Zerky in Sikkim

February 21, 1968
Gangtok, Sikkim

Dear Zerky, Sikkim is a very little country in the Himalayas, tucked in between India, Tibet, Nepal and Bhutan. Its capital, Gangtok, is not far from Darjeeling as the crow flies. When we left Darjeeling we descended a steep and narrow paved road down into the valley of the Teesta River. Ever since the days of Marco Polo the Teesta has been an important trade artery connecting the cold highlands of Tibet with the hot plains of India. Our descent was breathtaking. From a cold winter morning seven thousand feet in the clouds, we wound our way down through coniferous forests and tea plantations into the tropical jungle of the Terai. While at the Indian check post, where I had to show our papers to the authorities, you and your mother went off together and bought tangerines and some of those tiny bananas of which we have all become so fond.

Crossing an old stone bridge over the river, we climbed back up the Teesta along the ancient trade route. A few miles later we were stopped at the Rangpo checkpoint where we were put through additional passport formalities in order to enter Sikkim. Sikkim is nominally an independent country, but just how independent is open to question. Sikkim’s external affairs are administrated by India.

The first thing that impressed us about Sikkim was the beauty of its native people, the women especially. The indigenous people of Sikkim are known as Lepchas, and are different in appearance from both the Indians and the Chinese. The Lepchas are said to have originated eons ago in the area around northern Burma, eastern Assam, and southeastern Tibet. The Lepcha language derives not from Sanskrit, like Hindi, but from the Tibeto-Burmese group of languages. The Lepchas resemble the people of northern Burma, and are physically small with big brown eyes surrounded by smooth oriental skin over an Indian bone structure. This creates—in the women especially—a petite femininity that I find most appealing.

Climbing into the Himalayas, we began noticing more and more Tibetans. They stand in magnificent contrast to the delicate Lepchas. The Tibetans are large-boned and Mongoloid in appearance, with long foreheads, flat noses and black braided hair. Their sculptured faces remind us of our American Indians.

Tibetans and Lepchas are not the only racial groups making up this diverse little country. Most numerous are the Nepalis, who have settled here in large numbers. Butias from Bhutan also constitute a sizeable minority and then in Gangtok at least, Indians are much in evidence, especially among the merchants. Indians constitute the smallest ethnic group, however. All told, the native Lepchas only add up to about twenty percent of the population of Sikkim with the result being that that they have become a minority in their own country—a situation that has led to considerable political unrest. The king and most of his government are Lepcha, but the king’s wife is an American named Hope Cooke who is widely, if not accurately, portrayed as the debutante who married a king and ran off to Shangri La.

From Rangpo onwards, the road is paved, and is also the only paved road in Sikkim but with lots of problems. Each summer during the monsoon, portions of it simply disappear into giant mudslides that sweep everything before them into the torrent of the Teesta below. This photograph will give you some idea of what I am writing about.


And this next one, too.


The Sikkimese don’t bother trying to protect their only road; that would be a hopeless task. There are no culverts built underneath the highway we came down, they just let the water plunge on down the canyons and over the road. In such places, workers have built concrete pads on top of the road beds for water to run across the road on, but this doesn’t work very well. Every year portions of the road are washed away, and then, once the monsoon is over, the destroyed these sections are rebuilt. In the meantime, since there is neither a railroad nor an airport for transportation into or out of Sikkim, the country is cut off from the outside world except by foot. The Indian Army has to supply its border troops over this precarious road, so India is finally getting around to re-engineering some of it. Climbing up the valley of the Teesta, the luxuriant jungle vegetation gives way to pine forests. These forests in turn give way to terraced rice paddies carved into nearly vertical mountainsides. Much of the mid-levels of the Himalayas have been sculpted into terraces for rice to grow on. In Asia, rice is the giver of life. Rice paddies require flat ground. Since you don’t have flat ground in the mountains, the people of the Himalayas have made their own in the form of these terraces. For hundreds or thousands of years now, men with hand tools have been chopping away at the biggest mountains in the world, turning them into flat ground to grow rice on. This must be the biggest construction project in the history of the planet.

About an hour before dark we reached Gangtok, having driven all day to complete a journey the map had led us to believe would take only about two hours. As happens with increasing frequency these days, you were not at all happy about being cooped up in the car all day. So you effectively made your point by subjecting your mother, Tarzan, and me to one of your tantrums. Fortunately, we have found you a very fancy lodge-PWD Rest House, complete with white picket fence and a four-year-old little girl who is the daughter of the chowkidar. Our bathroom even has an instant hot water heater in it that does not work.

