Sikkim is my final stop in India, an outlier literally and figuratively. It’s out of the way, far Northeast, a tiny state squashed between Nepal, China and Bhutan. And because it is a border area and because India and China are perpetually skirmishing, there is a heavy military presence.
The patron saint of Sikkim is Guru Rinpoche, Padmasambhava. Bhutias (Bhutanese) call Sikkim Beyul Demazong, which means ‘”the hidden valley of rice”. The Lepcha people, the original inhabitants of Sikkim, called it Nye-mae-el, meaning “paradise”.
It’s thoroughly mountainous, like Nepal, but greener. Everything is built on ridiculously steep slopes. It’s environmentally conscious, being the first officially organic state in the world. Everything produced there is done so organically. Some plastic products and styrofoam have been banned. It’s wet, with rainfall and rivers galore. It’s relatively clean not only of litter, but, well…there are almost no cows. No. Cows. I’ve seen two cows and that was outside the city. No place for them to graze. Enough said.
It’s melting pot of culture and language: Sikkimese, Ghorkhan, Newari, Tamang, Gurung, Hindi, Bhutia, Tibetan. Hinduism and Vajrayana Buddhism are the dominant religions. It’s comparatively affluent to other parts of India. Yes, there is definitely poverty, but beggars are scarce. The high-end walking street downtown Gangtok is full of people every night shopping and enjoying good food. The lone houses dotting the hillsides are relatively well-kept, some beautifully so with gardens.
When I arrived a couple of days ago, I was thoroughly aghast at the density and size of Gangtok development on the sharp inclines of the mountains. The average size of structures is 6-7 stories. As I entered the city, finding my hotel required negotiating a maze of ever more narrow and steep roads until, on arrival, unloading required that we block traffic. Driving is a regular dance of stopping, backing up to permit other vehicles to pass, brushing past retaining walls, open drains, children walking to school. Pedestrian traffic is often spared the traverse that vehicles must take, often climbing stairways, shortcuts to the next street level instead. I regularly climb a steep two blocks followed by 100 steps to a street where I can find food or an ATM.
Today I was driven in a large taxi west from Gangtok to Pelling, a distance of 112 km that takes 5 hours, winding up and down through thickly forested hillsides and small villages at an average of 20 km/hr. In some areas, the road is badly decayed, where pavement no longer exists. There are rock slides and mud slides partially blocking the road, even a downed tree or two. We cross many streams, wind through a hundred hairpin turns, carefully negotiate past other vehicles and hold our breath as large trucks barrel toward us as if they own the road.
Fortunately, there is a substantial portion of the road to Pelling that is newer and well-paved. The vegetation is lush tropical and thick with banana, bamboo, hanging vines, giant tropical plants and trees. Some parts of the road are so well-shaded, dark and moist, I am reminded of driving through redwood forest…without the redwoods. The uphill side of the road is frequently stabilized in parts by long stone retaining walls, covered in moss, ferns and climbing vines. Sikkim is home to 300 species of fern and over 4000 species of flowering plants. I could have been driving through Bolivia, Hawaii or Laos.
Every few hundred meters there is a stream falling through the vegetation to the road. Some are small. Some are waterfalls 30-80 ft high and strong enough to flood the road. The open drainage ditch by the hillside is always running full. Women carrying large baskets and small scythes harvest edible plants along the way.
In the city, this abundance of water is also common, but the stream beds are despoiled with garbage. In the wilder parts of Sikkim, they run clean and so fresh except right after a storm. Pipes are planted to run gravity-feeds to nearby homes. Truck drivers stop at the streams to wash their vehicles.
The views down the mountainside and across the deep valleys between are dotted with small farms up to ridiculous heights, hyper-terraced with a practically fluorescent green of mature rice. Farther off in the distance, higher peaks jut upward into the clouds.
I am on my way to Pelling to catch a closer view of Kanchenjunga, at 8586m (28,156 ft), the 3rd highest peak in the world straddling the Nepal-Sikkim border. Incredibly, from about 100km away, it’s visible to the northwest in the early mornings directly from my Gangtok hotel room. It’s also visible from Darjeeling, about 80 km away. From Pelling, it’s maybe 60km. Clear views are a treat, but it can also disappear in minutes as clouds close in.
I visited an old Nyingma monastery, Pedmayangtse, just outside Gangtok, an important outpost of Dzogchen practice.
A giant 3D mandala constructed in a room above the main shrine. About 3 meters high.
Farewell India. Time now for a deep reboot in Ao Nang and Phuket.