Back at my desk in Montana, I stare at the Rocky Mountains and try to remember the rooftop of the world. It seems like a dream to me now. All the waterfalls, roadside monkeys, misty valleys, rhododendron forests, and faces that felt familiar even though they belonged to strangers. I see them in my mind’s eye, but it’s like someone rubbed Vaseline on the lens. Sikkim seemed like a dream even while I was there.
In Italy it’s the Catholic churches. In India it’s the Hindu temples and Buddhist monasteries. You can’t swing a squirrel without hitting one. Even though they are—each and every one—amazing creations of detail, artistry, and otherworldly inspiration, after a while they all start to look alike. The thrill is gone.
Once upon a time, there was an American socialite named Hope Cooke who longed to travel to distant lands. She was a lonely girl, orphaned by her young, romantic mother and abandoned by her ne’er-do-well father.
One might wonder why it’s easier to bathe a cat than it is to enter Sikkim. I certainly did. But when I asked Nidup about all the stamps and paperwork and military checkpoints, he just shook his head and said, “It is a very special place, Sikkim. Very significant.”
“Yes, I gathered,” I said. “But why?”
We got in the jeep and proceeded to Rangpo’s upper bazaar. Dustin dropped us off in front of a string of open-air stores that sold cell phones, candy, and potato chips. Nidup ducked into a half dozen of them, inquiring where we could get passport photos. Finally, a teenager in blue jeans said he could help and escorted us to the back of his family’s shop.
“Wait here. I’ll be right back.”
Nidup, our quick-smile guide with a Buddha belly, walked up to a bank-teller-like window and handed our passports and e-visas to a woman with maroon hair and the deepest shade of mulberry lipstick I’d ever seen.
Chris and I stood a few feet back and watched as the government official inspected our documents, and then us, from behind a bulletproof window. We were in Rangpo, Gateway to Sikkim. And no one crosses its border without officially stamped permission—in triplicate. Read more
“Did you see that man in the pith helmet,” I asked Chris as we walked down a grassy two-track into the village. It was strangely quiet compared to all the festive hoopla coming from the same direction earlier. The air was still cool, but I could tell it would be plenty warm soon.
“That was the guy from dinner last night,” Chris answered. “You know, the one you sat next to? I thought you talked to him most of the night.”
“Sherman? Wow, he looks different in a hat.” Not that I’m any good with faces anyway, especially when seated with ten other strangers at a communal dining table—all while recovering from a back-busting ride down a wildly steep, potholed dirt path with hairpin turns.
But I did remember what Sherman had said about India and its customs. In between bites of coconut lamb curry and Tibetan momos, he told me about how he and his wife had visited the country nineteen times. “Once you come here,” he said, you can’t stop coming. India is fascinating.”
The next morning, I found a gazebo with a table and chair where I could sit alone in the early morning light. Upon our arrival the night before, I couldn’t see a thing. Not the colonial-style bungalows, the chef’s vegetable and herb garden, or the hillside dancing with marigolds, tea picker huts, and blue butterflies. Nor could I see the cinematic backdrop of snow-covered mountaintops scraping the sky.
The Glenburn Tea Estate, a boutique hotel which started out as a Scottish tea company in 1859, has been run by one of India’s pioneering tea-planting families, the Prakashes, for four generations. It’s often booked long in advance, and regulars sometimes stay for weeks. Now as I watched Kanchenjunga, the third highest peak on the planet, turn pink in the sunrise, I understood why. Where else on earth could one watch such a spectacular scene unfold? Read more
Getting to a place like this isn’t easy. When you look at a map of India, Sikkim is a tiny dot along the northeast edge. Bordering Nepal to the west, Tibet to the north, and Bhutan to the east, it’s the country’s second smallest state. And the least populated.
From Delhi we flew into Bagdogra, where we bit our fingernails as all the other passengers from our plane grabbed their luggage from the conveyor belt. We stood there as everything was taken except for a lone cardboard box wrapped in what must have been a mile of clear packaging tape. As the box went round and round the carousel, we wondered what to do next.
Floating down the Ganges one magical evening, I took a deep breath and filled my lungs with what I hoped would be fresh air. What started out as the exotic scent of sandalwood quickly morphed into a mélange of barbecued human, raw sewage, and garbage. I guess this is the kind of thing that might scare off tourists, but you’d never know it from the crowd of rowboats in the river.