Impromptu travel plans are always exciting. It was April and I was still lamenting over my cancelled plans for a trip to Kasol. Just then I got a call from my photographer friend. It was the end of the financial year in his company and he had a bit of free time, so he was inquiring if I’d be interested in a trip. I didn’t have to think as I was always ready for a trip.
I forego my sorrow and started searching for new offbeat destinations. While browsing, I came across a Facebook post featuring Rucksack’s homestay at Simanadara. Rucksack is a travel company which has beautiful homestays in offbeat destinations in North Bengal. The photographs of Simanadara looked enticing and the destination looked comparatively less crowded. After a quick discussion, my friend and I both agreed that this will be an ideal getaway for us.
We started making all the arrangements. We booked our homestay with Rucksack and our transportation with RedBus. It was the beginning of summer so there was no way we were going to get a train ticket. Our bus was from Esplanade, a major bus stop in Kolkata, to Siliguri. From there, a car from the Rucksack team would take us to the homestay.
The Journey To Rucksack’s Homestay at Simanadara, North Bengal
After waiting with bated breaths, the day of the journey was finally here. I was meeting my friend after quite some time, so it was a warm reunion. We reached the bus station and boarded our bus, The Royal Cruiser. The evening passed with us catching up. We were both travellers in the truest sense of the term. We both loved exploring offbeat destinations. While I was more of a travel blogger, he was more of a photographer. But we both shared the same belief in responsible travel. That was one of the reasons why we both chose a homestay instead of a normal hotel.
As we woke up in the morning, we found that it would take 2 more hours to reach Siliguri. The arrival time was mentioned to be 6 am, so we were pretty disappointed at the delay.
We finally reached the Tenzing Norgay Bus Terminus at 9 am. We immediately called the driver whose number was provided by Rucksack. His name was Tamang and he arrived in a small red Alto. We were hungry and also needed to freshen up, so we asked for a stopover at a dhaba. After a plate of hot aloo parantha and cold lassi, we felt refreshed and continued the journey.
It was a bright sunny day. The car sped along the neat Army maintained roads of Siliguri. Soon the forests began. With the sprightly green trees shimmering in the sunlight and the wind beating on our faces, the joy of the journey began to sink in. The forest was dense with three layers of colour: the brown of the soil and tree trunk, the green of the trees and the blue of the sky above.
We reached a bridge whose edges were tied with colourful Buddhist flags. Down below was the dried up Teesta river with its bank strewn with white pebbles. Beyond it extended the lofty mountains enveloped with menacing clouds threatening with a downpour.
We knew we had entered Darjeeling district as we passed the Coronation Bridge. As we gazed at the huge arched relic, I was reminded of the rich history of the bridge. Also known as Sevoke Bridge, the Coronation Bridge is situated on National Highway 31 and connects the districts of Darjeeling and Jalpaiguri. It was designed by the last British Engineer of Darjeeling Public Works Department (PWD) in commemoration of the coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in 1937 and completed in 1941. The foundation stone was laid by the then Governor of Bengal, John Anderson.
For locals, it’s known as Baghpool (tiger bridge) because of the two lion statues at the entrance of the bridge. However, our driver had a completely different reason to recognise the bridge. He introduced to us the heritage structure as the one where the Aamir Khan ad was shot “Thanda Matlab Coca Cola”. He even started humming the tune after that.
Ascending the Hills
We stopped to look at a beautiful view of the Teesta river bending in between the mountains. We immediately got our cameras out and started shooting. It started raining, adding to the lush beauty of the place.
As we started to ascend, the air got cooler and the rain continued. The driver and the caretaker were continuously conversing in their local language. I asked them which tongue were they speaking in. The driver replied that he spoke Gorkha while Tamang ji spoke Nepali. He went over to teach us how to say hello in both the languages. It was a wonderful experience being introduced to the local language.
The river soon gave way to forests and the road started sloping upwards. On one side we could see dense forests rising up and on the other, the valley extending down. We crossed the crowded town of Kalimpong and went further up. We had started to get a feel of the mountains by then.
