This town of 50,000 people, on the ancient trade route between West Bengal and Tibet, is undergoing rapid change. While skinny Nepalese porters wearing shorts and flip-flops still carry sacks of rice (or just about anything else) up steep hills on their backs for a few rupees, many new internet cafes, ugly apartment blocks and tourist hotels are springing up across town.
In Gangtok's Lal Market rich Westerners rub shoulders with often-very-poor locals for whom life is a constant struggle, while holidaying Indian families compete for places on package trips to Tsomgo Lake and Nathu La. There's a lot to see in and around Gangtok. But first, a small digression into the sometimes shaky world of building practises in Sikkim.
There was a 5.3 to 5.7 level earthquake on 14 February 2006, just as I was arriving. The epicentre of the quake was somewhere north-west of Gangtok. Two soldiers of the Indian Army died in landslides triggered by these tremors at Sherathang near Nathula but they were the only casualties. Enchey monastery in Gangtok has a large crack its front wall that was sustained at this time. Travellers to Sikkim (not to mention Sikkimese builders) should be aware that the entire Himalayan range is one of the most seismically active regions in the world.
In the last 110 years there have been four big earthquakes equal to or greater than 8.0 on the Richter scale along the Himalayan subduction zone. Geologists say that since it's been quite a while since the last big one in the eastern part of the zone, there is a "high probability" of a major earthquake in Sikkim in the "near future": that is, within the next few decades.
Nonetheless, there is no formal design practise for reinforced-concrete buildings in Sikkim. Most hotels, most government buildings, and many new apartment blocks are built around reinforced concrete pillars. Next time you see a tall "RC" building under construction, ask yourself if any buildings in Sikkim *should* be that high.
Watch to see who is mixing the cement. How old are they? Is it likely that any of the mixture and/or resulting concrete is tested to see if it's the proper strength and hardness? I have seen young boys of 14 or so mixing cement for jobs like this. Apparently there is very little meaningful guidance from the government to help ensure that buildings in Sikkim are strengthened to resist the major earthquake that *will* surely come. It's a -largely avoidable- disaster waiting to happen.
Bhutia power and influence grew in Sikkim from the 14th century onwards, when significant numbers of Bhutia people first started migrating over the high passes in the north from the Kham region of Tibet. The first Chogyal (religious ruler of the whole country) was crowned in 1641. This king, like all of the Namgyal dynasty that followed (until 1975) were Bhutia and Buddhist. Some say that one reason why so many of these Nyingma-pa sect Bhutia Buddhists decided to come to Sikkim hundreds of years ago was because, in political terms, the Nyingma-pa were losing out to competition from other sects within Tibet.
There are now more than two hundred monasteries in a state that measures a mere 65 kilometers by 130 kilometers (though travel within Sikkim is so tortuous that the state appears very much bigger than this). Most, though not all, of these monasteries are Nyingma-pa. Many of them are on hilltops (qv Pemeyangtse, Sangacholling, Tashiding) commanding fabulous views of the surrounding countryside. (Buildings on hilltops often -tho not always- project some notion of dominance).
Historically, the vast majority of monks in the monasteries of Sikkim have been ethnic Bhutias, though historically Buddhism has not been restricted to that group. Only some novice monks go on to become ordained, so that for many, monastic life is largely an excellent educational opportunity. Traditionally a monastery's main source of support is the surrounding community, who may raise money, donate food, and help with building work as necessary. Sometimes the contrast between the ornate grandeur of a monastery, and the poverty of the community that surrounds it, is very striking.
By way of "editor's note" I should point out at this stage that you were to pin me down, I would tell you that I am a Buddhist myself, albeit an agnostic-about-reincarnation one. If I seem critical about Buddhism in Sikkim here it's because I think "critical thinking" is, or should be, part of the package.
Early Buddhist texts suggest that the historical Gautama Buddha was keen to encourage a questioning attitude among his followers. He was motivated by compassion for the ignorance and suffering that he saw all around him, but the development of sceptical and independent thought appears to have been a vital part of the "cure" he advocated.
My understanding is that he also attempted to discourage the rise of heirarchies within the sangha (the community of monks) after his death- which, I suppose, explains the absence of pre-eminent leaders within both the Mahayana and Theravada traditions. Finally let me say that I consider my life to have been profoundly enriched by contact with Buddhist meditation techniques over the years.
So. Having said all that, I wonder what Guatama Buddha himself would also have to say, as a for instance, about the huge number of gods, goddesses and demons in Tibetan Buddhism, or even the use of prayer-wheels to automate the process of salvation? Most of these deities found their way into the Vajrayana pantheon after the 8th century CE (some 1200 years after the time of Gautama Buddha) as Buddhism trickled into Tibet from India, many of them echoing figures in the supernatural pantheon of the pre-existent and shamanistic Bon religion.
