Green Lake Trek, Sikkim

Green Lake may in the minds of many conjure up an image of a beautiful, exotic water-body green in color. The Souvenir published by the Statesman on the occasion of the coronation of the Chogyal in 1965 shows a painting of the Green Lake depicting it as a huge lake –the artist perhaps had never visited this area and had let his imagination run wild. Sadly the reality is that instead of a lake there exists here just a small shallow pond.

In fact, even a century ago there was no lake according to Douglas W. Freshfield who wrote in 1899: “The hollow enclosed between the converging moraines of the Zemu and Green Lake Glaciers has been very lately a lake, and was now a lake basin.”

The absence of a lake is however sufficiently compensated by the splendid view around. Just a few kilometers away, the huge mass of Kanchendzonga towers above. The peaks of Simvo are a short distance away on the left. At the base of the Kanchendzonga is the Zemu Glacier full of sea moraines – rocks and boulders and debris created by moving ice scrapping the mountainside – a veritable natural pulverizer. Once in a while, the distant thunder of avalanches can be heard resounding in the emptiness.

Winds roar, avalanches thunder, and glaciers groan. Powerful primal forces here create and destroy natural features just in a manner a sculptor shapes a statue and destroys it if it does not catch his fancy to build it afresh. The terrain here itself is in a state of flux – mountains are molded into different shapes, streams frequently change course and lakes appear and disappear.

The nearest vehicle point for Green Lake lies on the Lachen- Thangu road. From Lachen 6 kilometers by a vehicle on the road to Thangu and across the river Zema takes us to a point called Zema I. We get down from our vehicle at the third bend after crossing the Zema River just below the abandoned SIB bungalows. We had arrived at Lachen the afternoon before and had hired porters who would be doubling as our guides. We had purchased last-minute requirements and spent the night in the SPWD Dak bungalow.

It is early morning – still dark but high up over the mountain tops there is a faint glimmer of light signifying that dawn is breaking. The thunder of the Zema river below glistening white even in the darkness reverberates eerily in the valley.

Sleeping bags, tents, and provisions on our backs, we are ready to begin the arduous three-day trek that will take us from 10,000 ft to almost 17,000 ft above mean sea level. During this 35-kilometer trek, we will not come across a single habitation on the way –only wilderness. Mules and yaks cannot negotiate this track, because of the treacherous landslips en route so you have to completely rely on porters to carry the provisions. A faint trail marks the beginning of our trek route which would for the most part of the journey run parallel to the Zema river and then the Zema Glacier.

From Zema I to Talem which is a walk of about 4 hours, the route is almost trailless, rocky, and strewn with boulders. Shattered tree trunks are piled in an inextricable confusion. We cross many landslips and ford across a stream. We have been forewarned to watch out for shooting boulders and never attempt to cross this stretch if it is raining as shooting stones from above is inevitable. The Zemu river thunders below us and at places, we cross almost a vertical hillside with no track at all and one wrong step can take us tumbling down into the river. A huge landslide has scarred the mountain across the river. It sets me thinking; surely this landslide has not occurred because of environmental degradation due to deforestation as there is no human activity here. It has perhaps been triggered as a part of a natural upheaval process.

At Talem which is on a flat stretch of land, there are a few abandoned army bunkers. After a refreshing cup of tea made by our porters over firewood, we are ready to move further.

From here onwards, the track becomes slushy at places – sometimes even a foot deep. Luckily we are wearing full-length gum boots. From Talem, Jakthang takes about 3 hours to reach after crossing the Lonak La river. At Jakthang there is a 2 roomed wooden shed on stilts constructed by the Forest Department and set amongst a profusion of pine trees. Our porters who have now metamorphosed into cooks collect firewood and prepare an early dinner for us. We are dog-tired and it takes us no time to lay out our sleeping bags and go off to sleep on the hard wooden floor.

