I sat around the lil’ bonfire, extending my freezing leg towards it. At 4 pm, the lights were already beginning to fade away and the night sky was rearing its head. In the open kitchen next to me, dinner was getting cooked, the fragrance from the curries titillating my senses even if it was barely snack time. Just then, I hear a cry of excitement from outside, forcing me to step away from the cosiness and check it out for myself. Braving the cold, I go out and find heads pointed towards the sky with a childish joy. Every few seconds, shooting stars sped across the canvas, with each person around me secretly making wishes. I’d seen starry skies before, none more alluring than a night in Jaisalmer’s desert. But this night sky in one of the most pristine places in North East India – Dzukou Valley – was almost Van Gogh-esque.
This was my first time visiting places in North East India, a region that continues to fly under the radar of Indian tourism. Although I spent a very brief week in the area, primarily to attend the popular Hornbill Festival in Nagaland, I was hooked from the moment I landed.
As a guest of the experiential travel company ChaloHoppo, I had the pleasure of camping in the middle of nowhere, trekking up to the fascinating Dzukou valley, downing copious amounts of zutho, partaking in the (overhyped) Hornbill festival of Naga tribes, and living in a floating homestay in the Loktak lake.
But, it was that cold night in Dzukou under the countless stars that I felt a deep relationship building with all the myriad places in gentle North East India.
The Dzukou Valley is a vast expanse of lush green rolling hills. Shaped like little heaps of grass, it gets covered in a carpet of flowers in the summer and with a blanket of snow in the winter. What looks like plain grass from far is in fact rows of bamboo plants peppered across the vast expanse. Here and there, the stems and branches of cadaverous trees pop out like signposts, lending the valley a desolated look.
July is the time to go here if you’re one for flowers. Needless to say, at all times of the year, the valley beholds its breathtaking beauty. Visiting at the onset of winter in December, I was lucky to catch the valley in its frozen state, just before the snowfall season. The white lilies that adorn the valley had trickles of ice falling from it, the tiny streams running through had turned into a thin sheet of ice that we could walk over, and the early morning sun lit up the valley in a purple hue – unique to the winter season.
Even though the walk up to the main valley is long, at no point it felt cumbersome. At times, I was so absorbed by the sheer perfection of the hills that I was walking rhythmically with no track of the time going by.
The Dzukou Valley is possible to visit on a day-trip from Jakhama in Nagaland, just an hour outside of the capital of Kohima. But, I strongly recommend staying the night as it gives you the experience of seeing the valley lit up by the starry sky and also offers an opportunity to witness Dzukou during sunrise. More importantly, you won’t have to rush your climb and subsequent hike and tire yourself out.
We went as a small group of six, led by a ChaloHoppo team member along with porters who graciously took the burden of carrying our sleeping bags and cooking materials along with them. The vertical ascent to the top, albeit breath-diffusing, is only about 45 minutes long. I did huff and puff through it, but the climb gets out of the way fairly quickly. While the walk up to the dormitory and the main valley is around 2.5 hours from the top, it is entirely flat and easy for everyone with any level of fitness to tackle.
What I especially loved about how ChaloHoppo led the hike was how they tackled the diversity of fitness levels. Irrespective of how slow I got, I never felt pressured to push myself beyond my capacity to keep up with the rest.
The long hike culminates at the mouth of the valley with rolling hills and blue mountaintops staring right ahead. Here, there is a kitchen and dormitory managed by a private group which operates on a first-come, first-serve basis. If you’re an adventurous camper, there is a bit of space around the dorm to pitch your tent as well, although even that would depend on how early you can make it.
After a few mugs of cup noodles and some hot red tea, we went over to the helipad from where the sunset is a sight to behold. Keep your eyes glued, for the sunset, takes place in a jiffy and it’ll be dark before you can blink your eyelids. Ask my group-mates, they’ll tell you tales of how I was snoring lying on the open grass while waiting for the sunset. Thankfully, a good soul woke me up just in time.
