The Himalayas are to other mountains what wild animals are to those kept penned in a zoo. Vast and solid though they are, they have a curious insubstantiality, the ability to lose themselves behind clouds, to appear, then disappear again in seconds before a person has time to take the lens cap off a camera. These are peaks you need to go on a kind of safari to see.
One of the best places to do this is Sikkim, the tiny Indian province that borders Nepal, Bhutan and Tibet. Relatively few foreigners venture into this remote area — last year, there were only about 5,000 Western visitors. In Sikkim, there are so many mountains that the inhabitants don’t name them unless they are over 20,000 feet or so. The land rises and falls without pause, mountain packed against mountain, whorled by terraced rice paddies and roads that circle in helpless spirals toward Buddhist monasteries perched on outcrops.
But these are only the foothills. The really big game is Kanchenjunga, rising to 28,208 feet — the third highest mountain in the world. Worshipped for centuries by the region’s inhabitants, the mountain is so sacred that the first expedition to climb it successfully — a British group led by the mountaineer Charles Evans in 1955 — supposedly turned back from the summit out of respect for its sanctity.
The night before the start of a four-day trek last May that would, I hoped, take me to a spot where I would have an uninterrupted view of the mountain, I stayed up until 3 A.M. with Hope Namgyal, who lives in the capital, Gangtok, and runs TrekSikkim, a trekking agency. Hope is the 29-year-old daughter of the last king of Sikkim, Palden Thondup Namgyal, and Hope Cooke, an American who made headlines by marrying the King in 1963.
Formerly an independent kingdom, Sikkim was annexed by India in 1975 and Hope’s father was dethroned. But everyone still calls her Semla, meaning ”our heart” or ”our daughter.” After the takeover, she left to live in New York with her mother and older brother, but she always felt Sikkim was her home and now lives there again. In her traditional kho, a wraparound ankle-length Sikkimese dress, and mirrored sunglasses, she was a mixture of royal personage and larky New Yorker.
Hope seemed to find most things very funny. Like the time her jeep nearly went over a cliff, or the day she narrowly escaped being stuck by an arrow at an archery tournament (she fell asleep while sitting next to the target). But after several beakers of chang, an alcoholic brew made from millet that you suck up through a long bamboo straw, she told me sadder stories. About how the cultures of the indigenous people of Sikkim, the Lepchas (so peaceful there is no word for war in their language) and the Bhotias, are vanishing year by year. About the rapid deforestation and disappearance of wildlife in the region because of logging and development. And about that day in 1975 when the Indian army invaded the palace and killed the guards at the gate.
As the family left, her father striped her forehead with the guards’ blood and told her to try to make her life worthy of this terrible sacrifice. She was 7.
Hope’s best friends are Rajesh, who owns the Tashi Delek, probably Gangtok’s best hotel, and Yep Wangyal Tobden, the chief of police. All three are crazily in love with the mountains. They’ve been on hundreds of treks and climbs. ”Promise me one thing,” Rajesh said to me, very seriously. ”If you discover God up there, write and tell me about it.”
My concerns were more basic. I was worried that I wouldn’t see the mountains at all. Although May is one of the best months for trekking, bad weather was still a possibility. What if I spent two days walking uphill and saw nothing but fog?
The drive from Gangtok to the start of the trek at Yoksum, in a jeep with Hope’s driver, took all day on narrow, precipitous roads that were largely unpaved. Waterfalls puddled the route and boulders lay scattered from recent landslides. At Yoksum, a farming village that also caters to trekkers, we stayed the night in a trekker’s hut. There was no electricity and the bathroom was fetid.
We didn’t have to rough it to this extent. Just a short distance away, the brand new and beautifully situated Tashi Gang hotel offered superb views and sparkling plumbing. Or we could have camped out in tents, as a group of elderly British botanists were doing when we arrived.
Their voices, muffled by layers of North Face fabric, had that joviality that comes over a certain sort when faced with physical adversity. ”Oh, bother!” one said. ”I’ve brought a leech into the tent on my shoe. Just a minute while I chuck it out the flap.”
During the night, there was a terrible storm. The rain roared unremittingly against the tin roof of the hut. I lay awake, offering tentative prayers to the god of Kanchenjunga. There’s a statue of him in the monastery at Pemayangste. He has four scarlet, bulging-eyed heads, which look out in all directions, and a dozen arms clutching thunderbolts. He didn’t seem the sort of deity easily placated.
BY morning, the storm had passed, but the skies were still gray. One of our guides brought us tea in bed, and our cook, Lama, made us breakfast, somehow rustling up a feast of porridge, fried eggs and perfectly crisp toast from his assortment of plastic bags and tin pans.
One of the best things about trekking in the Himalayas is that despite all the physical exertion, you still feel utterly cosseted and privileged. This is because everything apart from your camera is carried for you by porters. For our trek, my husband, David Thaler, and I had four porters, two guides and Lama, who rushed on ahead, brandishing a big silver ladle.
And this is a fairly modest crew. Hope told us that when Martha Stewart took this trip with some friends a couple of years ago, there were more than 20 porters in the group. You can also hire ponies and dzos (half yak, half cow) to do the really heavy carrying.
