TRAVELING IN STYLE : THE LAST SHANGRI-LA : The Indian State of Sikkim, a Pristine Himalaya Paradise, Is Now Openly Encouraging Trekkers for the First Time

<i> Macduff Everton's panoramic photographs of America are touring Mexico in an exhibition organized by the United States Information Service. His book, "The Modern Maya," was published in 1991 by the University of New Mexico Press</i>

HIGH IN THE HIMALAYAS, BORDERED BY TIBET IN CHINA AND by Nepal and Bhutan, Sikkim is India’s smallest state, covering an area of less than 4,500 square miles, with a population of about 400,000. Its size notwithstanding, Sikkim is surprisingly varied geographically, with climates ranging from the tropical, at nearly sea level, to, well, Himalayan, as on the 28,208-foot peak of Kanchenjunga, third-highest mountain in the world. Because of its relative inaccessibility and its great natural beauty, it has been called the last of the Shangri-Las.

Though Sikkim once had an American queen--Hope Cooke, who in 1963 married Palden Thondup Namgyal, the king of what was then an independent country (political opponents forced them to flee Sikkim in the mid-’70s)--it has known few other American visitors. Until recently, the Indian government restricted travel to Sikkim; last year, a mere 12,000 foreign travelers were admitted. One of these was Santa Barbara-based Macduff Everton, who visited the place last fall as a guest of the Indian government and shot the images on these pages.

“Sikkim is wildly, exuberantly beautiful,” says Everton, “with 40-foot-high rhododendron forests and about 600 varieties of wild orchids, often blooming along the roadways.” He was also struck by the lines of prayer flags hung on Dzongri Ridge. Originally colored green, red, yellow, blue and white--the colors of the five elements of the cosmos: earth, water, fire, air and ether--but soon mostly sun-bleached a neutral shade, each carries a sacred mantra. “A prayer goes to heaven,” he says, “every time they flutter in the wind.”



Going to Sikkim

Tours: Individuals can visit Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim, but only groups traveling under the auspices of a Sikkim-based tour operator can trek through the mountains and the countryside. Photographer Macduff Everton traveled with Force 10 Expeditions, Ltd., based in Fallbrook, Calif.; telephone and fax (619) 728-4561 or call (800) 922-1491. Force 10 offers treks to Sikkim and surrounding Himalayan regions in spring and fall. A special trip this November will include mountain biking, the Gangtok Marathon and other sporting activities, as well as visits to monasteries and hill villages. Other American-based companies that offer tours to Sikkim include Mountain Travel*Sobek in El Cerrito, Calif., (510) 527-8100 or (800) 227-2384, and Destination Himalaya in Brunswick, Me., (207) 721-0303. In India itself, Everton recommends Sikkim Trekking & Travel Service, Room No. 1, Super Market, Gangtok-737101, Sikkim. Tour packages vary greatly in price, depending on length of tour, season and other factors, but prices, not including international air fare, range from $1,000 for a five- or six-day trip to $3,000 or so for a three-week excursion.

Visas and permits: Tourists must have an Indian visa and a special permit to enter Sikkim. A separate permit is also required for trekking. Reputable tour operators will provide the permits as part of their packages, but Indian visas are the responsibility of the traveler. For visa application forms and further information on Sikkim, contact the Government of India Tourist Office, 3550 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 204, Los Angeles 90010; (213) 380-8855.