Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Tulleeho Traveller Vol. 1 - Gangtok

Day 1

It's a half an hour chopper ride from Bagdogra to Gangtok, and accompanying us on the flight was the MD of the Sikkim Tourism Development Corporation, L B Chettri who was most dashing in his YSL jacket and his Ray Ban's. He told us that Chaang (the local Sikkimese spirit), was easily available and we should contact the travel desk at our hotel for assistance. For those of you who are Bollywood fans it may come as a surprise to know that Danny Denzongpa, the former bad boy of Hindi movies runs Yuksom Breweries at Malli, which produces two variants of Dansberg beer, one the normal one and the other a premium lager, distinguished by it's blue label ("made from Sikkim spring water, finest malt and imported hops") as well as Hit and the uniquely named He Man 900, both strong beers. It's a good choice of beer and goes down well accompanied by platefuls of steamed momos.

For such a small state, Sikkim has an amazing variety of alcohol and the Teesta White rum, looks like it's giving Bacardi a run for it's money. It was out of stock at the Hotel Tibet, so I ordered the Sikkimese special Whisky, which went down rather well with soda, and which was accompanied by Phing Sha rice (steamed rice, topped wiith 3 kaju's, with a steaming broth of chicken, shitake mushroms and potatos) on the side. Rather bland and I'm going to try the Special Gyathuk next time (noodle soup), but definitely not the Chetse Detse (Boiled noodle topped with Tofu). My brother was downing bottles of Hit ('aapko fit kar denga said the waiter!"). There was a cop at the table next to us, with 2 girls, more interested in their Razr's than the cop, or maybe that part was yet to come. Unfortunately there was no Cherry Brandy at the Hotel Tibet. Patience. 4 days to go and Cafe Tibet on main MG Marg with a fetching advertisement of good food, good beer and good music seemed like a "go-to" place.

Day 2

Out for a stroll the next morning, it was refreshing to see liquor shops open at 7 am (7 am - 8 pm). I resisted the temptation and picked up a packet of doughnuts from a surprised shopkeeper who was shocked to find out that I knew what they were and that people ate doughnuts in Delhi.

Raj, the manager @ The Oriental where we are staying was quizzed on Chaang. He was off to his native Kalimpong the next day and promised to get us back some home brewed Chaang, as he said the local one didn't pass muster. His sister made Chaang at home every day for his father to drink. If your'e a drinking man, you can drink 2 Thumbha's (the cylindrical wooden mug used to drink Chaang), if not, 1 would do you just fine. It's drunk through a straw called the Pipsing. Raj also promised to bring us back the "marcha", which from what we gathered, was the yeasty substance used to ferment the predominantly millets based brew which was what Chaang was. We also put in an order for 2 Thumbha's and 2 Pipsing's to take back to Delhi. Wouldn't be a bad idea to start a Tulleeho musuem of Indian spirits, considering the little which is known about this subject. We inquired in the local market about Thumbha purchases and were told that they were available in the price range from Rs. 100/- for the plain vanilla ones to Rs. 5,000/- for fancy ones made from silver, etc. I picked up 2 Thumbha's and 6 pipsings from Lal market.

For dinner, we tried some Newari cuisine @ The Square. Chicken Shevka (Grilled chicken in mustard oil) and a Sikkimese style Thai Red Curry. The Dansberg Blue made it all palatable. Lining the walls of the bar were the range of the Johnnie Walker collection from Red to Blue. We were suitably impressed and made enquiries about the price, to be told that the owner had just brought them in today and the price hadn't been set yet. Too bad, we could have done with some Glenfiddich.

Day 3

Out for my morning stroll, I picked up 3 bottles of Cherry Brandy for the folks back in office and a bottle of Pan Liqueur for me. I was also amazed to see a bottle of Southern Comfort in the shop window and picked up the same also. SoCo as it is popularly known was launched by Brown Forman in India in 1997 as 2 bastardised variants of the original - Amber and another whose name escapes me. They tried to position it as a whisky and it bombed. One of the finest whisky liqueurs in the world and one of the only beverages to be invented by a bartender (the legendary MW Heron @ Mcauley's bar in New Orleans), it didn't deserve this fate. I picked up the Amber variant @ Rs. 300/-.