Early the next morning again sees us on the track again. The walk from Jakthang to Yabuk takes about 5 hours. We have to literally wade through bushes at many places. At other places, the branches of trees on both sides of the track entwine to form a cage giving you an eerie feeling that you are inside the skeletal remains of a huge prehistoric animal. The track gets muddier. The last stretch of the route to Yabuk is steep. Tabuk has a two-storied 4 roomed wooden shed on a stone foundation. We rest here for some time and partake in some refreshments and tea and are ready to move again. We are at the edge of the tree line. Ahead there are no trees and the vegetation gets smaller and smaller as we go higher – bushes, shrubs, and then nothing at all.

From Yabuk to Sona Camp the next halt is a grueling walk of about 3 hours on a boulder-strewn trailless area. These boulders and stones have spilled over from the Zemu glacier. One can easily lose the way but some good souls have set up cairns, which are a few stones stacked over one another, prominently placed over boulders to indicate the way. These cairns have many times helped save the lives of travelers who have lost their way when the area is snowbound. The small stone hut at Sona Camp is in a dilapidated condition so we have no option to pitch but our tent here and rest for the night here the sound of the Zema river flowing just a few feet away lulling us to sleep.

On the third day, we are awake early in the morning. It is still dark but the stars shine bright in the sky and cast a ghostly light on the landscape. Soon dawn starts breaking in the eastern sky. The peak of Siniolchu, a few kilometers away across the Zemu glacier, becomes crimson as the first rays of the sun strike it. It seems that God took special care when making Siniolchu. It is perfectly symmetrical and conical in shape and a sharp contrast to the shapeless masses of mountains around – a triumph of mountain architecture.

Its summit a mere needle seems to pierce the fabric of the blue sky. Thin clouds start gathering on the mountaintop, linger for some time as though uncertain of where to go, and then suddenly soar upwards. After walking for about 2 hours from Sona Camp we are to a flat stretch of land called the Rest Camp or the Marco Polo Camp – I do not know how it got its name. Did Marco-Polo come here? There is a track to the right from where one can reach the Muguthang valley after crossing The La pass and then onwards to Thangu over the 19000 ft high Lungnala pass.

It is a route many take to reach Green Lake, especially those who use yaks to carry their provisions. After catching our breath here in the rarefied air and marveling at the snowy peaks around, we start trudging again. The few small shrubs look almost luxurious given the harsh landscape around them. The stillness is tangible- holy. The only sounds that we hear are those of our breathing and the pounding of our hearts. Instinctively, we tend to talk in whispers lest we disturb the silence of the wilderness.

We sight a herd of Blue Sheep but before I can focus my camera they have disappeared over the ridge. Why are they fleeing? This wilderness is their domain and we are in fact the intruders. About three hours of walk in this untrammeled remoteness on a slight gradient track and we are at Green Lake slightly before noon. The Sheep are in fact greyish in color and you think that their name is definitely a misnomer.

It is said that when these sheep walk on the snow the reflection of the sky tends to give them a blue tinge. The terrain now is completely arid, prehistoric, and lunar. We almost expect to see a dinosaur amble by. It hardly rains here as the clouds are obstructed from reaching the lake by the snowy peaks that surround it. Green Lake receives an annual rainfall of only 50 cm as against 325 cm received by Gangtok.

We pitch our tents here rest a while and cook our lunch using the primus kerosene stove as there is no firewood here. We then start exploring. Where is the lake? We are amidst a huge basin and there at its center is a small pond –the Green Lake. There is a deep crevasse adjacent to it and centuries ago the lake perhaps drained out into the Zemu glacier below.

We reach the edge of the lake basin overlooking Zemu Glacier. Across the moraines, the rampart of Kanchendzonga rises almost vertically. From the Green Lake, the Kanchendzonga ceases to be an object of restful meditation. The apparently smooth ridges resemble the blade of a knife, and here and there harsh granite shows through the snow. The slopes are broken and jagged. On the left is the Simvo peak ice spewing out from its glacier. The view is breathtaking. To be here is to feel the very pulse of creation.

The next morning we start our trek back and in two days are in Lachen. We have been to a lake that does not exist and reached almost an arm’s length away from the bastion of the Kanchendzonga. It has been like an odyssey to a different world – where man is humbled and nature reigns supreme.