I am writing this from the Deer Park in Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim. The Deer Park is a city park with deer wandering about, large magnificent creatures with broad antlers. The park sits astride a sharp transverse ridge on which the city of Gangtok is perched at an elevation of about one mile. In front of me the ridge I am on falls off rapidly into deep valleys on each side that merge into the Great Canyon of the Teesta that is visible a few miles to the south. On my left is a massive grey ridge with a saddle of fresh snow along its top, and with streaks of white dripping down its sides where snow sticks in the cracks and furrows of the otherwise windswept rock. Beyond that ridge, the massive white forehead of a snowy mountain is peeking down at me into Gangtok, a mountain that is in Tibet. That grey ridge in front of it forms the border between Sikkim and Tibet. Behind me, the ridge I am standing on continues upwards, meeting the grey ridge off to the left. Beyond is the Chumbi Valley, a dagger-like slice of Tibet thrust into the cleft between Sikkim and Bhutan. With the Chumbi, China has a toehold on the southern slope of the Himalayas that serves as a constant reminder to India that the boundary between the Tsangpo River to the north and the Brahmaputra to the south does not necessarily constitute an acceptable political boundary. We spent today hoping for a view of Kanchenjunga off to my right, but to our chagrin there are too many billowing clouds blocking our view in that direction.

Gangtok is, in short, an ideal and beautiful spot for finicky Western tourists. Its scenic appeal far surpasses that of, “Queen of the Hill Stations,” Darjeeling. Unfortunately this little Himalayan kingdom is a touchy place politically, an almost unknown front in the Cold War. Until recently, like Nepal, Sikkim was closed to outsiders and even now the authorities will not allow us to travel beyond Gangtok. A newly built North Sikkim Highway goes all the way to the Tibetan border, a road that is controlled by the Indian Army that has pledged to defend Sikkim. Officially, India maintains that Sikkim is an integral part of India.

The Choygal of Sikkim & Hope Cooke

The Choygal of Sikkim & Hope Cooke

We just now returned from the Lamasery (Tibetan Buddhist monastery) at the top of the hill near the palace, having tried to visit Hope Cook. We thought she might be lonesome. But her palace (an expansive, rambling bungalow, really) has a fence around it and the gate was locked, so we had to settle for a visit to the Lamasery, a huge, white, two-storied pagoda with two golden roofs flanked by two long rows of prayer flags. Its walls, both inside and out, are covered with intricate hand-painted floral designs and dragons that are reminiscent of those paintings on Chinese lacquer chests. Inside there is an altar and a place where strange, surrealistic clay figures of dragons and demons are made by red-robed monks seated on the floor, skilled artisans who contribute to the income of the lamasery by making these religious figures. As in Tibet, Lamaism is the religion here, an exotic mixture of Buddhism and primitive animal worship that deifies the mountain peaks. Although usually associated with Tibet, Lamaism is also the predominant religion of the mountain peoples in the higher regions of Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan, and in parts of northern India as well.

Tibetans are an extraordinary people. Unlike the stereotypical inscrutable oriental, they appear to be complete extroverts who always seem genuinely delighted to talk with us in so far as our languages problem will allow. Whenever we meet them, their friendly, animated faces light up, and the things they are saying are continually reflected on their faces. What a welcome change they are from the Indians, who have learned all too well how to hide their feelings from the white man. You are as fond of the Tibetans as we are, Zerky, and you were happy today to be plucked from our grasp by one of them, and taken off to the rear of his shop, where you were given cookies, or something, the exact nature of which your mother and I prefer not to contemplate.

This southern slope of the Himalayas, of which we have seen bits and pieces from Afghanistan to Assam, is perhaps the most interesting area of our entire trip. I wish we could spend more time here. Unfortunately we could only get a permit for three days. Once again we are in the Himalayas at the wrong time of year. Tomorrow, we head south. It will be warm in Calcutta.

Zerky at one of the Temples in Sikkim

Zerky at one of the Temples in Sikkim

The following are the log entries JoAnne and I made in a notebook, while we were going south from Sikkim to Calcutta through West Bengal.

February 22, 1968. We left Sikkim about noon, crossed back into West Bengal, and made Siliguri by nightfall. There we slept in the same PWD Bungalow’s garage that we had slept in on the way up.

February 23, 1968. Drove south all day through northern West Bengal. The area between Kishanganj and Malda (Ingraj Bazar) is the poorest places we have ever seen. The men wear simple loincloths, the women, simple sarongs, and many of the children wear nothing at all, only their own malnourished potbellies. The houses are primitive bamboo huts. Today we saw some people grubbing around in swamps, fishing with nets in roadside potholes that had not completely dried up since the floods. In a few places, they were using the side of the road as a platform for home made irrigation systems that lift a little bit of pothole water about a foot higher than the edge of the road and then let it trickle back into the potholes via a dryer, slightly modified route. A marginal existence in drab, dirt-poor countryside. What happens to these people when the potholes dry up?

Having been turned away at three Government Rest Houses in Ingraj Bazaar, we ended up in a “Tourist Abode,” a private bungalow run in conjunction with a service station. Twelve rupees ($1.60) is outrageous. How many fish do you have to catch in the potholes to make twelve rupees?

February 24, 1968. God, things are difficult in India! Tonight we had to get special permission from the Public Works Department Office to stay in an Inspection Bungalow. It took us an hour and a half just to get an OK for a one night’s stay. Then the chowkidar spent another hour and a half standing around putting up the mosquito netting, making the beds, etc.

—Excerpted from Letters to Zerky

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