I was feeling feverish due to the sudden weather change in Parvati Valley (in May, of all seasons!) when I received a phone call inviting me to a previously unheard of village located close to Great Himalayan National Park (GHNP) near Tirthan Valley, Himachal Pradesh. It was afternoon and I was uncertain if I would be able to make it to the remote village. I decided that it was better that I travel there the next day. I’d never heard the name of this village and that automatically made it a secret village; and being located in vicinity of GHNP I was certainly excited at being invited at a local homestay!
I’d reached Tirthan Valley after taking a bus from Aut – and spent a couple of days exploring another remote valley in this region called Seraj. I was then supposed to reach Sainj Valley because this is where the secret village near Great Himalayan National Park (UNESCO World Heritage Site) was located. A funny fact about transportation in Sainj Valley, Tirthan Valley & Banjar Valleys is that while Banjar is the transportation hub and biggest town in the region; the transport options do not necessarily ply from Banjar. Hence, I had to get down in Larji – from where the road to Sainj bifurcates.
The skies were consistently stormy everyday and I was lucky that it was nice and sunny when I made it to Sainj. Another bus ride would take me to the base of the village that I was supposed to reach. Within no time the weather worsened, and it began drizzling. A super cold wind blew and reminded me to be careful with my jackets. I was still quite feverish and it was imperative that I reach the homestay in the village while it was daylight.
The bus ride from Sainj was crazy! The road wound up considerably higher with a series of hairpin bends and it seemed like a newly constructed road. With the continuous rain around, the road was full of slush and the bus was having a difficult time manoeuvring around the turns. I was very tired and to be honest a bit apprehensive if I’d taken the right decision to say yes to the offer of reaching an unknown village. But the person making the phone call was an acquaintance and my instinct told me it was going to be worth it!
The bus was full, with an eagerly awaited festival happening in the village and some school children had to be asked to get down so that the bus could make another attempt at covering the last 2 kilometres to the village around GHNP. It was gorgeously green and when the sunlight peeked through the clouds, it made the proceedings even more magical!
The walk from where the bus left me and the initial village was nervy to say the least. The path was full of slush and it was impossible to walk even one step without slipping. It was a really funny sight to see the local Himachalis struggle with me and all this made for a good laugh! I spotted the locals who had invited me there, they were laughing at my misery and suddenly we saw one young guy had actually slipped and fallen in the slush. Some people picked him up and it all seemed chaotic in the festival environment.
I climbed the stairs, and met with the locals as we walked to the festival place which was bang in the middle of the village. I was already happy with the pristine setting of this village that was set in a sort of a green bowl surrounded by pine and deodhar forests. There was a temple around where locals had gathered in their finest clothes; the ladies were decked in colourful shawls and jewels and the men looked dapper in their woollen waistcoats.
We clicked a few photos and I was informed that the secret village with the homestay was in fact another 45 minutes hike away. The sun was about to set and I quickly told them that its better that we leave for our homestay village since I was not at my full fitness and would go slow on the ascending path. The gorgeous golden hour evening light lit up the forest and I couldn’t help but feel amazed at the stunning natural beauty of this place. After all, we were in close vicinity of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Great Himalayan National Park!
We walked and walked through the devdhar forests and finally around half an hour later, the valley opened up and we were in front of the sacred Pundrik Rishi Lake. Having read Tarun Goel’s blog post years ago; I had known that there was no water to be seen in this lake but it is a vast space filled with greenery. Pundrik Rishi Lake’s location was surreal too; it was surrounded entirely by a devdhar forest on one side while our walking path continued on the other side.
To our left there was a pristine village of around forty homes. Someone mentioned that a Swiss couple has recently bought an old dwelling here and lives in peace with a stunning meadow around. It was almost dark when we somehow reached the homestay. The locals were used to it and made it easily, while I had to take careful steps to make sure I don’t slip and prove to be a clumsy guest in the village!
As is the norm with villages that are only accessible by foot; homes in this secret village too were traditionally designed in kath-kuni architecture style. Wooden homes with stone roofs complimented a rustic village feel and we were in touching distance of Great Himalayan National Park. Snowy peaks glistened in the moonlight and it appeared that fresh snow had accumulated during the recent weather disturbances.
I don’t know if I first saw the homestay; or the aroma of devdhar wood hit my nostrils first! The house was made of wood and that fact alone was enough to please me. There was an open corridor with an endless view of the fields and the snowy peaks on the other side. A lovely breeze blew; the windows actually have been left like that to not prove a hindrance to the fresh air that blows abundant in this setting.
All of us sat in the corridor and exchanged greetings with the homestay family, the aroma of devdhar wood from the room was omnipresent and every breath I took seemed to increase my lifespan. I was immediately welcomed by everyone and shown around the house. It was a nice and cosy space that functioned as a perfect homestay and with the open corridor with an endless landscape view full of fields and mountains, I knew I was going to love it!
