It had got to the stage where returning to the cities was fraught with danger. After spending a good 3 and a half months in Kasar Devi, we had began liking it so much that it was perceived to be dangerous if we spent more time there! The possibility of living there forever had begun crossing our mind. I had always wondered how it would be to ‘live’ in Kullu Valley and immediately set about the thought by talking to my friend, Rajeshwar Thakur who lived in Raison, Kullu Valley. He understood the requirement and the budget and immediately told me to make plans for a safe arrival. He assured of making us stay at one of the relative’s houses in one of the nearby villages in Kullu Valley.
On our last night in the forest cottage in Kasar Devi, we were invited for a bottle of wine by our only neighbours. It was a poignant moment when the lady remarked that they had also come to Kasar Devi for a few weeks or months and in the present day it had been 18 years of them living in Kasar Devi! We had decided to stay on in Kasar Devi and celebrate Holi festival with the family of the cottage owner and in retrospect I can safely say it turned out to be an unforgettable holi celebration. I began the difficult task of trying to find a personal cab from Kasar Devi to Delhi, at a reasonable cost. We gathered that the Volvos to Kullu-Manali were operational from Delhi and I decided to tackle one problem at a time and to just focus on the returning to Delhi part.
I got lucky with my search and we reached Delhi safely in a Toyota Innova that drove the almost 400 km distance from Kasar Devi to Delhi for only 4000 Rupees. The 5-6 days in Delhi felt quite troublesome after spending the previous months in Kasar Devi without a mask. I quickly started my research of getting out of Delhi by calling the private Volvo guys and figured that since most of the buses were going empty, it would be prudent to choose a weekday to leave for Kullu Valley. We went out sparingly in Delhi and it was quite cumbersome to go around with the stringent mask wearing and constant talks of Covid-19 in the air. In the meanwhile, a wonderful development came by. Rajeshwar bhai wasn’t keen on random folks staying for a few days at his homestay and we decided on a mutually agreeable price for staying at Yuthok Homestay (his Home).
I was keen on leaving from Delhi at the earliest and my Volvo guy had promised to book me in a bus that had hardly 5-6 passengers thereby reducing the risk. Anyhow, the bus idea never came to pass and we left for Kullu in a car with a friend. This was by far the safest way of travel at that time and we left from Delhi early on Saturday morning in the first week of April and made good time. We had chai at home and only stopped for a late breakfast/early lunch (or brunch, if you prefer) somewhere on a bypass near Chandigarh. It was a Punjabi dhaba by the name of Lovely Dhaba and the food turned out to be incredibly tasty and freshly made.
We ordered paneer and aloo pyaz paranthas made in a tandoor and served with a dollop of fresh white butter, I had also asked for dall to go with it and a freshly made green chutney was also served. We were all quite hungry and figured that it made sense to eat a heavy meal and just stop later in the afternoon for a chai. We relished the food with gusto and asked for seconds; and even requested for a glass of lassi. The lassi turned out to be super amazing and was given in a true Patiala glass. I went and thanked the owner at the end of the meal. I made a note of the approximate location in my mind to make sure of eating at the same Lovely Dhaba whenever I crossed this region next time in a self-driven vehicle.
The weather had already become quite hot post noon and we were relieved to be beginning the ascent to Bilaspur. The road was fairly empty and we entered Himachal Pradesh without any checking or testing and paid the entry fee of INR 40. We would periodically roll down the windows and take the fresh air in to make sure we don’t get very tired. At around 230 pm, it was decided to make a short stop and we got lucky when a sugarcane cart appeared to our left under the shade of a big tree. The young kid at the cart made fresh sugarcane juice for us and seasoned it with fresh mint and lemon.
It turned out to be a welcome break to stretch our legs and we resumed our journey again and felt the sun mellow down a bit. After crossing Mandi, we took the recommended Kandi-Kataula road and loved the scenic landscapes. The air started getting colder as we ascended to Kandi, it was delightful to see the rhododendron flowers still in bloom. A solitary shop near Kandi had freshly made rhododendron juice and we tasted a glass each. The rhododendron juice was also available for sale and I bought a bottle of the concentrate for some 220 Rupees. It was a lot more expensive than the one we had recently bought in Uttarakhand which was for only 100-120 Rupees.
