A Trip to see the Orchid Wonders of Sikkim

by Lynne Harrendence

First there is a  mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is…
(Sikkim,  Himalaya)

Zadong, 5182m above sea level.  We had  reached the ‘summit’ of our stay in Sikkim.  There were tears and exhilaration amongst our  group, lots of photo shots and a short walk to enjoy the snow and scree.   I just sat there on a large rock feeling  dreadful – too many hairpin bends – I wasn’t a good traveler at the best of  times!  Glad to have my feet back on the  ground and a short while to recover, I thought back to the first orchid I’d  every bought – a sorrowful-looking plant rescued years ago in a garden centre  sale.  I was now hunting for orchids in Sikkim, an Indian  State high up in the Himalayan Mountains.

Heathrow-Mumbai-Kolkata-Bagdogra-Darjeeling

It was 3 April  2010 and we were being led by Simon Pugh-Jones of the Writhlington School  Orchid Project and Lauren Gardiner, a botanist from Kew.  There were eleven in our group, from all  walks of life, some wishing to extend their knowledge of orchids and others  just along to enjoy the scenery and do some photography.

With great  excitement we collected our baggage at Bagdogra  Airport and met up with Mohan Pradhan (author,  plantsman and leading conservationist) and Ganden Lachungpa (owner of Atlas  Tours and Services, Sikkim) who  organized, supervised and guided the whole of our stay in Sikkim. Several jeeps were loaded with our  possessions, we clambered in and off we went in the direction of Darjeeling, West Bengal,  where we were to spend out first night at Rhododendron Dell.  A property and garden owned by the late  politician, Madan Tamang. Mr Tamang was, reportedly, murdered a few  months after our visit. 

Darjeeling-Meghma-Darjeeling

This morning we  had good reason to rise early from our beds, not only was it the first exciting  day of our trip but we also hoped to see Mount Kanchenjunga  from the terrace of our accommodation. There she was, surrounded by the glint of the sun, the third highest  mountain in the world, standing at 8,603m – what a spectacular sight!

Orchid Wonders of Sikkim

View from Rhododendron Dell

Meghma at 3,048m  was our first port of call today.  Part  way along our route we transferred to very old Land Rovers – modern vehicles,  we were told, could not withstand the terrain ahead.  The ‘road’ was cobbled and extremely  bumpy.  We found lots of Coelogyne and Cymbidium on our short stops and the cheerful  red-flowering Rhododendron arboreum and Rhododendron barbatum were in flower.   Lunch was served in one of the old buildings  in Meghma.  Lunch was always welcome, so too  were the locally made Easter eggs given to us by our hosts – after all it was  Easter Sunday!  Before our departure, Mohan  took us all below in the building to show us a little factory where Rhododendron  petals were laid out to dry for wine making.

Orchid Wonders of Sikkim

The old Land Rovers

Orchid Wonders of Sikkim

Meghma

Back at  Rhododendron Dell by late afternoon we had enough time to enjoy a few hours  shopping in Darjeeling.  The bazaar there is a must, and, if you’re a  tea addict, you’ll be spoilt for choice.   A visit to a tea tasting house was on the agenda.  I was all ‘tea’d’ out by the time we left but  we did enjoy ourselves and purchased packets of tea to take back home.  Back at our lodge we were all surprised at how  cold the evening had become – oh, how we wished for a hot water bottle to take  to bed!

Darjeeling-Teesta-Melli-Rangpo-Singtam-Rabong  (Mt Narsing)

Next morning was  an early start, earlier still if you wished to enjoy a walk in the garden at  Rhododendron Dell with Mohan as your guide.   What a delightful garden, no doubt having been Mr Tamang’s labour of  love for many years.  Orchids, especially  Calanthe, Cardiocrinum, Rhododendrons and Azaleas, to name but a few, all growing  on steep terrain. 

Orchid Wonders of Sikkim

Woodland along our route

Our stay was  short, we said our goodbyes and were, once again, on the road.    I use  the word ‘road’ loosely here.  Never have  I closed my eyes so much and resorted to prayer!!  I just thanked myself lucky that we had come  before the monsoons.  The roads, some no  more than wide muddy tracks, were carved along the steep mountain sides.  No roadside barriers offered security between  us and the frightening, rocky, steep slopes dropping down to the valley floor or  river below.  It was evident that the  monsoon periods caused massive landslides.    Thank goodness for the invention of the jeep and the skill of our  drivers! 

