Dzongu Lepcha reserve, North Sikkim the not so touristy way
Roadtrips have always held a fascination for me so it was no wonder that I was itching to go on one. On top of the list was the obvious, Leh/ladakh trip but this is not about that but rather a more interesting roadtrip nearby, North Sikkim. Sikkim is a well-known and frequented travel destination but what I had in mind was not a much frequented one. I had done a lot of research and had found out that there are only a handful of people that have self-driven North Sikkim in their own vehicles (2 wheelers are allowed, I’m talking about 4 wheelers). So let me get into it although at peril of being picked upon by Taxi union guys, next time I’m around, haha..(nervous laugh on myself
So on the fateful month of June, me and Parul started early on our ‘Jajabor’ (yes that’s our Force Gurkha) westward bound from Guwahati for Sikkim. Now the only thing fixed was our destination for the next two days, as we just wanted to spend some time together in some place where nature surrounded us in all its glory, and we found just the right place, and what an adventure it turned out to be. This trip was the result of constant stares from Parul ,as if saying , last time it was Kanyakumari , what’s it this time?
We took the NH 27/ 317/ 17 to reach Sevoke (Coronation Bridge), one of my favourite stretches of highways that I have driven upon. It was a burst of greenery passing the Dooar’s and then we were on the road to Gangtok. Now comes the part where I tell you that it is next to impossible to get self-drive permits to North Sikkim from Gangtok, but I have come to know that it can be possible to do so via Mangan and that was the idea when I booked into the wonderful Munlom Nature Resort at Gyathang. So from Singhtam I had to leave NH 10 and join 310A for Mangan. The roads started getting narrower and curvier and uphill and the thrill increased. It was getting late around 4 pm and this is when I realised that I had been so unprepared. I got a call from the wonderful Mr. Kim was worried that I would not make it in time to the permit office at Mangan, which is when I came to know that I needed permits to get to the resort as well. I was at a loss as to what to do when Mr. Kim graciously told me not to worry and took the undertaking himself for our permits much to our relief. So we took our own sweet time marvelling at the humongous mountains and gushing streams on the way and finally we reached Mangan. It was already getting dark when we reached the check post and true to his word, our permits were awaiting us. Instead of checking us the police were curious and surprised to see us there , that too in our own vehicle, one of them said , “ye jangal mein kya karega?” literally meaning “what would you do in this jungle ?” to this I replied that I came for the jungle only. So we trundled along and at last were on the home stretch, the last 4 kms were epic and Jajabor went crazy with excitement, it was the only 4×4 track to the resort (it was like this in monsoons). Mr.Kim was there to welcome us, maybe he wanted to know who these crazy guys were coming all the way from Guwahati, that too in the monsoons. We settled down into our comfortable room and called it a day expecting to be surrounded by nature, as it was too dark to see now.
The next day was a revelation; we were in the middle of a dense lush virgin forest at an altitude of 5100ft. The resort was awesomely built with locally sourced material and traditional building techniques that have largely been forgotten. It is true to its meaning “blessing” which is what “Munlom” means. It was far from the maddening crowd, just like we wanted, it was peaceful. The next two days we came to know about the place.
Also Read: American Pizza Styles
DZONGU: this is a special “lepcha” preserve, the original native inhabitants of Sikkim. It is a virgin territory of dense jungles and streams fed by the glaciers of the Himalayan Mountains up above. The elevation ranges from 1400ft to stratospheric 20000ft giving it a variety and diversity of amazing flora and fauna. It borders the Khangchendzonga National Park and Biosphere Reserve. The panoramic views of Mount Khangchendzonga (8585m) are mesmerising. It is the protective deity of Sikkim.
PEOPLE: they are also called the ‘Rongkup’ or the ‘children of God’ and are the indigenous people of Sikkim. They traditionally speak Lepcha, Sikkimese, Dzongkha and Nepali. They tend to follow Mun/Munism or Bongthingism , which is belief in spirits or ‘mun’ or ‘mung’. According to ‘Mun’ mythology the ancestors of the Lepchas were created by ‘Itbu Rum’ who molded them from the pure snows of mount Kangchenjunga. This is why the religion is so entwinded with the environment. There have been inroads made by Buddhism and Christianity resulting in a decline in the traditional religion. There is however regained interest among the Lepcha’s due to the rampant ecological destruction going on around. They have started opposing the construction of dams or other development in the Rathong chu and Teesta riverine areas. This has spilled into the political spheres too with the local youths strongly airing their views in this matter.
So after two days of relaxing and peace and numerous chats with Kim we bid adieu and guess what we had another gift in the form of the permits to drive onto Lachen and further to the Gurudongar lake, one of the highest lakes in the world at 17,800ft. It is also considered sacred by Buddhists, Sikhs and Hindus. It so happens that it is possible to self-drive, provided you give an undertaking and persuade the officials that you and the vehicle can make it.
