The air is thin as we drive farther away from Thangu on the popular road from Lachen to Gurudongmar Lake in North Sikkim. The journey from Delhi has already taken over two days. Time is irrelevant here; and it shouldn’t matter too; for we are documenting Dukpa Tseshi – festival of the Dokpa tribe that also includes a (behold!) yak race! The initiative to document these dying traditions of Sikkim has been taken by Our Guest Travels, a boutique travel firm based in Gangtok.
First, I must catch a flight to Bagdogra, and even though Sikkim is a small state in terms of the geographical area the roads are not in great condition and that tends to make travel times longer. What it means is we are headed straight to Mangan town from Bagdogra airport. Mangan is the capital of of North SikkimDistrict and is also known as the cardamon capital! Mangan is also the gateway to Dzongu (that unimaginably beautiful abode of the Lepchas). We have encountered a million waterfalls on our way to Mangan, and while the oohs and aahs are becoming mundane the scenery definitely isn’t.
The meet-and-greet of the travel group and Our Guest Team (Pintso, Karma, Sachin and Abigail) happens over tea. It continues pouring in Mangan through the night. Morning brings a drizzle and the nearby mountains are shrouded in clouds; is it a little trailer of the trip ahead of us? First things first – we head to a monastery nearby and say our prayers for the path ahead is unknown and difficult, and the weather unpredictable. The huge Padmasambhava statue at the Ringon Rigzin Choeling Gompa smiles benevolently at us, perhaps showering us with good wishes.
The incessant rains have caused a landslide on the Mangan-Lachen Highway near Chungthang and the original road is closed. The Our Guest team is no stranger to these troubles and they have already procured permissions to go via an alternate route that passes through an Army Camp. After a crazy topsy-turvy ride on non-existent roads we are in Lachen. It is pleasantly chilly and we make a short tea break at around 1 in the afternoon. Our destination for the day is Thangu (also called Thanggu) at 4000m above sea level.
Lashar Valley is located at an altitude of approximately 4600m above sea level and we all need to be properly acclimatised for the trek. The road continues on its never-ending ascent after crossing Lachen and we roll into Thangu at 4 in the evening. We are all famished and quickly eat the potatoes, dall and rice for a late lunch. It has been decided that the ladies will stay in the better equipped homestay just before Thangu village. As we put our bags in the basic rooms, I have a moment of déja vu. It was this very place that we had stayed in, some 6-7 years ago on the Sikkim trip with my family!
I share this vital piece of epiphany with everyone including the dhaba/guest house owners and instantly recognised the owner when he comes from Lachen later in the evening. Life is a curious mix of coincidences was the common gist of the conversation! It is lush green in Thangu, since the month of August means it rains almost everyday in this region. Unlike the trans-Himalayas of Lahaul, Spiti, Zanskar and Ladakh which lie in the rain shadow of the Himalayas; this part of Sikkim (even though it is over 4000m) receives plenty of rainfall. It was very surprising for me to see a glorious shade of green at these high altitudes.
Since acclimatisation is of paramount importance, some of us decide to head out for a walk to a nearby monastery in Thangu. It should serve the dual purpose of some physical activity, whiling away time, and getting the body used to the cold and the altitude. We wander back to the guest house as it is about to get dark after spending a good 1 hour in the open. It is chilly cold and when the wind starts blowing, you know its either time to don another jacket or head to the warmth of the common kitchen + dining space that is a lifesaver in these high altitude settlements.
I am not very hungry but still eat some rice for dinner. Black tea is my saviour in Thangu and the lady adds freshly crushed black pepper at my insistence of adding some ginger and cardamom and I’m not complaining. There is no electricity in the rooms (solar lights are installed in the kitchen) and with the cold winds blowing, I am excited at the prospect of a nice, warm tumbler of the local millet drink – Tongba. The Our Guest Team though advises me against it since we are not properly acclimatised and will trek and stay at much higher altitudes the next day. They promise me Tongba after the end of the trek!
We wake up early next morning; in anticipation of a long day. The trek starts from a bridge around 20 odd kms away from Thangu. It has been decided to leave after breakfast at around 9 am. We are ready to leave on time but the organising team is out looking for horses! The remoteness of this valley is such that horses are in demand and the horsemen who had agreed 1 month ago are trying to charge more.
Anyhow, another car goes and picks up the ladies from their homestay and we are finally on our way at around 11 am. The scenery on the road to Gurudongmar lake changes every few minutes and varies between a stark landscape and insane greenery. We cross the bridge and start the ascent. Our team put together by Our Guest Travels comprises of local experts and we are informed and shown different insects, beetles and plants endemic to Sikkim such as the Sikkim rhubarb. Its sunny one minute and cloudy the next.
The scenes in front of us are nothing short of magical; especially since we are so close to 4500m and in the midst of gorgeous greenery. After an hour or two of hiking, a thick fog envelops us and we break for lunch wherever we are. The yaks who are supposed to race in the Dukpa Tseshi festival the next day have just crossed us along with the musicians and other locals. One of us points out the Himalayan Blue poppy on our left, it is in a shade of beautiful light blue.