We stopped for a  wonderful view of the confluence of the Rangit Chu and Teesta Chu (rivers) and  a few short walks to enjoy Dendrobium densiflorum, Dendrobium fimbriata, and  many more.   We drove high up along the Teesta River.  It saddened me to see the mighty hydro-electric  dams being built along the route of this beautiful river, consuming land,  habitat and ecosytems.  The dams are to  be the exporters of power to India’s  electric power grid.   

Orchid Wonders of Sikkim

Confluence of the Rangit Chu  and Teesta Chu

Orchid Wonders of Sikkim

Red Poinsettia

Kalimpong, was another  area we enjoyed seeing many orchids in the trees, in particular Dendrobium  nobile, the national flower of Sikkim.  Late afternoon we reached Mount Narsing  Resort for our evening meal and accommodation.   Our first word of warning – spiders!   Check your rooms, under your beds, in your beds!  I caught several in a glass jar and,  unceremoniously, threw them out into the rain.   The search for spiders, unpacking our bags and showering was somewhat  hampered by one of Sikkim’s  infamous power cuts.  This wasn’t the  first one we experienced and it wasn’t our last.

Orchid Wonders of Sikkim

Mount Narsing Resort

Orchid Wonders of Sikkim

Dendrobium nobile

The keen ones  amongst us rose at the crack of dawn the next morning to take photos and,  hopefully, see Mount   Narsing.  Like the evening before, the distant hills  were shrouded in mist, so no sign of the mountain.   

Orchid Wonders of Sikkim

Arisaema

Rabong-Tinkitam-Borong-Rabong

The next day  proved to be very warm and sunny and, with Mohan as our knowledgeable guide, we  were shown around the Tinkitam Reserve, a protected area where the Paphiopedilum fairreanum grows high up on steep slopes – far out of reach!  We saw Coelogyne cristata, Coelogyne nitida,  Cymbidium Devonianum, Cardamom and Arisaema growing in the woodland and the  most beautiful, swallow-tailed butterflies I have ever seen flitted past us  along our way.  

Orchid Wonders of Sikkim

Coelogyne cristata growing on  tree

Next we paid a  visit to Borong where we were made very welcome for lunch at the Club  8000.  Our energy replenished we enjoyed  an interesting hour or two at a handmade paper factory and purchased some of  their lovely gifts to take back home.   Leaning out of the jeep window as we sped  along, again, I managed to take a few photos of Damtang, Rabongla, a huge construction complex where there was soon to  be built a monastery and a 46m Buddha.   I could not help but wonder where all the  money was coming from to fund these enormous projects.  Everywhere we drove men and women were busy improving  the roads, tarring, making chipping blocks for reinforcements, drilling out  rock faces.   Many of the road workers  were Nepalese, or Indians who had come up from more southerly areas of India.    Everyone was so friendly and I must comment  here on the children walking along the road, to and from school.  I have never seen such smart school children,  beautifully turned out in their uniforms, some little tots not much bigger than the rucksacks they carried. 

Orchid Wonders of Sikkim

Club 8000

Orchid Wonders of Sikkim

Building of Buddha

Orchid Wonders of Sikkim

School children

Orchid Wonders of Sikkim

The road workers

Rabong-Singtam-Mangan-Chungthan-Lachung

Today our  destination was Lachung.   It was on this day that one of my ambitions in  life were fulfilled – to see a tea plantation!   The Temi Tea Plantation is the pride of Sikkim.  It was established in 1969 and lies on gentle  slopes covering an area of approximately 500 acres.  It is Sikkim’s  only tea plantation and the tea it produces is said to be one of the best in India.  Mohan told us that it was his uncle who, back  in the early 1960s, had five plants brought up from Darjeeling to start the tea plantation.   I believe the plant grown is Cameliasinensis.  We also managed to have a  quick peep into the factory through the windows! 

Orchid Wonders of Sikkim

Temi Tea Plantation

It was a long  journey, stopping at Mangan for a packed lunch – no matter where we were, we  never went hungry.  The drivers always produced  plenty of food and lots of tea from huge vacuum flasks.  In addition to these lunchtime stops, every  morning we were each handed little bags containing crisps, chocolate, cartons  of fruit juice, etc.  

Orchid Wonders of Sikkim

A view of mountains

The roads  certainly deteriorated on this journey – if that was possible.  However, I have to say that the State of  Sikkim deserves credit when it comes to road building.  A tremendous amount of work is always  evident, especially so on this road, improvement to which was a priority in  order to give easy and fast access to troops going to and from the  Sikkim/Tibetan border.

