When it comes to the beauty of mountains and small hill towns, the Himalayas have got it all. But call it smart marketing strategies or sheer popularity among tourists, the bigger names always steal the show. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t more treasures to discover. And as a travel blogger, I have made it my purpose to unravel those hidden gems of the Himalayas. Last year, my destination was the good old Siliguri district. And no, I am not talking about Darjeeling here.
It is already October as I set out on my journey towards the unseen and unknown. The cold waves have not started hitting the foothills yet, but the air is crisper and trees are almost naked.
To the village
I land at Siliguri airport and rent a car to go to Kalimpong. But that’s not my destination today. I have found (read ‘online’) a small village called Chuikhim, about 50 Km before Kalimpong town. The nearly five hours drive from Siliguri feels like an eternity, up the winding roads and down the valleys on the road to Alipurduar. In some time we reach the Bagrakote tea estates. The dark asphalt roads flanked by tea gardens on both sides is not a sight I have not seen but this does hold a unique charm. The absence of tourists and traffic makes all the difference. Thank God for not letting every place under the sun fall into the trap of consumerism!
My car driver calls out to me asking if I want to see ‘the river’. It is called Lees, by the way. But I decided to saved it for later. We make a diversion from Chunabhati and start cutting through the forest. Surreal yet fascinating, the next few miles are by far the best part of the day. The road through the forest is stone-paved and makes for a bumpy ride. Despite the broad daylight, the forest trail is denser with clusters of birch, alder and similar species.
And then as the rocky road comes to end, we are standing at the edge of Chuikhim. I am staying at Humro Home (translated as Our Home) - a cozy homestay run by a local Nepali family. After a quick meet-and-greet with my lovely hosts, they take me for a tour of their home, which would also be mine for the next two days. The house is a network of stairs with rooms with a surrounding garden. The open rooftop overlooks the entire village spread out across the terraced farms. On the eastern end of the valley, the mountains slope down and touch the Lees River (the one I saw in the morning).
A day around Chuikhim
My first day ends with a warm and refreshing meal made of home-grown vegetables, meat, and rice. My hosts made it a point to let everyone know about the alcohol ban in the village so neither the locals nor the guests can enjoy a swig or two. But that got replaced with the most refreshing tea that I have ever had. Post dinner, we sat around a small bonfire on the porch, talking about the Chuikhim community. The silence at night and early morning are almost overwhelming.
As the morning sun kisses the mountains and casts an emerald glow on the hills, I pack my day bag and venture out into this wonderland I have just discovered. Winter is already in the air but it feels nice. I walk through the quaint little village which houses not more than 1200 people or roughly 300 families. Locals here are friendly and warm, signalling me to share a cup of morning tea and allowing me to take a photo with them.
The walk through the village is refreshing but as the slopes get steeper near the valley, it gets tiring. I find that forest path from the day before and discover a spidery trail that looks like a shortcut to the Lees River.
The forest is like the one in the story- ‘The Enchanted Garden’- that I read as a child. With chirping birds, buzzing crickets, and rustling leaves, this is indeed an enchanted land where people are still free of material trappings.
I spend the day roaming around the village, stopping here and there for the perfect photo, or to catch a breath.
As I pass the wooden cottages perched at different slopes of the hills, I feel like I am in another world, stuck in a time warp. This is a land where people are oblivious to what we urbanites call ‘lifestyle’. They are satisfied in their small but ample homes, cooking on wooden fires, living the real ‘organic’ life with farm-grown produce, and living according to nature’s rules. I see this and get an overwhelming feeling of satisfaction mixed with melancholy, realizing that it actually takes very little to be happy, a lesson I will take home from this experience.