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Dzongu – The Little Known Paradise of the Lepchas

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Sikkim is a delightful place for anyone who has a fixation to the Himalayas and loves raw nature. One of the seven sisters of the North-East states of India, Sikkim is the least populous and the second smallest state of our great county. Interestingly Sikkim has the highest literacy rate and per capita income among all other Himalayan states. Divided into four districts, the East, West, North and South Sikkim, this tiny state is almost entirely mountainous. The state of Sikkim as we know of today was incorporated in the Indian Union as late as 1975 when the monarchy was dismissed.

In the recent past, Sikkim has emerged as a preferred destination for tourists and travelers both domestic and International. The influx of tourists has seen a sustained rise over the last decade and even more. Tourism is the most important mode of revenue generation for this otherwise remote state is taken seriously by the state government. Law & Order and infrastructure are maintained well. Constant boost to eco-tourism and promoting newer destinations with the involvement of local population is a policy of the state which has reaped immense benefits and has put the state on the global tourist map. Having featured positively on international journals like Lonely Planet has helped too.

Aside from the already very popular hotspots like the beautiful capital city of Gangtok along with Tsongo Lake and Nathula pass, the town of Pelling in the west or Lachung in the northern districts, Sikkim boasts of a myriad of lesser known yet naturally awe-inspiring destinations scattered throughout its length and breadth. One such unimaginably pristine part of it is Dzongu.

Dzongu, Sikkim – A Complete Travel Guide

A sparsely populated (4513 as per the 2004 census) vast triangular region in the north district, bordered by the Teesta River in the south east and the Kanchenjunga range of mountains in the west, a declared natural reserve of the Lepcha people is Dzongu. It falls entirely in the Kanchenjunga biosphere reserve with its far fringes deep within the Kanchenjunga national park. Often overlooked and skipped by the perennial hordes of tourists visiting North Sikkim destinations of Lachen, Lachung, Yumthang valley and Gurudrongmar Lake on fixed itineraries out of Gangtok, Dzongu remains a paradise hidden in plain sight.

You should always carry your own water bottle and refill it as many times as you need water. It will not only keep you hydrated always, but you will also help in saving the Himalayas from plastic garbage. Remember, every tiny step counts and your step in this direction can help save the Himalayas too !! 🙂 🙂

The Lepchas are the aboriginal people of Sikkim and the word literally transliterates to ‘children of the snowy peak’ or ‘children of the gods’. They believe they are natural descendants of the mountains and haven’t settled in from other parts escaping disasters or prosecution like the other tribes. With a meager population of about 50k scattered across parts of Sikkim, Nepal, Bhutan and West Bengal, the Lepchas are a peace-loving, simple and generally quiet race. They worship Mother Nature in all her articulations. The Kanchenjunga is their mother protector, the rivers, and lakes, the trees and waterfalls are all sacred for them. The Lepchas deeply believe, their existence is substantiated in protecting and worshiping Kanchenjunga, and if a person lives his life truly performing his duties towards nature and accomplishing noble deeds, he is rewarded by an afterlife of eternal bliss at Mayal Lyang (Heaven is somewhere hidden in the foothills of Kanchenjunga). In Lepcha teachings and folklore, Dzongu is said to be the bridge to Mayal Lyang, the place where all Lepchas are thought to originate from and are to arrive finally. This is why Dzongu has been a marked natural habitat and reserve for the Lepchas since the sixties.

Towards Upper Dzongu

Disentangling the atypical tales of fantasy surrounding the place, Dzongu by what it constitutes unpretentiously as a Himalayan region is obscurely spectacular. The scores of random unnamed waterfalls as if sprinkled liberally on the slopes, the lush forest omnipresent everywhere visibility can touch, the precarious roads atop which the green bamboo shoots canopy to not let in daylight almost as if deliberately sustaining the mysterious darkness, the icy rivulets rolling along with their crystal waters on the immaculate rocky basins, the red-green-white-blue prayer flags unfurled on the straight bamboo poles put in numbers on almost every bend or place of appetence with Buddhist sacred hymns printed on them for the breeze to blow their inherent sanctity in all directions, the rare cluster of modest traditional huts amidst fragrant fields of cardamom or rice, the indefinable bamboo bridges hanging across cliffs over streams and gorges, Dzongu is indeed, heavenly. The captivating Kanchenjunga poetically on the shadow of which this region exists, looks mesmerizing when the skies are clear. The birds chirp in tunes unknown, the whimsical shower-clouds blow away as quickly as they emerge allowing the mellow delicate sun rays kiss the moist ambiance with comforting warmth. The air is cool, crisp and fresh. The people gentle, genuine and peaceful. The serenity invigorating.

