Encompassed by the resplendent Eastern Himalayas and offering picture perfect views of Mt Khangchendzonga, Dzongu is unforgettable. Rainbows created in the spray of majestic waterfalls leave you awestruck while suspended bamboo bridges hanging across cliffs over the raging torrents of river Teesta, give you the thrill of a lifetime. Colourful prayer flags unfurled on bamboo poles are a constant companion as you drive, hike, trek, walk and jump your way through the picturesque villages of Dzongu.
The curvy roads of Dzongu are covered with canopies of green bamboo shoots and its landscape adorned with cardamom, rice and potato fields housing modest traditional huts. The environs are untampered by humankind, the people warm and welcoming, and the air absolutely fresh. Tourists travelling to North Sikkim often skip Dzongu for the much famous Lachen and Lachung, which serve as the entry points to the breathtakingly beautiful Gurudongmar Lake and the gorgeous Yumthang Valley. This is why Dzongu still remains an undisturbed land—nothing short of a paradise.
Dzongu has been a marked natural habitat and reserve for the Lepchas since the days of the rule of the Chogyals in the 1960s. At Dzongu, you will see life at its most natural as its inhabitants depend entirely on nature for their livelihood. They lead a self-sustained life and grow their vegetables and crops themselves with organic manure. Most of the food is locally grown and almost every household has a livestock of country chicken. The Lepchas still use earthen ovens to cook food on log fire. Most dishes are boiled or roasted and are prepared using miniscule amounts of oil and spices. However, few homestay owners and other locals have now moved to using subsidised gas cylinders for cooking.
THINGS TO SEE AND DO
The best and only way to explore the villages of the Dzongu Lepcha Reserve is on foot. Strolling around the little villages on a bright afternoon, breathing-in the super fresh air, being sun-kissed by the rays coming through the leaves of utis and bamboo trees–it is truly a blissful and enriching experience. With no mobile network on your phone and no unsolicited app notifications, no small tea stalls or eateries to take a break, you will fall in love with the wilderness.
The most recommended walks in Dzongu are the ones between Passingdang to Linghdem and Tingvong to Kusong. It’s best to stay in any one of the five villages of Ting Vong Gram Panchayat Unit (GPU): Ting Vong, Kusong, Linghoo, Namprick and Nung. Kusong is the highest village of Upper Dzongu and undoubtedly the best place to stay, thanks to the spectacular view of the snow-capped Mount Khangchendzonga it offers. If you are based in Kusong, request your homestay owner to cater a drive down to Ting Vong.
This is where your village walk begins. Walking on the secluded and serene paths covered with fallen leaves of tungzikundong trees and naturally scented with the smell of cardamom, feeling belittled by the gigantic depths of the massive mountains, being greeted by beautiful butterflies and the chirps of sweet little birds, you will find yourself in paradise. But then, soon you reach the gorgeous Ting Vong School, the only school in the GPU.
Quick tip: As you reach the school, you will find a beautiful area, which has been set up for people to use their mobile phones. The colourful bamboo benches placed under a canopy are usually occupied by school students after school or tourists like us millennials. If you are taking the walk during postlunch hours, you will meet cute little Lepcha kids coming out from their school in blue and white uniforms. They make for great guides and would even lead the way for you.
(You also won’t be able to access your mobile phone and Internet during your stay in the villages of Dzongu. Only Ting Vong has a mobile tower and usage point right next to it. So, if any urgent calls are to be made or the urge to check your FB feed is to be satiated, you can go to the Ting Vong Secondary School and sit at the benches outside to reconnect with the world. Also, the last shop from where you can pick up general need items and toiletries is right after the bamboo bridge. After this, you won’t get anything, which is in a way, the best thing about Dzongu)
Hike up to the Rikzing Tarling Monastery and take a small break. The monastery is usually closed but you can still sit at the lawn surrounding it. Three beautiful white chortens welcome you as you enter the monastery ground. A monastic school is also being built near the monastery. When done soaking in the spiritual vibes at the Gumpa, continue your hike to the Payel village where you meet elderly Lepcha women working in their cardamom or rice plantations, with attractive bamboo baskets hanging on their backs.
It’s best to take a local guide with you during your walk who can translate your interaction, as the inhabitants of these undisturbed villages don’t understand English or Hindi. During your walk, you will come across dense forests dotted with sungrookung, sulokkung, kundgongkung, sambrangkung and sungleekung trees. Apart from cardamom and rice plantations, you will also get to see millet, corn, wheat and tree tomatoes.
The village walk offers majestic views of the Lingichu and Langamchu peaks, parts of the Himalayan Range and the pinnacles of Pakichu, Pandimchu and Sinyolchu, which are parts of the Khangchendzonga Range. And at the middle of them all, you will see the Pongyongchu, the gate to Mt Khangchendzonga. The Pongyongchu sits at the centre of the Sakyong and Pentong villages. Your hike will take you back to your homestay in Kusong from where you can enjoy amazing views of the aforementioned peaks while sipping on some hot tea made by your hospitable host. Other great village hikes, which are highly recommended, include the ones around Passingdang, Sakyong, Lingthem and Rukum villages.