To me, this also calls to mind the elevation of Mary to virtual goddess-status in the Christian religion after the Ecumenical Council of 431 in Ephesus, Greece, when Christian evangelists were competing with worshippers of the goddess Diana, or the inclusion of Kangchendzonga into the Sikkimese Buddhist religion (when Buddhist evangelists were competing with Lepcha worshippers of Sikkim's highest mountain).
I could share more of my thoughts about the history of Buddhist ideas, but this is not the time or place. What I would like to do is raise some questions about the politics of Buddhism in Sikkim, since I believe every belief system should be looked at in its social and cultural context.
I have met individual monks in Sikkim who are clearly held to be corrupt by local people. Talking more generally, as a local person said to me "one way to get power is to claim you're the reincarnation of somebody famous, so it [the belief in tulkus] is open to abuse for sure".
I encountered three tulkus in my two month stay in Sikkim, two very young, one much older who is held in very high esteem by local people. I thanked him for the scarf he placed around my neck, and whilst I received his blessing with genuine good grace, I remain sceptical. :-)
While there may be room for scepticism about the veneration accorded to some individuals, I believe that essentially Buddhism has given the world a priceless treasure. Is democracy (as a for instance) open to abuse? You bet it is. If I was able to choose the kind of institution that would build on top of my local hill, I think "Buddhist monastery" would be near the top of my personal wish list.
There are a number of interesting monasteries in and around Gangtok, including Rumtek, Pal Zurmang and Enchey. I spent a very enjoyable few days wandering around these places taking pictures and learning a great deal about how things work in Sikkim by talking to monks and asking lots of questions. So to all those who were happy to help satisfy my curiosity and talk about to me Buddhism, life in a monastery, and Sikkimese culture: thank you! It was a privilege to meet you.
Many of the monks you encounter in these monasteries tend to be young novices, who tend to be not only friendly but also very photogenic. So a big thank you for the photographs too!
Other places of interest around Gangtok include Little Italy (for neo-Italian food), the Cottage Industry Institute (for local crafts), the Ridge Park and the White Hall Complex (for views over Gangtok and a peek into the history of British influence), Tashi View Point (for views north) and the Himalayan Zoological Park (for lots of interesting animal species in large enclosures spread out over a vast area).
For many people Gangtok is little more than a stopping-off point en route to some trek or adventure further north, but there's a lot of interest here if you're prepared to dig a little.
The Nathu-La pass, closed for decades but reopened in July 2006, is a stone's throw to the east of Gangtok (but 34 kilometers by road) and potentially at least provides road access, and therefore trade, between India and China.
The road is a tiny single-track affair that zigzags up to 4,545 meters, or 14,400 feet (almost the height of Mont Blanc). The government says it intends to widen the road but at the moment it is almost the antithesis of an international artery. In the first six months after the opening of the pass the Indian government had reputedly given permits to only 100 traders, all of whom were born before 1975.
The reasons for both of these facts are something of a mystery. Similarly, while the Chinese have made it easy for tired Indian traders to stay the night, Chinese traders are apparently a little annoyed that they are not allowed to sleep over in India. One might wonder what the point of the exercise has been: the amount of goods going over the pass so far has been very small. China has formally recognised India's 1975 annexation of Sikkim for the first time though (which was part of the deal). Maybe that's what it was all about.
The North Sikkim Highway, from Gangtok to Sikkim's northernmost borders, was built by the British in 1861. In contrast to the rather grandiose name, this road, like that over the Nathu-La, is tiny: barely the width of a single vehicle. It weaves a tortuous route around steep ridges that overlook deep dark river gorges full of glacial meltwater. Landslips are common, especially in the rainy season when all routes connecting Gangtok to the north may be impassable for weeks at a time. I loved it.
Several hours out of Gangtok one reaches the market town of Mangan, where there is a bridge over the Teesta river, over which the lucky few may pass en route to Dzongu, the traditional sanctuary of the Lepcha people to the north-west of Mangan town. To this day all foreigners must have special permission to enter Dzongu, the better to protect Lepcha culture.
A few kilometers north of Mangan, and just below the village of Singhik, there is a wonderful viewpoint above the confluence of the Tholung and Teesta rivers. From this spot it is possible to look far into Dzongu, along the Tholung river valley, all the way to the east face of Kangchendzonga herself (weather permitting).
Singhik is a sweet little village, with a couple of clean and friendly Bhutia guest houses. Somehow the area around Singhik felt (to me at least) like the real gateway to north Sikkim.
