Sheryl writes from India.

Part 1: Puri
Part 2: Kolkata
Part 3: Khalaigat
Part 4: Assam
Part 5: Trains
Part 6: Sikkim
Part 7: West Sikkim
Part 8: Darjeeling
Part 9: New Delhi

Home > Part 6: Sikkim

Hello from Gangtok, capital of Sikkim.

Finally escaped the heat and headed for the hills. Sikkim was an independent kingdom until 1947 and was ruled independently until the ruler was deposed and India took over governance in 1975. The Sikkim Democratic Front is the governing body and is one of the most environmentally conscious governments in India. There is a ban on plastic bags (those nasty things that fly all over the countryside) and there are fines for polluting.

Sikkim borders China (which does not officially recognize India's claim to Sikkim) so it is an important strategic point for India. Because of this, the Indian government has poured a lot of money into Sikkim for roads, electrification, water supply, local industry, liquor production and tourism. It is a tax-free zone and the economy is booming. As soon as we passed into Sikkim from Assam, the roads improved and it was cleaner. There are a lot of affluent people here as well as the highest rate of alcoholism in India.

Gangtok is built along the hillsides. The narrow roads wind and the buildings are six or seven stories tall and narrow even though it lies in an earthquake zone. There is an active effort to promote building structures to withstand earthquakes and to shore up existing buildings.

Sikkim is very popular for tourism. A lot of Indians from down south head up here to escape the heat. The town is full of Indian tourists. The Sikkim tourism bureau has a really nice office with free information and help planning trips.

A large percentage of the people here are Tibetan. In years past, the royal families of Sikkim and Tibet intermarried to strengthen the bonds between the kingdoms.

Yesterday we visited Rumtek Monastery and had an interesting ride(s) back to Gangtok. We had a hard time finding room in a shared jeep going back to town so we started walking along the road. Finally I flagged down a passing army jeep filled with a few local families who had just visited the monastery. We climbed up and rode with them for a while until they stopped at a scenic overlook. Then we flagged down a passing car driven by a young man whose family owns half of Gangtok. They're into construction, entertainment and property management. He was so far removed from the general population in terms of socioeconomic level - having several servants in his own house (he's around 30). Still, a nice young man. He'd traveled to the US and visted the highlights in a style befitting the privileged.

This morning I was up early and watched the schoolchildren walking and being walked by their parents. Each grade and school has a different uniform, reminsicent of Catholic school uniforms - pleated skirts (who irons them?), blouses, blazers, sweaters and knee socks. Everyone is spotless. Again, people always respond in kind when I say, "Hello, how are you?" "Fine, thank you," which is more than you usually get travelling. They learn English starting early.

Saw a wonderful photo exhibit at the Institute of Tibetology - historical photos of Sikkim and the royal family taken by western and Sikkimese photographers between the turn of the century and the 1950s. Really gives you an idea that they were fairly progressive even then.

Off to west Sikkim tomorrow for a few days. Hope to hit a festival on the way.