Britt Smith and his wife, Jean, first visited Sikkim in 1970 after two years of correspondence with Tse Ten Tashi. Mr. Tashi's name was mentioned in a letter to Mr. Hjalmar L Larson of Tacoma, Washington. That letter was from Mr. Keshab C. Pradhan who was then living in the States where he studied for and received a Master's Degree in Forestry from Yale University. The Smiths were met in Gangtok by Mr. Tashi, who served as host and guide for the six days of their visit, and who introduced them to Mr. Pradhan.
| Tae Ten Tashi - the man who
started the Sikkim adventure.
Photo by Britt Smith
The Smiths returned to Sikkim in October 1972, only to encounter the disappointment of Mr. Tashi's sudden demise. Acquaintances with Mr. Tashi's family and others were expanded, and inquiries made regarding the possibility of a group visit and trekking at some future date. The date of that trek was established as early May 1974.
On April 25, 1974, a group of twenty-six members of the American Rhododendron Society gathered in Darjeeling to participate in the first Sikkim trek by foreigners in approximately forty years. Of the twenty-six, fifteen participated in the trek. That trek and the visit to Sikkim was "orchestrated" by Keshab Pradhan, supported by Tashi Densapa. The experiences of the twenty-six people will never be forgotten by them, nor, evidently, by a number of people in Sikkim.
Through the years, contacts have been maintained. Keshab Pradhan visited Seattle as a speaker at the national meeting of the American Rhododendron Society, in 1985. Tashi Densapa made at least one extended visit to the US East Coast during the intervening years.
In 1990 Britt Smith was invited to Sikkim to visit their first International Flower Show, to learn what has been done to accommodate American tourists and to suggest further attractions, and to verify Sikkim's judgment regarding the beauty and horticultural desirability of selected native rhododendron species clones. "Sikkim Revisited" is a report of that visit during the first half of May 1990.
"Could we please get off the airplane?" Passengers are standing in the aisle the full length of the Boeing 737 airplane. The exit door is open, but no one is moving. An answer comes back up the aisle, "It is raining so hard that they are bringing a bus to take us to the terminal." The terminal is probably not more than two wing-spans away, but the bus proves to be a welcome courtesy. Later we are told that the monsoons came early this year - 1990. The usual June-July-August monsoons had begun early in March and the date of our arrival is May 4.
We are on the ground at Bagdogra, West Bengal, India - the gateway to Darjeeling, to Sikkim, and to Bhutan. It has been sixteen years, within four or five days, since our last departure from Sikkim from this same airport and terminal building. We have been en route approximately forty-two hours from home, with approximately four hours rest in New Delhi. Even though tired, our excitement is running high in anticipation of two weeks with friends of twenty years, seeing the changes to memories of sixteen years earlier, and seeing areas of Sikkim not seen before.
Inside, as well as outside, the terminal does not seem to have changed, but the traffic certainly has. Inside passengers are everywhere, while outside taxis, automobiles, and busses seem everywhere - coming and going. Registration of aliens continues to be done in the little separate enclosure just across the narrow driveway from the street-side entry door. The terminal itself has been well maintained and is quite acceptably clean, as before. Procedures are the same as they were in 1974 when we last visited. Most other things seem changed, and it might be added, for the better.
India Tourism personnel are present, friendly, and very helpful. For example: Our suitcase did not arrive from the plane, so in company with a young fellow of India Tourism, we made a trip to the baggage hold of the airplane to help find it. Just inside the baggage door one of the handlers had the suitcase and was waiting for the rain to moderate some more. The readily available and efficient help is very reassuring.
Our U.S. passports and Sikkim visas are submitted to the alien registration authorities and we are off on the four-hour drive to Gangtok. By this time the rain has almost completely stopped. The exit from the airport and the highway to Bagdogra and Siliguri does not seem to be changed at all; however, the traffic has multiplied. Oxcarts are not seen nearly so frequently as before, however people, trucks, bicycles, and automobiles are much more frequent. Then we notice that the narrow-gauge railroad tracks parallel to the highway are gone. Yes, the picturesque "Toy Train" to Darjeeling is gone, but one engine is preserved in a railroad museum.
Everywhere there are more people, buildings, farms - everything. Of course Siliguri is much larger. Scenes along the highway through the countryside bear much evidence of development. Two registration and check points just before arriving in and at Rangpo are quick and easy, and the personnel at each place are efficient and friendly, commenting in a very friendly way that it has been so long since our last visit. The next town of any size is Singtam, which has grown substantially. As we pass through Singtam, we look for and see the building which continues to bear the sign, "Fooding and Lodging". It is just across the street from that location where we purchased our first bananas with seeds in them, in 1970. Those were such a surprise!