It's possible to walk (a surprisingly long way) down to the Teesta from Singhik, where a narrow suspension bridge stetching high above the churning water of the gorge enables you to cross over to the south-east corner of Dzongu. On that side of the bridge there is a wonderful bamboo-rich forest where a large troop of curious monkeys leap precariously from tree to tree on cliff-faces high above the river, and it is possible to take an incredibly steep path that disappears into the undergrowth of the 2,000 meter, 60-degree hillside high above. I had no permit to enter Dzongu however, so I turned around.
On the hillside below Singham there are many small family farms, usually growing cardomoms and rice to sell, along with vegetables to live on.
Many of the farm houses here are made entirely of bamboo, the fastest growing woody plant, which because of its lightweight, hard, flexible and tough nature has over 100 documented uses, including house foundations, flooring, walls, blinds, roof frames, scaffolding, shuttering, fences, plumbing pipes, ropes, domestic items such as cups, pipes, rakes, brooms, ladders, baskets, matting and chairs, then there's flutes, paper, animal fodder and more. Every part of the plant gets used.
As the road rises higher up the Teesta gorge snow-covered peaks appear to the north. One of these peaks, actually well inside Sikkimese territory, is ... meters high.
Turning left at Chungthang the road continues steeply up to Lachen through a short band of particularly beautiful scenery: crossing over a short bridge spanning 100 meters of air the road winds it's way through thick forest above the most amazing sections of river gorge, where the violence of the torrent has caused deep rounded sculptings in sheer rocks to both right and left.
Smaller rivers drop down into the main river gorge from huge densely forested hillsides high above, often creating stunningly beautiful waterfalls hundreds of meters high as they drop, with yet more wonderful weathered formations where the free passage of water has been obstructed by rock.
Looking at some of this scenery I couldn't help thinking of some of the ancient Chinese landscape watercolour paintings I've seen, and I couldn't help thinking of the Taoist idea that water is stronger than anything, since ultimately it can even wear the biggest mountains down.
I get the idea that Taoist philosophers liked places like this- the bonzai fir trees, the marvellous emptiness of the mist covering the lofty peaks, the weathered rock faces, the waterfalls above and the gushing cataclysms below- because to them such landscapes manifested a certain kind of natural perfection that was rooted in the dynamic interplay of complementary forces. The Taoist heaven is essentially empty.
I found myself thinking about another fundamental Taoist notion: that of "wu wei", which meant to be harmonious, or become one with heaven, by practising "inaction": that is, not trying to hard to achieve one's goal, but rather "being natural" (but not indulgent)... it's hard to describe these things.
I think Taoism and Buddhism have a good deal in common, especially the Buddhism of the Madhyamika school, but this is not the time or place to go into that.
Suffice it to say that for me, the few kilometers of valley I saw above the high bridge and below the village of Lachen, was the most beautiful stretch of landscape I saw in all of Sikkim. Was I able to stop the jeep to explore and take photos? No. That's another "next time" :-) .
I believe a skilled photographer could spend several months just photographing the waterfalls of far north Sikkim, many of which lie in secret valleys where very few humans ever go. The coffee-table book that could be the result of such a (dangerous and physically demanding) project could I think be more than wonderful.
Lachen is a town of mostly corrugated-iron-roof houses huddled together in a small hollow in a landscape where level ground is rare. It's at an elevation of 3,000 meters (9900 feet). My trip involved travelling further north again, stopping some 8 or 10 kilometers short of the Tibetan border, just below the snowline and just south of the village of Muguthang.
There is a fairly strong Indian army presence in the far north, illustrative of the mistrust that has simmered between India and China for the last 50 years. (Occasional skirmishes between the two armies still take place in disputed mountain territories in both the extreme north-east and north-west of India -in Arunachal Pradesh and north-east Ladakh).
Another reason why the Indian government forbids local drivers to take Westerners all the way to the high passes is that there have apparently been occasions in the past when Western travellers have used these routes as (illegal) entry points into Tibet: paying a driver for a round trip from Gangtok but then just disappearing into Tibet by foot from the top of a pass.
This has been apparently enough of an annoyance to Chinese authorities in the past for them to ask the Indian government to do what it could to halt the practise. (I use the word Tibet rather than China since, like most of the Tibetan refugees in Nepal and India who remain in camps to this day, I believe China's violent and repressive annexation of Tibet fifty years ago was unjustifiable).
As you can see from the pictures here, the landscape turns bleak at altitude in the far north. Looking south-east from near Muguthang you see some of the huge (6000-meter-plus) peaks that sit between the Lachen Chu and Lachung Chu river valleys, well south of the border. Villages are scarce up here but there are a handful of Bhutia communities dedicated to the herding of yaks.
