Stairway to the Gods

Well, here we are sitting in a queue of backed up four by fours while the Indian Army attempt to blast a path through the latest rockslide to open up the only road which joins the Northern district of Sikkim to the rest of India. Guess which side we are on? I don’t know when I’ll be able to post this but I might as well explain what we’ve been up to over the last couple of days while there is nothing to distract me but the rain battering away on the roof of our vehicle and the occasional sound of explosions from around the next bend in the road. (I suppose they know what they are doing, otherwise the whole mountain will probably come down on top of us).

This is a vertical land, a precarious, hairpin bended, cloud soaked ex-kingdom half way up the Himalayas, where everything, including agriculture, seems to take place at an inclination of at least 45 degrees. Gangtok, the capital, manages to contain the usual complement of civic buildings although, strung out along the steep hillsides as they are, none of them are very deep or very tall.

In and around the city we visited hilltop temples, botanical gardens and Buddhist shrines, briefly catching a glimpse of a faintly pyramid shaped mountain through the clouds which, we were assured, was the fabled Kanchenjunga. Hopefully we will have other opportunities to see it later in the trip. We also visited a rather interesting Institute of Tibetology which was founded in the 1950’s by the Dali Lama and the then King (of whom more later) to house rescued artefacts from the Cultural Revolution taking place over the border in the Chinese part of Tibet.

This is a border that encloses the state of Sikkim in the jaws of China around much of its Northern frontier. Since Sikkim also borders on Nepal and Bhutan, only a 50 mile stretch to the South connects this little tongue of land to the rest of India. No wonder the whole place is bristling with military checkpoints and fistfuls of permits are required to ascend to the higher reaches. My picture shows the Chopta Valley, one of the only pieces of flat land that we encountered. The trouble is that at over 4,000 meters, not much will grow up there.

It is wild and beautiful. We stayed at an exquisitely decorated Tibetan lodge where we were the only guests and were served porridge, honey and milky tea as we sat on a sunny terrace surrounded by the magnificent but nameless mountains. We agreed that this was probably the finest breakfast of our lives but later on I learned an extremely important survival lesson when I asked our driver to back up for a photo of a water powered prayer wheel.

The rear end of the 4×4 fell into a deep ditch on the outside of one of the hillside roads. We weren’t exactly hanging over the edge but things didn’t look too good. I crawled out and flagged down a passing army truck then went to sit on a nearby rock while a group of chaps stood around with their hands on their hips surveying the damage. A tow rope was produced and the vehicle was quickly pulled out of the hole. Then, with nothing to show for our misadventure but a few twists in the rear bumper, we were on our way again. I did remember to take the photo though.

More permits, more steep bouncy roads and by the next day we were in Yungthang Valley to see the rhododendron forests and carpets of wildflowers. After the first hundred or so, the sight of yet another waterfall is more likely to inspire incredulity that anyone can keep the roads open at all than a rush for the camera. I quickly realised why our guide had laughed when I asked whether we would be likely to see any of the rare animals of the cloud forest: maybe we will later at the Darjeeling zoo but here we would have to be grateful for glimpses of the sacred landscape between downpours and rockslides.

And as for colourfully dressed locals? Well, most wore bright pink or gold plastic boots and anoraks over an assortment of cotton or woollen garments that may once have been of “ethnic” design before falling prey to the necessity of breaking rocks and shovelling earth. A lot more civilians seem to be employed in road repair than in agriculture or animal husbandry here but and they work so closely with the ubiquitous soldiers that it is sometimes hard to see the distinction. Military bases are adorned with smiley faces and Buddhist symbology while local shops and tea stalls take on the sobriquets of the incumbent regiment: the Thundering Thirteenth, the Black Cat Eagles or the Yetis. Both military and civilian buildings seem to be constructed of corrugated metal and wooden poles and are probably equally in danger of being washed down the mountainside.

In short, despite the picturesque swaying footbridges adorned with fluttering prayer flags, this is more a place for travellers rather than tourists.

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