Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Dzongu: God's Own Set of Villages Beneath the Himalayas

The place: Dzongu in the North District of the Indian state of Sikkim.

Why would one want to visit: Rural, remote, calm, beautiful villages; clear, close views of the Himalayas including Mt. Kangchenjunga, pollution free air, chance to experience the way of living of the mountain people.

The most frequent work that I have been using for the past few days - amazing. This is my one word answer whenever someone asks me how did my trip to Sikkim go. And I'm not exaggerating, even a bit.

I had been planning a Sikkim trip for some time and was quite confused about what all places to visit. I planned it for a week and the capital Gangtok was already on top of the list. Then one day, somewhere on the internet, I happen to read about Dzongu and that put an end to whatever confusion I had. I read a few reviews on Indiamike and decided to go for Mr. Dupden Lepcha's home stay at Tingvong village in Dzongu. All set for another lone trip to the Himalayas.

Reservations and permit
Dupden was available on phone and email. I talked with him a few times to collect details and finally to confirm my stay. Advance amount was not required to be paid.
As Dzongu is a reserved place for it's original inhabitants- the Lepchas, people from outside need permit to enter. I had to send scanned copies of my driving licence and passport size photo to Dupden and he arranged the permit for me.

How to get there
For the economic traveller -  reach NJP by train, get a shared taxi to Singtam (3 hours, Rs 250 per person), from Singtam get a shared taxi to Mangan (2 hours, Rs 90 per person). From Mangan call the home stay guy, he will come and pick you up or instruct you how to reach his place. Dupden's place is located at around 75 minutes drive from Mangan.
For the 'I-don't-care-about-the-money' traveller, the nearest airport is Bagdogra from where one can easily get a private taxi to Mangan. Then one has to contact the home stay person to know how to proceed.

I reached the home stay by 05:00 pm on January 20th. The sun sets by around 05:30 pm at this time of the year, so there was nothing much to do when I reached. I took all my time to settle in, had a shower and sat down for a chat with Dupden. We had the local beer, prepared from millet which I had to suck in using a bamboo straw. New way to enjoy beer!.

millet beer

I was happy about the dinner - my all time favorite rice, beef, potato curry and cabbage. I wanted to see the sunrise the next day and Dupden instructed me to wake up at 05:30 am. Winter, lap of the Himalayas, at 05:30 in the morning?? Sounded like a tough thing but very soon, the adventurer in me took over the pessimist. 

The home stay
Double occupancy rooms, non attached bathroom with water heater, home cooked food -  all that one needs to keep oneself comfortable. The non attached bathroom might be an inconvenience if there are multiple parties in the home stay at a time.

home stay in tingvong
Those green painted rooms are for the guests

langham chu hills and home stay
The home stay and Langham chu hills in the background
Start of the day - Sunrise
Yes, I woke up at 05:30 in the morning. I had set alarm on my phone but before it rang, I woke up to the cockle-doodle-doo sound of the roosters. I don't remember when was the last time I woke up to something other than alarm or chattering of my family/friends. That was the moment when I realized that I was living very close to nature. There was a super cool breeze outside and with the protection of a jacket over a sweatshirt, I stepped outside with my camera and tripod. I had to walk 2 minutes down to get a view of Mt. Kangchenjunga. To my excitement, I could see the the mountains glittering  like gold when the first sun rays of the day fell on them. Sacrificing the sleep, fighting the breeze, everything totally paid off. This view was the most serene event of my entire trip.

Kanchenjunga mountain range
The mountains in golden color is a view that lasts for only few minutes. One the sun is completely visible on the horizon, the mountains get back to their snow white color.

buddhist prayer flags
Buddhist prayer flags that are seen near almost every home
I spent the next 2 hours walking around and clicking pictures. I introduced myself to some of the people I met, they talked to me, very briefly, with innocent smiles on their faces. Kids after answering my questions ran away. As most of them don't have much connection with the world outside Dzongu, they are shy while interacting with people from outside. But never take their hesitation to have long conversations as rude, they are just not used to outsiders.
[Tip] If you are visiting in winter, it is advisable to carry jackets in addition to sweatshirts/pullovers. Also gloves. 

little lepcha girl
My neighbour. She had that 'lemme see what you got' attitude on her face!

