Most first-time visitors to Sikkim go via Darjeeling, the "hill station" developed by colonial British tea-planters keen to escape the heat of the lower altitudes. Getting to Darjeeling usually involves going east from Delhi for 1,200 kilometers until north of the west side of Bangladesh, where you then turn north until you wind your way up the final 40 kilometers on impossibly steep roads for 2,000 meters through tea plantation after tea plantation until, by the time you reach Darjeeling, you are often in the clouds, on the top of a huge hill on the edge of the plains of West Bengal with the Himalayan mountains of Sikkim a few kilometers to the north of you.
On a clear day (and early in the morning, usually) you can see Kangchendzonga, in Sikkim, from near Chowrastra Square in the middle of Darjeeling. Kangchendzonga is the third highest mountain in the world, 74 kilometers as the crow flies from Darjeeling, but still huge-seeming. Looking north from Darjeeling (or from nearby Tiger Hill, even better) you see hillsides dotted with tea farms that drop steeply down 1,800 meters or so to the Rangit River (which forms the border here between the states of West Bengal and Sikkim). As your eye rises up the ridges north of the Rangit, the detail of West Sikkim often recedes into a layer of haze above which Kangchendzonga looms like some kind of larger-than-life fantasy mountain. The scale of these big Himalayan peaks just boggles the mind.
You must have a permit to get into Sikkim. Getting this permit in Darjeeling is a typically Indian experience insofar as you're obliged to go to two different offices in different parts of town. Having two officials, or even one official doing two simple jobs, in one place, would perhaps be too easy. You go through the main doors of the imposing-from-the-outside British-built Magistrates Office, and you find yourself in a hallway with water from leaking pipes in puddles stretching across the floor. Metal pipes and electrical wiring hang from a collapsed ceiling, forming a huge and ungodly tangle in the air. As your eyes accustom to the gloom you see a three-foot high pile of builder's rubble in the corner that looks like it's been there for years.
The Sikkim permit office upstairs, like many such government offices across India, is full to overflowing with a jumble of dusty files stretching back decades: on tables, on chairs, on the floor, on top of cupboards and (very) occasionally on shelves with clearly marked spines facing outwards. Was this what the place looked like in 1947? Maybe it was.
Many of the old buildings in the centre of Darjeeling were built by "the British" but since 1947 when the colonial oppressors left it seems that the town has reverted back to being *India*. Not just "one-time colonial India" but India India. Many many of the people here have migrated from Calcutta and Bangladesh, often escaping poverty of the worst kind. In the nearby state of Assam on Bangladesh's northern border there has actually been a violent anti-immigration backlash over recent years, with a growing independence movement centred on issues of immigration (especially from Bangladesh) and Delhi's apparent indifference (and distance).
In Darjeeling some of these desperately poor incomers build tiny wooden houses propped against trees in the middle of the town. Occasionally they squat in moulding semi-derelict colonial bungalows. Often they too cut wood illegally from the surrounding forest. Is there a solution? Curtailing the movement of people across the borders between India and neighbouring countries such as Nepal and Bangladesh, not to mention curtailing the movement of people between states in India, would almost certainly be logistically impossible.
Darjeeling (it seems to me) is going the way of the rest of India: a canary-in-the-mine of sorts, in a world of finite resources where the pressures that result from population growth are stronger than the will or the means to cope with all of the ensuing, and multiplying, problems. The population of India increased by 21% from 1991 to 2001 (according to the 2001 Census). One of the more significant problems for the mountainous regions of India is deforestation. Not only are (what's left of) the forests of the Himalaya and Terai home to a huge number of animal and plant species, but forested hillsides also hold water and remain relatively stable. Which is not true of deforested hillsides.
The frequency of mud and rock avalanches in the hills is increasing, while the frequency of major flooding downstream on the major rivers of the Indian plains is also increasing, largely due to the way the water-holding capacity of lands adjacent to the rivers upstream has been reduced. If sea levels continue to rise because of global warming, Bangladesh, where 17 million people live less than one meter above sea level, will be hit with a double whammy, due to worse river flooding in areas such as the Ganges delta, combined with worse flooding from the sea.
The population of Darjeeling, like that of Kathmandu, is part-Buddhist and part-Hindu. At the top of the hill adjacent to Chowrastra is a Hindu temple that is festooned with thousands of Buddhist prayer-flags. Monkeys frolic here too, often hassling the unsuspecting visitor for food. There is a Kali temple where a fire often burns, providing photogenic smoke for the camera, evoking thoughts of eternal transformation to the sensitive and the devout.