After another hour of walking, we have reached the highest point of the trek at around 4650m and we have the first glimpse of Zachu or Lashar Valley. This is the start of our steady descent while the valley opens up. We are amongst gentle rolling hills with yellow wildflowers dominating the colour palette along with the omnipresent green. The clouds have obscured massive peaks which surround us and over the next 2 days we have momentary glimpses of those snow clad beauties.
Our blue tents are visible from afar and seem like tiny dots in the distance. Also visible are the houses of the 13 Dokpa families. Contrary to what I had imagined, their houses are well constructed with wooden planks with a tin roof with stones providing walls wherever needed. These families are inter-related and thus Lashar Valley can be said to be inhabited by one big family. One of the guides indicated we could walk inside a Dokpa house and make conversations with the nomads to know more about their lives.
We were welcomed inside a Dokpa home – a constant fire was burning, lit by dried dung. They offered us sweet tea and butter tea. I opted for the salty butter tea and asked them for some extra butter (I like it that way). The lady of the house offered yak cheese and a sort of sweet made by them, plus biscuits bought from Thangu. I loved the yak cheese that was really well made and had a unique flavour. I asked them the price of the yak cheese to carry back home and was a little startled when they mentioned it as Rs. 900 per kilo. Yak cheese in Zanskar had previously cost around 400 per kilo.
Conversation with the old members of the Dokpa tribe was difficult due to the language issues. The household that I was in had two young daughters and they understood both hindi and english. The younger one had in fact studied in Delhi and appeared amiable and eager to speak to us. After a series of questions, it was understood that the Dokpas practised polyandry where the wife was shared among brothers. Usually this polyandry system has prevailed among all Tibetans due to limited arable land which would not make economic sense if it was divided. Another interesting fact learnt was none of the families was a pure Dokpa family in the sense that either the male or the female was a Lachenpa (people from Lachen area).
One really surprising piece of information given by the Dokpa family that I spoke to was, they said that they migrate to even higher altitudes during winter. They also have similar structures like these near Gurudongmar lake (approx. 5100m) where they live in from November to March-April. They said that the fierce winds of the Tibetan plateau took the snow away with them leaving the ground bare for grazing by the sheep and yaks. The Dokpas make a living by rearing sheep, goats and yaks and using their milk and wool for selling. Sometimes yaks are also sold but the fixing of the price is done by the Pipon (Village chief) of Lachen.
Like other communities that have moved on from their traditional way of living, the Dokpas also realise that the new generation may not want to follow the nomadic lifestyle anymore. It is of course a very harsh life. The temperature even in summer is easily below zero degrees and the howling winds are not easy to bear, especially in the absence of any modern comforts. It is festivals like Dukpa Tseshi that keep their spirits up and the sense of belonging to a unique community.
The Dokpas also mentioned that the Dokpas of Muguthang live at even higher altitudes that might reach around 5800m. They also said that those are well to do and own land in Lachen too. Recently Muguthang was in the news because around 200-300 yaks had been stranded there in the winter and had perished because they had starved in absence of food. That was also the reason why the yak race at Dukpa Tseshi was being conducted with only 5 yaks as participants. It appeared as though there was no set pattern to their celebrations.
When I tried asking about the various activities that were going to be conducted over the next 2 days for the festival, I got no clear answer and a confused sort of reply. Maybe they knew but were unable to make me comprehend. Two monks were chanting prayers in a prayer room where everyone went and paid their respects. Chang (millet beer in these parts) flowed freely and a big feast was in the offing. A separate tent had been set up near the prayer room where the men who were going to ride the yaks had also gathered.
The mood kept getting more and more festive as the night went on. At around 10 in the night, one of the men got up and signalled it was time to start the Tongba party! The musician started playing an instrument that looked like a mini Spanish guitar. The drinking had started too; from a huge barrel and everyone had their bamboo straws which they drank periodically from after completing a dance step. The revelling continued late in the night, I had a mild headache due to the altitude and had to abstain from drinking the delicious looking Tongba!
Next morning, different ceremonies were already going on. One man was offering chhang and grain to the Gods, the smell of burning juniper was everywhere along-with the dense smoke, and we were enveloped among thick clouds. Since we were on an elevated plain, walking to the edges was supposed to be rewarding but I wasn’t prepared for the insanely beautiful sight that was below us. A river flowed making curious shapes and I wondered if it looked like an alien shape from outer space! Anyhow, the view didn’t last for long as clouds came from below too and covered the valley below. The only photograph I tried to click turned out to be blurry.
When we head back to Thangu by a different route than the one we came from, I come across a lone Dokpa house. It is a solitary home on a hillock surrounded by blue and purple wildflowers and has sheep grazing around. I can only ask myself, ‘How long?’
Thanks Our Guest Travels for an unparalleled experience.