Sikkim is one of the most northerly states in India, it is certainly the smallest. It is a tiny Himalayan state bounded to the north by Chinese Tibet and on either side by Nepal and Bhutan. I was lucky enough to travel there in April of this year to look at some of the wonderful flora in this overwhelmingly green state.
After several very long flights and a seven hour drive from West Bengal I finally arrived at Yuksam which was to be the starting point for a trek into the mountains. The drive through the dark was hair-raising to say the least not just because of the precipitous drop on one side but largely because my driver refused to use his headlights! I arrived at the hotel which was lit by candlelight with some trepidation but when I opened my curtains the following morning I was greeted by the sight of tree clad slopes and distant snowy mountains.
Yuksam like most places in Sikkim relies on agriculture and tourism for its life. The tourist season lasts from March to the beginning of June when the monsoon rains make trekking impossible and from August to September when the air clears. Cardamom is the main cash crop and most families have land on which they live and grow and harvest this valuable spice.
I spent my first day exploring around the town which lies at an altitude of less than 2000 metres. It has a lush tropical feel with no snow in the winter and orchids growing on trees. I climbed above the town to Sikkim’s oldest monastery at Dubdi where I met some of the monks and young novices who were having their lunch. Sikkim was formerly an independent kingdom, the first king having been crowned in 1642. Although Nepalese was the lingua franca there is an ethnic mix of indigenous Lepcha people as well as Nepalese and Bhutia who all have their own customs and traditions. The Lepcha people in particular have a great reverence for nature and the mountains.
The next day the trek began for real and I went to meet my porters and guide who would take me to much higher elevations where I would be able to see the flora change from abundance to the sparse sub-alpine zone.
My main purpose in going was to see wild rhododendrons and their companions and to observe the interplay between climate, topography, and geology so I could better understand how to grow them at home. It took two days of hard climbing over rocky trails before we reached 3000 metres where there were rhododendrons and magnolias in flower. Magnolia campbellii alba was in flower on huge trees and the hillsides around our campsite at Tshoka were dotted with white. Much closer to my sight, Rhododendron arboretum, R. barbatum and R. falconeri were in bloom showing wonderful trusses of pink, red and pale yellow flowers. Tshoka was also the site of a monastery which was occupied for prominent festivals and there were many prayer wheels which were turned by tourists and the faithful alike. Inside each wheel were 108 prayers or mantras so with each turn the believer sent off hundreds of entreaties.
As we hiked further through the rhododendron forest, new species began to present themselves including R. hodgsonii which has huge leaves and large trusses of pale pink flowers underneath a canopy of Abies spectabilis, Sorbus and Acer. At our lunch stop that day I was surrounded by a forest of R. thomsonii with bell shaped red blooms. The great advantage of seeing such large plants was that I could able to appreciate the bark and the foliage which is often a neglected feature when people think of rhododendrons!
After reaching 4000 metres we camped at Dzongri where I was invited to have tea with the caretaker of the campsite. These caretakers usually spend the tourist season living alone keeping the campsite tidy. This lady lived in one room where she ate, slept and cooked on a small cast iron stove with meat drying in the rafters. That night a terrific storm blew down most of the tents while I spent a sleepless night weighing mine down so that it would not be blown across the hillside. From Dzongri we had great views over the Mt Kanchendzonga range. Kanchendzonga is the world’s third highest mountain which is sacred to the Lepcha people and cannot be climbed from the Sikkim side.
The next few days were spent hiking out of the thinning rhododendron forest towards our ultimate destination the Goechala pass at over 5000 metres. We followed the course of the Prek Chhu river which carried water from the melting glaciers high above to the lowlands below. We passed boulders the size of houses that were being moved slowly downhill by the awesome power of the water. So much of Indian civilisation has been built around its rivers and it is amazing to think that the water that flows into the famous lowland rives starts here in the mountains. The Himalayas are a young mountain chain and still growing by the action of tectonic plates but one day in the dim future the pace of erosion will overtake that of creation.
By the time we reached the highest point on our trek the landscape was still in the grip of winter with hail and snowstorms common during the day. The temperature dipped to minus 7 degrees at night and about 4 degrees in the day. The harsh wind meant that the vegetation was a low mixture of dwarf rhododendron, juniper and grasses covering a thin soil. It was the coldest I have ever been and I literally wore all my clothes at night and lay shivering in my tent. I was looking forward to a night in a trekkers hut but was kept awake by mice which ran to and fro across my face and chest going about their own business. Luckily the views of the mountains were enough reward to compensate for cold toes, fingers and everything else. The prospect of returning through the spectacular rhododendron forest was also enticing to say the least.
Trekking in the Himalayas was the experience of a lifetime and I learned a great deal about how to grow my plants better which is what makes it all worthwhile.