Travel to Sikkim from Darjeeling generally involves taking a "share taxi", usually to Jorethang on the Rangit river, 6000 feet below. When I took this taxi, having found the times they leave the day before, I got there early to be sure of getting a place. Darjeeling's main "chowk", where the taxi goes from, is a chaotic, crowded and dirty place. And the stand for my taxi was right by the public toilet that services thousands of people every day. When I was there the toilets were entirely blocked up, such that the floor of the entire candlelit cavern was awash with "water" that drained out onto the street adjacent to the place where I was obliged to wait an hour for the taxi. The smell was very strong and very foul. This is what you find. In India the highs tend to be very high, while the lows tend to be very low.
Leaving Darjeeling you drop steeply downhill from the northwest corner of town, within minutes snaking down through tea plantations on a hillside that probably averages 45 degrees of slope. This single-track road is probably the most tortuous and steep set of switchbacks you've ever seen in your life, if it's your first time here. The road is not well-maintained. Every now and again you meet a taxi coming the other way, when one or the other vehicle has to stop and/or reverse to a passing place. The drops to the side of the road are of epic proportions. And it's very beautiful.
These plantations mostly date from the days of the Raj, and even today teas from this area are prized. You pass tiny villages clinging to the slopes, and you see teams of women (Nepali, Tibetan, Assamese and of several other ethnicities) bending over dwarf tea plants, picking just the choicest growing tips which they then throw over their shoulders into giant wicker baskets, distributing the load with straps connecting both shoulders and forehead to the top of the basket. You see palm trees, wild yukkas, and stands of bamboo that are at least 25 feet high, with individual bamboo trunks at least a foot in diameter.
From Jorethang on the Sikkim border another taxi or two will take you to the small town of Pelling, 1,800 meters up on on a long ridge that has great early-morning views of Kangchendzonga to the north (40 kilometers as the crow flies). The ridge has Buddhist monasteries at each end, and a plethora of hotels, since the town has recently become popular with both Western tourist/travellers and Indian honeymooners. This area is rich with historical and geographical interest, though you may have to ask a lot of questions and take the initiative to travel around the area before any of it makes much sense.
Good maps for Sikkim in general, and West Sikkim in particular, are hard to come by. Some of the maps you see are wildly innaccurate, which kind of defeats the purpose. Here's the deal- maps in local shops (Pelling, Gayzing): non-existent. Lonely Planet map(s): very basic. Maps from bookshops in Darjeeling and Gangtok: reasonable. Maps bought from specialist sources at home before you go: (probably, though I'm guessing) way better. The few small maps in the Lonely Planet guide aren't sufficient if you plan to stay and explore for more than a few days. Similarly there are many more where-to-go and what-to-do options than are mentioned in the Lonely Planet guide but tracking this information down can be quite the test of patience and fortitude.
Local people may at times inadvertently give you wrong information (rather than say "I don't know"). For instance, from Pelling itself there's a path that goes along the ridge past Sangacholling in a westerly direction, taking you after several hours to a clearing above the village of Darap, to a spot where a once-yearly Buddhist ritual is performed. The path continues further, toward the Singalila ridge, overlooking on the left (south) the village of Dentam way down in the river valley below.
The villages of Uttarey, Varsey and Hilley are also (apparently, though I never made it myself) well worth a visit, and well off the beaten track. Similarly, it *should* be possible to walk up to the Singalila Ridge (that wends it's way from near Darjeeling all the way up to Kangchendzonga) from one or more of the villages just mentioned, or, by going down to Rimbi village north-west of Pelling and then following the river due west from there.
Another excursion that should be possible, but which is not mentioned in the guidebooks at all, would be to start from Pelling, and walk diagonally down the hillside beneath (north of) Pemeyangtse, until you get to the bridge across the river directly below Tashiding. By this means it *should* be possible to walk from Pelling to Tashiding village by noon, if you're up early. Not one of the guidebooks I saw mentioned this possibility and none of the locals I spoke to were able to shed any light on this either. Getting information on any of these possibilities from local people in Pelling (for me) generally seemed next to impossible. (Don't bother with the "tourist office" in Pelling: my experience was that there isn't much mileage there). As yet, there is *no* in-depth guidebook for West Sikkim with good maps to make options like these clear. Writers take note. The state of Sikkim is hoping to attract six lakh (600,000) tourists per year by 2010.
The pictures of children here were taken at a school I visited. Lovely children. Many of them orphaned, most of them very poor, from a variety of ethnic backgrounds (Lepcha, Limboo, Rai, etc -more on Sikkim's ethnicities later-). Most of these children are very keen to learn, spending hours a day in tiny classrooms with minimal furniture or teaching aids, but nonetheless ending up with a pretty good grounding in most subjects (including English language). The young head of the school spoke English so well that if you shut your eyes it wasn't hard to imagine a product of Oxford or Cambridge (English universities) standing in front of you. Not only that he spoke several other languages more or less fluently as well: Bhutia, aka Sikkimese, his first language. Nepali, the lingua franca of Sikkim, spoken by almost everybody as a first or second language. Then English. Then Tibetan, and lastly Hindi. That's five. And he was only 23.
