GANGTOK, India – Tashi Wangdi was dressed for his day off. He wore flip-flops, wind pants, a sweater, and a knitted wool hat. “I look like a Sikkimese farmer,” he said with a grin. His home in West Sikkim sits at over 5,000 feet on a hillside dotted with cardamom. It was a breezy April day, and outside his mother sat on the grass shelling peas. She sipped tongba, Sikkim’s traditional millet beer (a bit like warm Japanese sake), through a bamboo straw.
Sikkim is located to the north of West Bengal and between Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan. Formerly an independent kingdom, it became part of India in 1975. It is India’s least populated state with less than 600,000 inhabitants, a drop in the bucket of the country’s billion plus population.
The province has expansive forest and mountain terrain that includes the third highest peak in the world: the Khangchendzonga (Kanchanjunga) peak in northwest Sikkim rises to 8,598 meters, and the Sikkimese people worship its spirit in autumn festivals.
In his work attire, Mr. Wangdi was supervising the construction on his new farmhouse hotel, an addition onto his “ancestral home,” as he calls it, in Chumbong village. He was born here in 1971, and three generations of his family still live in the same house. Now, Mr. Wangdi, 38, and two of his childhood friends are all building hotels here, the first ever in their village.
With a population of under one thousand, Chumbong is spread out along nearly ten kilometers of hillside below Pelling, which is one of West Sikkim’s most popular tourist destinations. Pelling has long drawn visitors for its impressive views of the mountains, including Khangchendzonga, so buses and jeeps pass frequently through; in Pelling, hotels, tourist shops, and multi-cuisine restaurants are the norm. Chumbong, on the other hand, can offer a much different experience.
“We got together to talk about it,” Mr. Wangdi said, “and we don’t think that Pelling caters to all kinds of tourists. We are all interested in sharing our land with foreigners, and we want to provide a rural setting where people can relax and get a sense for the real way of life in a Sikkimese village.”
One of Mr. Wangdi’s fellow hoteliers here is Pem Dorjee, a tall man with longish black hair and a disarming smile. Mr. Dorjee works as a clerk for the local government, but he has recently gotten into the hotel business as well: he just completed a three-story project across the road from his childhood home, and he is now living with his family on the hotel’s top floor. The hotel’s guest rooms have rustic hardwood floors and hot-water heaters. On his days off, Mr. Dorjee works in vegetable and flower gardens that surround his small hotel.
When I visited, Mr. Dorjee was preparing lunch with his two “adopted” children. (Mr. Dorjee and his wife have a baby girl, but they also host a young girl, Shanti, and boy, Chewang, who come from very poor rural families and attend school in Pelling.) Using their own homemade cheese, they were preparing a dish of crumbled cheese stir-fried with fresh tomatoes and green chilies.
Mr. Wangdi, too, is building his hotel while keeping up other full-time work. His main job is headmaster of a nearby village school. The road going to down to Chumbong from Pelling is under construction, and Mr. Wangdi does not own a car, so in order to get to his school everyday he must walk the steep three kilometers up to Pelling where he can catch a jeep going down another mountain road to Timbrong. From there it’s another ten-minute hike up to his school.
As a full-time headmaster and father, Mr. Wangdi doesn’t have a lot of time on his hands for the demanding hotel business, but he welcomes the new venture.
“I will only have five guest rooms, so it will be very quiet, much like staying in a local person’s home. I’ve always wanted to host people here, to talk about Sikkim’s history and Buddhism with travelers who are interested.”
Every room in the farmhouse will have a balcony with unobstructed views of the Khangchendzonga range and the lower hills leading down towards Khecheopalri Lake. These hills provide many hiking trails leading to a number of villages, monasteries, and palace ruins from the time of Sikkim’s monarchy.
Just a ten-minute walk from Mr. Wangdi’s home is Pachhu Village Resort, a new hotel completed last year. The owner, Tshering Pintso, is a good friend of Mr. Wangdi’s and Mr. Dorjee’s.
Out of the three hotels Mr. Pintso’s is the high-end option: >>Read More