Also read : Raison to Jana hike
It was about 5 pm and we were enjoying the landscapes on this single lane road which was a far cry from the dust of the main highway to Manali. We joined the main road near Bajaura and made quick time to finally make it to Yuthok Homestay in Raison at 7 pm. It was almost dark and Thakur bhai was there to welcome us, with a mask of course! I had called him to update about our location many times during the day and he knew we were super hungry and were looking forward to dinner! We put our bags in the cottage and I immediately searched for my jacket. It was mildly cold and the weather felt like a welcome change from the hot winds of Delhi.
We were all quite tired and after freshening up and sitting in the open for a while, went upstairs to the dining table once the food was ready. Everyone said our hellos to the family and Nilza (Rajeshwar Thakur’s 6 year old daughter) came and said hi to us as well! Dinner was simple yet hearty and was served in vintage kansa plates and matching utensils. We thanked the family for letting us come from Delhi and assured them of our safety since we had not met anyone from outside in the last 2-3 days. The meals at Yuthok Homestay were always freshly made (mostly with farm grown vegetables cultivated by aunty herself) and were so varied and delicious that I ended up gaining 5 kilos over a period of 5 months!
It felt colder as the evening passed; we chatted with Thakur bhai after dinner and kept a safe distance from each other in the open garden. After all this is exactly how Covid-19 was spreading when people were not taking the simple precautions. After a short walk in the orchard, we went to the cottage and slept. It was a feeling of contentment and safety; of being relieved to get away from the danger zone also known as Delhi. We had reached our intended destination without any untoward trouble and whatever happened next with regards to the closing of the state borders would not matter.
The Cottage – Yuthok Homestay
We slept blissfully and all the effects of the long journey were forgotten next morning. We took the bigger and warmer blankets since it was still quite cold. It felt like proper spring weather and the days felt nice and pleasant in the sun and a jacket was always required. A lot of effort was required to get out of the cosy blanket in the lovely cottage when it was morning. A part of the cottage was the vintage building that housed Dorje Yudon Yuthok, a lady of Tibetan origin. She lived here in the 1960s for a couple of months and paid the family in 2 vintage carpets from Tibet! That, in short is why the place has been named Yuthok Homestay.
The cottage itself is a huge space and is nicely made and tastefully decorated. On the left side, there are many windows that see a waterfall from afar and in the front a solitary window opens to a view of the green orchard that is also owned by the family. The sound of the waterfall is a constant music to the ears! There are numerous settees in the cottage with a reading/writing table in one corner. The low seating arrangement is embellished by traditional Buddhist carpets and became the preferred space for us to sit and work, and chill after evening. There are two extra single beds on the left side and a cupboard for long term stayers to keep their stuff. The beds are made from walnut wood and it feels very nice and homely to live in this cottage.
There is a big television in the cottage which comes in handy when we wanted to watch movies on a big screen! Even though the whole idea of a television doesn’t sound appealing at all; the fact remains that it is fun to cosy up on cold afternoons and evenings and watching a movie is a great mood changer. The cottage door opens to a chorten and a tall prayer flag (Darchog) which is the highlight of this home. There is also a small garden with chairs and a table where the chorten is located and a colourful array of different flowers also grow in front of the cottage. The chairs are setup with a view of the waterfall on the other side of the road and the table is two tree trunks kept together. It is a nice mix of modern and rustic and would soon become our favourite spot.
I thank Rajeshwar in the morning and he says long term guests minimize the chances of infection so this arrangement suited them as well. I went to the kitchen and made chai for us; aunty gave a small kettle which kept the tea super hot. The floor of the kitchen was quite cold and I made a mental note to wear socks in the morning from now on. The sun came from behind the mountain at about 8 am and the it surely felt nice and warm. It is a very happy and peaceful vibe with the chorten and we sit on its step to soak in the sunshine.
The aroma of shukpa (dried juniper) pervaded our nostrils and put our happiness quotient on another level. After all we were in a Buddhist home and aunty had put the dried juniper on coals from the tandoor bukhari. It is akin to a traditional ritual when we burn these herbs for good spirits and clearing the energy from the house. The smell is very sweet and aunty loves it when we tell her that we love the aroma of shukpa. She tells us she will hang the small utensil near our cottage from next time onwards so that we can enjoy the fragrant aroma!
We enjoy the chai and then spread our yoga mats in the open space. The filtering sunlight is just about perfect to make sure it is warm enough to get in the yoga mood! The sound of a waterfall from the other side of the road is nice as a background music; not too loud and not too soft – just right to indulge less in conversation and more in listening to the sounds of nature. Breakfast time at home is 9 am and we rush to fill our tummies. Normal work-days for work-from-home and as a freelancer with less assignments coming for travel writing I had decided to focus more on my art and craft platform ‘Indiocal’.
