SUNDAY MAGAZINE

Heaven on earth

TIME-OUT

A.K. PRADEEP

A DIVERSE RANGE OF NATURE: An eerie stillness over Tsomgo lake.

A DIVERSE RANGE OF NATURE: An eerie stillness over Tsomgo lake.  

I HAD not the slightest hesitation when my colleague Dr. Sabu asked me, quite recently, whether I was game for a botanical expedition to Sikkim. It brought back memories of the hardships we had encountered in a recent, and similar, expedition to Arunachal Pradesh in the North-east.

Sikkim, a tiny State surrounded by Nepal to the West, Tibet to the North and Bhutan to the east, is a paradise for the holidaymaker, the nature enthusiast and the botanist. Getting there, however, can be one long trip. The exhausting journey on the Cochin-Guwahati Express, which we boarded in Kerala, ended 49-hours later when we reached New Jalpaiguri in West Bengal.

Though it was a bright and cheerful morning, we were in a hurry to get a jeep to Gangtok. En route, we passed through dense evergreen forests, by roadside waterfalls and across narrow bridges. At many places, Buddhist prayer flags could be seen fluttering. Gangtok was clean, calm and cool, and the hustle and bustle that one normally associates with a State capital cannot be seen here. Still untouched by pollution, this stunningly beautiful region has remained largely undisturbed by tourism. Sikkim in summer is not very hot — the afternoon temperature rarely rises above 25{+o}C. My charming impression of this town is of its cleanliness and its warm hearted people.

Heaven on earth

The next morning, though foggy, was still clear enough to see the snow covered Kangchenjunga. We were lucky to enjoy this inspiring panorama of the Himalayan peaks. After spending a day studying the herbarium specimens of Himalayan plants at the Eastern Circle of the Botanical Survey of India, we left for Tamzi through the Shingba Rhododendron Sanctuary. This easterly course was probably the ancient trade route between India and Tibet. Today, one can see only army vehicles driving from the cantonment area.

Pristine, but for how long?

Pristine, but for how long?  

Sikkim's snow clad peaks, deep valleys, barren crags and cliffs; marshes, meadows and alpine pastures provide a wide-ranging habitat for a variety of fauna and flora to flourish. High ridges and peaks protect the valley from the cold and dry winds. We drove along narrow winding roads 12,400 feet above sea level along the valley of Tsomgo and Tamzi in far east Gangtok. The alpine pastures and marshes with an amazing variety of wild flowers were most eye-catching. The vast expanse of the crystal clear waters of the Tsomgo lake mirrored the mountainscape. The valley and adjoining mountain slopes were blushed pink with blooms of the Rose-carpet knotweed, Bistorta vaccinifolia. It is a gregarious spreading herb that quickly covers the ground and rocks.

The large lemon yellow poppy, Meconopsis paniculata, growing shyly amid the rocks was the first to startle me with its delicate beauty and unusual leaves.

Dendrobium chrysanthum, a fragrant epiphytic orchid.

Dendrobium chrysanthum, a fragrant epiphytic orchid.  

a fragrant epiphytic orchid

It was an experience to stand amidst a countless variety of brilliantly hued wild flowers. Tufts of the long tubed bright pink flowers of the Lousewort, Pedicularis siphonanthus, are perhaps the most striking along the slopes. Also widespread are the Chrysanthemum-like Groundsel, Senicio chrysanthemoides and Govan's Corydalis. The superstitious mountain people often use the Corydalis' roots, called "Bhoot Keshi", to ward off evil spirits.

Certainly, the most eye-catching of the stony hill slopes on drier grounds are on account of the lobes Cynanthus (C. lobatum) and the Sikkim Stonecrop, Rhodiola crenulata. The Stonecrop is also called "Live long" as it doesn't wilt even after being gathered. It is a succulent herb usually seen on the mossy covering of stones.

After just a kilometre's ascent from Tamzi, we came across a strategic military outpost on the border with China that brought us to a dead halt. A few isolated bunkers and tents with a couple of jawans were the only signs of life in this region. We accepted the hospitality and invitation of a military man for a cup of tea in a tent. Soon, we were off again to explore the lower hillsides and marshes, but Nature put an end to that as dark clouds loomed ominously above us and sent down heavy rain.

We soon had to drive back, the landscape all along the way, breathtaking, and in an eye-catching pink, yellow and green. It was a kaleidoscope of colour, unmatched and uncaptured by man.

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