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Strategic Sikkim

Published
July 1, 2021
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The strategic location of Sikkim. The state, contested in the past by both India and China, lies in close proximity to the narrow neck of Indian territory called the Siliguri Corridor, only 22 kilometres wide at its narrowest, which if interdicted would entirely cut off eight eastern states of India including Sikkim. The pointy bit of Tibet to the east of Sikkim is the Chumbi Valley, which some Indians have gone so far as to call “a dagger drawn at India’s heart.”

Four nations very close together: A closer view of central Sikkim and environs. Kangchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world, is on Sikkim’s border with Nepal, near the top of this map. Background map data ©2018 Google (country names overlaid).

I HAD always been interested in visiting Sikkim. It’s an area influenced by Buddhism, and I was really fascinated by Buddhist culture, art and ideas. Sikkim is located between Nepal and Bhutan, and was a semi-independent monarchy until 1975, when it gave up its monarchy and became a state of India. But I was to find that getting to Sikkim brought its own set of challenges!

I planned to reach the state of Sikkim by train from the great Indian city of Kolkata, formerly Calcutta. My Namaste Tours guide took me to the station in Kolkata where I was to board the train to the New Jalpaiguri station in Sikkim. It was almost an eighteen-hour journey, and then on top of that I would have to take a taxi from there to Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim, which meant an overnight stay on the train.

I remember going to catch my train at the Howrah Junction Station. Dust and a damp smell of rubbish greeted me as I entered the platform. I was amazed at the number of people who were lying on cardboard (if they were lucky) and others straight on the dirty, rubbish-littered floor around the station. There were children and elderly sleeping huddled against pillars and walls. It blew me away and is a memory that I will never forget.

Trains are a major mode of travel for people in India and my biggest fear was falling sick and not being able to complete my planned journey and treks. The last thing I wanted was to be shacked up in a cockroach-infested carriage on the train, vomiting my guts out. When the train rolled into the platform, I found out that I had a second-class ticket. There was no way I was going to travel second class in an Indian train; no offence, but that is just too rough for me.

I decided to abandon the trip and asked my guide to take me to a hotel. The guide kept asking me for money all the way to the hotel, which was annoying. I had already paid $1,500 to Namaste Tours in New Delhi to organise my trip, and I wasn’t going to pay any more money. At one point, I had to firmly tell him that he should get his payment from the Namaste Tour agency in New Delhi, as I had already paid them, and I wasn’t paying any more.

I stayed the night at a hotel in Kolkata near the airport and the next day got a flight to Bagdogra and then a taxi to Gangtok. But my Sikkim adventure didn’t end there. The drive from Bagdogra was through the mountains, and there was a checkpoint where foreigners had to register before entering the state. I encountered the same problem as I had had in New Delhi. I stopped, and the customs guard checked my passport and said I had no visa for India on my passport. I told him that I had a ‘visa on arrival’ and tried to explain what it meant and how it was different from the regular tourist visa.

But he didn’t seem to know anything about visas-on-arrival. I was surprised that the visa policies were not communicated to customs officers in areas far away from New Delhi. I was detained at the checkpoint for over two hours, and I thought I would soon get arrested. Finally, my taxi driver came in and spoke to the customs guard and he let me go. Later, I found out that I could have taken a helicopter from the Bagdogra airport, albeit at extra cost and peril, and it would have saved me all this trouble.

I was relieved when I reached Gangtok and decided I was going to chill out for the next ten days. I found a room in the bottom floor of a hotel for $25 a night and a phone. There were nice restaurants. The only issue was that I rarely saw any Western tourists. Everyone looked at me as if I was a weird creature and after a while it felt like I was in a zoo. Whenever I saw a Westerner, we said hello and I would end up having dinner with them. It was quite hilarious.

Gangtok was a beautiful town with views of Kangchenjunga, the third-highest mountain in the world.

Gangtok tenements

Clouds rolling in over the city of Gangtok

No honking in the street the state governor inhabits!