Raj and his wife were both Cookery students from the Food Crafts Institute up at Darjeeling and he ran on the side a small homely restaurant on Tibet Road, called Tibet Kitchen. We were to go there for dinner and Chaang and duly wound our way up the steep slope. Hotel California was blaring out of the stereo, as 2 Thumbhas of Chaang were placed on our table. The mugs were brimming over with the millets and a few grains of rice on top (signifying welcome). A steaming mug of hot water was poured in and we were advised to wait for 5 minutes, before we dipped our Pipsings in. The Pipsing is a long narrow bamboo straw, which apart from the hole at the end which gets dipped in, also had 4 slits around that end, all of which ensured that the millets didn't get into your drink. The best momos in Gangtok were served on our table and we sipped our first draught of Chaang. And how does it taste? The closest comparison I can give is that it tastes like a warm wine. It's nice and definitely leagues ahead of the only other native spirit I have had so far, feni. It's very like the German Gluhwein.

Pema Changyal, the wife of a local friend, told us that her mother in law gave her a lot of Chaang after the birth of her child. Not only was it supposed to have medicinal properties, but also was instrumental in making sure that the baby slept a lot. It certainly didn't seem to have any deleterious effects as the baby in question is now studying art and design @ Washington State University. There have been a few attempts to bottle Chaang which we believe failed. It is sometimes available, we were told from shops which sold country liquor. Far better option - speak to Raj @ Tibet Kitchen on Tibet Road.

Sated with momos, Chaang and Beef curry and rice, we walked back to our hotel. Next morning was going to be yet another try to get a glimpse of the elusive Kanchenjunga, which although theoretically visible from our room window, seemed determined to stay hidden by the clouds. Come on Kanchen, give it up.

Day 4

Off to Changu Lake, Baba Mandir and Nathu La. Nathu La @ 14,000 odd feet is the pass where the Indian and Chinese borders meet. Indian and Tibetan borders meet, if you want to be politically correct (or is it incorrect?). On the way up @ Kyongnosla, we had a cup of tea and a shot of cherry brandy. I thought the cherry brandy would calm my vertigo, but it did only momentarily. The taste reminded me of alcoholic cough syrup and I resolved to go back and exchange the cherry brand I bought for Pan liqueur. In 1962, when the Chinese invaded India, they came all the way to Kyongnosla, some 20 km odd from Gangtok and 30 km in from the border. The driver informed us that one of the regiments, stationed here, the Black Cat Eagles, do not have a nose in their logo, as the Chinese still occupy the Indian border post (the one we spotted just across the border). Fact or fiction, we don't know, but the Black Cat in the picture is indeed sans nose.

Karma Kele, husband of Pema, told us that in 1962, with the Chinese on their doorstep, Gangtok was blacked out, with all the windows covered with plastic. The richer citizens headed for their bunkers and drank Chaang as their servants kept supplying them with hot water. Nathu la Pass is the route the old silk route took and is scheduled to reopen for trade between India and China later this year. This was to be our last day in Gangtok as we drove back to Bagdogra the next day. We celebrated with a traditional Sikkimese repast at Hotel Netuk house. Bamboo shoot curry, Nettle soup, Pork curry, Chicken curry, rice all washed down with Dansberg Blue. A fitting end to a great trip. Back to sweltering Delhi now.

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Blogger Pragnya said...

Seems like you guys had a lot of fun with all the drinking and eating that u did.

I am not much of a drinker, keeping to my share of vodka once a month with the girls.

I like reading about it though, tells you a lot more about the other side.

Keep writing


1:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I noticed that you stayed at the Oriental.. planning to visit Gangtok in March myself.. would you recommend one of the suites there? This is for a honeymoon btw..

3:51 PM  
Blogger tulleeho said...

Hi Anonymous,

I would recommend the suites, only if you don't mind the climb up and down the 3 flights of stairs, assuming you get out of the room that is!



11:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Can I join your company?

3:08 PM  

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