Next came a village called Pedong. It had a renowned school with a big football field. We saw many school students on the way. By this time, there was greenery all around us interspersed with a mild fog and the mountains far away enveloped by wisps of clouds. It was a magical atmosphere.
Rucksack’s Homestay at Simanadara, North Bengal
After 15 mins more, we reached our homestay at Simanadara. Some tall Tibetan flagpoles fluttered in the wind. We reached the homestay and unpacked. We were very hungry so we immediately sat at lunch after freshening up.
We were welcomed with a homely food comprising of rice, fried okra, small potatoes and dal. There was also Gundruk, a traditional dish of Nepalis and Gorkhas. It’s actually fermented leafy vegetables served as an appetizer or as a side dish. It’s very spicy and rich in minerals. Tamang ji also mentioned that Gundruk was mostly consumed during the summer months and helped in curing stomach ailments.
After lunch, we were welcomed by a friendly dog who lived there. We took a view of the surroundings. It was a colourful homestay with a backdrop of the cloud-covered mountains. In the front, there was a sheltered spot to sit and enjoy the view. All around the homestay was a cultivable land where the owners grew vegetables. There was also a small nursery where flowers and orchids grew. The homestay was run by Rajesh Tamang and his wife. They had a son, who went to the school in the nearby town of Pedong. And then there was the dog. It was a beautiful home.
The view was spectacular from here. The clouds had parted a little. Through this gap, rays of light fell over the mountain ranges. Two mountain ranges converged at the valley where the Rongpo river flowed in between. It was heavenly.
After taking a little rest, we set out for an evening walk. With Tamang ji as our guide, we started exploring Simanadara town. Our first stop was a 200-year-old Lepcha house. It was made entirely of wood and had a thatched roof. It was marked as a heritage building by the Indigenous Lepcha Tribal Association. Tamang ji pointed out that the entire structure was built by just arranging the pieces of wood together without using a single nail.
From there, we strolled uphill. The usual mountainous sights greeted us. Colourful houses perched on a slope. Picturesque homes perched precariously on the edge of a hill. Green columns of pines and firs surrounding the houses. While walking, we came upon a particular house. It was of bright blue colour with red flowers surrounding it. Melodious tunes of a Nepali song floated in the air from the house. A face of a pretty Nepali child peered from behind one of the windows.
It was almost six and the light was weaning. So we turned back to the resort. We were tired after a long day of travel so we went for dinner early. Tamang ji told us about the origin of the name, Simanadara. Simana meant border. Simanadara referred to the border between the villages inhabited by two sections of people. One was those who had government jobs and were employed. The others were those who didn’t have a job and survived by working on cinchona plantations, apart from having their own land which they cultivated. Simanadara was home to all communities of people – Lepchas, Tamangs, Gorkhas, Bhutias etc. The nearest market was Pedong and the nearest town was Kalimpong. Pointing to the mountains in the front, he explained that to the left was West Bengal and to the right was Sikkim.
The next morning, we left early to go to Munsong. It was cloudy and the roads were misty. On the way to Munsong, we stopped at a viewpoint to admire the mountains.
It was a spectacular sight. Layers of mountains extended as far as the eyes could go with clouds floating across them dreamily. It was a quintessential mountainous landscape. We spotted small houses perched along the slopes of the mountains covered with deep green forests as white piles of clouds looking like cotton candies rolled down the valley. Looking down, you could see winding roads leading to villages. We filled our eyes and our cameras with the sights.
Driving on, we crossed a scenic road surrounded by forests. We stopped the car to take in the sight. On the left were trees with white slender trunks that covered the slope all the way up. The cloudy weather, the dense forests and the absence of a single soul anywhere else gave a surreal feel to the entire place. There was serene silence except for the sound of insects and birds.
We finally reached Jalsa Bungalow, the residence of the Directorate of Cinchona and other Medicinal Plant. It was a pretty little bungalow surrounded by a lawn with flowers, trees with huge trunks and roots growing out of the soil, small benches placed intermittently and sheltered viewpoints.