Rokyang Chu River

The Rokyang Chu (A tributary of Teesta) bisects Dzongu into the northern ‘Upper Dzongu’ and southern ‘Lower Dzongu’. Both upper and lower Dzongu is dotted with small fairytale villages where travelers can put up for their stay. It is not possible to see all parts of Dzongu in a single visit unless one has a month at hand atleast. The region is quite vast and largely uninhabited. Barring about 5-6 villages where homestays are run by locals, the others are still little known about. For a comprehensive coverage of the entire region, one has to be able to trek and camp over several weeks with a local Lepcha guide.

The hanging bridge of Lingzya Village over Rokyang Chu

The region of Dzongu is precariously sequestered by the mighty Teesta which separates it from the rest of North Sikkim. One has to cross over the Teesta to get into the region from either of the two entry points. At Pheedang near Dikchu is the entry into the village of Sangtok in Lower Dzongu. The other being Sankalang or Sungklong which connects Mangan (District headquarters of North Sikkim) to Upper Dzongu through Passingdong. Earlier any of the entry points could be used to get into the region and thereby travel from Lower to Upper Dzongu until after a devastating landslide in 2016 which has changed the course of the Teesta resulting in the Sankalang entry point as the only option for Upper Dzongu. As of now, the villages of Upper Dzongu are cut off from the mainland as the only motorable bridge has become unusable. One has to travel till a makeshift bamboo bridge from Mangan, cross the hanging overpass over Rokyang Chu and take another vehicle till Tingvong or Lingzya villages.

The makeshift bamboo bridge: the only way to Tingvong from Passingdong

The locals believe that the upcoming hydel projects on the Teesta are proving to be detrimental for their natural habitat and slowly disintegrating the biosphere at large. This has resulted in a bitter strife between the authorities and the Lepcha aboriginals of Dzongu. The ecology of the region is sacrosanct for them and any threat to it is being vehemently opposed at all quarters.

The villages of Hee-Gyathang, Lingdong and Passingdong among many other relatively lesser known ones fall in Lower Dzongu and are connected with motorable roads. Similarly Tingvong, Kusong, Sakyong-Pentong, Lingthem with others comprise Upper Dzongu. Motorable roads end at Lingzya in Upper Dzongu after Tingvong. All other villages in the upper region has to be trekked henceforth.

It has to be noted that Dzongu as a region is still largely unexplored and one has to be there to get the hang of the various places. Almost every mountain, every cliff, every bridge or waterfall has a tale connected to it. The villages of Tingvong, Passingdong, Lingthem and Hee-Gyathang have homestays which are passively known of while the others like in Sakyong-Pentong, Bay, Lingzya, Barfok etc. aren’t yet referable but they do exist.

The snowy Kanchenjunga massifs

Things to do at Dzongu or Places to see at Dzongu

Village Walks: A place which is frozen in a time warp of its own as Dzongu, is best experienced by simply strolling around the villages. The paths are secluded and serene. The smell of cardamom in the air, the endless vistas to witness, the butterflies to chase or the call of the birds to spot, it is a filling intimacy with nature. The walk through the lush bamboo grooves or by the edges of the fields of paddy or that moment of introspection by a waterfall, Dzongu offers unhindered primitive pleasures of being in oneness with raw nature how it has been since the moment of creation. The walks between Passingdong to Linghem and, Tingvong to Kusong are particularly recommended.

An unanimous waterfall : Lower shelf of Lingzey

Treks around Dzongu

The treks around Dzongu will leave you spoilt for choices in this regard. One can choose from among the barrage of options depending on their ability and restrictions of time etc. The Tholung Monastery which is one day trek from Tingvong is a great option. The monastery at 8k feet houses some of the rarest and oldest artifacts and relics of a particular order of Tibetan Buddhism which are held out in display once in every three years. Ancient Buddhist handwritten manuscript scrolls dating back thousands of years are purportedly housed here aside with weapons and tools used by the earliest Lepchas.

