“Has Sikkim changed?” people ask me when they hear of my repeat visits. Not really, I tell them. While other parts of India have developed at breakneck speed, Sikkim remains much as it’s always been: bucolic villages still cling to terraced hillsides; musty and mesmeric monasteries of the nyingma sect of Tibetan buddhism still make visitors blush with their raunchy murals; and the views of the mistwreathed himalayas are as magical as ever. Oh, and the roads haven’t improved one bit.
On this trip, I’ve arranged to visit the remote Lachen Valley in northern Sikkim, eight hours from Gangtok. The drive takes us past bamboo groves interspersed with hamlets of pastel-hued houses. Apple orchards blossom with the early spring sun. And everywhere are fluttering prayer flags and goldspired stupas, some freshly whitewashed. My guide, Dinding, a moon-faced young woman with flushed red cheeks and silken black hair, tells me the stupas were built to appease the mountain spirits, which are held responsible for the area’s many landslides. “Does it work?” i ask as we pass a three-ton excavator that has just cleared a pile of rocks from the road. “sometimes,” she replies.
By the time we reach lachen a snowstorm has rolled in from tibet, reducing visibility to a few meters and cutting off the village’s electricity. Our small hotel is new, but its wooden walls are uninsulated and there are drafty gaps under the doors. We huddle around the building’s only heater, sipping glasses of locally distilled Castle Pride malt whisky. The storm rages through the night, but by morning it has disappeared, revealing a big blue sky arching over a valley of stone houses encircled by jagged Himalayan peaks.