The rooftop of the world – or close enough
Himalayas - North Sikkim

The rooftop of the world – or close enough

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I recently returned to the heart of India after a refreshing week and a half in its northernmost reaches: the state of Sikkim (which has nothing to do with the Sikhs which would make too much sense).  (For an idea of where in the world Carmen Sandiego would be if she was in Sikkim, check out this map and look near Bhutan.)   I spent the first two and a half days in the capital of Gangtok acclimating to the altitude.  Actually, I was just wasting time trying to find a tour group that was a fit for my time and budget and just say I was “acclimatizing” because it sounds more positive.  As the proverb goes, “He travels fastest who travels alone.” But when trying to put together a trip to the hinterlands, traveling alone can be a real pain.  Unless you’re willing to shell out lots of dough for your own private jeep, driver, guide, etc.  Which I wasn’t.

Gangtok is an ok city although it certainly falls into the category of “Who thought it would be a good idea to build a town here?!?!”  Its half million residents live draped over a crinkle of Himalayan hills; not exactly an ideal place to build … particularly if you like driving in a straight line from A to B rather than turning every journey into a winding, gear-shifting corkscrew.  A day of waiting around was enough and two was certainly more than adequate.  My desire to get out o’ town might have been slowed if the fog had lifted and allowed a view of the mountains which are the raison d’etre for all of the city’s balconied restaurants. Still, it’s hard to dislike a city where orchids grow wild.

But, orchids aside, the neat part of Sikkim is that it’s different.

Have you ever been in a part of a country that just didn’t belong – a nook that just seemed out of place?

Consider New Jersey.  The Garden State may be part of the US but it seems like its own country.  People look different, they act different, they talk different.  Even the traffic system in New Jersey with its jug handles, rotaries and whatnot is completely unlike the rest of the country.

Sikkim is India’s New Jersey.  That’s not to say that one could ever confuse Sikkim for New Jersey.  For one thing the predominant mode of transport here is jeep rather than Camaro.  Second, the music tends towards screechy Oriental ditties rather than Bon Jovi or Springsteen.  Third, no one in Sikkim has a beef with how Italian-Americans are portrayed on The Sopranos.  And, of course, China could care less whether New Jersey was part of the US or not.

Not so with Sikkim where one of every two people wears camo. And not without good reason.  After all, Sikkim isn’t really India but was absorbed in the 1970s.  It is much closer in culture to Nepal or Tibet.  Indeed, visiting Sikkim allows you to travel through the aforementioned countries (or semi-autonomous regions which may or may not be recognized as sovereign states by international bodies: we’re talking about you Tibet) without the hassle of actually going to said countries. to work.  I’m making that stat up but if it’s not 2:1, it’s at least 1:1 and if it’s not an even split between military and civilian, then it must be at least 1:2 and if – well, you get the picture: there is a very big and very obvious military presence there.

But that’s the rub.  You see if you’re in some way related to Tibet, China feels like you should be part of their empire.  (Isn’t it fun to think that, voila!, this humble little web site just got blacklisted from the online browsing of some one billion people?!)  Where the world’s two most populous countries butt up against each other and squabble over territory, there’s bound to be some tension (the ever-accurate CIA estimates that India can call up 219,471,999 men for the military and China could field 281,240,272).  And then there is the sporadic freedom fight in the Northeastern Indian states and the insurrection in Nepal, only a few kilometers away.  Clearly India doesn’t want any of that spilling over to its side.  But hey, what fun is an insurrection if you can’t share it?

Therefore, my time in Sikkim was perhaps remarkable for the fact that, sporadically during the day, over dinner, and throughout the night, you hear gunfire.  They’re just practicing but it’s still a bit unsettling.  Unless perhaps you’re from Detroit.  In which case it would feel just like home.

Luckily my group had two Austrians in it.  There’s something comforting about going into alpine situations (gunfire or not) with the only people on earth who count mountaineers as national celebrities and probably have trading cards for them (as I’m sure you know, you’d need to hand over two Karl Blodig cards for one rookie Hermann Buhl).

It does, however, take something away from the moment when the Austrians tell you (in their Terminator voices) that the vistas look just like back home.  Or the Rockies or Andes.

But, my, what views!  Huge, soaring, snow-capped peaks that appear to rise straight out of the earth.  After too many hours of driving packed into a jeep (seven of us and a guide and driver) along mountain roads that were in good repair but still often gave you the chance to see what it looks like to look straight down a 500′ cliff, we finally got to see the mountains bright and early after spending a cold first night in Lachen near the Tibetan border.  Even if you live in Colorado it’s hard to replicate waking up at sunrise and having hot chai in bed as you gaze through your windows and see some of the world’s tallest bits of terra firma.  And to offset the seen-one-mountain-you’ve-seen-them-all syndrome, the abundance of colorful prayer flags that flap without stop in the Buddhist stronghold of Sikkim also help tag the mountains as distinctly Himalayan.  The red, yellow, blue, white and green flags are everywhere.  They give the place a foreign, spiritual quality and add some color to the surroundings.  Then again, they also sort of make the place look a bit like a giant used car lot.  (“C’mon down to Crazy Tenzig’s for a great deal today!!!”)

In the face of such beauty (which surely isn’t the right word for it), one has no choice but to pull out the camera and shoot away.  I took lots and lots and lots of photos.  There’s something truly ridiculous — absurd even — about trying to take a picture of the Himalayas.  They rise above you (even when you’re at 14,000′), way into the clouds, and there you are feeling about as insignificant as one can feel in the face of nature, and the best you can do to appreciate the moment is to point a little machine at them and capture some small portion of the larger panorama.  Then, to add insult to the whole feeling of meekness, the camera marks the occasion, paying homage to the awesome spectacle of nature with a pathetic little “click” as if that could possibly capture what’s in front of you (although it would surely still be futile if a giant thunder clap accompanied each click of the shutter).

Sikkim’s tag line is “Small but beautiful,” having passed up the second choice, “Size doesn’t matter, honestly.”   When the fog, mist and clouds clear and you can see what they’re talking about, they’ve got a point.