Gangtok Markets

Gangtok’s Aerial Ropeway. From Wikimedia Commons, by ‘kalyan3’, CC-BY-SA 2.0 (2007)

Kangchenjunga as seen from Gangtok at dawn. From Wikimedia Commons, by ‘Stguin’, CC BY-SA 4.0 (2015)

Nepali (Nepalese) is the main language, but there is a very strong Tibetan influence also. There were many shops selling mountaineering gear and I would have liked to do some trekking, but I would have needed a permit. They also told me that it was the end of the season and so I decided to enjoy myself. And surprise… surprise… I met a guy who was gay, and he said he had about five dates that night. It was through a dating app called Grindr. I thought, my goodness! I could have gone on the ‘straight’ equivalent of that, but I had no energy.

From Gangtok I visited Yuksom, the first capital of the ancient kingdom. Amazing. It was the Buddha’s birthday, and I went to the local monastery and gave a donation. I also met an interesting guy called Claudio. He was Icelandic and had once lived in Germany. After his father passed on, he had received some inheritance and was living in different parts of the world. He had lived in South India for six months and the last time I saw his post on Facebook, he was living in Malaysia. I could find that an attractive option. We went trekking around Yuksom. And that was interesting, with tree ferns like those in New Zealand: a country that was connected to India in the dinosaur age, as improbable as that might seem now.

A tree fern similar to New Zealand Dicksonia species (hairy tree ferns)

We saw how the people were making rice flour decorations for the Buddha’s birthday. The food was awesome. I also got caught up in a funeral procession in Sikkim. We were invited to eat, which I couldn’t believe. It was really nice.

A drive in the country outside Gangtok

Corn sellers on the road in Sikkim

Yuksom is also the basecamp for trekkers to Kangchenjunga. I met a guy whose father had climbed Mt Everest with Sir Edmund Hillary. He said that in around 1958–60, Nepalese people in this region were given a choice to live in Darjeeling, which is part of India, or in Nepal. Apparently, many Sherpas decided they wanted to live in India.

In 1962 there was also a war between India and China, which focused attention on the strategic location of Sikkim and contributed to its eventual incorporation into India. This was done lest the Chinese move into Sikkim from Tibet’s adjacent Chumbi Valley, and then from Sikkim down through Darjeeling to block the Siliguri Corridor: a meandering corridor which connects the easternmost states of India, a region historically known as Assam, to the rest of India.

A large area of historical Assam used to be part of Tibet, before being carved off by the British in the 1800s. When India became independent in 1947, this area was not given back to Tibet.

As with Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan and the rest of Tibet, China claimed that this part of Assam, too, was rightfully its own territory.

It was in Kashmir, where some parts of the territory were also viewed by the Chinese as rightfully part of China’s Xinjiang Province, and in Assam, that the war of 1962 was fought. The war ended after a month, when the Chinese rather unexpectedly declared a ceasefire, and a withdrawal in Assam. Though China largely got what it wanted in the west, its rulers may have feared the eventual arrival of Indian reinforcements via the Siliguri corridor in the east.

As if toppling three dominoes in a row, by gaining control of Sikkim first, then the Siliguri Corridor, and then Assam, China might have been more successful in the east. Indeed, a more victorious China might even have been in a position to drop a fourth domino by moving its troops south and west toward to the Bay of Bengal, with only a little bit of Bangladesh in the way at the very end.

Since the late 1940s, when both countries had become independent from Britain, Sikkim had been an Indian protectorate, an “associated state” as it was called. All the same, Sikkim was still independent of India in other ways, and thus capable of forming a government friendly to China. By the mid-1970s, the rulers of India had come to the view that it was best to fully incorporate Sikkim into their own country as a new state, the better to remove any temptation on China’s part to flick over the first domino on any renewed road to the conquest of Assam. The annexation was done by way of a 1975 referendum, in which a majority of the votes cast in Sikkim endorsed the idea of full union with India.

The mountaineer’s son also told me about Darjeeling’s famous mountaineering school, the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, where the statue of Tenzing Norgay shown in the introduction to this book stands. Though part of another state of India today, Darjeeling also used to be part of the territory of Sikkim.

To sum up, I really enjoyed Sikkim — it’s a special place. And probably still off the beaten track for Western tourists, as well!

Note: The modern Indian state of Assam is one of seven states to the east of Darjeeling, Siliguri and Bangladesh. Historically, though, the name Assam referred to all of India east of those parts, and that is the sense in which I’ve used the word, above.

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