The network at Yuthok Homestay is excellent and it is a welcome change to have proper network after a few months of barely manageable internet connectivity in the forest cottage in Kasar Devi. That, plus a proper postal address with India Post services meant I could actually get stuff delivered from artisans across India to Raison, Kullu and the big size cottage meant I had ample room to experiment with photography for these products. Even though that meant I would spend less time on my blog and maybe put the publishing of the book on the back burner but then life doesn’t work according to plan and this seemed to be the way forward.
2020 hadn’t turned out to be a great year financially and I am glad in retrospect that it didn’t, as it enabled me to start the craft platform where I am able to work directly with the artisans to make a difference at the grassroots level. At Yuthok Homestay, I laid out the soft sheep wool blanket that I had procured from Uttarakhand and converted it into a rug. It looked nice and provided a cosy feel with the cold temperatures.
Spring in Raison, Kullu Valley
After gently easing into a sort-of routine during the weekdays; we were ecstatic to be able to feel the joys of spring on short walks in Raison. Rajeshwar bhai and Nilza led us to their surrounding orchards and to make us more familiar with walking trails in the vicinity. We were spellbound with the sight of blooming flowers in shades of purple, pink, yellow, white and red while every inch of land was covered by grass. It was an otherworldly experience to notice the bare pecan nut tree bear the first leaves and progress to get so dense so as to become the regular shaded space once the weather turned hotter in June.
The nearest walk led us to a path that was surrounded by greenery and had a shaded canopy; it was to quickly become the most desired escape whenever we wanted to go somewhere. Since it was complete lockdown across India and Himachal Pradesh was no exception, we were not supposed to go out of home.
This is when we realised the full joys of living at Yuthok Homestay in Raison; and life in Kullu Valley in general. With the limited population that Kullu Valley has, it seemed that the Police didn’t really have to resort to being strict. We had ample space in the orchard to sit and work and could go for walks whenever we liked. Of course, the presence of us outsiders was a bit disconcerting for the locals at first but they soon realised that we lived in Raison and did not pose the ‘outsider’ threat of coronavirus.
There were still apple blossoms blooming on the trees that grew on a higher altitude and it was a pleasant surprise to come across those on random walks. We tried our best to stay in the little bubble that we had at Yuthok Homestay and had to carefully choose our conversations as every other phone call seemed fraught with terrifying news with the pandemic raging across India.
We weren’t missing eating out at all courtesy of the special meals being made almost everyday by Sangey bhabhi (Thakur’s wife) and then aunty took over once bhabhi went to Manali. The secret to the incredibly tasty food was the fact that aunty grew vegetables like potatoes, onions, garlic, broccoli, zucchini, peas on their farm space and everything was cooked fresh. Over the course of 5 months, I gained about 4-5 kilos! Among the traditional Lahauli dishes served at Yuthok Homestay were shunali(Lahauli pasta), tingmo, momos, thukpa, siddu and patrode (Kulluvi dishes). I had never really been a fan of Tibetan food till now but then this was the first time I was actually living with a family long-term and they used atta rather than maida.
A most joyful accompaniment to these dishes would be fresh chutney made on a stone silbatta with whatever fresh was available at any given time. Once work time was over, there would be days when we would play sequence (board game) with a glass each of Morpheus Xo. The secret recipe for the chutneys was fresh garlic and onion leaves, one dry rhododendron flower, some pecan nuts (from the family tree) and the masala magic of the stone silbatta!
From someone who would almost always say no to momos, I transformed into a momo-lover gorging on paneer momos at Yuthok that are the best in the entire world! Whenever it rained, Rajeshwar bhai would entice us with tales of Thukpa (or Trultu Tsati) being soul food for cold evenings. Over the course of 5 months we realised it became cold in the mountains at a moments notice and that it would become just the perfect weather for thukpa! I had taught Nilza the art of jasoosi (is there really an equivalent word in english for aimless jasoosi) by observing the goings-on in the home and kitchen and giving us the news about what was being made for dinner.
There was no going to school for Nilza and her two cousins who lived in the adjacent home; and all three of them would create quite a ruckus. Aunty had warned us beforehand to not let the 3 of them together in the cottage; Nilza’s antics were the maximum we could manage. As Nilza became more familiar with us, she would come unannounced and demand to play her favourite songs so that she could dance! Sometimes she would announce that all of us had to dance together and that would become like the funniest sight ever.
