SIKKIM

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The Himalayas, the most imposing landform on the face of the Earth, seem eerily accessible along their southern flank.  Within the space of a few miles, the previously impervious and languid Indian plateau, unbroken across the near entirety of the subcontinent, gives way to towering rocks and cliffs that rise indefatigably upwards until they ascend, in some places, to the lower reaches of the stratosphere.   The mountains are so singular a geographic phenomenon that all weather for a thousand miles beyond these peaks in any direction responds to its slightest whims.

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The apparent proximity of the mountains, is, as well, only an illusion.  On the map, the densely-peopled lowlands of Bengal are a few kilometers drive away from the highlands of Sikkim…but these kilometers have to be fought for.  The roads there are prone to be snuffed out by the frequent landslides that accompany the long monsoon season and the twists and switchbacks careen wildly in and out of the increasingly thin clough of gravelled dirt etched into the hillside.  When we drove off from the airfield in Siliguri at around 2pm, I thought that the fifty six miles up to Pelling would be done before nightfall.   We were on the road until nearly midnight.

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Sikkim is such a distant appendage of India that it requires its own visa and its own border force.  The land is nowhere flat for more than a few hundred meters in any direction and its eternal focus has always been up, towards the sacred snowy peak of Kanchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world.  And, driving across the last ridge that night, at the place where the massif can no longer be contained beyond the screen of foothills, one immediately understands why.  Glowing in the light of the waxing moon, the white wall of Kanchenjunga leers at you as if its vast white walls are alive.

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