at the edge of a glacial lake. On the other side of the lake on the western base of the Paunhri is the Glacier – Tista Khanste which melts to form Khangchung Tso lake. It is from this lake the mighty Tista river takes birth as a trickle hardly a metre wide - the feeble beginning notes of which transform to a thunder few kilometres downstream.
The plateau preserves an astonishing diversity of wildlife. A flock of birds that look like cranes swim on the placid ice-cold water. These birds are migratory probably coming from the northern latitudes. It strikes me that no natural or manmade borders are impregnable to these birds. Russia, China, India are to them one and the same - they believe in the true spirit of globalisation. It is a pity that man with a penchant for divisions cannot move freely from one place to another. A herd of Tibetan wildasses or kiangs as they are locally called, stand grazing on the other end of the lake. As there is a dearth of water on the Tibetan side, many animals cross over the border towards the lake. The plateau is teeming with marmots (big mice) , woolly hares and foxes. Once in a while a flock of snow flinches(birds) fly overhead.
Although deprived of any vegetation except sparsely growing scrubs, the plateau offers a stark beauty unparalleled perhaps anywhere in the world. The landscape here is similar to the fiery desert while the climate is that of the Tundras. The percitipation received by the plateau is less than 50 cms in a year as compared to Gangtok’s 325 cms. Violent winds rage their force broken by neither trees nor scrubs. Howling with such a ferocity, these winds also sweep snow from the grass uncovering it for the yaks. The air is so rarefied and clear that the stars shine bright enough in the moonless sky to cast faint shadows and cause the snowclad mountains around to glisten eerily.
The intense sunlight and the high speed winds that the plateau experiences can be a good source of solar and wind energy. Use of solar panels and wind generators can easily meet the energy needs of the few hundred people who reside here.
Herds of yaks graze on the sparse vegetation and the few herders here make their livelihood by selling yak products. These herders follow lifestyles unchanged through the centuries. For hardwork and acceptance of nature’s sway, this moody and elemental place offers the herders in return the splendour of scenery. For a man from the city, staying in such a hostile environment would be unthinkable. But wouldn’t a yakherder also find the city hostile, with its high decibel earsplitting noises and pollution that makes the air almost unbreathable? Such contemporary troubles like nuclear explosions and the depletion of the ozone layer seem deceptively far away. But these herdsmen are affected apparently in terms of increased Ultra-violet radiation and acid rain because of the avarice of their urban brothers. A polythene wrapper carelessly thrown out of the occasional vehicle can suffocate the soil making it permanently sterile – this is the extent of the sensitivity of the alpine area. It is heartening that the Government as a part of its scheme for Green Taxis has now taken steps to prevent littering in the alpine areas. Vehicles plying here are now required to carry garbage bags or dustbins and the passengers have to use these to put the litter. When the vehicle returns back to its base the litter from these bags is to be emptied into the garbage bins. Diesel and petrol fumes are another bane to the alpine areas. Because of the rarefied air the noxious gases spread over wide areas within no time peppering the landscape with poisonous sulphur and nitrogen chemicals. The government could perhaps consider allowing only CNG vehicles to operate in these pristine alpine areas.
We spend the night a stone hut of a yakherder near Cholamu. Over a glass of hot Tibetan tea, I am told by one that the furthermost most of them had ventured was Thangu barely 30 kilometres away. Suddenly I start envying them for their lifestyles, which seem an anachronism in this modern age and has remained unchanged for centuries and untouched by the ravages of civilization.
Later I am told that the yak herder headman had been chosen for the post because he had the distinction of having visited Siliguri - for about a few months for medical treatment - and therefore considered as a person well exposed and wise with the ways of the world. Our vehicle has meanwhile arrived from the Lachen side and we are ready to leave.
In this anachronistic ambience, as I cast a longing lingering look behind of the Tibetan plateau, I am reminded of a stanza from Thomas Gray’s Elegy written in a Country Churchyard that seemed so apt here
Far from the madding crowds’ ignoble strife,
Their wishes never learned to stray,
Along the cool sequestered way of life,
They led their noiseless tenor of their way.


