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India -- November 26, 1997
As we drove up the winding mountain roads, we reached the clouds. The foliage had grown thin; our destination, Tsangu Lake, sat at 12,500 feet, far above the tree line. Our guide told us about the ghost of Harbhajan Singh, a disappeared Indian soldier believed to roam the craggy Tibetan border, some eight kilometers from the lake.
Back on earth it's easy to laugh at such a story. But on the way to Tsangu Lake, with our heads in the clouds, the sky looked closer than the plains, and it seemed indeed that we had entered a realm where only spirits dare to roam. Gone were the ramshackle huts, the Buddhist stupas, and the neatly ordered fields that had been so common at the lower altitudes. Here the landscape was filled not with people and livestock but with roaring mountain streams, precipitous falls, and piles of boulders that stood testament to recent landslides. Coming too fast around a corner, we almost collided into one such pile, a precariously balanced heap of rubble whose fall had wiped away the side of a mountain. Perched on what remained, and enveloped in fog, was a twisted sign with a solemn warning: "Beware of shooting stones."
Yet the mountains and their shooting stones are only partly responsible for the lack of habitation in these parts. Everywhere during our travels in Sikkim -- a sliver of a Himalayan state tucked just below the Sino-Indian border and made part of the Indian Republic only in 1975 -- we saw reminders of the fact that we were traveling through disputed border territory, the site of an earlier war between China and India. Four times on our way to Tsangu Lake we were stopped at army checkposts, our driver to be quizzed, our papers to be checked. And once we came across a military convoy, halted in mid-road while farther ahead artillery pieces were being shifted. On one of the facing hills I saw the guns as they were towed, their turrets pointing toward the snow-capped peaks.
As we arrived at our destination I saw military encampments, perched on the surrounding hills, overlooking Tsangu Lake. One might suppose that their presence detracts from the scenery, but in fact it adds to it. The rickety camouflaged shacks, the odd uniform left outside to dry, the pockmarked road-sign-turned-shooting-target -- all enhanced the prevailing sense of otherworldliness.
I walked halfway around the lake to a bed of flowers -- pink, yellow, and blue -- of a delicacy and a brightness I had never seen before. A sign announced that I was standing by the deepest part of the lake, where the murky waters descended to fifty-five meters. Farther on, the waters came to a head at a dam wedged between two hills; a stream trickled over a flimsy plank at the top of the dam, flowing into the valley below. Clouds were moving in, seeping through the surrounding peaks, bringing a chill with them. I could no longer see across the lake. It was time to leave.
That evening -- after a harrowing descent through fog so thick I was certain we would drive off the road -- I wandered through Sikkim's capital city of Gangtok in search of dinner. In a sterile fast-food joint with aspirations toward hipness, Don Henley welcomed me to the Hotel California and I watched through the window as a pot-bellied drunk with a sad face stumbled up and back down the slanted road outside. Three Buddhist monks pulled up in a jeep. From behind their purple and saffron robes a young girl in glasses emerged to buy a box of doughnuts.
Sikkim is often described as one of the world's last remaining Shangri-Las, but in truth modern life is never very far away. Everywhere in Gangtok I saw telltale satellite dishes, their mouths opening to a world beyond the mountains. In the city's crowded market district, amid the Buddhist handicraft and vegetable vendors, I chanced upon a shiny Benetton store, its display cases strangely devoid of merchandise but its walls and windows plastered with the company's provocative posters.
If Sikkim is still a Shangri-La of sorts, that is because the military sets up checkpoints to keep people out, and the government bars non-Sikkimese from owning property. So it is in much of the world, where nature is no longer equipped to protect itself, and where satellites and airplanes make a mockery of physical and geographical isolation. The most daunting rock facades, the driest of deserts, the darkest of rain forests -- none of these can staunch the flow of modernity as effectively as an army checkpoint or a well-crafted piece of legislation. The paradoxical truth is that in this world people, and not nature, are the last check on civilization.
Akash Kapur worked at The Atlantic Monthly in 1997 as an intern. He is currently at work on an article about the Indian state of Kerala, and will be spending the coming year traveling in Eastern Europe on a fellowship.
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