The first section of the walk took us through thick, jungly forest, full of vine-draped trees covered in luminous moss and flowering orchids. High up, too far away to be seen, a multitude of unfamiliar birds whistled and sang. There were few other trekkers. A Japanese group rather mysteriously decked out in pink cricket hats and gaiters passed us in the opposite direction, and then a pair of melancholy Germans.
”Fog at the top,” they said, shaking their heads ominously. ”Beautiful, yes, but much fog.”
After lunch, the path steepened and the landscape began to change. Uncle, one of our guides, pointed out the different plants: oak, maple, five different sorts of fern.
Sikkim is a botanist’s fantasy. Because the terrain extends very quickly from the plains up to high altitude, you can pass from tropical jungle to alpine meadow in the space of a few hours, and the wet climate keeps everything perpetually green. Profuse, incredibly diverse, the trees and plants bewilder the eye. Scientists are still coming across previously unknown species of orchids and ferns in more remote areas.
Tenzing, Uncle’s nephew, held my hand to keep my balance when we got to especially muddy patches in the path. In our hiking boots, jackets and thoughtfully selected socks (warm, yet lightweight and of an intrepid khaki), we struggled to keep up with our more simply dressed guides. Tenzing was wearing the sort of clothes you’d put on to go to the mall. Uncle’s socks kept falling down, so he took them off and bounded along in just his boots.
We started to draw parallel with the clouds enveloping the tops of the foothills. Then, suddenly, we were in those clouds, in a dim forest of primeval-looking trees, clotted with moss. From far below, I had seen other trees dotted about, speckled with white. I now realized that they were magnolias, the flowers huge and milky in the mist. Low to the ground, there were great, wicked-looking, dark brown blooms. Thick lipped, ugly-beautiful things, part animal, part flower.
We stopped for tea at a cottage, then pushed on, through a meadow where a lone white horse grazed among strawberry flowers, and finally arrived at the tiny village of Tsokha, at 10,000 feet. We had hiked almost 10 miles.
We stayed in a trekker’s lodge, cleaner than the one in Yoksum, but without electricity or hot water. It was raining lightly and the mountains had vanished. Lama made us vegetable momos (stuffed dumplings), dal and delicious wild ferns that he had gathered on the way up. We got into our sleeping bags and drank chang by candlelight.
Later, I woke and glimpsed stars through a gap in the curtain. More stars than I could have imagined, and all so close — as though I could reach up and pick them right out of the sky.
The next day, we climbed to Dzongri, six miles farther up the trail. The magnolia trees were behind us, and we entered the rhododendron belt, walking through avenues of red and pink flowers. But after lunch, the mist came again, creeping up from the valley far below. The rhododendrons grew lower here, a tangle of gnarled trunks, like mangrove roots. More ominously, there were patches of snow on the ground from an unseasonably late winter storm.
The altitude — we were nearing 13,000 feet — began to affect us. Walking became more of an effort, and a strange sleepiness crept over me. We emerged from the rhododendron forest onto a plateau of low juniper bushes that sent out a sweet, heady, honeyed smell. Uncle told us to stop by a small shrine, hung about with prayer flags. The porters lighted handfuls of incense and stuffed them into cracks in the stone, the fragrant smoke rising and mingling with the mist and juniper. I put my head on my knees and closed my eyes. Nothing to hear but the flap, flap of the flags in the breeze.
Sikkim is full of Buddhist prayer flags. Rising high on long bamboo poles, or strung out on lines, they are printed with prayers, entreaties transmitted by the movement of the wind. Brightly colored to start with, over time they fade and become almost transparent, as thin as clouded breath on a cold day. You find them in all the most beautiful spots in the region. The original inhabitants of Sikkim were animists, and a reverence of nature seems to have persisted.
It was cold at Dzongri. We sat in our sleeping bags and watched tendrils of mist curl through a broken window pane. Above 13,000 feet, we lost our appetites and slept only fitfully. Uncle said he would wake us at 4 in the morning to take us up the last 800 feet so that we could see the mountains at dawn.
By 3:30, I was piling on layers of clothes. Outside, it was pitch dark. Uncle and Tenzing stamped their feet to keep warm. Uncle pointed at the stars: ”See how clear it is!”
He set off at a fast clip up the last ridge. Everything was conspiring to rob me of breath. First, the thin air and my tiredness, then the dark blue bulks of emerging mountains curving around me. I put my head down, promising myself not to look until I got to the top.
And then, at the top, I did look. I was standing on the very tip of a narrow ridge hung with dozens of prayer flags that glittered under a thin layer of frost. I turned all the way around once, and then twice, and the mountains spun with me. They were all around: Kanchenjunga, Pandim and a dozen others. The sun was coming up behind them to my right and the peaks were so close and white and sharp you could cut your fingers on them.
Suddenly, I was crying. Not from sadness, or from happiness, either, but from something more mysterious: I was puny, utterly transitory, and immeasurably honored. The two sensations came together, a pulling down and a raising up. Perhaps, this was what Rajesh meant when he talked about finding God.
We stood there for an hour until the sun melted the frost off the prayer flags, then went back down; Lama had made us banana pancakes for breakfast.