For exceptional views of Mt Khangchendzonga, take the trek from Passingdang to Lingthem village, famous for its mask dance performances held in the month of December. If you want to witness the mountains from a close distance, Pentong is where you should be headed. Pentong is the last inhabited place in Dzongu and sits in close proximity to the mountains. While in Pentong, you can trek up to the twin hillocks Tarbot and Tarbi, which offer splendid views of the landscape. According to a popular Lepcha belief, Tarbi is worshipped as a deity and Tarbot is considered as a demon. Lepcha people offer fruits and flowers to these hillocks to maintain prosperity and peace in the village.
If taking a dip at a hot sulphur spring set amidst dense forest is your idea of getting drenched in nature, then you must head to the Lingdem village in Lower Dzongu. A short trek inside a forest leads you to two log cabins housing the hot springs, which are believed to have medicinal qualities and healing powers.
Dzongu is blessed with more than 27 species of butterflies. When here, make sure to visit the banks of Rongyung Chu and the villages of Lingdong and Namprick, which are some of the best places for butterfly watching and birding as well.
READ: The Butterfly Effect
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Hee Gyathang Monastery
This over a hundred-year-old monastery can only be visited by a hike through lower Dzongu. The monastery was unfortunately destroyed during the infamous September 2011 earthquake but has been rebuilt now. The place offers absolute peace and spectacular views of mountain peaks.
Treks around Dzongu
Some of the most popular treks one can take around Dzongu include the day trek to Tholoung Monastery, the Lungdho or Panchpokhri trek and the Kissong Lake trek. The most recommended is the day trek from Ting Vong to Tholung Monastery, perched at altitude of 8,000 feet.
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The historical monastery houses rare artifacts and relics belonging to a particular order of Tibetan Buddhism. These are exhibited once in every three years. You can also see ancient Buddhist handwritten manuscripts along with weapons and tools used by the earliest Lepchas.
Also check out our series on Sikkim's top treks here.
While getting down from Upper Dzongu to return to Mangan, request your driver for a short detour to the beautiful little village of Lingzya, a part of the biosphere reserve. Attractive Lepcha houses painted in bright colours greet you while you walk along clean roads lined with prayer flags of various hues.
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The major attraction here is the magnificent Lingzya Waterfalls, falling from a height of 300ft. The place is absolutely undisturbed by humans and you would only see a few Lepchas either fishing or enjoying an icy cold bath it its water.
Take a taxi from Mangan, which is connected to Dzongu by an iron bridge built over river Teesta and just before this bridge is the Sakyong Check Post, where you need to show your permit for Dzongu. After you cross the bridge, you will enter the Dzongu Forest Range. Stop for checking at the Dzongu Forest Check Post on your right. Keep driving and the way will diverge into two roads. Take the one on the left going to Upper Dzongu and follow the signage till you reach Passingdang.From here, a short but challenging ride ahead lies a makeshift bamboo bridge, which you will have to cross to reach the other side, from where you can reach your homestay by a taxi, usually arranged by the host. We suggest that you can also ask your homestay owners in Dzongu to cater a pickup from Mangan itself. Dzongu is at a distance of 70km from Gangtok and you can take a shared vehicle or a private can to Mangan from Gangtok.
WHERE TO STAY AND EAT
The best part about Dzongu is that it is free from the chaos of the usual hotel streets. There are only homestays run by the Lepchas who inhabit its villages. Of the 30 odd villages, only a few offer lodging facilities. Most homestays are located in the villages of Ting Vong, Kusong, Passingdang, Sakyong, Lingthem and Rukum. Most of these accommodations are simple extensions of Lepcha Family homes. Almost all of them have separate washrooms outside the main structure of the homestay, as the Lepchas don’t prefer attached toilets.
Tip: It’s best to go through a registered travel agency as the phone networks are patchy in Dzongu and it might get difficult for you to contact the homestay owners yourself. Your travel agency can also arrange for a local guide, who will accompany you during your village hike and drop you back to Mangan at the end of your adventures in Dzongu.
Being a Lepcha reserve, Dzongu is a restricted zone for anyone who is not a Lepcha by ethnicity. Apart from domestic and foreign tourists, the non-Lepcha people of Sikkim are also required to get a permit to visit Dzongu. The permits can be easily obtained a few days in advance from the DC Office at Mangan. If you can’t come to Sikkim yourself, you can send scanned copies of a passport size photograph and copies of either your DL or Voter’s ID (Aadhar Card won’t do) to your travel agent or homestay owner, who will obtain the permit for you. The permit fee is Rs 150 per person.