The former Himalayan kingdom of Sikkim, since 1975 a state of India, is a mountainous region with a small, largely Buddhist, population. Its high rainfall makes it one of the most luxuriant and plant-rich areas of the Himalaya, and its relative obscurity has ensured little recent change in its peaceful villages and monasteries. For a region of such small size, Sikkim’s natural history is somewhat remarkable. As well as over 700 species of birds, 4,000 species of flowering plants — amongst them over 40 species of Rhododendron and 600 species of orchid — have been recorded here! It is this wonderful floral diversity that will be the primary focus on this 17-day holiday, although we will not ignore the other wildlife that we encounter along the way!
Our holiday begins in Darjeeling. Here we will have two days to enjoy the nostalgic atmosphere of this charming, but rather ramshackle, old hill station of the British Raj, situated at 1,980 metres. During our stay in Darjeeling, we will make an excursion to the small village of Tumbling to enjoy its wide variety of flora, including rhododendron trees and magnolias, some of which are over a hundred years old. A stay in Darjeeling would not be complete, however, without a ride on the ‘toy train’ of Darjeeling’s Himalayan railway!
Next we will drive to Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim, passing through the attractive temperate forests of Sikkim’s hills in which we’ll look for orchids and such Arisaema species as A. concinnum, A. tortuosum and A. galeatum. From Gangtok we’ll head north-east, following in the footsteps of renowned 19th century botanist and plant-hunter Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, into the higher hills of the Himalaya. Here we will stay in the remote village of Lachung, situated at 3,000 metres and home to Tibetan and Bhotia people. Lachung offers fine mountain scenery, and its proximity to the Tibetan Plateau, rhododendron forests, alpine pastures and their special flora makes it an ideal base for our botanical explorations over the next two days. We will explore the Singba Rhododendron Sanctuary and the Yumthang Valley (3,600 metres) above it, where the tree-line ends and the high plateau begins. Yumthang is known as Sikkim’s ‘Valley of Flowers’, on account of its wealth of rhododendrons and alpines that present a riot of colour each spring. We will look for Himalayan Blue Poppy, such Primula species as P. denticulata, P. sikkimensis, P. calderiana and P. dickieana, Arisaema griffithii and A. utile, while, in the region’s fir and larch forests, we should find Hooker’s Pleione (Pleione hookeriana) in bloom as well as irises and the giant Himalayan Lily (Cardiocrinum giganteum) in its early stages. On the following day we will drive to Yume-Samdong, situated at a height of 4,500 metres. This rugged alpine zone is the habitat for the spectacular Golden Himalayan Poppy (Meconopsis paniculata), as well as species of Eriophyton and Cathcartia villosa; the stunning Prickly Blue Poppy (Meconopsis horridula) will also be high on our list of target species and it is a real treat to find this endangered poppy growing alongside the other perennials which thrive in these harsh conditions.
We will explore other high hamlets, valleys and gorges of the plateau and mountains around Lachung, including the tiny settlement of Lachen, and the Thangu Valley (3,900 metres). This is a remote area populated by hardy Yak herders who graze their animals among the pastures along the Tibetan border during the summer months. The remoteness of this land, and lack of human interference, brings wonderful benefits to the keen plant-hunter, and on the slopes above Yathang and Thangu we will search for rare orchids such as Cypripedium himalaicum and C. elegans, which we should see in bloom along with several other orchid species, plus a wide variety of Primula and Lilium species.
After our botanical exploration of northern Sikkim, it will be time to descend to Gangtok and from there to the attractive Bengali hill station of Kalimpong, where beautiful views of the Himalaya, Buddhist monasteries, colonial architecture and fascinating plant nurseries provide a fitting end to our holiday.