I ought to explain a little more about the place we almost got stuck, Khangchendzonga sniggering sinisterly in the deeps. Nestled high in the Himalayas, Sikkim is a teenytiny former kingdom of 600,000 people. (To put this into perspective: neighbouring West Bengal has a population of 91 million, and India’s largest state, the titanic impoverished Uttar Pradesh, 200 million—which would make it the world’s fifth-most populous country in its own right, ahead of Brazil, Pakistan, and Russia.) It’s famous for:
as well as its extraordinary proliferation of leeches, which we were saddened to miss out on.
The majority of Sikkim’s sparse population is ethnically Nepali with a substantial Buddhist minority, its people are shy but friendly, roads empty, air fresh—in short, it feels very different from the sweaty honking ‘mainland’. In fact, it only became part of India by referendum in 1975, India only too happy to take advantage of the monarchy’s unpopularity after 1962’s disastrous high-altitude border war with China. Sikkim’s people arguably have more in common with their hilly neighbours than their nominal countrymen from the hot, dry Indian plains. It is part of the great hilly massif of Southeast Asia, a region the Dutch historian Willem van Schendel labelled ‘Zomia’. This is a border zone full of minority populations with cultural and linguistic affinities often quite different to—and in tension with—the nation-states they ‘belong’ to. On the map, Sikkim is that tiny squashed little nub of India bordering Nepal to the west, Tibet to the north, and Bhutan to the east, on the southern borders of the Zomia region—although many Nepalis claim Sikkim is simply an extension of Greater Nepal instead.
Probably because of this borderland role, the state is quietly present; these are not the rebellious, semi-lawless highlands of Burma or India’s Northeast. We passed army bases and giant hydroelectric projects tearing into valley sides. Fading government signs proclaimed that LEPROSY IS CURABLE and encouraged condom use with a giant smiling prophylactic. Even a system of litter bins was on show, although they were all suspiciously shiny and empty.
Like the state, religion too is clearly visible. The land is blanketed with prayer flags, a Tibetan Buddhist—or even pre-Buddhist—tradition. Multicoloured lines grace hilltops and lakesides, houses and temples, roads and paths and viewpoints, looking for all the world like someone’s crayoned in the electricity wires with primary colours. Tibetan Buddhism itself is a curious beast, at least to Western eyes. The Buddhism of European imagination means silence, meditation, renunciation. The monasteries are indeed quiet places housing bald, claret-clad monks, the loudest sound the occasional bell and the rattle of a giant prayer-wheel. But the monks also wear hoodies, and inside the monasteries are garish paintings and statues of mystics, gurus, and avatars of the founder-sage Padmasambhava—some with madly staring eyes and swords, others with chains of skulls and riding atop tigers like the Hindu goddess Kali, and even a set covered with prudish curtains under which a bright blue avatar was vigorously pleasuring a buxom wench. Put that in your yoga mat and smoke it: less the Buddhism of poncy New Yorkers than a sexy alternative to Hinduism from the days of warrior-monk armies.
Between rains, we took time to relax with some local specialities. The food was great and very Tibetan: three types of lightly spiced noodle soup (thukpa, gathuk, and thenduk) which seemed oddly similar, handbag-sized momo dumplings, and for breakfast something that looked suspiciously like a Cornish pasty. While Hannah relaxed with a Sikkimese wine (which appeared to be raw ethanol stirred into water in an old lager bottle), I sampled the Sikkimese millet beer, tongba. After an hour’s wait—during which time a couple of new friends explained in great detail exactly how ill a mountain guide had been on it yesterday, and mused reassuringly about alcohol blindness—it arrived. Served in a mini-barrel with a thick wooden straw to filter out the millet and disturbingly caviar-like little orange seeds, the liquid was warm, either deliberately or through wild fermentation, and tasted slightly sweet, like scrumpy cider. The Halifax penalty for turning down a drink is harakiri, so like a good Yorkshire lass I prayed to the great White Rose in the sky, and slurped it to the very bottom.
By this time sporting a Shetland pony mane, and alarmed by the popularity of the Justin Bieber mop (and muzak) in Sikkim, Hannah was also desperate enough to resort to my tonsorial skills. Wielding some vicious hotel shears, I set to work. The room looked like the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, spattered with red hair and probably a bit of my own finger-flesh, but Hannah waxed wildly lyrical—‘It’s not the worst haircut I’ve ever had…’
A Meaningful Conclusion: Due to its extraordinary natural beauty and biodiversity, contrasts with the mainland, and frankly the fact it’s a bargain version of Bhutan, Sikkim is becoming a tourist hub—albeit perhaps more for Indians rather than foreigners. I tell you this because you should GO THERE RIGHT NOW. Don’t get me wrong: we Western tourists are also capitalist pig-dogs, spreading consumerist avarice, guzzling water, and eroding the natural and social environment wherever we go; and India’s green movement is one of the world’s strongest (the original ’70s ‘tree huggers’ were in the Indian Himalayas, drawing on an allegedly three-hundred-year-old protest tradition).
But where masses of Indian tourists go, rubbish follows in swathes, casually tossed out of car and train windows into rivers and forests, demarcating footpaths with juice cartons and packets of paan like greedy Hansels and Gretels. The Costa del Solification of Sikkim is already visible too in the infestation of half-built concrete guesthouses along the roads, the grooming of ‘rock gardens’ around rapids and waterfalls, the state’s turn to casinos for its revenues. So go there, but be good. Or perhaps: don’t go there, and be better.