KINGDOMS OF EAST HIMALAYA
The last true illusion of Shangri La?
A 4x4 expedition took us across some of
the most mythic parts.
> Journeying 1 month across the Kingdoms of East Himalaya in India's Northern Bengal, Sikkim & Bhutan <
Here is a note from one of our travel dairies: "Today I woke up to the sweet sound of a puja – a 3 meter long, ancient Buddhist trumpet – handled by a young monk dressed in red, sitting on the terrace of a remote temple deep in the mountains. Sounding like the singing of elephants, the trumpet-horn expressed a long, deep, whirring, haunting sound that took me out somewhere beyond the highest Himalaya peaks and at the same time back into my mother's womb. As the first ray of the sun softly touched my face, I opened my eyes and saw a massive mountain covered with lush green forests and snow. I then crawled out of my sleeping bag on the wooden terrace still wet with dew. Over our heads was the crystal clear blue sky, meditating monks was sitting here and there, and in the air I could smell fresh bread being baked over open fire…".
This is the East Himalayas! We’re enormously fascinated by these ancient lands and old kingdoms. They are remote, beautiful, and enchanting. Probably the last place in the world where Mahayana Buddhist culture survives as an integral part of everyday life. We have been to the Himalayas a couple of times, but this journey took us through Sikkim and Bhutan. We started in Darjeeling: a beautifully located hill station in Northern Bengal, spread in ribbons over a steep mountain ridge and surrounded by emerald-green tea plantations. A backdrop of jagged white Himalayan peaks floating over distant clouds can be seen everywhere from Darjeeling, and in good weather we could see both Khangchendzonga and Mt Everest. In the narrow streets, we met an array of Himalayan faces from Sikkim, Bhutan, Nepal and Tibet. We continued by 4x4 to Sikkim, one of the smallest states of India which used to be a real country and a kingdom. Travel overland was the only possibility, as there is no airport in Sikkim. Sikkim is located more deeply in the folds of the Himalaya, landlocked between Nepal, Tibet, and Bhutan. Compared to India, Sikkim was the perfect antipode - it had no hassles, few people, clean environment, and fresh mountain air.
The culmination of the journey was Bhutan – or the Land of the Thunder Dragon, as the translation reads. This has to be one of the most extraordinary, mythical, complex, and little-known countries on the planet. We now understand why some Himalaya connoisseurs have articulated that Bhutan is the last true illusion of the Himalaya. In Bhutan, all inhabitants must wear traditional dresses; it’s not allowed to go fishing since you cannot disturb the fish; buying cigarettes is illegal; electricity, paper currency, and schools have just arrived – the television arrived as late as 2002. Bhutan has remained completely closed to foreign influence for centuries and opened up to the world just recently, when the first Western visitors were invited. Since then, the King’s policy has been to minimize impact and to keep alive the traditional culture and pristine natural environment. It is definitely pricey to go here. We had to pay a 200 US$ visa fee per person per day to stay in the country! But Bhutan is absolutely a fantastic destination only for the most intrepid travelers who do not mind paying the heavy fee to experience a world informed by Buddhist principles – as long as it may last.