Next is Gangtok, which has grown so much that it seems to extend from the bottom of the valley, in which Singtam is located, clear to the ridge on which the Gangtok palace and the Gangtok Monastery are located. It now requires more than half an hour to drive through town. The population has grown to an estimated 60,000 to 70,000 from an estimated 18,000 to 20,000 in 1974. We are taken directly to Hotel Mayur, a new hotel, built and operated by Sikkim Tourism. What a delightful contrast to the old Norkhill Hotel in which we stayed in 1972 and 1974! Probably the change in hotel accommodations is the greatest and most pleasant change to be found in Sikkim, when 1974 is compared with 1990.
| Hotel Mayur - Sikkim Tourism hotel in Gangtok.
Photo by Britt Smith
We are greeted personally by the manager of Hotel Mayur, a nephew of Tse Ten Tashi. Arrangements by Sikkim Tourism were thorough. The room assigned is at the back corner of the third and top floor, with a window looking down on the Norkhill Hotel, our previous abode in Sikkim, and on the soccer field.
Soon Mr. Keshab C. Pradhan, Chief Secretary, Government of Sikkim, and Mr. Tashi Densapa, Director, Sikkim Tourism, arrive and tea is served in our room. Plans for the visit are outlined and we are off for a quick tour of the Gangtok Arts and Crafts Center and the International Flower Show.
Sikkim International Flower Show
The flower show was held for the first time in 1990, opening in late March. It was originally planned to be run for three months, and is to be held annually. They built a new pavilion for the show in one of the city parks. It is ideally suited to the purpose, being of a bamboo structure, covered with plastic, approximately sixty by one hundred feet. We should be proud if we had such a flower show pavilion in any US city.
The flower show is a new and excellent display of all kinds of flowers grown in Sikkim, native and otherwise - orchids, lilies, amaryllis, rhododendrons, primula, and on and on. This should be on your "must see" list and is new, so it launches us into the main purpose of this article - what changes seem to have taken place in Sikkim in the last sixteen years. We are particularly interested in rhododendrons, so our tale will be woven around them.
Sixteen years ago, Keshab Pradhan was Chief Conservator of Forests. He is now Chief Secretary, Government of Sikkim and he is very interested in rhododendrons. The work associated with his earlier assignment remains under his direction, but he has been replaced by Mr. Sonam T. Lachungpa, whose precise title I failed to learn. We must pause here to become acquainted with Sonam.
Sonam has a university degree in horticulture, is very interested in rhododendrons, and is well into the study of variations of the Sikkim rhododendron species. He already has found clones bearing coral to apricot colored flowers in Rhododendron campanulatum, R. lanatum, R. thomsonii, R. anthopogon, R. glaucophyllum, and one other which does not come readily to mind.
His interest goes back to his youth when he knew Tse Ten Tashi and gathered most of the seed which Tse Ten Tashi sent to members of the American Rhododendron Society in 1969, 1970, 1971, and 1972. Of course, he is also interested in orchids, primula, ferns, iris, amaryllis, gladioli, and other horticultural plants and flowers, plus all types of timber trees which will grow well in Sikkim.
At Lachung, which is Sonam's home town, Sonam points out a large white rhododendron, R. griffithianum, completely covered with flowers so that it catches one's eye from, probably, a mile away. It is a plant from which he collected seed for Tse Ten Tashi. Sonam also calls my attention to a R. arboreum in the landscape planting at the Lachung Forest Rest House. It is not in bloom, but was transplanted to that location because of the trusses, which instead of the usual three, four or five tiers of flowers in each truss, on this clone have eight or nine! On a hillside at the edge of Lachung, Sonam takes us to a large plant of a quite superior form of R. glaucophyllum which is in full bloom.
| Rhododendron smithii - an excellent form found
in east Sikkim, selected by Sonam Lachungpa.
Photo by Britt Smith
| Rhododendron thomsonii - an excellent form found
in north Sikkim, selected by Sonam Lachungpa.
Photo by Britt Smith
| Rhododendron barbatum - a brightly colored form found
in east Sikkim, selected by Sonam Lachungpa.
Photo by Britt Smith
Save the Rhododendrons
There is intense activity at this time to conduct a modern plant-hunt for superior and unusual forms of the Sikkim species rhododendron. A race is on between those with horticultural interests in rhododendrons and those who are interested in rhododendrons for firewood. We see examples in north Sikkim, where selected and marked clones had been taken for firewood, much to Sonam's dismay. A discussion at the spot brings assurances from Keshab Pradhan that efforts will be initiated immediately to establish areas of up to two hundred acres each whenever there is need for protecting a stand of rhododendrons. He also indicates that this can be done rather expeditiously and that the areas will be surrounded by a four-strand barbed wire fence.