Walk around in Tingvong and Kussong
After the breakfast which was again rice (but I was happy about that), Dupden took me for a walk around in Tingvong and the nearby village Kussong. First we hit an Anganwadi (pre-school) where his wife works.

pre school in tingvong

kids in tingvong pre school

Super shy kids, but once we join their games with ball or running around, they will definitely make us buddies.

We moved on to a Buddhist monastery where they were having a special day. On 10th, 15th and 30th days of every month of the Buddhist calender, people gather at monasteries, do special prayers, cook lunch and have it together. I was requested to have lunch and I joined happily.

lunch at buddhist monastery

effects of landslide

The effects of the last year's earthquake in Sikkim could be seen at many places.

wheat field in tingvong

Majority of the population depend on agriculture. They grow wheat, rice, onion, cabbage, orange, ginger, corn and potato. Cardamom is the main agricultural product of this region.

lepcha girl

It was interesting to see that even small kids at home are engaged with all the household activities like cleaning, serving food, washing dishes, what not. This little one was one of the smartest around.

Another thing that I found lovely is that in these villages, everybody knows everyone else. There was not a single person that Dupden did not know or who did not know Dupden. How cool is to walk two hours away from your home and still see all familiar faces around?. This is not a luxury city dwellers have.

Had a second lunch plus tea from one of the homes we visited. I was not at all hungry but they insisted. They truly won my heart with their hospitality.

By 03:00 pm, we reached back the home stay. The walking expedition for four hours plus two lunches put me to a nap till late evening.

When I woke up, I had a shower followed by dinner, few shots of local vodka-like drink that they prepare locally and a chat with Dupden. Went back to bed and called it a day by 11:00 pm.

More of sunrise
Next morning was no different from the previous one, I woke up at 05:30 for the sunrise. This time, I viewed it from my room. The same splendid view.

sunrise at tingvong

If you have such a view from your bedroom window, then you live in an awesome place!. Here it feels like we have private Himalayan mountains as our own, only for us to see and enjoy, with no one around. From crowded towns like Darjeeling or Gangtok, one may not get this feeling.

himalayas at sunrise
View from sit out
After breakfast, I went for a final walk around the village. It looked to me as beautiful as Shire, the breathtaking village of the Hobbits in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

tingvong village

By 11:00 am, I got ready to leave to my next destination - Gangtok, Sikkim's capital. Dupden dropped me at Mangan from where I got a shared taxi. My next post will be about my exciting Gangtok visit.

with dupden and family
With Dupden and family. I have no idea why my hair looks so stupid!
Breakfast + lunch + tea + dinner + sleep = Rs 1200 per night
Walk around in Tingvong and Kussong = Rs 500
From Mangan to Tingvong and back = Rs 600

[Tip] Tingvong and Kussong do not have any ATM machines or bank branches (Mangan is the nearest place that have). So carry enough cash. 

Mr. Dupden Lepcha

How about taking a few days off to explore Dzongu?. Think of wake up call by roosters, clear pollution at all, no dust, no honking vehicles, loosing track of days and time, living close to mother nature. This is not a package one can easily say no to. I would say, give it a try!. This might be an opportunity to learn how profoundly little we know about leading a life. To go to a shop which is at a 5 minutes walk, we need a vehicle. 2 days without internet/emails/facebook - too tough. If we don't go out and watch a movie or hit a bar or hang out with friends in a mall, we feel that we ruined the weekend. Those who work, we start counting the days remaining for the weekend, right from Monday. But people in these villages walk hours to reach the next village and meet their folks. Their nearest internet cafe is 1 hour away. Majority of them have never seen a mall. And when I was there, I did not know whether it was a Monday or a Tuesday, every moment was equally special. As the ad of Kerala tourism promotion says, 'your moment might be waiting' - in Dzongu.