JARS v55n4 - Sikkim 2000: The Danish Rhododendron Adventure

Sikkim 2000: The Danish Rhododendron Adventure
Lene and Ruediger Scheid
Smoerum, Denmark

Sikkim is equal in size to Zealand [Denmark] and is situated on the southern side of the Himalayas in the northeastern part of India. Because of the difference in altitude of the region, which runs from 100 meters (330 ft) in the south to over 8000 meters (26,600 ft) in the north, the climate zones run the gamut from tropical to arctic. Because of these variances of climate and the annual rainfall of up to 6000 mm (250 in), Sikkim is a veritable plant paradise with over 4000 different species. (The annual rainfall in Denmark is only 600 mm [25 in].)

In addition to the 36 different kinds of rhododendrons, there are also 600 different kinds of orchids, 16 kinds of arisaemas, primulas and meconopsis. In addition to these, there is an ocean of other alpine plants. The mountainous countryside offers a varied growth depending on the altitude and the geographic location. The country is an unforgettable experience for any lover of plants.

The road system in Sikkim is extensive in comparison to that in Bhutan. Since Sikkim's border in the north and northeast abuts China (Tibet), the Indian military has, for strategic reasons, built up the country's highway system. This makes access possible to the most far-flung locations. Thus, nowadays when the military has removed some of the restrictions, one can go by car to the most exciting locations - although special permits have to be obtained. The long and tiresome trekking trips can thus be avoided, and most of the areas can be visited within a short period of time.

The roads are bad and, compared to the trip in 1994, extremely bad. We experienced several mudslides and the road between Yakchey and Yumchang was totally destroyed. (In 1994 we took a bus ride all the way to the Yumthang Valley!) Our 4-wheelers, left behind by the British, reluctantly - at times going on strike - conquered the challenges. We once hung over the side of the road. But the group survived and returned home in good shape, thanks to some excellent drivers.

The rhododendron genus is found in Sikkim's mountains at the latitude of between 1800 and 6000 meters (6000 and 20,000 ft). Rhododendron nivale can tolerate the highest latitudes as well as the extreme exposure to sun, wind and frost. The different species can be seen in bands at different heights, but they appear not to have crossbred. The more exotic rhododendrons are found at the lower altitudes, such as R. baileyi , R. edgeworthii , R. dalhousiae , R. griffithianum , R. lindleyi and R. maddenii .

Our first trip took us to Bersay (Varsey/Varshey) in western Sikkim. Bersay is one of the earliest accessible rhododendron areas. From the bus we could see numerous Rhododendron griffithianum in full bloom with white flowers 10 cm (4 in) in size. As we walked from the bus to our cottage in Bersay at an altitude of ca 2800 meters (9330 ft) we passed through a forest of R. grande and R. arboreum . Unfortunately it was getting dark, and we were unable to see much else that day.

At five o'clock in the morning of the next day, and long before breakfast was served, most of us were outside exploring the area. What a sight! Rhododendron arboreum with its dark red flowers in the foreground and high, snow-covered mountains, among them Sikkim's holy mountain, Kangchendzonga (8598 m; 28,660 ft) in the background - fantastic!

Regrettably the view did not last long, mountaintops disappeared into the clouds, and soon after it started to rain. The rain did not stop us from enjoying the natural beauty. We walked a bit on the lane we had walked the night before. A forest of 10-15 meter (33-50 ft) tall Rhododendron grande and R. arboreum was all around us. Unfortunately, most of them were long past their bloom. The trunks were covered by a thick layer of lichen. In between the trunks there were plants of very large Rhododendron falconeri . At noon the group broke up, some of the members continued out in the pouring rain and others returned to the cottage. After a couple of hours in the cabin, restlessness sat in. We had to get outside again. We found R. grande with an enormous trunk near the cabin, R. barbatum and R. dalhousiae or R. lindleyi . We could not agree on exactly what it was. It was not in flower and grew epiphytically on a rotting tree stump, and there was only this one example.