We filled up Jajabor at Mangan, as it is the last fuel bunk on the entire stretch of North Sikkim, so one has to be careful in calculating the distance and also factoring in the fact that high altitudes result in higher fuel consumption in. So we left Mangan and the roads gradually became worse and broken and steeper. We left for our destination for the day, Lachen from Chungthang. The other roads lead to Lachung and Yumthang valley. We slowly climbed amidst majestic neck-pain, inducing mountains and crazy rushing waterfalls and streams (it was monsoons after all) and reached Lachen at 2,750m/9022ft after a tedious 7 hours over only 130 kms. We checked into our quaint little heritage homestay and we could feel the nip in the air as temperatures plummeted rapidly. Lachen mean ‘big pass’ and is the base to the Chopta Valley and Gurudongmar lake. We came to know that an annual Yak race, the Thangu, is held every summer. After some yummy home-cooked dinner we retired for the night as we had an early morning 4am start the next day. It so happens that it is not allowed and advisable to stay back at Gurudongmar after 11:30pm.
The reason for this is that winds pick up towards the second half of the day and the oxygen level is also very low.
We started for our next stop at Thangu (13000ft) and then the vegetation gets sparse and human settlements are nil barring the Indian army. The final check post is Gaigaon (15000ft / highest in the world). It resembles a barren moonland and the roads will break your back but the views are worth it, the sky is different shade of blue and as we reach Gurudongmar (17,800ft) it is the nearest I have been to Tibet (another dream roadtrip) but the landscape resembles the Tibetan plateau in all aspects. The rarefied nausea inducing environment is no short of spectacular as we take a right up the hill to the lake which miraculously does not freeze (a part of it) even in winter when the temperature drops to negative degrees. The lore goes that it was blessed by Guru Padmasambhava who placed his hands on a small portion of the lake so that the lake could be used as a source of drinking water throughout the year.
I was already feeling the effects of AMS so I had to beat a hasty retreat but Parul was absolutely fine, so driving duties were taken care of by her. It was not until I came down that I began to feel fine. While coming down we saw stunning scenery in Chopta valley (13,200ft), the valley was carpeted with rhododendrons and a plethora of wild flowers. We came down to Lachen for our lunch.
This is when we realized the predicament we faced, our fuel reserve of Jajabor did not have enough and we could not make it all the way to Yumthang and back to Mangan. We had to leave Lachung and Yumthang for another time, maybe a snow drive.
We bounced and trundled our way back to Mangan and filled up Jajabor and left for Gangtok. Another heritage homestay awaited us in Gangtok and the Tibetan architecture of the place left us wanting more. The next day we had to leave for home so we started early and motored down familiar roads only to decide on the way to stretch our journey past Guwahati to another destination in Meghalaya, but that is another story for another day.
Points to consider:
# Although possible to self-drive it is more practical and safe to go through the established tour operators as they know the routes and terrain inside out.
# It is advisable to acclimate properly at Lachen or Lachung for at least 24 hours to negate any effect of AMS. It affects different people differently so adapting is a must. Carry necessary medications.
# Inner line permits are required for Indian Nationals as it is an international border.
# International tourists are not allowed ahead of Chopta valley region and cannot visit Gurudongmar.
# the climate is cold even in summer months so prepare accordingly.
# The road conditions are harsh at best, so be prepared.
# If you are self-driving then remember the last fuel bunk is in Mangan.
# you need permits for Dzongu as well as it is a protected area and abides by the local rules at all times .
# Atm‘s seldom work or are non- existent so carry enough cash.
# North Sikkim is a plastic free zone so be responsible and do not litter.
Dzongu: it is easily accessible by road. It is about 70 kms from Gangtok, the state capital of Sikkim.
One can also directly go to Mangan( capital of North Sikkim district) and into Dzongu.
The nearest railhead is New Jalpaiguri Railway station in West Bengal.
The nearest airport is Bagdogra in Siliguri (West Bengal).
Pakyong airport near Gangtok will soon be fully functional by this year.
Food: all the vegetables in Dzongu are organic and grown there locally.
Rice and cardamom are the main crops here.
Lepchas prefer less oil and hence food is either boiled or roasted.
Chee is a traditional lepcha drink brewed from millets.
Things not to be missed:
Hee gyathang: it is situated in Lower Dzongu and has a small lake considered sacred by the
Lingzya waterfall is the best among the many that are there.
Tholung monastery: visit the hot springs and have a look at the Tholung treasures that are
put out every 3 years.
Traditional lepcha house museum located in Namprikdang.
Keushong: this is a must for trekking buffs. It is 3/4 day trek to the most pristine place in
Dzongu is covered with hills and lakes around it.
Gurudongmar lake: it is one of the highest lakes and a must visit.
(Co-founder: Go Northeast)