Apart from the historic legacy the situation of the place is no less breathtaking. The monastery premises are just beside a majestic waterfall thunderously diving into a deep gorge, with mysterious caves in the adjacent mountains. The setting of this 18th century structure itself is hair-raising beautiful.

The holy grail of all majestic places in Dzongu is Keushong Valley and Lake. This is an arduous trek of 5 days to-n-fro and involves camping. The splendor of this place is told to be unparalleled and everyone in Dzongu considers it as a jewel in the crown for the entire region.

The village of Pentong is the closest in propinquity to the Kanchenjunga range. It is again a day-long trek from Tingvong across rivulets and dizzying cliffs and offers bewildering views of the Sleeping Buddha among others.

Traditional Lepcha Museum: Namprikdang

A place quite near the entry point of Sankalang by the serendipitous confluence of the Teesta and the Rokyang Chu rivers is where a Traditional Lepcha house has been set up with artefacts and pointers of history to help visitors relate to the Lepcha way of life. The architecture of the house is fascinating yet at the same time relevant. The house is built atop strong stone pillars suggestive of its applicability to the region which has experienced earthquakes and flash-floods frequently throughout history.

Lingzya or Lingzey Waterfall

Amongst the many waterfalls of Dzongu, this one is like the ace of spade. Situated in the upper Lingzya village with its steepest vertical drop of about 300 ft this waterfall is a sight to witness. Refreshingly this waterfall feels like a waterfall. Wild and not yet encroached upon by tea stalls on the sides as is the case of many elsewhere, but this is Dzongu. Suddenly out of nowhere in the woods, a splashing sound would draw the attention of anyone visiting, following which after a couple of turns it would make itself visible. The locals do Hammer fishing on the natural shelf of the falls which is an experience to treasure as is taking a bath in the icy cold water.

Lingzya or Lingzey waterfall

Hot Springs & Fishing near Dzongu

Proximal to the village of Lingdem in Lower Dzongu, across a thin rivulet and some fifty steps inside the forest, two log cabins are situated, each meant for either of the sexes. These are the hot Sulphur springs of Dzongu regarding which it is sincerely believed by the locals to have medicinal qualities and healing powers. The location of the springs is eerie in itself. Imagine taking a dip at a hot spring within a dense forest, beside a rivulet of icy melt.

Fishing: Teesta, Rokyang Chu and the Rong Kyung rivers, along with the waterfall shelves provide opportunities of fishing for Trout and other fishes. The general method is through angling or the more obscure Hammer-fishing.

Organic Food & Local liquor Tasting

The inhabitants of Dzongu lead a self-sustained life as far as possible. All the vegetables and crops are grown with organic manure. Apart from oil and the necessary spices, everything else one would get to eat will be locally grown. The Lepcha way of cooking is still on earthen ovens with log fire, using very little oil and spices, usually boiled or roasted. The fare is relatively simple but delicious. They even cultivate some varieties of fish in the natural lakes which taste quite delectable. Almost all households have livestock of country chicken and sheep which can also be made available on request.

Two locally brewed liquors are famous in this region and are commonly offered complimentary by the homestays. Chee is made from fermenting millets. Partially it can be equated to be an organic form of Beer. Generally served in hollow bamboo mugs with a thin bamboo straw to sip with, it packs a mild punch. Aarack is brewed from some part of the cinnamon plants. Colorless in appearance the taste is rather pungent.

Location & Altitude

Dzongu is located in the north-western part of the state of Sikkim. Administratively falling under the Mangan sub-division of the North Sikkim District. Spanning over a little less than 80 square kilometers with 30 odd villages and a sparse population of about four and a half thousand, Dzongu varies in altitude from 800 meters to 6000 meters above mean sea level. Teesta to its south east, Tholung Chu to its north east and the Kanchenjunga range form the western natural boundary to the region. Dzongu apparently extends from Ship-Gyer Village in the east to Sakyong-Pentong village in the west and Keushong Cho Lake in north to Lum village in the south. Mangan which is the headquarters of the North Sikkim district is about 25 kilometers from Dzongu.

The nearest railhead New Jalpaiguri (NJP), is connected on the railway map from almost all major cities of the country. Bagdogra (IXB), with daily flights from Kolkata and Delhi is the nearest airport. Both of which are in the city of Siliguri, West Bengal. Dzongu is 150 kilometers and a 5 hour drive from SIliguri.