Treks to Green Lake and the Zemu Glacier, in the north-east of the Kangchendzonga massif, start from this road (north of Lachen). Dropping back down to Lachen, and then Chungthang, one can climb back up via the second main river valley in the far north, the Lachung Chu, to get to Lachung village.
Lachung is slightly more populous than Lachen, spread out for several kilometers along both sides of a broad river valley. There's an interesting monastery here, some beautiful waterfalls up the hillside a ways, and a side-trip east to yet another high pass for those with permission (generally, Indian nationals).
For most though, Lachung is a place to rest on the road to Yumthang, still further up the Lachung Chu. This road twists it's way up some very steep terrain to get to the first of two broad hanging valleys where the river meanders through fir, rhododendron and bog. The landscape here is vaguely reminiscent of the Scottish Highlands. Higher again, passing through a narrow gap between two ridges, you emerge into the wide pasture called Yumthang. Yumthang's OK, but it's a little over-rated in my opinion.
Further north again however (special permission may be required) the road levitates out of Yumthang via a series of truly spectacular switchbacks until finally (again about 8 or 10 kilometers south of the border) you're in a kind of Shangri-La For Rock Climbers. Almost nobody does climb here of course, the location being so remote, the Indian army being camped not far from the foot of the best cliffs, and so on.
BUT, IF rock climbers were to develop this area, it would surely be a magnet for those who enjoy grappling with one-thousand-foot overhangs and two-thousand-foot near-vertical faces. As an ex-climber I can say that some of the potential routes here look to be nothing short of astounding. Progress by jeep that day was blocked by snow.
I got out and walked very quickly up another few hundred feet, desperately keen to make the most of the day and capture all of the photographic views that I possibly could. The previous night I had slept soundly at Lachung, at an altitude of 8800 feet (2682 meters). Now I was at around 14,000 feet (4250 meters) having almost run up the final 200 meters.
I got back in the jeep, suddenly feeling sick and nauseous with a headache that grew progressively worse as we dropped down the switchbacks back to Lachung. Wrapped up in a sleeping bag and blankets I then had to endure several hours of very sharp pain before I could face the world again. Altitude sickness is very unpleasant (and, in some cases, very serious). And so, back to Gangtok, back to Darjeeling, to Siliguri, to Nepal for two weeks, and finally back to Canada with a chest infection, a stomach bug and 1000 photographs.
Some final thoughts. I feel very lucky to have had the chance to wander about in a country as culturally rich and physically wonderful as Sikkim. In places, I felt in touch with some kind of timeless beauty- a kind of dreamtime landscape of bamboo houses and cardomom terraces that has probably changed little in hundreds of years. Clearly, however, the state of Sikkim is changing, and it's changing fast.
According to an Indian government survey the population of Sikkim increased by 33% between 1991 and 2001. Let's look at one aspect of this: namely, water. The Indian plains, you may say, are beginning to experience major problems re the supply of safe drinking water, but Sikkim is full of lakes and rivers! Yes. But. Does local government and/or federal government fund the construction of systems that effectively deliver clean water to the bulk of the population? The short answer is no. Across Sikkim almost everybody boils water to make it safe to drink. How? By heating a panful or kettleful of water on a wood fire. Where does the wood come from? From the forests of course. Aren't the forests protected? Yes but.
Walk through the woods near any community from Darjeeling to Singhik and you will come across people illegally cutting down trees. For firewood and for building. For all its stated conservation aims does the government of Sikkim have the resources to stop the tide of humanity coming up from the plains doing what they have always done, that is, surviving, somehow?
Filtration systems built around sand beds are relatively cheap to construct, but this is now India and Indian public beauracracies are demonstrably not good at staying ahead of the curve in situations like this. Arguably by *not* taking the initiative to create good water filtration and delivery systems across the state, the Sikkimese government is not only allowing more people to get sick than would otherwise be the case, but also they are helping to ensure continued degradation of Sikkim's precious forests.
More people will come to Sikkim, perhaps even as a result of seeing this website. Will I go back again? I doubt it very much. Though I have been to India before, this time I found what I call "the dark side" of India so dispiriting that I don't think I have the stomach to go through that experience again. And to get to Sikkim, you must go to India.
Many people are in the process of migrating from the Indian plains to Sikkim. And sadly, I think India is something of a "canary in the coal mine" -that is, a place of warnings that we ignore at our peril.
In years to come I suspect Sikkim may well face some serious problems that have up to now been more widespread elsewhere in India. If, for instance, Gangtok politicians can't do what's necessary now to ensure the supply of clean drinking water to the bulk of the Sikkimese population, how can they be expected to deal effectively with the potentially worse problems that almost certainly lie just around the corner?