If I had a time machine, I would go back to to Dzongu, where my adventures in North Sikkim began. This tiny hamlet completely isolates you from the world. Untrammelled by tourists, who skip it for the more popular Lachen-Lachung, Dzongu is not your typical hill resort where you hire an overpriced taxi, visit the mandatory spots in a rush, eat pastries and act touristy while sharing countless on-the-go Instagram stories. It’s an undisturbed land where you’d appreciate nature at its purest and nurture lifetime bonds with the simple, warm and hospitable Lepchas—the original inhabitants of the region.
Comprising 30 sparsely populated villages, Dzongu holds the status of a special reserve for the Lepchas, who believe that a life spent being true to nature would bless them with a rewarding afterlife at Mayal Lyang—a heaven hidden at the foothills of Mt Khangchendzonga.
I chose Kussong, the highest village of Upper Dzongu as base for my explorations. Shaking in my shoes, I crossed one of the scariest bridges I had ever set foot on. A special thrill lay in reaching Dzongu as my guide, Pakimu OT Lepcha, and I made our way through the makeshift bamboo bridge that swayed swiftly over the raging torrents of the Rungyong River. I panicked and panted while Pakimu struggled to record a video of my nervous adventure. The man was going to be my companion for the next 24 hours, taking me around a few villages before dropping me back to Mangan.
We took a breather at a small shop in Mantam (the last one we’d see during our stay in Dzongu) and drove to our homestay in Kussong village with our host Togpay Lepcha and his nephew, Gayboo, who sat behind the steering wheel. A curvy road covered with canopies of green bamboo shoots led us as we drove past cardamom, rice and potato plantations. Colourful prayer flags unfurled on tall bamboo poles along the way. After a half-an-hour-long bumpy ride, we reached our destination. A lazy vibe surrounded the small village. The pin-drop silences, the clear blue sky and the fresh air had me at first glance.
We began our hike from Ting Vong village and were blessed with the aroma of cardamom and the fallen leaves of tungzikundong trees. I felt dwarfed by the sheer magnitude of the rising mountains and the sparkling rivulets that seemed to flow out of nowhere. Butterflies hovered above vibrant flowers and birds greeted us with their songs. Perhaps, I was in paradise.
We crossed the village’s government school, the only one in the pachayat unit. Children in blue and white uniforms walked back home and a few joined us till we reached the Rikzing Tarling Monastery, beautifully hidden in the verdant mountainscape. Three large chortens welcomed us and we sat in the grassy lawns outside.
Later when we reached Payel village, elderly women working in cardamom plantations welcomed us with shy smiles. Bamboo baskets hung on their backs as they went about their usual business, while buffalos relished the freshly cut fodder. We plucked a few cardamoms and I picked up a piece of a broken bamboo from the ground to take home. (I wanted to make a flute out of it.)
By then, I had realised that it was a wise decision to request my travel agent to arrange a local guide. Lepchas are friends with nature and can easily identify the names of all trees, insects, animals and birds. Pakimu pointed out sungrookung, sulokkung, kundgongkung, sambrangkung and sungleekung trees as we continued our hike. If there ever was a beauty contest amongst trees, these would definitely make the cut. The walk also offered views of the Lingichu and Langamchu peaks, parts of the Himalayan range and Pakichu, Pandimchu and Siniolchu peaks, parts of the Khangchendzonga range.
We then ascended through a trail leading to our homestay and reached just in time to catch a stunning sunset. The evening sky was painted in varied hues, with purple and orangish-red dominating the canvas. I had fallen for Dzongu. Hard. It was love at first hike. Soon, there was a nip in the air as night fell and a fire was lit for warmth.
At Dzongu, I experienced life at its most natural. Its inhabitants depend entirely on nature for their livelihood. Leading a self-sustained life, they grow their vegetables and crops with organic manure. Almost every household has a livestock of country chicken and a farm to cultivate cardamom. At seven, Pakimu came with a glass of chaang, a local beer made from fermented millet. We enjoyed our drinks and between bites of hot and crispy khemseel bhee bhajias, spoke of the rich culture and tradition of the Lepchas, the myriad tales that surround them, the mountains, of travelling and life. Soon, Togpay’s wife served dinner and I was introduced to the organic produce grown on their land. While pherfeek dong tasted bitter, thentuk bhee was filling and light at the same time. I had them with small pancake-like rotis.
I was headed to my room when my guide stopped me to show the magnificent snow-capped Mt Khangchendzonga shining bright even in the darkness.
Our next morning was also blessed with similar views of the peak on a short hike to Lingzya, another village near Ting Vong. Traditional bamboo houses greeted us while we walked along clean roads lined with prayer flags to reach the magnificent Lingzya waterfalls, which fall from a height of 300 feet. I had to take a slice of Dzongu with me, and thus bought a pair of bamboo mugs from a local craftsman. Gayboo then dropped us to the same bamboo bridge that had sent jitters down my spine the previous day. I kept turning back during the walk at the bridge to bid Dzongu adieu. The nervousness from last day had been replaced with a new found affection for Dzongu and its people. Had I known earlier that it would be so amazing, I would have ditched my next destinations or at least extended my stay by a few days. But this makes for a perfect excuse to return.
I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I called Dzongu Sikkim’s best-kept secret. Its wilderness grows on you as you experience a profound sense of isolation and stay with the Lepchas.
Multiple airlines have direct flights to Bagdogra from New Delhi. From Bagdogra, it is a six-hour drive to Mangan, the entry point to north Sikkim. We suggest you spend the night there and sort out permits if needed. Take a local taxi from Mangan to Dzongu the next day, which is approximately a two-hour drive.
WHERE TO STAY
Dzongu only has homestays.
>Stay at Mayallyang Home Stay in Passingdang (from INR 2,000; +91- 9647872434).
>In Lingko village, try the Kothi Lee Home Stay (from INR 1,500; +91- 9434174856).
>Stay at Kussong Home Stay in Kussong (from INR 1,500; +91- 8145287174).
WHAT TO SEE & DO
>Dzongu offers some great treks. The trek to Tholung Monastery is the most popular.
>Lingdem village in Lower Dzongu has a sulphur hot spring in the middle of the forest.
>For butterfly watching, visit the banks of Rongyung Chu and the villages of Lingdong and Namprick.
>A hike through Lower Dzongu takes you to the over hundred-year old Hee Gyathang Monastery.
Dzongu is a restricted zone for anyone but Lepchas. The permits can be easily obtained a few days in advance from the DC Office at Mangan for a fee of INR 150.