While a lot of people skip staying the night, it is in the darkness (with no scenery to charm me) that I was truly taken over by life in the valley. As a group, we went in search of wood to make fire, carried them on our backs and cut them, sat around by the fire watching rice and chicken get cooked while giving a hand ourselves, talked endlessly about everything from travel to politics, made new friends, and slept in the open dorm like high-schoolers on a field trip.
In the night, every now and then, I would pop out of the group to go lie down on the grass and stare at the night sky. Gazing at stars warms my heart in a way nothing does. Even as a child, I used to look at this lone flickering star through my window and ask myself – “is that star still alive”?
Of the few places in North East India that I was lucky to visit, none captured by imagination the way Dzukou Valley did.
The ChaloHoppo Experience
I went on this trip through various places in North East India with ChaloHoppo, a new-age responsible travel company run by a group of passionate youth solely focused on places in North East India. Although I’m not a proponent of group trips in general, I can’t remember having a time as good as the week I spent with ChaloHoppo.
During the hornbill festival, I camped in comfort at Camp Yedhika – one of ChaloHoppo’s centres of stay in Nagaland area. The camp also serves as the ideal base to stay the night before the trip to Dzukou Valley as the start point is incredibly close to the campsite. With local home-made food, daily evening bonfires, comfortable tents, clean shared bathrooms, and fun people, I absolutely loved the vibe of the campsite.
ChaloHoppo operates like your friendly neighbourhood company who’ll look into each of your needs at a personal level and do their best to make your experience special. While they’re not the Abercrombie & Kent kind of company when it comes to detailing or being to-the-dot with timings, the atmosphere is one of a family which counts for far more than a tour that runs like clockwork. Each trip is run keeping responsible tourism in mind and with an aim of promoting the local economy, as opposed to running large-scale packaged tours.
What did I love the most, though? The people. Whether it was the at the campsite or during the trek, each person I met on this trip was interesting and inspiring in their own right. Honestly, the key reason why I never prefer a group trip is that I often find myself on the tough side of luck when it comes to travel mates (and I have very high standards of expectation). But, with the kind of people ChaloHoppo attracts, you’re likely to come back with a whole army of friends instead.
All in all, I wouldn’t think twice before booking another trail with ChaloHoppo to visit some of the most offbeat and serene places in North East India.
All You Need To Know
- ChaloHoppo runs many short and long tours across various offbeat places in North East India. If you just want to do the Dzukou Valley with them for a night, they have regular departures priced between 6000-8000 INR all inclusive.
- It is possible to visit Dzukou Valley on your own by arranging a taxi in the centre, but you’re quite likely to get lost and not get the experience you desire. In fact, a friend who was with me on the same trek was making her second attempt to get to the valley after failing to get there on her own the first time.
- Dzukou can also be experienced from the Manipur side if you begin from there, but most people prefer the route from Nagaland as it is the more comfortable one.
- Don’t expect luxury at any point during the trek. The food is basic yet delicious, the toilets up in the dorm area are usable if not poor, the dorm hall is quite basic, you’ll be sleeping on the floor inside a sleeping bag, and the weather is unkind more often than not. However, the breathtaking beauty of the valley is worth all the trouble.
- Nagaland isn’t just about the Dzukou Valley of course. If time permits, go on week-long trails through Nagaland with ChaloHoppo that takes you to the headhunting tribes in Longwa and Mon – some of the most remote places in North East India.
- All of ChaloHoppo trails involve taking you to less-treaded regions, camping in their own sites, staying in hand-picked local homestays, and eating the freshest local food you can imagine. Pick a waterfall chasing trail of Meghalaya, the heritage trail of Nagaland, the diverse trail of Assam, just about any to various places in North East India.
- As much as it is fun travelling with ChaloHoppo in this region, be also aware of what not to expect. Their trips won’t work for you if you like everything to run like clockwork, require pinpointed itinerary details, or want extreme luxury in your stays and food. This is one for those who like a balance of simplicity and comfort, preferably the 20s-30s (not being an ageist here) group who may be able to fit right in the gang.
Before the tourism scene bubbles over in North East India, make your way there. Today, it is peaceful, pristine, and spectacular. Who knows what tomorrow holds?