Gangtok, the capital city of Sikkim is 70 kilometers from Dzongu. Helicopter service though expensive is available between Bagdogra and Gangtok and takes 30 minutes to reach

Getting There to Dzongu

From Gangtok, dedicated hired cars or shared vehicles for Mangan are readily available. From Mangan again hired cars are available for different villages in Dzongu. Shared jeeps for some villages are also available but are very few in number ranging from 1 to 2 in an entire day.

Prepaid cars can be availed for Mangan from Siliguri itself from kiosks outside NJP or Bagdogra. If coming from Siliguri one does not have to necessarily go via Gangtok, instead a separate road connecting Singtham and Mangan can be taken. Tentatively it costs around 4k for a vehicle like Bolero for a Siliguri-Mangan drop. Alternatively one can go via a shared vehicle till Singtham for 200 bucks per person and hire a car for Mangan or Sankalang from there for about 2k. Shared jeeps ply between Singtham-Mangan, the fare is again around 200 bucks per person.

It is advisable for people visiting for the first time to ask their homestay owners to cater a pick up from Mangan which they are generally happy to do. A pick up from Mangan till a homestay in Tingvong over two vehicles cost me 1200 bucks.

Permits for Dzongu

Dzongu is a restricted zone for everyone who is not a Lepcha by ethnicity. Even Sikkimese citizens require to obtain a special permit to visit the place as do everyone else. However getting them is quite easy. It mostly would require someone to send scanned or photographed copies of an identity proof and a passport size picture beforehand to the homestay owner who could easily get them done. The permit fee is 150 bucks per person. One can obtain the permits themselves from the DC office at Mangan.

Best Season for Traveling to Dzongu

Dzongu is accessible all around the year, though the ideal time to go there would be between late-February to early June. The monsoon months of mid-June to September are best avoided as it rains ponderously in the region scaling up the risk of landslides or a bridge getting washed away. The winters are bitterly cold bringing snowfall at some upper villages. The views are most clear though. Apart from climatic considerations, for people interested in witnessing Lepcha tradition first hand, there are various periodic festivals on which Dzongu can be visited.

Suggested Duration of Travel

No suggestive time frame for a place as untouched and which has so much to offer as Dzongu will be appropriate to be judicious to the place. Ideally, one should come and stay for a week. However, if someone is short on days a two-three day escapade at one of the villages will not disappoint anyone. In fact, it would just keep you wanting to come back at the end. One also has the option to tie up Dzongu with rest of Sikkim or North Sikkim as per convenience. Or one could just make a dedicated trip to Dzongu itself for it is a place worthy of it in every way.

Indicative 3 Day Itinerary for Dzongu

Day 1: Arrive at NJP or Bagdogra or Siliguri and travel to Mangan. Thereafter to Tingvong Village in upper Dzongu.

Day 2: Watch the sunrise over Kanchenjunga from right out of your homestay room. Go visit the Lingzey Falls either as a sightseeing point or as an excursion for half a day along with the hanging bridge and the riverbed. Try hammer fishing and roasting the catch inside bamboos to eat them right beside the waterfalls.

Second half of the day, explore Tingvong village. Visit the school ground. Get to know about the intricacies of these mountain tribe.

Day 3: Hire a car and visit the Hot Springs of Lingdem, the Lepcha museum of Namprikdang and exit Dzongu on the way out.

Where to sleep and eat at Dzongu?

Dzongu has no proper hotels still, fortunately so I would imagine. Homestays are available in the villages of Tingvong, Passingdong, Lingdong, Lingthem and Hee Gyathang. I have heard few have come up in Kusong, Sakyong-Pentong and Bay villages in recent times.

Some of them are quite popular with foreigners and are relatively upmarket than the others which are simple extensions of Lepcha family homes. The Lepchas do not prefer attached toilets hence almost all the homestays have separate washrooms outside the main structure of the house. Western toilets and hot water are commonly available. The homestays offer all-inclusive deals per person, i.e., for accommodation and all square meals and snacks. The prices are in the range of 1000 to 1500 bucks per person per day. Some of the better known and popular homestays may charge higher.