Orchid Wonders of Sikkim

Hope our driver knows what he’s doing!

Again, during  the course of the day, we had views down to the building of the Teesta hydro  electric dams.  The countryside had  changed now, from the warm, mixed tropical rain forest that we had driven  through in the south, to more open hills.   Evidence of farming and crop growing could be seen.  The crops grown north of Gangtok are mainly  hill rice, barley and cabbage.  As we  drew closer to Lachung the hillsides became much steeper and mountains could be  seen in the distance.   

I need to  mention that we had passed through several military police check points on our  journeys so far.  Our passports were  frequently checked and so too were our restricted area passes.  Ganden always seemed to be busy making sure  our travel went smoothly.  Sometimes he  would leave us for hours, once a whole day, taking our passports with him.  I could only assume that he was having our documents  checked and cleared so that passage through our next military police checks  went smoothly.

We traveled on,  the last lap of our journey before nightfall.   The hillsides covered with the splendor of many flowering shrubs.  At this altitude their flowering season had  barely started but we did see lots of Rhododendron arboreum and Pieris formosa  bushes in flower. 

Orchid Wonders of Sikkim

Pieris formosa on the hillsides

Season House,  our accommodation for the next few nights, was a wonderful lodge-type property  enjoying a very lofty position in the hills high above Lachung, a Bhutia  village at an altitude of around 2,438m.   The property was owned by Ganden’s nephew, Tashi Lachungpa, and Tashi’s  mother.  Before our evening meal we sat  outside on the terrace in front of the house – what a spectacular location to  enjoy the mountains – but cold!  It was  far colder than we had been accustomed to, so far, but our evening meal was  delicious and, being the birthday of one of the ladies in our group, we all  enjoyed a huge birthday cake presented to her by our hosts.

Orchid Wonders of Sikkim

Season House

(It might be of interest to mention here that the suffix ‘pa’ on  Ganden, and  Tashi’s family name,  indicates that their family origin is in the village of Lachung.)

Lachung-Yumthang-Yume  Samdong-Zadong (highest altitude)-Lachung

It was always  early to bed, early to rise. Some of us  had been dressed and enjoying a cup of tea on the terrace at 5.30am the next  morning – always keen to see the mountains before they disappeared, yet again,  into the mist.  I might add that someone had  risen well before us that morning as, on the terrace, another huge vacuum flask  full of tea had appeared – with biscuits!  Our keen photographer had been the first out  of bed that morning and, whilst we enjoyed our early morning cuppa, he could be  spotted on the nearby hills following some bird or butterfly.     I have to say the breakfasts were worth leisurely  enjoying – sitting there on the terrace, soaking up the early morning sun and  the surrounding mountains.  Porridge  (with full cream milk), omelettes, fresh bread, in fact everything you could  wish for to put you right for the many hours of travel ahead.   I ventured out that morning with my camera  and came across a few yaks which had just been driven up to the sparse pastures  by a child.  I made an attempt to  photograph them but they certainly didn’t like my close proximity.   I think I came back with lots of shots of  cabbages!

Orchid Wonders of Sikkim

View way down to Lachung

Today we traveled towards the border with Tibet, through a restricted military  zone.   The Yumthang  Valley, at around 3564m, has  incredible landscape with alpine meadows, Rhododendron, fir tree forests and,  high above, the snow-capped peaks of the Himalaya.

Whilst walking around the Shingba Rhododendron Sanctuary I saw the  most beautiful rhododendron I had every seen, Rhododendron niveum – indigenous  to Sikkim  and the State’s national tree.  Unfortunately,  at this altitude, it was a little too early in the year to see many flowering plants  but we did come across large areas of Primula denticulate and Potentillapenduncularis.  That day we also saw  Rhododendron campylocarpum, R. wightii, R. thomsonii, R. ciliatum, R. Sikkimensis,  Daphne bouleau, Denticulate reptans, Pleione hookeriana and far too many others  to mention here.

Orchid Wonders of Sikkim

  Rhododendron niveum

Further north the landscape became very sparse and the bushes  noticeably smaller.   Yume Samdong was almost  devoid of vegetation, the landscape being predominantly rock and snow fields.  At Zadong the road suddenly came to an abrupt  end – for us.  Military vehicles passed by  on their way up to the boarder.  With  relief I climbed out of the jeep – I had not traveled well today!