And now for an amusing little episode. Near our cottage there was a small sign with the word "hotel" on it pointing toward a small hut made of bamboo. Ole Christensen, who was always looking for adventure, naturally had to research what exactly was hiding behind the word "hotel." He managed to talk a couple of people from the group into joining him, and they all disappeared in the direction of the "hotel." Some time passed before we saw Ole again. "There are chairs, heat, cheap whiskey and rum!" he shouted to us. It did not take much convincing to have the rest of the group join him! What we now came across was a little hut with no heat. There was pretty good air-conditioning in huts like these, but we got warm almost immediately. We were packed into the small reception room as well as in the bedroom, and we were served delicious drinks by a cute, young Sikkim couple. A large whiskey or rum cost 1.50 Danish kroner (about 22 cents), and Christian Madvig (who coincidentally is the treasurer!) took the opportunity to buy a round for everybody! The group's spirits were high in spite of the cold and the rainy weather!

Next morning we awoke to blue skies and sunshine. Here was the picture we had seen the day before, only in a much brighter version. At least one hundred shots were taken as twenty-three people got busy using their cameras.

Our next rhododendron goal was Yakchey Lodge and Yumthang Valley, about a 140 kilometer (87 mi) drive from Gangtok in northeastern Sikkim. Here is Shingboa Rhododendron Sanctuary with its twenty-four different rhododendron varieties. The trip from Gangtok to Yakchey took place in old Landrovers without windshield wipers in pouring rain and numerous land and rock slides. The road was at an altitude of 2000-3000 meters (6660-10,000 ft) and at the most 3 meters (10 ft) in width, and we drove it mostly in the dark. This trip we shall never forget. We also set some sort of a record. We were at one point thirteen people in one Landrover! Some people will put up with a lot for a chance to see rhododendrons in the Himalayas!

After another bout of rain, hail and snow, thunder and an uncomfortable amount of water, the weather stabilized somewhat. The rough weather had lasted for a day and a half, but it was pleasant for the rest of the trip.

The following morning we were up at 5 a.m. and were met with a bright, clear day. A wonderful sight awaited us. In the foreground the ground was covered with blue Primula denticulata as well as Rhododendron thomsonii and R. barbatum with its red flowers and further off a panoramic view of 6000 meter (20,000 ft) high mountains. This sight would take anybody's breath away. All you had to do was get out there and explore. We shall not mention all the rhododendrons we saw here, but they are shown in the table in this article. Just next to the cottage we found a wonderful specimen of R. niveum and a little further off, among R. ciliatum , a group of lovely R. glaucophyllum .

Sikkim - 2000 expedition : April 21, 2000 - May 7, 2000
No. Rhododendron sp.
(acc. to Sikkim-Himalayan Rhododendrons)
sect./subsect. epiphytic found areas comments
1 aeruginosum Campanulata f X R. campan. ssp. aeruginosum
2 anthopogon Pogonanthum f X X X
3 arboreum Arborea f X X X
4 baileyi Baileya
5 barbatum Barbata f X X X X
6 camelliiflorum Camelliiflora f X
7 campanulatum Campanulata f X X
8 campylocarpum Campylocarpa f X X
9 ciliatum Maddenia f X
10 cinnabarinum Cinnabarina f X X
11 dalhousiae Maddenia * f X X
12 decipiens R. hodgsonii x falconeri
13 edgeworthii Edgeworthia *
14 falconeri Falconera f X
15 fulgens Fulgensia f X
16 glaucophyllum Glauca f X X X
17 grande Grandia f X
18 griffithianum Fortunea f X X
19 hodgsonii Falconera f X
20 lanatum Lanata f X
21 lepidotum Lepidota f X X X
22 leptocarpum Boothia
23 lindleyi Maddenia
24 maddenii Maddenia
25 nivale Lapponica f X
26 niveum Arborea f X
27 pendulum Edgeworthia * f X X
28 pumilum Uniflora
29 setosum Lapponica f X X X
30 sikkimense
31 thomsonii Thomsonia f X X X
32 triflorum Triflora f X X
33 vaccinioides Vireya *
34 virgatum Virgata f X
35 wallichii Campanulata f X X X
36 wightii Taliensia f X X
36 Totally : 27 6 17 16 13
LRS / May 2000

We also found, after an energetic search, the Rhododendron pendulum we had seen on a fallen tree in 1994. Jan Brodersen found yet another specimen on a large cliff right near the cottage.

