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.


Iraqis turn to budding ecotourism to save marshes

Updated 22 May 2019
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Iraqis turn to budding ecotourism to save marshes

  • The Mesopotamian marshes are a rare aquatic ecosystem in a country nearly half of which is covered in cracked desert
  • Legend has it, they were home to the biblical Garden of Eden

CHIBAYISH, Iraq: Thirty years after Saddam Hussein starved them of water, Iraq’s southern marshes are blossoming once more thanks to a wave of ecotourists picnicking and paddling down their replenished river bends.
A one-room home made of elaborately woven palm reeds floats on the river surface. Near it, a soft plume of smoke curls up from a firepit where carp is being grilled, Iraqi-style.
A few canoes drift by, carrying couples and groups of friends singing to the beat of drums.
“I didn’t think I would find somewhere so beautiful, and such a body of water in Iraq,” said Habib Al-Jurani.
He left Iraq in 1990 for the United States, and was back in his ancestral homeland for a family visit.

Tourists sit in a canoe as they are shown around the marshes of the southern Iraqi district of Chibayish in Dhi Qar province, about 120 kilometers northwest of the southern city of Basra, on March 29, 2019. (AFP)

“Most people don’t know what Iraq is really like — they think it’s the world’s most dangerous place, with nothing but killings and terrorism,” he said.
Looking around the lush marshes, declared in 2016 to be Iraq’s fifth UNESCO World Heritage site, Jurani added: “There are some mesmerizing places.”
Straddling Iraq’s famous Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the Mesopotamian marshes are a rare aquatic ecosystem in a country nearly half of which is covered in cracked desert.
Legend has it, they were home to the biblical Garden of Eden.
But they were also a haven for political opposition to dictator Saddam Hussein, who cut off water to the site in retaliation for the south’s uprising against him in 1991.
Around 90 percent of the once-expansive marshes were drained, and the area’s 250,000 residents dwindled down to just 30,000.

This picture taken on March 29, 2019 shows geese swimming in the marshes of the southern Iraqi district of Chibayish in Dhi Qar province, about 120 kilometers northwest of the southern city of Basra. (AFP)

In the ensuing years, severe droughts and decreased water flows from the twin rivers’ source countries — Turkey and Iran — shrunk the marshes’ surface from some 15,000 square kilometers to less than half that.
It all culminated with a particularly dry winter last year that left the “ahwar,” as they are known in Arabic, painfully parched.
But heavier rains this year have filled more than 80 percent of the marshes’ surface area, according to the United Nations, compared to just 27 percent last year.
That has resurrected the ancient lifestyle that dominated this area for more than 5,000 years.
“The water returned, and with it normal life,” said 35-year-old Mehdi Al-Mayali, who raises water buffalo and sells their milk, used to make rich cream served at Iraqi breakfasts.

Wildlife including the vulnerable smooth-coated otter, Euphrates softshell turtles, and Basra reed warbler have returned to the marshlands — along with the pickiest of all species: tourists.
“Ecotourism has revived the ‘ahwar’. There are Iraqis from different provinces and some foreigners,” Mayali said.
A day in the marshes typically involves hiring a resident to paddle a large reed raft down the river for around $25 — not a cheap fare for Iraq.
Then, lunch in a “mudhif” or guesthouse, also run by locals.
“Ecotourism is an important source of revenue for those native to the marshes,” said Jassim Assadi, who heads Nature Iraq.
The environmental activist group has long advocated for the marshes to be better protected and for authorities to develop a long-term ecotourism plan for the area.

An Iraqi boy pets cattle by the marshes of the southern district of Chibayish in Dhi Qar province, about 120 kilometers northwest of the southern city of Basra, on March 29, 2019. (AFP)

“It’s a much more sustainable activity than the hydrocarbon and petroleum industry,” said Assadi, referring to the dominant industry that provides Iraq with about 90 percent of state revenues.
The numbers have steadily gone up in recent years, according to Assaad Al-Qarghouli, tourism chief in Iraq’s southern province of Dhi Qar.
“We had 10,000 tourists in 2016, then 12,000 in 2017 and 18,000 in 2018,” he told AFP.
But there is virtually no infrastructure to accommodate them.
“There are no tourist centers or hotels, because the state budget was sucked up by war the last few years,” Qarghouli told AFP.
Indeed, the Daesh group overran swathes of Iraq in 2014, prompting the government to direct its full attention — and the bulk of its resources — to fighting it back.

An Iraqi tourist grills fish by the marshes of the southern district of Chibayish in Dhi Qar province, about 120 kilometers northwest of the southern city of Basra, on March 29, 2019. (AFP)

Iraq’s government declared victory in late 2017 and has slowly begun reallocating resources to infrastructure projects.
Qarghouli said the marshes should be a priority, and called on the government to build “a hotel complex and touristic eco-village inside the marshes.”
Peak season for tourists is between September and April, avoiding the summer months of Iraq when temperatures can reach a stifling 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit).
But without a long-term government plan, residents worry that water levels will be hostage to fluctuating yearly rainfalls and shortages caused by Iranian and Turkish dams.
These dynamics have already damaged the marshes’ fragile ecosystem, with high levels of salination last year killing fish and forcing other wildlife to migrate.
Jurani, the returning expatriate, has an idea of the solution.
“Adventurers and nature-lovers,” he said, hopefully.