On way to Gangtok via Kalimpong from Darjeeling our taxi drove through tea gardens. As we were going through Lopchu garden the driver suddenly applied the brakes and as we looked up at the road in front a leopard crossed the road at near-supersonic speed. Yes, there was wildlife there on those hills around thirty five years ago. After all, the place is a part of Himalayan terai (lowland at the foot of Himalayas) region with lush jungles. At most places in India the terais have been decimated and colonized. But, then some wild animals still survive one of which is the never-say-die Indian leopard which has survived even after its habitats were gobbled up to settle humans.
The rest of the journey was uneventful It was only a 50-kilometre drive from Darjeeling to Kalimpong but it took around two hours as the roads were hilly and necessarily had several twists and turns. Kalimpong falls in the Darjeeling district and is the gateway to Gangtok. Although there is a sizable military concentration, it has very little in its favour except its salubrious climate, situated as it is at an elevation of more than 3500 ft. There are a few missionary schools and an outfit that produces cheese that is well-known in the region.
Kalimpong has a bit of a history. Though insubstantial as a settlement it changed hands between Bhutan and Sikkim and eventually in 1864 after the Anglo-Bhutanese war it came in the possession of the East India Company. In 1947 India inherited it from the British and later merged it in West Bengal. It has that strategic importance being located in what is known as “chicken neck” between the Indian land mass and the District of Darjeeling and the state of Sikkim. Darjeeling District and Sikkim are both vulnerable to Chinese military advances. Kalimpong shot into prominence in the 1960s as a den of spies. From the Russians to CIA, the Chinese and our own intelligence outfits would prowl around Kalimpong. Espionage activities had intensified around the time an American, Hope Cook used to be in Gangtok, married as she was to the late King of Sikkim. What the spies were snooping around for is not quite clear. The town is also associated with the name of Helena Roerich, a Russian writer, philosopher, a mystic and also mother in-law of the First Lady of Indian Screen, late Devika Rani.
Gangtok is around 50 miles away. The road winds its way through beautiful surroundings with whites of the snow caps and greens of the troughs intermingling. Sikkim, as is well known, was merged into Indian Union after a referendum in 1975. It had been an independent state through the 18th and 19th Centuries ruled by a Buddhist priest-king known as Chogyal. Protected by British India, it later became protectorate of India before being merged into India.
Of Immense strategic value, Peoples Republic of China with which it shares its borders, is all the time trying to nibble at it, as it does on its borders with Arunachal Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir. Even currently a kind of stand-off between India and China is on over Chinese intrusion in Bhutan the defense of which is India’s responsibility. That is the political aspect but Sikkim, as it is, is a beautiful place to visit. We could not visit North Sikkim for want of time but that area is supposed to be idyllic. Even whatever we saw in south Sikkim was remarkably beautiful – one might say, nature at its best. Our trip to Rongpo on West Bengal border stands testimony to that. There is another place supposedly a must-see, viz. the Rumtek monastery. We found it rather far and couldn’t be done in a day trip.
Sikkim is largely untouched by human interference as its population is very low, lowest in India and it is the second smallest state of the country. Being in the shadow of the Eastern Himalayas, it hosts Kanchenjunga, the third highest mountain peak in the world. Almost 35% of the state is covered by Kanchenjunga National Park.
When we went to Gangtok it was in the process of development. The progress was tardy due to political instability. Things are reported to have changed significantly since then. Though the state’s GDP is the smallest in the country it is reported to be the fastest growing state. Gangtok is now a thriving capital city – multi-ethnic and multi-lingual, having as many as 11 official languages. The state is, like Darjeeling, a melting pot of various ethnicities, tribes and various hill peoples – generally those who migrated from Tibet.
While the economy of Gangtok is based on tourism, Sikkim is surprisingly the largest producer of cardamom in the world. We also saw orchids being hawked around. Obviously, they were not quite cultivated type and were filched from forests around Gangtok. However, the best gifts of Gangtok are the views that it offers of Kanchenjunga from its outskirts. Kanchejunga is much closer to Gangtok than Darjeeling hence it kind of dominates the place.
Unfortunately, we couldn’t visit any of the Buddhist temples and monasteries of which there are quite a few in and around Gangtok. During my official visit later 1993 we tried to go up to Nathu La pass but had to turn back due to bad weather. On the way we spent some time near Tsamgo or Changu Lake, a very enchantingly and beautiful sight. We were told it becomes more beautiful during winters when the mountains are covered in white snow. Supposedly around 12000 ft. in elevation it was frightfully cold and we literally had to scram from there.