But tiny, jewel-like Sikkim had been a surprise in any case. Flanked by Nepal and Bhutan, it also sits uncomfortable between India and China. In the mid Seventies it lost its independence and was insidiously annexed by India. Our group of six had flown from Delhi to Bagdogra, the nearest airport, to find there was a strike. "Any particular sort of strike?" we asked. Every person is on strike we were informed as we were dumped in the town of Siliguri, which was definitely not on our itinerary.
Twenty-four hours later we were switch-backing our way up and down hillsides, diving for the other side of the bus whenever we had completed a hairpin bend; we wanted to ensure our weight was in the right place each time a rear tyre spun over the vertical drop. The rocky sides of the narrow road were lettered with quirky homilies: "Speed is thrilling and also killing" and "If you want to donate blood please do it in the blood bank and not on the road". We couldn't have agreed more, and continued to behave like ocean-racing sailors as the scenery flashed past. In a landscape of dry earth and teak trees, monkeys sat beside the road picking nits from each other's fur; then we saw a group of women on a bridge also picking nits from each other's hair; the mighty Tista River thundered down from the mountains; houses were daubed white and ochre with crimson petals spilling over balconies. The bus swept pigs, chickens and goats aside as we bowled northwards, for Sikkim's capital, Gangtok.
In 1942, David Macdonald wrote that Gangtok was not an impressive town and that it was painfully in the making. In 1995 nothing seemed to have changed.
Unlike Nepal, this Himalayan state is not overflowing with temples and palaces or markets, but it does have good roads - and there are no crowds. It is neither hidden nor forbidden, but as far as an earthly paradise goes, each of our group unhesitatingly gave it the thumbs up. Hues of emerald predominated in the hills; the lush green of cardamom, velvet carpets of grass, mosses, lichens and ferns clinging to gorges. Kingfishers darted past waterfalls, woodpeckers ratt-atatt-tatted and thrushes whistled and trilled.
We visited monasteries and saw rare thangkas (holy pictures) and countless prayer wheels. I became a devoted fan of Buddhist monks: when you smile at them they smile back, their whole bodies creasing in delight, but if you don't they look as grave and serious as if everyone else in the world had died.
The road west, to Pemayangtse, was a tarmac ledge hewn out of the rockface of the gigantic cliffs, hundreds of feet above the ribbon of river below. Some parts of the road had crumbled, and as our little red bus crawled past we unitedly chanted between clenched teeth "Slow has four letters, so has life".
Pemayangtse is the gateway for trekkers up to Dzongri and the base of Mount Kanchenjunga. I viewed the mountains from my hotel room at dawn in shock. The sun had beaten the haze back, and the mighty Kanchenjunga, the third highest peak in the world, glinted and dazzled before me, while at its base mist curled and wisped across the forest. Little wonder one of Sikkim's oldest and most important monasteries was just around the corner.
I was addicted to monasteries after that. Two of us kept defecting from the tour to drench ourselves in the perfume of incense and burning butter candles, the hypnotic chanting and the occasional lesson from a twinkling- eyed monk.
Which is why I was somewhat baffled at the army lined on the ramparts of Rumtek Monastery, peering down the mountainside as they slapped their batons agitatedly in their palms. What were they protecting? The monastery? The 17th Karmapa himself? Tibetan Buddhism as we know it?
I was right on all three counts. Suddenly the good roads made sense; they may not be dual carriageways but a crocodile of armoured vehicles would have little trouble scrambling northwards, if needs be. For behind the Buddha's smile is a very big Peoples' Republic that would quite like to extend its boundaries by swallowing pint-sized Sikkim in a single gulp.
How to get there
Welcome Travel (0171-439 3627) has non-stop flights on Air India between London and Delhi for pounds 475 in October. For a much cheaper trip to the Indian capital, Turkmenistan Airlines operates weekly from both Birmingham and Heathrow to Delhi via Ashkhabad for pounds 270, through Unique Tours & Travel (0171-495 4848).
From Delhi, you can reach the airport in Bagdogra for $274 (about pounds 175) return on Indian Airlines.
When to go
The best months for trekking and generally travelling around Sikkim are October/November and December/ January. There may be some rain in April and May. Monsoon months are from mid-June to mid-September.
How to get in
Consult the Indian High Commission, India House, Aldwych, London WC2B 4NA (0171-836 8484) for visas and the special permit required for Sikkim.
Who to ask
Government of India Tourist Office, 7 Cork St, London W1X 1PB (0171-437 3677).Reuse content