As an additional effort to preserve selected clones of the Sikkim rhododendron species, negotiations are under way to have an expert rhododendron grafter spend some time in Sikkim. This person is to graft scions from selected rhododendron clones to get those clones growing under protected conditions before the woodcutters destroy the parent plant. That activity will probably begin in 1992. The most important part of the mission will be to teach the local people to do this grafting. A longer range objective of the grafting program is to have selected stock to exchange with botanical gardens outside India.
In each rhododendron area we visit, we are accompanied by the District Forester for that area, who show considerable interest in and knowledge of the rhododendrons as we go among them. Also, back at headquarters in Gangtok, Padam Subba, a graduate in floriculture, has become very interested in rhododendrons. We have friends in the right places!
Along with all this, and more, the remote areas of Sikkim have been made much more accessible to botanists, such as we are, who wish to visit southwest Sikkim, north Sikkim, and east Sikkim, as we did during this trip. Of course, special permits must be obtained. At Barse, above Hilley in southwest Sikkim, at Lachung and at Yumthang in north Sikkim, and at Dzong Gu, at the confluence of the Kanaka (Tholung) and Tista Rivers in the valley below Mangan, we stayed overnight or visited for lunch at some nice forest rest houses. These rest houses are complete with bathrooms, beds and bedrooms, and dining areas. They are manned by Forest Department personnel and prepared to provide meals and service - by prior arrangement, of course. The rest house at Dzong Gu is beautiful and is in a tropical garden which has been established there.
Twenty Years of Changes
Now, regarding items of more general interest, nearly all roads in Sikkim seem to be paved and are well maintained - and they are just as crooked as they were and will remain forever so. Motor traffic has increased greatly. Trucks and busses which were Mercedes are now Tata. Jeeps remain and Ambassadors are the personal transportation vehicles. Motorcycles are numerous, the dominant one seems very similar to the Vespa in the US. Sikkim National Transport seems to provide bus transportation to many places in Sikkim, and to Bagdogra and the airport.
Buildings seem to be under construction or enlargement everywhere. The city is pushing outward in all directions. Nice new hotels are available, with room rates around $20 per night. Television sets are in the rooms awaiting completion of the new TV tower under construction above the city. For now, video tapes provide entertainment. A large - very large - new tourist motel is operating up high where the view of the "snows" must be terrific. Several restaurants appear enticing, including one which advertises "American Menu." We ate at the Mayur Hotel or with friends.
Electricity is more available than in 1974, even though it is interrupted often. Small hydro-generator plants are under construction and/or operating in numerous places. We are told that the hillside which faces the hotel window now has water and power to most of the many houses on that now terraced area. In 1974, it was forested and sparsely settled.
The palace is now occupied by the oldest surviving son of the late Chogyal, and looks just as it did during our previous visits. The "Light of Sikkim Building" was difficult to find because so much new construction is in place; it has among its occupants Gyamtso Tashi and family and Tsegyal Tashi, Tse Ten Tashi's second and third sons respectively.
Hi-tech has come to Gangtok. Gyamtso Tashi is Managing Director of Sikkim Jewels Limited, which makes jewel bearings for watches and instruments. The factory is quite new and completely equipped with the latest in Swiss machinery for making the bearings from synthetic sapphire and ruby boules, made elsewhere in India. The state of technology employed is probably best indicated by the fact that holes in the bearings are drilled by laser.
A Tourist in Sikkim
Yes, Sikkim has increased population and development, and in this has lost some of the quaint charm of Gangtok, though that charm remains through out the remainder of Sikkim. At the same time, the friendliness of the people has found new ways to manifest itself, and accommodations for tourists are far more attractive than they were sixteen years ago. My palate is not in tune with a sustained diet of India-type food, but we soon learned that a large dish of plain boiled rice is inexpensive and good, and is an excellent way to tone down the unfamiliar spices. All the food is good, but for me, it is better when diluted with rice.
Riding the narrow, winding roads with young drivers who seem to have seen too many American movies is somewhat of a white-knuckle experience. As a result of that, it seems that riding the bus might make a more relaxed, comfortable trip.
The contemplation of the possibility of an early return to this country of spectacular beauty will be a constant motivator until that return is accomplished. A flight around the world seems a great idea, particularly when combined with the thought that Air India flights between London and New Delhi are non-stop, following the "great circle" route which is far north of the troubled Middle East.
Britt Smith joined the ARS in 1966. He was introduced to rhododendrons by Dr. Frank Mossman and joined him in the prolonged investigation of R. occidentale. Britt has also hybridized rhododendrons extensively and has been a active member of the Rhododendron Species Foundation since 1976.