Orchid Wonders of Sikkim

High up in the Yumthang Valley

Reluctantly, about an hour later, I climbed back into the jeep to  ‘enjoy’ the hairpin bends again. Soon we were stopping by the roadside for a  hot packed lunch and tea – again transported by our drivers.  Just the smell of the food was too much for my  delicate state – I wandered off down the road for some fresh air and to enjoy,  once again, the Rhododendrons.

Yumthang Hot Springs was our next stop.  The water of this spring contains sulphur which  is believed to have miraculous healing powers and can cure skin diseases.  A small hut houses the pool where the sulphur  water is collected for taking a pleasant, warm bath.  I had it on good authority that it was  thoroughly relaxing!

Lachung-Chungthang-Mangan-Phodong-Gangtok

A quick chance to take those last minute photos the next morning and  we were loaded up and on our way south to Gangtok.  One part of the route, around Chungthang, got  rather chaotic.  We came to a standstill  surrounded by driven cattle, steam rollers and troops.  With an overhanging rock outcrop above us and  to one side and a sheer drop to the other.   No problem!  Never a bad word was  uttered, everyone took the situation in their stride.  We had a quick stop at another impressive  waterfall, Beem Nala, surrounded by lush green forests and high-peaked  mountains – a very popular tourist attraction and quite a spectacular  sight.  It must be awesome during the  monsoon season.  Another equally  wonderful sight was a wooded hillside covered with white-flowering  Brugmansia.   There were lots of roadside stops on the way  back south to see orchids,  Cymbidium and  Coelogyne were always in abundance but the one I admired the most was attached  to a small tree at the end of a bridge – it was Chiloschista usnoides.   We also saw a cream-coloured Poinsettia, a  change from the usual red-flowering ones so plentiful along the roadside.

Orchid Wonders of Sikkim

Chiloschista usneoides

Orchid Wonders of Sikkim

Cream-coloured Poinsettia

                  We arrived at Hidden   Forest early evening.  What a delightful place and everywhere in the  garden and around the house there were orchids!!!  We were all very hungry and tired after our  journey.  After a very enjoyable meal it  was early to bed.

Orchid Wonders of Sikkim

  Dining room at Hidden Forest

Orchid Wonders of Sikkim

On the  dusty road

Gangtok-Lingdum-Saramsa  Resort-Saramsa Garden-Andheri Khola-Gangtok

Today Mohan and  Ganden showed us around Lingdum Monastery.   Lingdum is a fairly new complex of buildings which were started in  1992.  The main building is embellished  with the symbols of Tibetan Buddhist architecture and its courtyard is  vast.  There were also such beautiful  paintings on the exterior walls.  What a  spectacular work of art and culture.

Orchid Wonders of Sikkim

Lingdum Monastery

Mohan also showed  us around Andheri Khola valley, an area he hoped to turn into a reserve, being  particularly valued for its richness in orchids.

Saramsa Garden at Ranipool was our next visit, also know as Ipecac Garden,  the home of Sikkim’s  most exotic orchids and other rare tropical and temperate plants.  The name Ipecac comes from the Ipecac plant  which is grown there.  Established around  1922 by the Department of Forest, the garden covers an area of six acres and is  situated about 14km out of Gangtok.  It  is an excellent recreation and picnic spot.   What I found most amazing there was not the orchids but the giant  bamboos – nothing can prepare you for their size.  Also held in the Garden is an international  flower show

Orchid Wonders of Sikkim

Giant Bamboos

After the garden we were treated to a typical Sikkimese meal and Chhang  at the Saramsa Resort Hotel.  A beautiful  hotel with its mixture of Lepcha, Bhutia, Nepali and Colonial architecture.  Chhang is a preparation made from fermented  millet served in bamboo containers with a hollow bamboo pipe used as a  straw.  It’s the ‘unofficial’ national  drink!  Rather too bitter for me, I’m  afraid.  The meal was served, course upon  course, most of which had a rather spicy but very tasty.

In the evening  we enjoyed several hours in Gangtok to have a look around the shops.  Nothing very much of interest to buy, I  thought.  One shop sold local crafts,  about the only ones I saw on our whole trip.   There was a craft centre in the area but, unfortunately, it was closed on  the day we were there.  However, we did  experience a typical, evening downpour in the town.  Did it rain!   It absolutely threw it down for about an hour.  Umbrellas were being sold by the dozen and so  cheap.   Some of us bought Sikkimese  prayer flags to take home.  They were  also very cheap.

