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Friends in high places

3 January 2004

12:00 AM

3 January 2004

12:00 AM

Sikkim Himalaya David Lang

Pomegranate Press, pp.200, 29.95

David Lang first heard about the Himalayas when he was a little boy. As his father read aloud from the works of the great botanical explorers — Reginald Farrer, Frank Kingdon-Ward, and ‘Chinese’ Wilson — he imagined the high mountains and the flower-filled valleys. Above all, he longed to see the yaks: ‘there was something about yaks which appealed to a small child’.

When he grew up, David Lang became a vet with a busy practice in Sussex. He is also an accomplished field naturalist, equally knowledgeable about plants and birds, and author of several books about British wild flowers.

Not until 1983 did he realise his dream of visiting the Himalayas. A first trek to Kashmir and Ladakh, led by the great botanist Oleg Polunin, whetted his appetite for more. Next he visited Bhutan, where his party was caught in a blizzard and had to be rescued by helicopter. Undaunted, he then planned a trip to Sikkim, the little country — or, more accurately, region of India — which is wedged between Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan. Since 1987 Lang has made four expeditions to Sikkim and has achieved his ambition of exploring the remote northern valleys near the Tibetan border. Not only are they physically difficult of access, involving arduous journeys on foot across high passes: since 1962, when China attempted to invade India’s north-eastern frontier, the area has been a restricted military zone. Very few foreigners obtain permission to visit it.

On his first visit to Sikkim in 1987, Lang had a great stroke of luck. He was leading a trek near the Nepalese border when the weather deteriorated. In mist and driving snow, the rest of the party retreated to their bungalow suffering from altitude sickness. Only Lang was fit enough to accept an invitation to join three young Sikkimese trekkers who were staying in a hut nearby. This ‘highly convivial evening’ had, Lang says, ‘a lasting influence on my further adventures in Sikkim’. The three men were Wangyal Tobden, a police officer, Lekshed Gyaltshen, who worked in the government planning department, and Rajesh Lakhotia, director of a hotel in the capital, Gangtok. They were keen climbers and naturalists and, like Lang, interested in every aspect of their country’s culture. Between them, these three were able to solve every problem and even to deal with the awesome bureaucracy.

Lang’s next visit was inspired by a treatise on yak management written by his acquaintance Tshewang Rinzen, who had helped in the 1985 helicopter rescue. Rinzen was a man after Lang’s own heart, a vet who had become a dungpa, or administrative official. His treatise was full of practical advice on the management of yaks.

The wild yak, Bos grunniens, is now extremely rare. Only a few are thought to survive in western Tibet. But the domesticated yak is indispensable to the people of the high Himalayas. As a beast of burden it carries loads of 100kg at altitudes of up to 6,000m, through deep snow or across slippery rocks. It provides milk (which is made into butter and long-lasting cheese), meat, and wool, which is woven into cloth or spun into knitting yarn. No wonder yaks are much loved by their owners, and well looked after. They are regularly vaccinated and wormed and given mineral supplements, vital in areas which are deficient in iodine. The yak-herders know how to give intramuscular and subcutaneous injections. When Lang reached the very remote Muguthang valley — the first botanist to do so since 1909 and the first Westerner since a party of climbers in 1936 — he found that his hosts possessed bottles of oxytetracycline as well as foot-and-mouth vaccine, even if it was several years out of date.

Yaks also provide their owners with excellent sport. On his second visit to the far north, Lang was lucky enough to arrive at the Lasha valley during the festival of Drukpa Tseshi, which celebrates the first teaching of the Buddha. All the local herdsmen had gathered together for the ceremony of blessing the yaks. Lang and his party were invited to join the puja, or rite, and were amazed to see packets of Cornish wafer biscuits among the offerings in front of the officiating lama. Then came the races. The beautifully caparisoned yaks galloped off in front of cheering crowds, and the winning rider was presented with a prize and ceremonial scarf by the lama. In spite of these exotic details, Lang says that the whole set-up reminded him of a small local point-to-point in England.

Lang’s visit to Muguthang took place soon after a terrible winter in which more than 200 yaks and 600 sheep had died in the storms — a grave loss for such an isolated community. He and his party saw many carcasses as they explored the bleak, stony valley in search of birds and tiny alpine plants. There was a fortunate sequel to this journey. The yak-herders of Muguthang are Tibetans, which means that the Dalai Lama takes an interest in their welfare. Soon after Lang returned to England, a deputation of senior lamas arrived in Gangtok on a fact-finding mission. Lang’s Sikkimese companions told them of the yak-herders’ plight. The elderly but intrepid lamas set off across the high pass to see for themselves, and soon afterwards financial help arrived. No wonder Lang’s visit came to be seen by the local people as heaven-sent.

One of Lang’s chapters is headed ‘In the Steps of Hooker’. Joseph Hooker was the great English botanist whose visit to Sikkim in 1848-50 first revealed the incredible riches of the country’s flora. Hooker found, described, drew and introduced to Britain vast numbers of previously unknown species. His book, The Rhododendrons of Sikkim-Himalaya, illustrated with plates worked up from his own drawings, remains a classic.

Lang’s path often crosses that of Hooker. At Thunggu, a village on the river Tista Chu in the far north, he sees the huge erratic boulder, 50 feet high, which Hooker drew and described in his journal. It still dominates the little-changed village, and is still known as Hooker’s Rock. Like Hooker, Lang remarks on the abundance of Primula sikkimensis, which still grows in the marshy fields nearby. Like Hooker, Lang is enchanted by the perfect meanders and oxbows of the Lasha Chu valley. Like Hooker too, he visits the monastery of Tashiding, founded in 1717 and still a place, Lang says, with the serenity and ambience of a remote and simple country church. His photograph of the ‘chaits’ or funerary monuments is reproduced next to Hooker’s elegant pen-and-ink sketch of the same spot.

Some things, alas, have changed. Lang’s excellent photographs show the people, the places, the flora and fauna of Sikkim in all their beauty. They also show the tragic deforestation of the valleys. Most of the magnificent forests seen by Hooker have long gone and the destruction continues. On his most recent visit, in 2001, Lang saw tree-trunks being loaded on to lorries in a forest reserve where logging was officially banned: a disturbing sight, and a bad omen for the future.

Even more worrying is the arrival of television. At the end of one journey, Lang arrived in Gangtok to find the whole population watching Wimbledon. Has the traditional Buddhist way of life a hope of surviving the onslaught of Western materialism? The recent experience of neighbouring Bhutan is a dire warning.

David Lang is an explorer in the mould of his heroes, Hooker, Wilson and Kingdon-Ward. If you too long to see the wonders of Sikkim, but cannot face the biting flies, the leeches, the dysentery, the monsoon or the altitude sickness, read this book instead, and enjoy the company of a most unusual traveller.

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