Sensational Sikkim: Exploring the unspoiled wilderness from Chumbi Mountain Resort

The Chumbi Mountain Resort. (Supplied)
Updated 15 January 2019
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Sensational Sikkim: Exploring the unspoiled wilderness from Chumbi Mountain Resort

  • Chumbi Mountain Retreat is located in India, in the northeastern state of Sikkim
  • The retreat is both a luxury resort and a repository of traditional culture and craft

DUBAI: At the ungodly hour of 6 a.m., I was awoken by a phone call from reception. “Madam, we have a really clear view of Kanchenjunga mountain this morning, so Mr. Chopel has asked us to wake you, so you can see it,” said a disembodied voice, apologetically but with a sense of urgency.

I smiled and flung open the curtains, and there it was. The majestic Himalayan mountain — the world’s third-highest — looked like it was right outside my bedroom window, within touching distance. Clustered with its neighboring snow-clad peaks, it sparkled a bright white, against the impossibly blue skies.

General view of Kanchenjunga mountain.(Shutterstock)

That’s the kind of thing that you don’t mind dragging yourself out of bed — and barefoot onto the cold stone terrace — for; to capture that perfect photo before the fleeting view disappears behind a veil of clouds.

And it’s the kind of personal touch that makes the Chumbi Mountain Retreat special. Owner Ugyen Chopel (a filmmaker and prominent local personality) has made it is his mission to showcase this little-known corner of paradise to the world.

The retreat is situated in India, near the Himalayas in the northeastern state of Sikkim — the country’s second smallest and one of its youngest, having remained a Buddhist monarchy until as recently as 1975. Sikkim has a rich and unique heritage, as well as the more recent distinction of being India’s first fully organic (in terms of agriculture) state.

Nestled in the hills of Pelling in western Sikkim, Chumbi Mountain Retreat is both a luxury resort and a repository of traditional culture and crafts. The traditional monastic design and motifs recreated using natural materials such as local stone and wood, in an artisanal approach, and the many hand-picked historic artifacts used in the décor make staying in this serene hideaway an immersive experience.

Nowhere is this truer than at Dyenkhang, an intimate specialty restaurant offering authentic local cuisine in the traditions of the royal palace. It’s the only place in Sikkim offering this kind of meal, I was told.

The food is served in a traditionally reverential manner — the servers are meant to never show their back to the diner — on gleaming copper tableware, the fit-for-a-king feast includes phing zekar (glass noodles with marinated local greens); chu zhema (cottage cheese dumplings); gundtruk sadako (fermented greens tossed with onion and chilli); and phyasha saltum (chicken cooked in traditional herbs).

The fresh, organic produce ensures each dish bursts with flavor. But dinner here is as educational as it is delicious, providing an insight into the many influences that went into shaping Sikkimese culture and cuisine.

Another great way to experience that local culture is with a traditional ‘Dottho’ hot-stone bath in the resort’s zen-like Mhenlha Spa. An Al-fresco soak in a wooden tub with heated mineral stones added to the water together with local herbs makes for a healing, hugely relaxing experience — aided by a fermented rice drink which you are meant to sip throughout.

With its vantage point boasting panoramic views across the valley, and with numerous nooks and communal spaces to relax in, guests may be tempted to simply stay in the resort for the duration of their trip. But that would be a shame, as there is a great deal more to see in this unspoiled region.

From the scenic Khecheopalri Lake (which, local folklore has it, has the power to grant wishes) and the impressive perennial Kanchenjunga waterfall, to the sacred Pemayangtse monastery — a mountaintop Buddhist temple where fluttering prayer flags and meditative chanting create a rarified atmosphere of tranquility — excursion options abound. For the more adventurous, trekking and hiking trails are also available nearby, as are farm tours.

Kanchenjunga waterfall. (Shutterstock)

Truth be told, this isn’t the easiest place to get to or around — the roads aren’t great and Sikkim’s overall infrastructure is still developing. But those making the effort to visit this remote land will be rewarded with stunning alpine landscapes, great hospitality from unaffected, friendly people, and an inescapable sense of spiritual wellbeing. And, who knows, maybe even an elusive sighting of some of the world’s greatest mountain peaks.


Sounds of the summer: the best festivals to visit this season

Sziget festival. (AFP)
Updated 22 July 2019
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Sounds of the summer: the best festivals to visit this season

DUBAI: From electronica in Morocco to rock in the Japanese mountains, here are six music festivals worth seeing this summer. 