We knew that Bodil Damgaard had found a Rhododendron lanatum on the slope 100-200 meters (330-660 ft) above the lodge; that one we were to find again. Above a field of snow - or perhaps a glacier - the ground got very steep. On the way up, we found branches with leaves from a R. lanatum in the snow, perhaps torn down by the glacier. Higher up - on an almost vertical outcrop- we found, at last, a specimen of R. lanatum . We could, unfortunately, not get close to the plant because of the inaccessible terrain and the huge amount of running water.

On the edge of the snow-covered field we saw some of the tiny-leafed varieties such as Rhododendron anthopogon , R. lepidotum , R. nivale and R. setosum . In a clump of R. thomsonii and R. barbatum we found orchids hiding, unfortunately not in bloom, as well as arisaemas and lots of primulas. We were convinced that we had also found R. barbatum var. smithii . However, after reading Pradhan/Lachungpa's rhodo book, we discovered that the variety smithii does not exist by Yakchey, and that the specimen we found was a R. barbatum without hair on the stems!

Next day we went up to Yumthang Valley. After a short drive, we came across yet another mudslide. Yumthang Valley is situated at just under 4000 meters (13,330 ft) altitude. It is a large valley which is surrounded by 5000-6000 meter (16,660-20,000 ft) tall mountains which are covered by snow. Yet another fantastic sight! Here were to be seen yet again Rhododendron anthopogon , R. lepidotum and R. setosum and also R. campanulatum .

The most varied rhododendron area is between Yakchey Lodge and Yumthang Valley. That is the reason why, after a couple of hour's stay in the valley, we headed down. As mentioned earlier, the roads were quite bad, but it was a sad sight to see that many of the ancient Abies densa and Abies spectabilis , which we had seen in 1994, had fallen down over the rhododendron growth. They must have had horribly miserable weather conditions over the last few years.

On the way, making several stops, we found among others Rhododendron fulgens , R. hodgsonii , R. triflorum , R. wallichii , and R. wightii .

The last area we were to visit was the area around Lachen. This area was opened to foreign tourists in 1999, which meant that we were some of the first tourists who were allowed to visit this area, and it turned out to be an especially exciting experience.

Next to the road between Chungthang and Lachen we observed a splendid example of Rhododendron dalhousiae with its enormous white flowers. A little further on we found R. virgatum .

After spending the night in the city of Lachen, our jeep caravan made its way early in the morning along the Tista river to Thanggu and on to Yongdi until the end of the road at an altitude about 4000 meters (13,330 ft). We were able to observe seventeen different species of rhododendrons, but since they were all repeats of what we had already seen, we shan't mention them again. The only exception was the Rhododendron campanulatum ssp. aeruginosum .

We had unfortunately only one day in the Lachen area, and looking in the rear-view mirror it was much too short a period. Through the binoculars we could see that the slopes facing the northeast at a height of 4000 meters (13,330 ft) were filled with yellow blooming rhododendrons, possibly Rhododendron lanatum . We could not get to them without having to surpass a difference in altitude of about 700-800 meters (2330-2660 ft), and we just did not have the time for that. Maybe next time.

In closing, we would like to say that not only are we delighted with the wonderful growths of orchids, rhododendrons, primulas, arisaemas, magnolias, etal, but we are equally enchanted - or perhaps more enchanted - with the unique natural wonders, the people and the culture of Sikkim.

We also want to thank the twenty one participants with whom we shared experiences and challenges. A big "thank you" goes to Bjarne and Alice Buelow, who had produced a small waterproof booklet with text and pictures of Sikkim's rhododendrons. We used it diligently.

We want to send a special "thank you" to Saileh Pradhan, who made the stay in Sikkim possible. He smoothed the road for us, both day and night. So now, after we have put distance between ourselves and the problems and often quite primitive conditions, we are ready for another trip to the "Pearl of Northeastern India" with the area around Lachen as our primary goal!

Lene and Ruediger Scheid are members of the Danish Rhododendron Society. Their party participated in the Sikkim 2000 celebration as did the party of North Americans, whose experiences were recounted by Clive Justice in the summer 2000 journal. Lene and Ruediger Scheid visited Sikkim in 1994 with a group from the Danish Rhododendron Society and are just now arranging another trip for fifteen persons in spring 2002.