Gangtok-Taktse  International School-Helipad-Mohan’s for Evening Meal-Gangtok

A day of  workshops at Taktse   International School  turned out to be a terrific day.   It was  Sunday and sixty teenage pupils, ten representing each of six schools had given  up their day off to come and meet us.  We  played ball games out in the sun in their huge courtyard, I guess the games  were their equivalent of ‘ice breakers’.   We then assembled inside for the workshops.  Each of the members of our trip took it in  turn to stand up and give a brief talk about ourselves and what we had enjoyed  most during our trip to Sikkim.  We then spent the rest of morning having  short workshops sharing our experiences and identifying orchids. 

Orchid Wonders of Sikkim

Working hard in the classroom

Orchid Wonders of Sikkim

Everyone enjoyed the day at Taktse International School

In the afternoon  we had hoped the weather would be suitable for us all to have a helicopter  ride.  Unfortunately, the weather closed  in quickly, so a short flight was offered to those who had never experienced a  trip in a helicopter.

Our last evening  was a very memorable experience.  Mohan  had invited us to his house to meet his family, enjoy a wonderful meal and have  a tour around his orchid houses.  The  vast selection of orchids Mohan grew was unbelievable, from thousands of  seedlings to mature flowering plants and also Cymbidium which he grew for  commercial purposes.  A great evening was  had by all and it was a great pleasure to meet members of Mohan’s family and  Ganden’s wife, Usha.  In addition to the  evening meal, another huge cake was presented to a couple in our group who were  celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary – such hospitality.

Gangtok-Siliguri-Kolkata-Bagdogra-Mumbai-Heathrow

We left Hidden Forest  the next morning, our bags packed and loaded up by 6.35am.  It was a long journey by road to Bagdogra Airport – I was certainly not looking  forward to it.  Fortunately, traveling via  Siliguri, the main commercial city in North Bengal,  the road was remarkably straight, albeit somewhat congested in places with all  modes of transport and people going too and fro from never-ending shops which  lined the roadsides.  Our three flights  home left on time and the whole journey was far less arduous than I had  anticipated – thanks mostly to Jet Airways who took care of us on our long  flight from Mumbai to Heathrow.  Although  being woken up around 3am to the smell of a spicy meal wasn’t too much  appreciated!   We were so lucky to get  home, as planned, as 24 hours later the volcano in Iceland erupted.

Orchid Wonders of Sikkim

Coelogyne cristata

And, so we came  to the end of our stay in Sikkim,  a land with some of the friendliest people I have ever met.  A land rich in treasurers that we must never  lose.  We couldn’t thank enough all those  who had worked so hard, so efficiently, to make our trip a very memorable one.  Many of us have said we would like to return  – perhaps one day we will.

Along the Way

On our travels  throughout Sikkim  we frequently passed large road signs on which were printed what I can only  call ‘morals of the road’, or  ‘homilies’ as my travelling companion, Betty, suggested I call them:

  • If I lead, follow me. If I retreat kill me.
  • Drink and drive and you won’t survive.
  • Speed thrills but kills.
  • Listen, the trees are whispering peace and love.
  • It is not a rally, enjoy the valley.
  • Life is short, don’t shorten it.
  • Save trees to save the environment.
  • Forests are the lungs of our land, purifying the air and giving fresh strength to our people.
  • Wonder if you ever thought of those who defied death to make these roads.
  • Keep left, it’s the right way to drive.

Some facts and figures about Sikkim

  • Sikkim is a land-locked Indian state nestling in the Himalaya.
  • It is formed on a huge dome of metamorphic rock stretching from Nepal to Bhutan.
  • It is 100 kilometers from north to south and 80 kilometers wide.
  • It has tropical rainforest, temperate forest to 3500, which is the upper limit of the tree zone, and alpine.
  • Gangtok is the capital.  It is very hilly at 1870m and has in excess of 5000mm of rainfall each year, which mostly falls between May to September in the monsoon period.
  • A new airport at Pakyong which is about 30 km from Gangtok is scheduled to be completed by the first half of 2010.  It is also possible to fly by helicopter from Bagdogra Airport up to Gangtok. However, for groups with lots of luggage this would not be an option.
  • Sikkim has11 official languages
  • The state has a booming economy dependant on agriculture and tourism.
  • The predominant religions are Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity
  • Flowering plants: Over 4,000
  • Orchids: Over 550/100 genera
  • Conifers: 9
  • Rhododendron: 36 species/100 genera
  • Mammals: 144
  • Birds: 550
  • Butterflies: 650
  • State animal: Red Panda
  • State bird: Blood Pheasant
  • State tree: Rhododendron niveum
  • State flower: Dendrobium nobile

 

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