Beiteddine Art Festival

WHEN: July 18-Aug 10

WHERE: Beiteddine, Lebanon

DETAILS: Few festivals have a better location than this Lebanese music, art and culture fest set among the Chouf Mountains in Beiteddine Palace, built over 200 years ago. Tens of thousands of people attend every year to witness an enthralling mix of classic and contemporary music, theater productions and art exhibitions, staggered over three weeks.

HIGHLIGHTS: Iraqi singer and composer Kadim Al-Sahir; French actor and singer Gerard Depardieu interpreting the songs of legendary singer Barbara; Omar Rahbany, from the renowned Lebanese musical dynasty, with his Passport Chamber Ensemble; Moroccan star Abdou Cherif sings some of Abdel Halim Hafez’s best-known songs.

Fuji Rock Festival

WHEN: July 26-28

WHERE: Naeba Ski Resort, Niigata, Japan

DETAILS: Japan’s Fuji Rock hosts 16 different stages and a wildly varied mix of homegrown and international artists playing just about every genre you can think of. Now on its 23rd edition, the organizers overcame a disastrous first year at the base of Mount Fuji to establish the festival (in its ‘new’ location) as one of Asia’s most popular summer gatherings, regularly attracting 150,000 people.

HIGHLIGHTS: The Green Stage and White Stage host the biggest international names, including The Chemical Brothers, The Cure, Sia (pictured), Death Cab For Cutie, James Blake and Thom Yorke, alongside Japanese stars such as Ellegarden, Superfly, and Asian Kung-Fu Generation.

Sziget Festival

WHEN: Aug 7-13

WHERE: Budapest, Hungary

DETAILS: Huge music and culture festival in an idyllic setting on an island in the Danube that makes it easy to lose yourself in its self-contained unreal world. The weeklong festival has expanded from an underground student gathering in the early Nineties to become one of Europe’s most acclaimed festivals, reportedly attracting almost half-a-million visitors and staging over 1,000 performances annually.

HIGHLIGHTS: There’s such an overwhelming amount of music available that anyone attending is bound to find something they like. The biggest names this year include Foo Fighters, Ed Sheeran, Twenty One Pilots, Post Malone, Florence & The Machine, The National, and Martin Garrix, but there’s plenty of less-mainstream fare on offer too.

Woodstock 50

WHEN: Aug 16-18

WHERE: Watkins Glen, New York

DETAILS: The much-imitated, never-replicated OG of rock festivals marks its 50th anniversary this year, still billing itself as “3 days of Peace & Music,” just as it did when more than 400,000 people gathered in White Lake back in 1969. The original was a defining moment in Western popular culture, and although this year’s event is unlikely to have the same impact, it’s still one that music lovers from around the world are eagerly anticipating for its legacy as much as its lineup.

HIGHLIGHTS: The organizers have kept things pretty basic — no multiple stages here, just a long lineup of mainstage performers on each of the three nights, with classic-rock/folk acts such as Santana, David Crosby, Robert Plant and Canned Heat mingling with Miley Cyrus, Chance The Rapper, The Killers, Earl Sweatshirt and Jay-Z (pictured).

Oasis Festival

WHEN: Sept 13-15

WHERE: Marrakech, Morocco

DETAILS: Billing itself as an “intimate destination festival featuring today’s top underground electronic talent,” with the strapline “Dance Somewhere Different,” Marrakech’s Oasis Festival doesn’t go for the “something-for-everyone” vibe of so many summer festivals, instead concentrating its efforts to produce an unfailingly excellent celebration of electronic music in a stunning setting — a luxury resort near the Atlas Mountains. Ideal for dance-music lovers who don’t fancy the muddy grime and portaloos of your typical summer music festival.

HIGHLIGHTS: This year’s lineup includes experimental UK musician Four Tet, classically trained Swiss DJ-producer Sonja Moonear, Berlin-based DJ-producer Jayda G, and Italian-born duo Mind Against.

Rock in Rio

WHEN: Sept 27-Oct 6

WHERE: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
DETAILS: Spread over two weekends in the Barra Olympic Park, Rock in Rio is one of the world’s largest music festivals. It’s travelled to Lisbon, Madrid and Las Vegas over the 34 years since its inception, but this year’s edition finds it back home in the Brazilian capital, and a major party is guaranteed.

HIGHLIGHTS: There are seven different ‘venues’ at this year’s festival, many of which are catering to local audiences with South American artists. ‘Palco Mundo’ is where the superstars play, and this year’s headliners include Drake, Foo Fighters (pictured), Bon Jovi, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Iron Maiden, P!nk, and Muse.