It is from the intoxicated South Asian disorder of Kolkata in West Benghal, from which Rudyard Kipling once implied that if allowed time will bring you everything that a simple man needs, that I contemplate the the last six weeks in Sikkim. It is essentially the first moment during this time that I have had the opportunity to contemplate anything at all, being thunderstruck by the experiences of movement in and between the Eastern Himalaya.
Six weeks ago, somewhat less battered by road and trail, I began these experiences in Bagdogra, due north of Calcutta, reconnoitering with time-tested companions and dearest friends, Kevin Carrabine, Jennifer Macuiba (Seattle) and Dave Demers (Vancouver). Gathered by our guide, Sailesh Pradham- whose family name is near botanical royalty in this northern Province- we had only a night’s rest in Gangtok, the captial of Sikkim, before departing early the following morning for our first trek.
A relatively small chunk of high altitude real estate, squeezed by Nepal to the West, Tibet to the North and Bhutan to the East, the former kingdom of Sikkim was ‘incorporated’ into India without considerable fuss in the 1960’s (?? this must be confirmed). A young J.D. Hooker was the first to botanize the area in the early 19th century, when the amenities were assuredly less conspicuous. The condition of the roads since then have not, likewise assuredly, been improved upon. Monsoonal rains and impossibly unstable terrain defy the best engineering to tame these hills.
Plunked down on the border between Nepal and Sikkim, and dominating the skyline of this country, is Kachenchunga, whose sacred twin peaks are the third highest in the world. In 1995 and again in 2003, I was privileged to observe the flora on the western drainages of this mountain in E. Nepal. Our trek along the Singailila Ridge would offer a first glimpse into the botany of its more moist eastern flanks.
This ample moister made itself known during the first days of our first trek, with pelting rain and sleet commencing each day by late morning. It did not tarnish the opportunity to admire the flora as it unfolded in exacting altitudinal deliniation. At the end of our first eight hour hike- with gear carried by a motley assortment of horses and yaks- we had climbed from the subtropics to the hallmark of hardiness at this latitude; 6,000’. Here spears of the giant lily, Cardiocrinum giganteum, grew amongst towering specimens of Magnolia campbellii and Rhododendron griffithianum. The following day, another very long day began in mature forests of the Himalayan hemlock, Tsuga dumosa and evergreen oaks. Beneath these grew the handsome evergreen Schefflera impressa. Since trialing this genus- considered ‘tropical’ by most- for the past six years, we are certain that many of the high altitude Asiatic species are perfectly hardy in zones 7 and above. Here as well grew a handsome large-leaved Rhododendron, R. falconeri, with leathery leaves to 15” in length and a startling undersurface of tawny brown.
Slightly higher, Abies spectabilis, the Eastern Himalayan Fir, became dominant. Amongst these grew sensational specimens of Mahonia nepaulensis, with new growth of ruby red in contrast with the spidery trusses of yellow flowers just beginning to open. Extremely common too was the evergreen Daphne bholua and deciduous ally Edgeworthia chrysantha; the bark of both are used locally for the manufacture of paper.
So steep was the first two exhausting days of the trek, that by the end of day two we had left the forests behind and transitioned first through towering woods of Rhododendron arboreum, then more diminutive stands of Rhododendron campanulatum, R. thomsonii and R. lanatum, and finally, at 14,000’, into the diminutive thickets of Rhododendron setosum and R. anthopogon. The latter species, with highly fragrant foliage, is harvested by locals and offered as incense at the numerous Buddhist shrines encountered along the trail.
In the frigid mornings here, we woke to the rosy alpenglow alighting the jagged icy mammoth that dominated the horizon. On its rocky lower slopes, grew the curiously bizzarre Thibetan rhubarb, R. nobile, while several species of Meconopsis thrust their spent blossoming stems above the low mats of Rhododendron foliage. It was also here, as a mater of interest, that we met on the trail another party of trekkers guided by Jamling Norgay, whose father Tenzing Norgay, had first summitted Mt. Everest with Hillary decades before.
The following fourteen days blended comfortably into one another with a cadence one comes to expect from trekking; morning tea brought to the tent, frantically paced repacking, filling water bottles, an intricate-sometimes tiring- visual analysis of the plants surrounding us, arriving at a new camp in late afternoon, an early retirement to the solace of a down-filled bag. Our route, somewhat altered due to the recent Maoist activities in adjacent Nepal, brought us back to lower elevations while the plant species we had admired earlier came back into play. We were soon enough saying our farewells to our guides and the ponies that served had served us so well while attempting to digest the experience that had unfolded.
Trek two, in North Sikkim, began two days later, after a short respite in Gangtok to launder clothes and skin and replenish supplies and energies. The somewhat harrowing eight hour drive took us to the village of Lachang where, before nightfall, a short hike revealed a flora completely different from what we had earlier seen. Elegant specimens of my favorite of deciduous trees, Tetracentron sinense, were seen along the hillsides. Growing among these, some days later, we would recognize the dense evergreen shrubs we mistook as Rhododendrons in this dim light as Daphniphyllum himalayense. I have long admired this species for its durable, glossy green foliage and colorful crops of blue fruit produced on female specimens.
Our trekking route would take us from Lachang, up and over a 15,000’ pass and back down to its sister village of Lachung to the west. It was an exciting itinerary and made more so by the fact that we were the first officially permitted to trek this route. As we ate our breakfast the following morning, however, the first drops of rain began to fall. By the time we approached our first camp, the rain was hard and steady. By midnight, our guide woke us by removing heavy snow accumulating on our tents. We had, luckily, by a single day, missed awaking at our proposed second camp to 5’ of snow.
In the quickly melting snow the following day, we instead botanized the lower slopes of this remarkably beautiful valley which notable for hosting 26 species of Rhododendron. The sun returned later that morning and the foliage of Magnolia globosa, Enkianthus deflexus and numerous species of Acer lit the slopes with autumn color.
Due to the snow that still clogged the pass, Dave Demers and I drove to Lachung and began our trek from lower altitudes; Kevin and Jennifer, rightfully troubled by the weather, returned to Gangtok. The trail rose steeply for two days and ultimately leveled to a broad valley of utterly untrammeled forest, with virgin stands of Tsuga and Abies that would hold their own against the mammoth trees of the Pacific Northwest. The trail was sparse and we would frequently find ourselves hacking through dense tangles of Cotoneaster microphyllus. An elegant maple species, Acer campbellii, grew here possessing large deeply lobed leaves. It shared territory with Decaisnea insignis (aka D. fargesii ) a deciduous shrub in the Lardizabalaceae and related to Akebia, Stauntonia and Holboellia. This species is known for its longer succulent fingers of blue fruit ripening in late autumn with its sweet inner pulp often eaten by bypassing locals. Interestingly, and perhaps enlighteningly, the fruit of these specimens were not blue but yellow. Though this color form is mentioned in literature, it is the first time I have seen it in the flesh. Sensational too, was the sheer quantity and stature of Smilacina oleracea, with colonies approaching a full six feet in height!
Days later, satiated with our botanical experiences and partially digested by leaches and ticks, we gathered together for a last meal in Gangtok. With Bhutan in our sights, Dave Demers and I said our farewells to our Seattle friends and readied ourselves for Part II. As we traveled to the east, we carried with us the sights and sounds of a most remarkable part of our planet.