Air Date: Week of May 29, 1998
There are sections along the Himalayan Mountains trails of Nepal that have become so commercialized and heavily traveled that it's hard to feel the wildness of the terrain. But on the other side of the mountains, in the Indian state of Sikkim it's a different world. Half a day's journey north of the famous tea plantations of Darjeeling, Sikkim was an independent kingdom until 1975, and off limits to most tourists until 1990. Today, Sikkim trekking guides say they have learned from some of Nepal's missteps, such as granting too many climbing permits, and cutting too much firewood along the trails. They say they want to keep the mountain paths intact, both culturally and ecologically, and they showed producer Alexa Dvorson how they are going about it.
CURWOOD: There are sections along the Himalayan Mountain trails of Nepal that have become so commercialized and heavily travelled, that it's hard to feel the wildness of the terrain. But on the other side of the mountains, in the Indian state of Sikkim, it's a different world. Half a day's journey north of the famous tea plantations of Darjeeling, Sikkim was an independent kingdom until 1975, and off-limits to most tourists until 1990. Today, Sikkim trekking guides say they've learned from some of Nepal's missteps, such as granting too many climbing permits, and cutting too much firewood along the trails. They say they want to keep the mountain paths intact, both culturally and ecologically, and they showed producer Alexa Dvorson how they're going about it.
[Children chanting in native language]
DVORSON: It's off-season in Shangri-La. Yuksom, the origin of Buddhism in Sikkim, and the state's ancient capital, is where the road ends. From here, the foot path climbs toward Kangchengdzonga the third highest mountain in the world. There's a local saying in Yuksom, "The more clothes you wear, the more you feel the cold." That partly explains why the young monks chanting for the prosperity of this trekking lodge seem unfazed by the freezing night temperatures. With shoulders exposed in their maroon robes, and thongs on their otherwise bare feet.
[Chanting rises, ends with coughed-out word. Chanting restarts. Sizzling sounds]
DVORSON: Downstairs, while fish fry on an open hearth, lodge owner and guide Kinzong Sherep tells harrowing tales of his work with the local conservation group. After making garbage treks in neighboring Nepal, to remove over 200 pounds of litter from a popular trekking route, he hoped he'd never have to do the same thing in Sikkim, but recently, the committee went on a similar trip in this area, and came back with the same amount of trash. Still, Kinzong takes pride in Sikkim's topography, a diverse natural amphitheater where 4,000 plant species thrive, including black cardamom, a prime ingredient of Indian curry, and Sikkim's chief export. Travel brochures advertise Sikkim as a biodiversity hot-spot, home to nearly 1,000 species of orchid, and 40 species of rhododendron.
[Fish still sizzle]
DVORSON: To Kinzong Sherep, Sikkim is much more than that.
SHEREP: This is one of the unique places in our world. We think this is our heaven inside earth. At the present time, what I'm proud of is, we have good forests, a lot of species of plants, and you can see a lot of animals and butterflies, flowers, good mountains. It's not so spoiled, compared to Nepal, but if there's a lot of peoples, we can't control. If we didn't have here a limit, then it's spoiled within 5 years over here.
[Urgent voices in native language]
DVORSON: Some would say parts of Sikkim are already spoiled in a few places, such as the littered path leading to Kachepari Lake. This so-called wishing lake is considered sacred. No swimming or bathing is allowed. Instead, people of many different faiths have come here for centuries to pray and worship, despite the brightly colored Tibetan prayer flags that dot the shores, it's not unusual to see a Hindu priest making offerings. According to local belief, this is the only lake where people can expect their wishes to be granted.
[Priest prays in native language]
DVORSON: Nima Dorje, a monk and caretaker of the local monastery, explains the wishing-lake ritual in a local Tibetan dialect known as Bhutia. By quietly burning incense sticks, lighting a butter lamp at a small shrine, and making a wish with a pure and clear mind, he says, it's bound to be fulfilled.
[Priest chant rises and falls]
DORJE: This has been the tradition, and I believe this will hold forever. That's what he says.
[Priest exhorts, chanting]
DVORSON: Lakes aren't the only part of Sikkim's landscape deemed sacred. Kanchengdzonga is also considered holy. While part of the mountain lies in Nepal, reaching the summit from the Sikkimese side is prohibited. That may be the best thing that ever happened to a Himalayan mountain.
SHEREP: We pray for the mountains as a god.
DVORSON: Kinzong Sherep:
SHEREP: In Nepal, the mountains are commercial. Climb the mountains, give the money, but we don't have this. We, local peoples, we pray for these mountains, because this is God.
DVORSON: If mountaineers were allowed to climb to the summit from here, would that spoil it for you?
SHEREP: Sure, like if peoples climb like Everest, then our beauty of our mountain will be spoiled. We are not telling all the peoples, "Don't climb our mountains," but there should be a average, like one expeditions every 5 years, or 10 years. Then we can think of a renewable source of our income.
