Sikkim is the greenest state in India in more than one way. It is lush and vibrantly green due to its unique micro-climate, created by its location in the shadow of Mt. Kanchenjunga and between the Himalayas and the Bay of Bengal. Books have been written about the miniature biosphere created here, and the region’s multitude of different species. The cyclones of the Bay of Bengal reach up to the Himalayas and to Sikkim in particular; that, combined with the monsoon, means Sikkim receives more than its fair share of rain, but it is also ‘green’ in an eco-sense. For instance, plastic bags are banned so they don’t end up on roadsides and in rivers like in the rest of India. Shops use paper bags or newspaper to wrap things and shoppers can buy inexpensive re-usable bags in most places. In fact, Sikkim is definitely the cleanest state that I’ve been to in India.
There are also many other progressive initiatives such as planting trees – all over you’ll see bamboo cages around seedlings so that animals don’t eat them before they grow. Another difference in Sikkim is that you will not see animals grazing in the streets and blocking traffic. Indian roads are usually a mix of cows, cars, goats, rickshaws, pigs, cycles, dogs, trucks, and monkeys. In Sikkim, this is not allowed – animals have to graze on private land. Environmental policies have been in effect for a long time. It was early in the 1900s when a prince went to study forestry in England and upon his return became king and implemented the no-grazing and forestry management policies along with ending child labor and indentured servitude. When the Kingdom of Sikkim was incorporated into India in 1975 they kept their independent policies.
Sikkim is entirely mountainous and has some of the tightest valleys I’ve ever seen. Roads are carved into the sides of mountains and snake along rivers. There is little flat land anywhere, so houses cling to hillsides and rice paddies are terraced. Since most valleys consist of a river running between two mountains without wide swaths of land at the bottom, as you’re driving on a road on one side of the river, the other side seems very close and so do the larger mountains behind it. I felt like if I reached out I’d be able to touch them.
Darjeeling is a district in West Bengal full of hill-town retreats that produce some of the finest teas in the world. The most famous town is of the same name, Darjeeling, and the second largest is Kalimpong. Siliguri is the gateway to the area where you can fly or take a train to before making your way up to the mountains for the gorgeous views. Darjeeling is an extremely popular destination for Indians on holiday, especially Bengalis from Calcutta who come up to escape the heat and dust of the city. While not quite as clean as Sikkim, it is also a vast improvement over the lowlands.
Although both these areas are popular with Indians, they are well off the usual tourist routes of foreigners. When I mention Sikkim, many people don’t even know which country it’s in, and Darjeeling is better known as a type of tea than a place. This makes them both intriguing destinations to explore further, especially for nature lovers.
My trip to the area was put together by Quest Himalaya Adventures , a small tour operator based in Sikkim that focuses on quality treks and authentic cultural tours. They specialize in customizing any journey to exactly the places you want to visit and with the level of accommodation that you prefer: from budget to luxury, or an eclectic mix. Either way they use comfortable local hotels and believe in low-impact, responsible tourism, so will only organize small group tours or treks. If you’re looking for an authentic experience I would recommend them. My trip was two weeks long, but if you have one week you can still explore the area.