If our recent experience of what a Gorkha regards as an ‘easy walk’ was anything to go by – a one in three incline through forest and driving rain for eight hours – we were not entirely convinced by Jiwan Rai’s assurances. Still, today he was wearing a suit and shirt, black shiny leather shoes and an umbrella hooked over his arm: it couldn’t be that difficult, could it?
When we accepted an invitation to stay in Jiwan’s family home in the mountains we hadn’t realised it would be quite so far off the beaten track. Remote Barranumber village, like many settlements in this region, clings to the side of a mountain miles from the road. The only way to get there is to trek beside the quinine plantations and jungle surrounding Kalimpong. It was too precious an opportunity to miss, so we equipped ourselves with walking boots, sensible trousers and waterproofs. I carried bottled water, cans of beer, a few bananas, biscuits, hats, a good book, torch, loo paper, matches, incense sticks, mosquito coils, spare sheets and the kitchen sink. Jamie carried his camera bag.
A walk in the park
We were prepared for vertical climbs, knee wrenching drops, and driving rain, but the weather was sunny and dry, and the walk turned out to be a gentle afternoon amble. We walked in single file: Jiwan at the front, me in the middle on his heels (eyes peeled for snakes), and Jamie lagging behind with his camera. The only noises came from the insects, birds and other small creatures hidden in the trees and undergrowth beside the trail. Stopping on a narrow path with views down into the Rangpo Valley, we could just make out the river sparkling below in the afternoon sun. On the opposite side of the valley Sikkim stretched into the distance.
“Next time you come we will make a camp, catch fish and have a picnic on the riverbank together.”
Surrounded by all this pastoral glory I half expected a unicorn or a satyr to come strolling round the corner. Instead a stream of clear, mountain-cooled water running across our path reminded Jiwan that we had beer with us.
“Let’s stop and rest,” he said, placing our cans mid stream.
Beers and balloons
While we waited for the beer to chill Jiwan pulled out some leaves by the roots, explaining that as a boy he used to eat them when he had no water (he used a local word to describe the plant which I can’t remember, I don’t suppose it would help identify them, but they were fern-like).
“You bite the balloon on the root, here.” He pulled the ‘balloon’ off and popped it in his mouth.
I bit into the first one and a refreshing liquid burst onto my tongue. It tasted of the mountain. Jamie, not one to shirk a new gourmet experience, spat his out declaring it disgustingly bitter. Jiwan laughed, explaining a little late that, “yes, sometimes they are a bit sour”.
When the other two had downed their mountain-cooled tinnies, and I’d had my fill of balloon roots, we continued our idyll. As we entered the village we passed a gardenia bush with a scent so heady it obliterated all its competitors. The top noses at Dior couldn’t come up with a more intoxicating fragrance. Jiwan picked us each a bloom and we arrived at his family home smelling of perfumed Parisian courtesans.
Did the Tudors live here?
Houses of the Lepcha, Nepali and Bhutia tribes are constructed from wooden frames, using local trees. Latticed bamboo is then fixed between the frames and filled with cow dung. At first glance they are indistinguishable from our wattle and daub Medieval buildings at home, and it can be disorientating to see what appear to be Elizabethan houses lining the roads in the Himalaya. The roses, geraniums and other English herbaceous border flowers arranged outside in pots only adds to the familiarity. Sometimes the exteriors are painted in pastel shades, but inside there’s no wallpaper or chintz. Instead a kind of slip is painstakingly smoothed over the walls to create an even finish. The corrugated iron roofs, often painted a terracotta colour, are the most obvious difference between our Tudor houses and these Himalayan counterparts.
At the Rai mountain home we drank tea and talked about the village of Barranumber. Containing 90 households, most of its inhabitants work in the quinine plantations for about 2500INR per month (around £35), supplementing their incomes by growing crops on the terraced hillside. But, like everywhere else, changes in the world’s climate have reached this small mountain enclave.
“One year recently we had hail stones for two hours,” said Premika, Jiwan’s sister, “and the villagers lost all their crops.”
They have had some good luck, though, with a donation from the Mondo Challenge Foundation. This meant they were able to build their own school a few years ago. All the children from the surrounding villages now have an education, at least up until the age of 11.
In the evening we watched Jiwan’s sister-in-law, Kabita, stoke the hearth in preparation for dinner, while her fifteen month old daughter, Sumnima, played in the ashes.
Dung and dinner
Without a whiff of the farmyard, and just like their neighbours’ houses, Jiwan’s family kitchen is coated in a yellow-ochre smooth cow dung, the low double range appearing to grow out of the floor. Its two open fires gave off plenty of smoke as Kabita’s husband, Santa, cooked the food directly on the flames. In the semi darkness we sat on ankle-high stools to eat fresh momos, noodles and pork. Santa plied us with ‘Tiger’s Milk’, a gently fermented maize left to work its magic in a bucket. The baby greedily sucked the opaque liquid from her cup as we moved on to tongba (millet beer) then raksi (pronounced roxy) a hot version of schnapps.
Later that night we floated back to our room and slid under soft blankets and freshly laundered sheets. As I inhaled the scent from our gardenia blossoms placed on a saucer by the bed, I just had time to notice that the facing window looked directly up the mountain.
Apart from managing the Mondo Challenge Foundation in West Bengal, Jiwan’s family also runs ‘Village Discovery Tours’. This not-for-profit business offers visitors to India the chance to experience how local people live in the eastern Himalaya: stay in a village home, eat home-cooked food, walk in the fields and forests and fish in the river. Any profits are ploughed directly back into the participating villages. The business has been on hold for a year and they are in the process of re-launching the website. If you would like more details please ‘contact me here’ and I will forward your enquiry. As soon as the website is up and running I will add the details to this page.
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