DVORSON: After years of restricted entry to foreigners, Sikkim tourism authorities now promote mountain biking, hang gliding, yak safaris, and river rafting, in addition to trekking. The majority of last year's estimated 17,000 visitors to Sikkim, were Indian nationals. Given the dire need for foreign currency, the tourism board would like to see more Westerners come here.
[Several voices in native language, laughter]
DVORSON: One of Sikkim's most experienced guides, Dadul Wandgi Targain, has witnessed Nepal's commercialism first-hand. He recognizes the yin and yang of luring more foreigners here.
TARGAIN: Tourism has got both sides. It has got dark side, and it has a brighter side also. So, how are we going to promote Sikkim is in a controlled and unique way. Responsible tourism is the call of the day. Through tourism, the areas could prosper, local people will have some benefit. There's still time, and I think we can do it.
[Sitar and tambla music]
DVORSON: Wedged between Bhutan to the east, and Nepal to the west, Sikkim sits like the tip of a thumb, jutting north from Darjeeling toward Tibet. To understand the direction Sikkim could be going, one needs only to visit the bustling Thamel district of the Nepali capital, Kathmandu which over the past decade, has come to resemble a miniature Hong Kong. Sipping kalo chyaa, or black tea, one of Nepal's most renowned mountaineers, Ang Rita Sherpa, has a relaxed attitude about Himalayan hype, which could be summed up in a phrase found on many T-shirts for sale in the tourist shops: "No problem." Ang Rita Sherpa has been trekking since he could walk. Having been to the summit of Mount Everest 10 times has earned him the nickname, "The Snow Leopard." He insists, the high rate of tourism hasn't altered the mountains that much.
SHERPA: There's no change, no changes.
DVORSON: No changes. But now you can get apple pie, and hamburgers, and everything you want on the trail. Before, it wasn't like that.
SHERPA: [Speaks in native language]
TRANSLATOR: What he has said is, "The feel of trekking is same, by intention, how the trekkers come to Nepal, is the same. Maybe slightly, culture, and then the people's daily life, maybe affected somehow since the tourists are here in Nepal, especially in the remote area, but the trekking feel is same, they have to climb, they have to walk, and that main theme is not changed.
DVORSON: Back in Sikkim, Kinzong Sherep and his family distribute flyers with 11 commandments for eco-trekkers. Bury human waste and carry out all trash; no fires; no alcohol; no photographing people without permission, and no smoking near sacred places. Trekkers are asked not to give anything to begging children, since that teaches them poor habits. Kinzong welcomes a greater influx of Westerners to Sikkim, as long as they respect his adapted philosophy.
SHEREP: If you are in Rome, act like a Roman, so we says, if you are in Sikkim, act like a Sikkimese people.
DVORSON: Which means what, then? What does it mean to act Sikkimese?
SHEREP: Our whole lifestyle is interdependence. If I have a problem, our nephews and all, they will come and help me. If somebody dies, then all the village community should go there. So this is like a custom. If you sit in a big star hotel, in Gangtok, then you can't understand what is the lifestyle of our peoples. In big cities, you'll give money, take service. But if you go to the village, if you are in Sikkim, it's "Give love, take love."
[Pause, then laughter, people speaking in native language]
DVORSON: The name "Sikkim" comes from some of the earliest settlers, from Tibet. They called this place "Sukhim," which means "Happy Home." The residents of today's Sikkim want to keep it that way.
[Laughter, joking, short songs in native language]
DVORSON: Tour and trekking guide Dadul Wandgi Targain hopes the villagers of Sikkim don't compromise their cultural integrity for the sake of prosperity.
TARGAIN: I'm proud to be a Sikkimese. It means to maintain my own identity, and not to be merged with the vast oceans of India. Not all the Indians will understand Sikkim as we do. We want to be in natural harmony with nature, but people in India are racing against time, it seems, for development and everything, and they want to catch up in a short cut way, in every way that is possible. They should have taken it slowly, one step at a time, like you do in trekking. We take one step at a time. We don't just sprint, unless you are out of time. [Wry laugh] So that's the difference, and there's always in a hurry, in a hurry, to catch up with something. But I don't know if they will catch it up.
[Chanting and music up and under]
DVORSON: There are no passenger airports in Sikkim. The conventional way in and out is by "share jeep." On the way, we pass workers splitting stones for road construction, who earned just under $2.00 a day. The hairpin turns through vertical hillsides would impress any engineer. Approaching the border with west Bengal, the first and last things to catch a visitor's eye are Sikkim's philosophical road signs, neatly spray-painted in English on the rock embankments. They seem to preach as much as they play with poetic language. At a sharp bend, one sign says, "Be gentle on my curve." Others proclaim, "Beware of shooting stones," or "Slow Drive, Long Life." But perhaps the sign most fitting to Sikkim's current challenge is the one that says, "Failure is Success--If We Learn From It." For Living on Earth, this is Alexa Dvorson, in the hills of Sikkim, eastern India.
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