Sikkim Christmas

Christmas boys

Peace and happiness, everyone. We shall spend our holidays in northern Thailand this year. But let me tell you about last year’s festivities:

After years of seeking something of a real Christmas spirit in Asia, we unexpectedly find it in Pelling. No scantily clad bar girls in Santa hats, no beer-bellied boors. Just a mountain, a bonfire and a group of travelers—a couple of families from Kolkata; and a woman from Fremont, California, visiting a sister in West Bengal.

The evening begins with a beautiful young girl and her refined voice. She takes us through  “Jingle Bells” and “Go Tell it on the Mountain.” Then a Bengali man leads us on a musical journey beginning with the sounds of Rabindranath Tagore, followed by an old Hindi love song about his wife’s eyes, then the Billy Joel equivalent, and finally a conversation on an ancient Hindi musical form—which he has studied and can sing in perfect pitch. It’s a beautiful song on a stellar night.

The fires is warm—hot, even—as a Gurkha guard uses his knife to cut branches for the blaze. We sip cherry brandy from crystal cordials. We nibble on fish and paneer pakoras. Then at 10 p.m., our small crowd heads inside for Christmas Eve dinner. Each plate is garnished with a whistle and a cracker, British style. A Christmas tree blinks its lights by the door. For a few hours, we feel the warmth and camaraderie of a small world. Even the unruly boys who awaken us in the wee hours with their unrelenting screaming and tramping about—this night, they sit silently by the fire amid the holiday cheer.

This hotel, The Elgin, is nowhere else in our experience of India. Aside from the rambunctious children, The Elgin is an oasis of clean, quiet and peace.

I like the sofa beside a picture window in the lobby. I gaze at Kangchendzonga closer and clearer a view than any, save those along trekking trails. In afternoon, I can sit here and take tea (with cake if I were the cake-eating type). In evening, cocktails. The rooms come with breakfast or a full meal plan, served as buffets—but decent buffets. Continental fare is widely available, but I’m more interested in the Zeera rice, Indian pickle, butter dal fry, Kashmiri alu dum, palak paneer, onion pakoras, chicken curry, Kerala fish.

It’s a long way for fish—and visitors—to come. Sikkim has no airport (although the government approved one this year). The closest sits five hours down the mountains in neighboring West Bengal. One must want to visit Sikkim to visit Sikkim, but that is this state’s greatest appeal. And for all the views that Pelling touts, most are obstructed by the sullied truths of development—leaking water pipes, half finished concrete constructions, sewage runoff, rooftop water tanks, laundry lines, shacks and ramshackle shops. The Elgin, atop this serene hill, shares its world with nothing but the Pemayangtse Monastery the next hump over.

Sikkim flags

This is a land of heights, and monasteries on them. By day, we tour the  Sangngak Choling (or Sanga Choeling), the second oldest in Sikkim, founded in the late 1600s. Wind-whipped prayer flags soak up the winter sun.

Downhill, a party converges in Pelling central (ha!), where the government has organized a cultural festival in hopes of promoting tourism. We sample the food. I try a millet roti, heated in butter. It’s a thick, dense chocolate-colored disc, the sort of thing to eat before scaling a mountain. It stays with me awhile.

Sikkim pancake

Another stall offers sticky-rice balls with coconut shavings and cardamom—yum. But my favorite is the buckwheat pancake rolled and stuffed with chopped green vegetable. (Notice, by the way, that nothing I’ve mentioned here contains gluten.)

Sikkim roll

And that’s when we find the chang, at a neighboring stall.

The sun sets early, and with it, cold. It’s time for that fire at the Elgin, and a nip of cherry brandy.

(Another day, I will have to tell you about our retreat from Sikkim on a bus from Hades that perfectly quells all loveliness found here. But not now. Now—go and have a merry holiday.)

10 thoughts on “Sikkim Christmas

  1. Nice write up my friend. I would like to invite you to contribute your stories if any on Sikkim and Darjeeling. It would be great to include your articles on our Darjeeling site.

  2. Merry Christmas to you both, thanks for some wonderful posts this year and for exposing my naga chilli supplier as a blaggard! Yes, I’m still boiling about that one 🙂
    Hope it’s a happy and peaceful 2009.
    Take care

  3. Thanks, everyone! Happy holidays to all of you.
    Not much time to post at the moment–we’re way up in the northern
    hills of Thailand, poking around prehistoric cave sites with ancient log coffins and early human burials.
    Way cool stuff! More later….

  4. Thank you for posting this. My husband and I fell in love with Sikkim, and indeed Pelling, 10 years ago when we were in India. We’ve always said the same thing…you have to REALLY want to get there, in order to get there. We thought that’s what would keep it a special place. I see there has been a little change, but it still sounds very charming.

  5. Shanti, you are absolutely right: it takes will power to visit Sikkim. But it’s well worth the effort, one of our favorite places in India.

  6. Karen, you mention nothing containing gluten. I live in Thailand and every time my mother visits she always says it’s the only place she doesn’t get sick in. As far as we can see, she’s allergic to gluten so has a terrible time in the US when she eats out as everything seems to contain it. In five trips to Thailand, she’s never gotten sick once.

    Love your website by the way – your photos are gorgeous!

  7. Hi Michelle,
    Thanks for visiting. You’re right–nothing with gluten. And Thailand is a great place to avoid it as well. Aside from soy sauce and wheat noodles, most everything else is rice-based.

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