THE HILL FORTRESS
The trek starts form Yoksum- the ancient, erstwhile capital of Sikkim, which is accessible by road from New Jalpaiguri (NJP). It is always advisable to leave NJP early in order to enter Yoksum before sundown. Jeeps are easily available form either NJP station or the Sikkim Nationalised Transport Depot opposite the Tenzing Norgay Bus Stand in Siliguri.
On the road to Yoksum, one passes though a number of well-known towns. Melli- the last town before Sikkim, Rangpo- the gateway to Sikkim, Jorethang- where all tourists and trekkers alike stop for lunch, Pelling- the ‘Bengali’ hill station and Rimbi are just a few of them. At Yoksum, there are a number of places to stay suiting every budget- from Danny Denzongpa’s hotel to the diminutive Trekkers Huts run by the Sikkim Government, Department of Tourism. Yoksum itself is a popular hill station, situated at the mouth of the Kanchendzonga National Park and home to one of the oldest monasteries in the world.
The trail from Yoksum passes through dense jungles where a wide variety of Himalayan flora and fauna may be observed. As there are no motorable roads past Yoksum, the lack of civilisation here is reassuring- to say the least. The route goes all of sixteen kilometres, through a series of ups and downs before finally entering Bakhim (meaning House of Bamboo) at an altitude of nine thousand feet. En route, one comes across four rivers, each more raging than the last. The bridge across the third has been washed away, so caution should be exercised while attempting to cross it. After the fourth bridge, the trail ascends sharply for about a thousand feet before finally ending at Bakhim. One may rest for the night here. Alternatively, if one is not too tired, about an hours walk from Bakhim lies Tsoka (meaning- lake of ice) at an altitude of about ten thousand feet. Both have Trekkers Huts, which are well taken care of. Additionally, Tsoka is home to a number of other establishments and a monastery overlooking a small lake from which the place gets its name. Here, it would be a good idea to stock up on water supplies as there would not be any water available between Tsoka and Dzongri sixteen kilometres away. From Tsoka, the trail moves on towards the north, onto Fethang.
The trail to Fethang is impossibly steep and coupled with the steadily decreasing levels of oxygen, this part does pose some problems for the inexperienced trekker. The paucity of oxygen comes as a direct result of the gradually increasing altitude. Also, one will notice that the dense jungles between Yoksum and Bakhim soon give way to scrub, bushes and eventually alpine meadows. At Fethang, the track bifurcates into two. The one on the right leads on to Gochala via Thangsing (another sixteen kilometres away) and Zemathang while the other goes to Dheorali and finally Dzongri, another nine kilometres away. The route to Dheorali becomes more or less level after a while. However, it must be said here that the last couple of kilometres before Dheorali are steep and without much vegetation around. Dheorali is easy to spot by the large number of prayer flags strung about. Being one of the highest points in the area, it is considered to be a sacred grove.
The route from Dheorali to Dzongri is another series of ups and downs before you finally see the green and brown Trekkers Hut in the middle of a large basin-like field surrounded by mountains. This is Dzongri, at an altitude of thirteen thousand feet above sea level. The name itself means ‘hill fortress’ which comes from a large knoll overlooking the Trekkers Hut called ‘Dzongri Top’. It takes about half an hour to get to the top where a number of shrines and strings of prayer flags adorn the summit. From here, the Kanchendzonga is a mere twenty kilometres as the crow flies. If you have been enthralled by the sunrise on Tiger Hill, this will have you never wanting to come down.
There are three routes leading out of Dzongri. One descends sharply towards the Rathong River to Zamlingaon- a campsite set up especially for trainees to the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI) based in Darjeeling. That route moves on to Chaurikhang (the HMI Base Camp, altitude- 14,500 ft) via Bigbari. Another trail goes directly to Chaurikhang after crossing the Dzongri Pass at an altitude of 15,000 ft. A third rejoins the trail leading out of Fethang going towards Gochala. Apart from the view from Dzongri Top, there is a lake nearby (about two hours away), called Lakshmi Pokhri (Lake of Lakshmi). Overlooking this pristine lake is the Black Kabru- a peak completely devoid of snow. To most Buddhists, this is a holy peak, which is why it has never been climbed.
The trek to Dzongri is not for the weak hearted. This certainly does not presuppose that novices should be kept out because that is not the objective of trekking. The trek entails moments of extreme discomfort as well as overwhelming joy and elation. One needs to keep his wits about and not take too many risks. As the trek itself is completely out of the reach of civilisation, it would be advisable to carry provisions for food, fuel and even shelter (although the latter would not be necessary). It is a short trek- involving a mere four-five days. However, those few days would be enough to make one fall in love with Dzongri.