Sikkim is indeed a land of hidden treasures. Sikkimese people in general tend to be good-humoured, warm, open and generous (that's relative to people in London, say, where normal human interactions between strangers -at the shops, say- are all too often characterised by an certain impersonality and coldness).
Despite the Sikkim Tourist Office hype that sometimes elevates Pelling to "magical" status, it's actually a fairly typical of towns that are serviced by roads in the Himalayas. There are stalls selling this, stalls selling that (bottled water, potato chips, soap, cheap jewellery, chai, beer, dosas, momos, etc): most of them just tiny wooden huts with one person sat there all day long... often you can find a seat to sit on outside the stall, where groups of local people shoot the breeze, bubbling away in the strange sing-song rhythms of Nepali. Most of the people you meet by the roadsides here are Hindu. Further north, and at higher altitudes, there tends to be a higher proportion of Buddhists (ethnic Bhutias).
The first of the two "view" pictures here is a view north from Sangacholling monastery, just a kilometer or two west of Pelling town, looking down several thousand feet of terraces towards the river that is one of many tributaries of the Rangit. You may be just in the "foothills" here, but I think this photograph illustrates just how long-winded journeys from a to b can be.
Sometimes you see a village on a hillside less than 5 kilometers away as the crow flies, but that village turns out to be on the other side of a turbulent river 1,000 meters below you, and in order to get from here to there by vehicle you need to go across and down, tortuously, then along the river valley 'til you get to a decent suspension bridge, back along the other side of the river, and up the far hillside by an equally tortuous route, until you've covered 30 kilometers or more and spent three hours bouncing around "admiring" the views down from the unfenced road you're on...
The other image is a view across to Pemeyangtse monastery (at 2,100 mtrs) from Sangacholling (at 2,200 mtrs). The 4th Chogyal of Sikkim was born at Sangacholling several centuries ago, while Pemeyangtse was founded by the 3rd Chogyal. Among other claims to fame the 3rd Chogyal is reputed to have encouraged the use of a script (based on the Tibetan script) that is still used by some Lepcha people today. (This is not the only form of Lepcha writing, however). The 4th Chogyal was assassinated in Tibet on the orders of his half-sister. As you can see there's a lot of history here. The ruins at Rabtense, just south of Pemeyangtse, were home to the Chogyals of Sikkim for several centuries until the seat of government moved to Gangtok.
Historically Pemeyangtse monastery had a close relationship to the rulers of Sikkim (a relationship that came to an end in 1975 when the monarchy was abolished). The monks of Pemyangtse are expected to be celibate. This is unusual for Sikkim, where marriage is allowed for monks of the dominant Nyingmapa sect (but not for monks of the Kagyupa sect).
More widely, marriage is not allowed in most Theravada Buddhist traditions. Similarly, Tibetan Buddhists (and Sikkimese Buddhists) tend not to be vegetarians. Guatama Buddha apparently ate meat himself, although he encouraged people to respect life, and avoid the taking of life. Vegetarianism subsequently became emphasised more strongly in Mahayana Buddhism, but meat-eating continues to this day in the Theravada and Vajrayana traditions.
The walk along the road from Pelling to Rimbi is very pleasant. Road traffic is almost non-existent, and as you descend 1,000 mtrs or so to the valley floor you pass through some areas of forest and some areas where farm terraces have been strenously wrestled from the rocky hillsides. Small streams drop down from the ridges above, passing under the road. A group of schoolchildren wave as they walk quickly past, saying "Namaste" (the ubiquitous Himalayan "I salute the spirit in you" greeting) one or two of them stopping for a moment on a bridge to pray to the diety of the stream, perhaps (though I'm guessing here) a legacy of the Lepcha belief in, and respect for, spirits of the forest, streams, rocks and trees.
At Rimbi you may see construction in progress at the bridge over the river ... The most menial of tasks, such as breaking rocks down into gravel, appear to be reserved for women. It's common to see young girls of 14 or 15, sometimes children (or either sex) younger than that, working in groups (sometimes family groups) each person with a lump hammer, sat on a rock seat with a pile of big stones on one side, a pile of tiny stones on the other. This is backbreaking, tedious work.
I heard that if the stone goes to fill a truck for road-building, it may take 18 or 20 people (perhaps three families) 7 full days to fill the truck. For this they may be paid as little as 750 rupees in total, or 250 rupees per family. 750 Indian rupees is equivalent to 8.7 United Kingdom Pounds, or 20.1 Canadian dollars. By way of perspective one bottle of the Kingfisher beer so popular among Westerners here generally costs around 100 rupees. The unremitting hardness of day to day life for many people in India is something many Westerners (myself included) find hard to accept. If you are considering going to India for the first time, be prepared.