Bobby chakraborty said...

Great write-up on an amazing place. I almost reached Yumthang in the month of July 2006, but my brother has an American passport and had just 7 days of stay printed on his passport and the next day being a Sunday we scapered out of Sikkim having only seen Tsomgo Lake and Gangtok. Anyway I am on face book and also on flickr.com as bobby6666620 and my photos there are under the Title Love for the Himalayas. I have just started blogging in Blogger.com under the title Journeyman on India's highways which is just a faction of one long travel from Udaipur to Kolkata and back. But what I love most is my travels in Himachal's Parvati valley and the subsequent Pin Parvati pass and the Manali-Leh road and then trekking through the Zanskar which is kinda risky these days due to the threat of militancy and also Uttaranchal's highlands which have many flower filled valleys. I really loved this blog and do you have any more blogs like the Green lake area and whabbout travels towards Kanchenjunga area.

Tanay said...

Excellent, marvelous description of a place that I have had only heard about. Perhaps its the only description of Donkiya La, Kerang Valley available on the Internet. And those added rare pictures makes your blog a golden treasure for the adventure loving minds. I become your fan from this point onwards.

Sanjoy said...

Hallo Rajeshji

Me and my friend Arindam want to visit cholamu lake. As you have already visited the place you can help us in this regards. Need to know everything about the trip. You can contact me, 09831160040 / bapisanjoy@hotmail.com or if you can give ur contact then we will contact you.
With Regards
Sanjoy Bag

Pratik said...

I have been to Sikkim since 1984. Your book on Sikkim,received from Rajesh of Tashi Delek, in the late nineties, is still a treasured one with me. The Sebula to Yumesumdong trek descriptions given in different trekking agencies' sites STINK, since they really never themselves ventured and at the end, all copy each other. I kept on searching in googles and stumbled upon yours. Great!! All my best wishes to you. May I know whether you need some special permission to cross over Sebula from Thangu/Lhasar side apart from the 10-day inner line permit?

Mimi said...


Seemed like a wonderful and adventurous journey and a very well documented and interesting account of the same.

I had gone to Yumthang in 2006 and loved it. It was an "out of the world" sort of an experience!!!

We are planning to go to Gurudongmar lake and Tso Lhamu/Cholamu lake this May. Could you tell me where to get the permits from, for Cholamu lake?

Wish you many more interesting journeys in future :-)


Pinaki Ghosh said...


I've read out your BLOG - "ACROSS THE DONKIALA PASS AND ONTO THE SOURCE OF THE RIVER TISTA", its very adventurers and very easy to understand the route also.

We have inspired and planned to trek the same route in October last week but nobody can guide us from where we can get the permit.

Request you to please send us your guideline.

Awaiting your reply.

Pinaki Ghosh
Mob: +91 9735239727
Email: pinakighosh07@gmail.com

Vijay D said...

Dear Rajesh,

Thanks for sharing such ocean of knowledge with us . I am using one of your images at our blog site . I hope you dont mind the use (I have linked the image to your blog giving due credit to you)


Naresh Dubey said...

After reading this blog post i am really so keen to go for Pin Parvati Trek . There are some trekking places in Uttarakhad like pin parvati,Rupin pass trek where each year numbers of people go and enjoy the beauty of the valley..

Kaushik Chakraborty said...


Recently I have been to Gurugongmar Lake but after trying a lot also I was not allowed to visit the Cholamu lake.

I have heard about the trek from Zero point to Cho Lamu lake via the Donkiala Pass. Is it possible to get the trek details or any organizer if they organizer. I will be very greatfull.

If you have any details. Please mail me at kcchat@gmail.com


Apple Valley Inn lachung said...

Dear Rajesh Sir,
Beautiful write-up is very inspiring for those who are interest to visit North Sikkim Lachung.

From: Surojit

Nidhan said...

Which agency can tell us about the trek from Zero point to Cho Lamu lake via the Donkiala Pass. How to get permit?