From there, the view of the mountain, forests and valley was breathtaking. The misty weather augmented the beauty of the landscape even further. Luckily for us, the weather cleared a little. We could spot the Rongpo river curving between the mountains. This idyllic scene cradled amidst nature filled us with a strange contentment. We didn’t feel like leaving the place and returning.
Descending a little, we came upon an even more gorgeous view. With the weather clear, we could behold the entire panorama of stacks of mist-laden mountains solemnly guarding the horizon with the Rongpo river, a small strip in between them like a silver ribbon, and the lush green forests extending all around.
We returned by the fog covered mountain paths down to the cinchona plantation. The plantation was owned and managed by the government. There were about 600 workers in total at the plantation from surrounding villages.
Cinchona is a medicinal plant that helps produce quinine, an effective cure against fever and malaria. Tamang ji explained how the plant was processed and the benefits of consuming it. We also met a family who worked at the plantation. They had a beautiful kid. I took permission to take their photo.
Silence Valley and Tinchuley
The next day, we started off for Silence Valley. On the way, the driver told us the story of the valley. The king of the Lepchas, Gyabo Achuk, was a very moody ruler. Whenever he used to be angry, he used to visit this place, sit on a rock and not speak to anybody. He preferred this place because of its silence. From then on, the valley has come to be known as the Silence Valley.
The car dropped us on the road. From there descended a slender trail of twigs and roots. Coming to a landing and looking around, we were stupefied. Around us were gigantic pines with their trunks extending upwards as far as the eye could see. The silence enthralled us and the company of the ancient pines filled us with a strange serenity. We walked on mesmerised. After a few steps, a completely different view lay in front of us. It was a stretch of a verdant valley guarded by the lofty pines. The striking contradiction of the landscape amazed us.
Next, we headed for Tinchuley. I had heard of the destination before. The driver mentioned that there were some good viewpoints at Tinchuley. The mountains could be seen on all three sides offering a panoramic view. Tamang ji informed us that Tinchuley was the highest point to see the mountains.
What he did not tell us was the trek we needed to do to reach there. The car dropped us at a landing from where a dirt road led upwards. While starting the trek, we had no idea how the path will be. As the clearing ended and the forest began, we found out that there wasn’t a proper path. We had to make our way through the forest, pushing away the branches and leaves with our hands. We also had to be careful about our footing because the path was stony and uneven and beside us lay the expansive vacuum of the valley. Nonetheless, it was very adventurous.
We passed a burnt tree devoid of any branches or leaves. Finally, we reached a clearing which offered a view. Tamang ji pointed to a place in the hills where there seemed to be a cluster of settlements. He told us it was Sillery Gaon, the highest village. Dense forests covered the mountain overlooking the valley. Beyond, stacks of mountain peaks disappeared into the clouds. On the other side, the mountain stood like a huge boulder with little villages dotting its body. Clouds wandered at different heights around the mountain.
Tamang ji showed us the point where we still had to trek to. However, owing to the cloudy weather, we decided that it wouldn’t make sense to climb all the way up since we wouldn’t be able to view anything. So we decided to turn back.
Experiencing Traditional Lepcha Hospitality at Simanadara
On our last day at Simanadara village, Tamang ji told us that he’ll take us to a traditional Lepcha home of his friend, Passang Lepcha, right next to his homestay.
On the way, we passed a tree. Tamang ji mentioned that it was a very important tree for all the local people. Whenever anyone was sick or something bad was happening in their life, people came and prayed to this tree and donated some money. It was their belief that doing so will make everything alright.
We reached Passang Lepcha’s house. He happily and warmly greeted us to his humble abode. It was a colourful and pretty home. His wife was cooking a meal on an oven while his little kid was prancing about. Passang ji was wearing a traditional Lepcha dress. He insisted, as a token of respect and love, that I wear the same. Lepcha men wear a traditional dress called the dumprá, a colourful handwoven fabric that is worn by pinning it at the shoulder and fastened with a waistband or tago. They also wear a small round cap, known as thyáktuk, bound by a strip of black velvet and a knot on top. The equivalent dress for a female is the dumbun.