Some of the homestays in Dzongu

  • Mayal Lang Homestay, Passingdong Village, Lower Dzongu
    Owned and managed by a cheerful gentleman Mr. Gyatso Lepcha who is fluent in English, this homestay is perhaps the most famous and sought after by tourists in Dzongu. Enchantingly located in Passingdong village atop a small hill with a flowing river stream close by, Mayal Lang has an impressive guestbook including the crown prince of Norway and his family. It has an attractive website too. Phone: 094344 46088, 090028 84972, 096478 72434. Email: [email protected]
  • Dzongu Lee Homestay, Lingdong Village, Lower Dzongu
    Owner: Mr. Sonam Lepcha, Comparatively new homestay which has become popular in the recent times. Phone: 096098 64255. Email: [email protected].com; [email protected]
  • Tingvong Homestay, Tingvong Village, Upper Dzongu
    Owner: Mr. Dupden Lepcha, is a pleasant personality with a lot of stories to tell. Most popular homestay probably in the village of Tingvong. Phone: 098002 54465; 095937 83043; Sherap Lepcha (Brother of Mr. Dupden) 094341 74685. Email: [email protected]
  • Lingthem Lyang Homestay, Lingthem Village, Upper Dzongu.
    Probably the only homestay in the Lingthem Village, located practically bang within cardamom fields. Linthem supposedly has one of the best views of Kanchenjunga in all of Dzongu. Phone: 095937 81926, 084360 00318. Email: [email protected]
  • TECS Homestay, Tingvong Village, Upper Dzongu.
    Owner: Ongtshering Lepcha (Commonly referred to as Mr. OT Lepcha). Phone: 094341 74856. Email: [email protected]
  • Rumlyang Homestay, Tingvong Village, Upper Dzongu. Owner: Mr. Karma Lepcha
    This is where I stayed. Karma is a great soul. Does everything humanly possible to make the guests feel comfortable at all times. The homestay has 3 double rooms on the ground floor and a fascinating attic upstairs for hanging out while it might get cold outside. The rooms are basic but comfortable. Has a chic little sit out made out of bamboos where campfires are lit in the evening. Karma manages the show almost singlehandedly and does a pretty good job at that. The property has orange trees and an otherwise very rare Avocado tree. Kanchenjunga and the Pandim massifs are clearly visible right out of the bed practically. Phone: 087683 22211, 07407345281. He is available on Whatsapp and Instagram.
    His brother Mr. Zigmee Lepcha also runs a homestay just adjacent very slightly uphill from Karma’s place. Zigmee’s property is spread across a larger area and appears aesthetically more pleasing. Phone: 074071 83112

Rumlyang Homestay

Nearby Utilities

Dzongu is a remote region of a very remote part of the state. Apart from one or two provision stores, there are not many business centers other than the homestays. Modest dispensaries may be found scarcely.

Vodafone and BSNL work sporadically for calls. The Internet is almost as good as non-existent in most parts.

Mangan, which is a small town 25 kilometers away, being the district headquarters boasts of all necessary facilities like petrol pump, hospital, collectorate offices, wine shops and mediocre restaurants beside many shops. 2-3 ATMs are there but it is advisable not to depend entirely on them. It would be better to withdraw the required cash from Siliguri, Gangtok or Singtham on the way up. One can always buy provisions from Mangan before entering Dzongu. Bottled water is officially banned in Sikkim, however, is available at places. The natural water in Dzongu will serve absolutely fine.

Conclusion

If you wish to get transported to, albeit momentarily, to a place which is preserved in tranquility, a fairytale mountain world of its own, come to make a trip to Dzongu. Everything this place is may not remain as such in the coming years, but whilst it is, Dzongu will not disappoint you. The essential rawness of nature, the primordial serenity of the Himalayas is still frozen in secrecy in Dzongu. Be it a pleasant holiday, a backpacking trip or just to defeat the synthetic obvious of our lives, Dzongu most certainly would leave you wanting to come back.

Do you still have any questions or suggestions or need any help in planning your trip to Sikkim & Dzongu? If yes, please feel free to post them either in the comments section of this article below or in “Ask a Travel Question” section of the website. You can also take guidance from many travel experts in our DoW Community Forums and discuss your upcoming travel plans for Sikkim & Dzongu 🙂

If you like the article, please feel free to share it with any of your family or friends who are planning a trip to Sikkim & Dzongu. In the next article of the series, I am going to talk more about another hidden gem of a place from the North Eastern Himalayas.

Now step out to experience the charm and beauty of this amazing place in the Himalayas and share your experience with us too 🙂 :).

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