It was still quite cold and we moved to the kitchen room to have our dinner. The room was warm with a running bukhari / tandoor (traditional mountain stove in all parts of the Himalayas). Food had been prepared by the ladies of the house in the upper floor kitchen and had been kept warm on the tandoor. This space served served as a separate kitchen + dining area for the homestay guests. I was delighted to eat bhaturu (traditional Himachali dish) along with tasty rajma, kadhi and a tasty local preparation of brinjal.
The washroom was located a short distance away from the homestay and it was also a point where the 3G/4G mobile network was prominent. We sat in the open corridor again and talked about life, the pointless need of chasing materialistic happiness and constantly being reminded by the world of comparisons.
When the breeze blew and brought with it the intoxicating smell of the snow, a little tear escaped my eye. I was torn between comfort and adventure; the aroma of the room of devdhar wood on one side and the beckoning of the snowy Himalayas on the other – and in the midst was a homestay that balanced it all!
Someone played incredibly beautiful music; a fusion of western and Indian classical beats and in my feverish state, I had no idea when sleep came. Every breath must have been magical in that sweet aroma for when I woke up, I was fit as a fiddle and my fever had disappeared. The sun was out and it was finally pleasant enough to let go of my jacket and soak in some sunshine. We lazily sipped glass after glass of piping hot chai until the homestay owner declared that I should have a bath with warm water.
The festival in the nearby village was in full swing and all the locals were getting decked up for it. Our host had received numerous phone calls from his friends for the cricket match and he was getting restless to go for the same. His funny way of speaking and friendly demeanour instantly made him a hit and we always laughed our heart out when he spoke!
Among his best one liners was, ‘Bhai ji, main na jab bando ka friend request aata hai tab dekhta hun profile ko… but jab koi bandiyon ka aata hai tab direct accept!’
I’m not sure if you had a laugh too but when he said it in his funny way, we actually rolled on the floor laughing!
After that, while lunch was being made, we decided to head for a walk for some chill time. We crossed fields of wheat, barley, potatoes and the villagers were picking peas as they were ready. I happily pocketed some when they gave me the peas and how tasty they were! There were pretty traditional houses in one of the nearby villages and after walking across more fields, we ended up in an apple orchard with a bird’s eye view of the sub-valley in Great Himalayan National Park (GHNP) and snowy peaks to top it off.
Someone played Pink Floyd’s The Division Bell album as we sat among wild strawberries surrounded by marijuana plants that gave out a sweet smell. The valley reverberated with the sound of rushing water in the stream that flowed below. It was magical to just be in these surroundings. After spending an hour or so enjoying the solitude, we headed back to our homestay for lunch and then leave for the festival and cricket match.
Clouds started to gather in the sky and by the time we finished our lunch, the weather had become gloomy and cold once again! And lunch had been such an elaborate affair that I immediately felt drowsy. But the infectious energy of the host put any plans of rest to sleep, he was in his best humourous mood and was very excited about the cricket match. The elder brother of the family also dressed up and bhabhi ji was also ready in her finest clothes and make-up.
As soon as we started walking toward the festival village, it started drizzling. It was fun to meet the locals along the way and hide beneath the trees when the rain got heavier. A cricket match was being played near the Pundrik Rishi Lake and the surreal shade of green made it feel like an unforgettable sight. Mahi (host of the house) tried to pose for a few shots around the lake but the cool guy that he was, he failed miserably at it!
The festival was a riveting affair, and a separate blog post is needed for that. It drizzled continuously and once we started on our way back to the secret village with the homestay near GHNP region in Sainj Valley, a strange thing happened (more details in the festival blog post).
The sun peeked through the clouds as we neared the lake and the stunning light resulted in some epic landscape photographs. We jumped and ran to our homestay, only to be invited for chai into a 200 year old home in the village. Later in the darkness, I somehow stumbled into our homestay only for the breeze to kiss like a long lost lover. The heart fluttered with unparalleled happiness, perhaps I could stay here forever.
But I am a man with wandering feet; and another enigmatic village in Tirthan Valley beckoned to me the next day. The hosts heartwarming behaviour made me wish I should never leave but since it was time to go; one of the members of the family walked with me to guide along a different hiking trail that would lead me directly to the Sainj – Neuli road from where I would get a bus to Sainj.
I, hereby take the opportunity to thank Mahi for his epic one liners; and the locals to have invited me to this insanely beautiful and traditional Himachali village in the periphery of Great Himalayan National Park where nature exists in an unrivalled form. I also hope you appreciate my not naming the village; as a matter of fact people with wandering hearts and feet – aka Bawray Banjaray’s are known to make their way here.
In a few years when the entire world’s tourist locations will be mapped on a travel map; my only hope is that intrepid travellers will have a at least some spaces to call their own. I don’t care if google doesn’t show my secret village blog post in search results if and when it becomes popular but this is an attempt to make more people aware that magical places like these exist only because there is less tourist footfall.
I’ve observed the detrimental effects of excess tourism in many a place; and with a renewed focus on sustainable and responsible tourism I love the idea of the locals to run a rural tourism initiative by starting the homestay. With water problems running high in the entire Himalayan region in summer, I urge all tourists and travellers to find their own offbeat village rather than crowd the already crowded hill stations.
Have any secret villages to talk about? I’d love to listen to the stories and experiences.