We sat down and he served us water. I asked him something that was brewing in my mind for many days. The water here had a strange, burnt taste to it and I was curious to know the reason for the same. He explained that due to the cold, they always kept the water heating on an oven which led to the burnt taste.
He talked about his life. The Lepchas there were very poor. Passang ji himself cultivated cardamom in his fields and then sold them at the market in Pedong. Most of the Lepchas cultivated their land as a source of living. He was planning to start a homestay just like Tamang ji. One section was already completed. As soon as the guests would start pouring in, he would start the construction of the next one. He showed me the homestay. It was cosy and colourful with clean rooms. He told me to tell all the people I know about his homestay so that people could come and stay there and experience traditional Lepcha hospitality. He gave me the details of the homestay and said that guests could book by directly calling him. I am sharing the details here.
Name – Passang Lepcha
Address – Kashyong Busty (Simanadara), District Kalimpong.
Contact – 9932535377
Homestay – Ronglee H-Stay (28 kms from Kalimpong Town).
If you’re visiting Kalimpong, don’t forget to spend a night at Passang ji’s homestay. You will be swept away by his sheer generosity and kind hospitality. The simplicity and innocence of the Lepchas will touch your heart and leave a smile on your face even after you’ve left.
Tamang ji shared his own plans for expansion. He was very much interested in sports. So he wanted to start some sports activities for kids in his homestay. He said people loved to play football and cricket here. So he wanted to start competitions between the locals and the guests who visited him. I wished him all the best for his endeavours. Knowing that I was a blogger, he asked me to check if any of my readers will be interested in the idea.
So I’m putting forward the question to you. How would you like an experience of staying in a Himalayan homestay and participating in a sports competition with the locals? Let me know in the comments below.
We packed our bags to leave. We felt really sad to leave this paradise and return back to our busy city life. We knew we would miss this homestay at Simanadara, Tamang ji and his excellent hospitality.
Tamang ji and his wife said that it was a pleasure for him to have us. He wanted to show his respect by gifting us a shawl. He said that the guests they liked a lot received this. We were deeply touched.
We headed back to Siliguri. We were taking the route via Deolo and Kalimpong and down to Siliguri. We would make a stopover at the Shukle Monastery and Kalimpong nursery.
We took in as much as we could of the scenic roads, the pure air and the open mountain views. We knew these will soon be replaced by the fumes of petrol and concrete jungles.
We stopped at the monastery. Tamang ji mentioned it was dedicated to the Guru Rinponche. Also known as Padmasambhava, Guru Rinponche was an 8th-century Buddhist master, believed to be a “second Buddha” and is known to be responsible for the construction of the Buddhist monastery at Samye in Tibet.
The place was filled with bright coloured Tibetan flags. In the centre was a huge statue of Guru Rinponche. On the left was a vista of mountains and valleys with the sun playing hide and seek with the clouds above. The pristine beauty of the monastery and the serenity of the place stayed with us.
We continued towards Kalimpong. Soon the scenic roads gave way to the crowded streets of Kalimpong. The silence was replaced with the honks of cars and the babble of people. Kalimpong too had become a crowded touristy town. We stopped at the nursery. The Kalimpong nursery had an ensemble collection of cacti. Some were plain green, some had twisted arms, some had pink flowers on their head, some sported a yellow flower among the thorns. There were also a beautiful collection of flowers.
From here, we got a spectacular view of Kalimpong town. The green mountains were covered with the settlements resembling specks of dust. The mighty clouds swelled above.
We resumed our journey and descended further down to Siliguri. We passed the Teesta dam that was under construction. It got cloudy and started raining. We stopped at a scenic restaurant for lunch that offered a view of the river and the mountains. That’s how our exotic experience at the homestay at Simanadara came to an end.
Over to you.
Where do you prefer to stay on your travels – homestays or hotels?