Sikkim: Take a journey to a magical kingdom

Kings, princesses, ancient sects: you'd be forgiven for thinking the storyline was stolen from the latest Disney blockbuster. But before Sikkim became part of India in the mid-Seventies, it had more than its fair share of fairy-tale romance.

Lucy Gillmore travelled with Himalayan Kingdoms (01453 844400, www.himalayankingdoms.com) on the 17-day Singalila Ridge Top trip which includes a trip to Sikkim. Next year the moderate-graded trek departs on 6 April and 5 October, and costs £1,950 per person including all flights, all accommodation, most meals and an Indian Sirdar leader.

In the tiny kingdom of Sikkim, adultery used to be a dangerous business for men. If you were caught, your penis would be cut off. It was also financially ruinous. Apart from the mutilation, you were fined the weight of your penis and testicles in gold. Which is probably one of the first ever recorded advantages for being less well-endowed.

But that, of course, was long ago when Sikkim was an ancient Buddhist kingdom squashed between Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan and India. Before, in fact, it was swallowed up by the last of these hungry neighbours in 1975.

In the early 1960s the last Chogyal, or king, of Sikkim met a beautiful young American socialite, Hope Cooke, at the fabled Windamere Hotel in Darjeeling. They fell in love, married and the Chogyal spirited his bride back to his remote mountain kingdom. Their romance captured the imagination of the world's press, but turned sour when the eastern king gave up his kingdom without a fight. A devout Buddhist, he relinquished his crown and allowed Sikkim to become a fully fledged Indian state in order to avoid the bloodshed of his people. Hope packed her bags and took her children back to New York, leaving the Chogyal alone in his palace.

Sikkim is still, however, very unlike the rest of India. Bumping along a precarious road in a four-wheel-drive I was reading up on the traditional customs of this ancient kingdom which still seems to adopt a pragmatic, fortune-cookie approach to life. Every time I looked up from my book I was greeted with words of wisdom daubed in bright yellow paint on the sheer rock face. "Always alert/will accidents avert." "He who drives carefully will go far." "Fast drive/last drive." And (my favourite): "If married/divorce speed." Surprisingly it seemed to work. There was no road rage on the narrow, pot-holed tracks, and where large chunks of the route had fallen away into bottomless canyons, there appeared to be a healthy respect for road accident mortality, unlike elsewhere in India.

We had crossed the border that afternoon, our guide, Deep, sorting out our permits while we drank Coke overlooking a lush, green river valley. You still need a restricted entry permit to travel in Sikkim, a sensitive border area controlled by an Indian army, ever alert to the threat of Chinese invasion. Even with a permit there are areas where access is strictly forbidden. However, more tourists are starting to believe it's worth the trouble to visit a land scattered with ancient monasteries and to trek in a remote Himalayan kingdom.

From the border it was another two-hour drive up to the Martam Village Resort where we were spending the night before heading on to Sikkim's capital, Gangtok. Eleven thatched cottages perched on a steep hillside separated by cobbled paths and neatly tended flowerbeds, Martam is one of the first tourist villages in Sikkim. The valley was in the grip of a power cut when we arrived, so tea and biscuits were served around an impromptu bonfire fizzling in the garden before a dinner of fried fern and succulent momos by dim paraffin lamp. Sleeping fitfully through violent thunderstorms, we were eased into an uneasy slumber by a lullaby of squealing pigs and cocks crowing in the dark.

The skies had cleared the next day as we set off on a trek through the valley. Slithering down a muddy track I picked up a large piece of green bamboo to steady myself. We passed villagers' huts and broke out into the paddy fields of bright young green rice swaying on spindly stalks. As we walked precariously on thin wedges of ground between the rice, young schoolgirls skipped by in navy and white uniforms, pleated skirts and dark blue stockings, a remnant of British colonial times.

India wasn't the first nation to covet Sikkim, which originally encompassed part of Bhutan and West Bengal. Following the territorial dispute with Nepal from 1814-16 the British struck a deal. They wanted access to Tibet and Darjeeling. They also encouraged Nepalese workers to move to the tea plantations of Kalimpong, Darjeeling and to Sikkim itself, which had far-reaching effects. The Nepalese soon outnumbered the original Lepchas and the Bhotias, a situation that was exploited by the Indian government when it wanted to annex the kingdom.

After lunch we set off in convoy for the capital, making a detour to the Old Rumtek monastery down a long avenue of prayer flags fluttering raggedly in the breeze. Buddhism arrived from Tibet in the 13th century and there are more than 200 Buddhist monasteries in Sikkim, most of which belong to the ancient Nyingmapa sect.

Only a handful of monks still live in the old monastery now. Most are down the road at the new Rumtek monastery, an important centre for Buddhist studies and the most influential monastery in Sikkim. After fleeing Tibet following the Chinese invasion in 1959, the 16th Gyalwa Karmapa lived here until his death in 1981.

Gangtok literally means "hilltop" and is a sprawling town built into a long ridge along what was once the trade route into Tibet. We were staying in Netuk House, the only old family home to be turned into a hotel. Received with ceremony in an ornate room with tea, our host, Pema Namgyal treated us like guests in his home, chatting over cherry brandy aperitifs.

On the walls were pictures of Namgyal's father with the last Chogyal. The Chogyal's daughter, the princess, who now runs a travel agency in Gangtok, was in the bar laughing and chatting with some American friends. The former palace can be seen from one of Gangtok's viewpoints, but is now out of bounds to visitors. The town feels forgotten and has a shabby, vaguely mournful air that extends to supposed tourist sights such as the dusty Institute of Tibetology.

We still clung to the Sikkim connection even as we rolled out of the tiny kingdom. We were on our way to the Windamere where the Chogyal and Hope's story began. The Windamere sits above the grimy hill town like a dowager looking down her nose, and it is a hotel legend. Turbaned waiters with white gloves still serve watery soup and jelly, bringing back memories of school dinners rather than the Raj. For afternoon tea fragrant Darjeeling and cake is served by the fire. Guests curl up companionably, wandering in after days spent browsing in the Oxford book shop or visiting the old tea plantation, Happy Valley.

Mrs Tenduf-La, the Tibetan owner, is as much a grande dame as her hotel, and still holds court. She loves to reminisce about elegant garden parties and balls and famous guests such as Sir Edmund Hillary and, of course, Hope and the Chogyal. "Those were the days," the old Scottish manageress sighs pointing out the sepia photographs on the walls. "Oh, it was so sad, a real fairytale romance."

That's the trouble with fairy stories. They just don't belong in the real world.

Travellers' Guide

Lucy Gillmore travelled with Himalayan Kingdoms (01453 844400, www.himalayankingdoms.com) on the 17-day Singalila Ridge Top trip which includes a trip to Sikkim. Next year the moderate-graded trek departs on 6 April and 5 October, and costs £1,950 per person including all flights, all accommodation, most meals and an Indian Sirdar leader.

The best time to visit Sikkim is between mid-March to June and during October. In April and May the rhododendrons and orchids are in bloom. The monsoons from the end of June to September often make roads impassable.

For further information contact the Government of India Tourism Office (020-7437 3677, www.indiatouristoffice.org)

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