When bhabhi had gone to Manali; the onus of Nilza’s classes was to be shared by everyone (including us) since uncle and Rajeshwar bhai were getting busier in the orchard. These little things made us feel like a part of the family when we organised a small outdoor lunch for uncle, aunty and had a gala time with a cool breeze blowing under the shade of the pecan nut tree!
We were four of us at Yuthok; our friend had joined us just in time when the lockdown began in Delhi and he was quarantined for 3-4 days to make doubly sure we were not responsible for inadvertently jeopardising our surroundings. When the cases in North India were rising, it was a cause of concern in Kullu Valley too; and the local village festivities were halted as well. Only after the worst of the pandemic was over, then the villagers congregated once for an important matter to be discussed for a decision to be made by the devta.
In a theme common across India, making traditional dishes involved a lot of effort in making and thats one of the prime reasons everybody wants to stick to making dal, chawal, roti, sabji everyday but thats not the case at Yuthok! When the number of guests is less; there are more chances of a traditional dish being made. Aunty’s persimmon pickle is legendary and after relishing the pickle with gusto for 3-4 days; aunty safely hid it to save it for the other guests who would visit later in the year. To not feel left out; there was ample supply of pear pickle, peach pickle and lingdu pickle – when the season of lingdu arrived.
After 2 odd weeks of getting acquainted with Raison, we started going to the nearby orchards with a dhurrie and yoga mats and sat under the shade of the apple trees to make it a ‘work from orchard’ afternoons. Invariably, Bella (neighbour’s dog who usually was at Yuthok) would accompany us and it would result in a very happy time with never a dull moment.
After a week or two; we realised that it was possible to go out from 10 am to 1 pm and that enabled me to dispatch the pending orders of Indilocal via India Post. The lockdown was said to be quite strict and we heard stories that tourists caught violating the covid norms were penalised with novel ways of punishment; manning traffic lights! Repeated offenders were supposed to serve in hospitals as a community service. I didn’t bother to verify the news and had to be content with the fact that we could always go sauntering on the village paths through the orchards. We were supposed to stay clear of the main road and now that everyone in the village knew we were living like locals, there was no apprehension for them as well.
At Yuthok, breakfast would be served at about 9 am; lunch at around 2 pm and dinner at 9 pm. I had taken over the duties for morning and evening tea since the masala chai made by our friend proved to be too hot for everyone! It was still quite cold in the end of April and aunty had suggested I take tea in a kettle to make sure it didn’t get cold by the time we ended up drinking it. In the evening, it would be lovely to play games like chupam chupai, pakdam pakdai, musical chairs and tippi-tippi-tap with al four of us, Nilza and the two cousins. It took us back to being kids and we would fall and some of us would cheat to try and win and our bodies would pain from the falls; but now as I write this after almost a year of the experience – I am reminded what a wonderful time it was!
Me and Nilza would play saanp-seedi (snakes and ladders) and although Nilza would try her best to make sure I won some of the games; I would lose miserably and she soon got bored of winning! We tried carrom once or twice but it was a no competition as I was far superior and then the carrom board was nowhere to be seen for the next 4 months.
Yuthok Homestay family had numerous orchards and one of them was located higher up in the mountains. They had also kept a cow there and we would have a bounty of milk products like paneer, curd and heavenly ghee! The paneer and churpi (used in thukpa) at Yuthok is home-made and that is the secret ingredient for the incredibly tasty and fresh feel. As soon as spring arrived, aunty had sown peas, garlic, onions, chillies etc and within no time we would be assisting in harvesting fresh peas in May.
A juice bar, ‘LPS’ was within walking distance for us and whenever we felt bored, we would take a walk to drink apple/plum/pear juice in the serene environs of LPS. It is quite interesting to observe human behaviour; we are able to find joy in small things if we are unable to undertake big tasks for pleasure.
As the days turned into weeks and then into months; it became a sort of a Friday evening ritual for us to walk through the fields of Raison to then go up to one Harihar sweets shop in Chatanseri to pick up piping hot samosas with their (now famous) green chutney made with coriander, green chillies and fresh mint leaves. We would rush back to the path of the orchards and sit somewhere overlooking the road to enjoy the samosas like there was no tomorrow. Once, we were also able to convince bhabhi and aunty to send Nilza with us and even though she thought the green chutney was too spicy – even now we fondly remember that time when the simple joy of eating samosas made us look forward to Friday evening!
Since we knew it wouldn’t always be possible to go to LPS every time we wanted a juice fix; we had got a crate of seabuckthorn juice. It proved to be a refreshing drink post lunch as the weather was at its warmest at about 3 pm and made for an excellent cocktail mixer later in the summer. We shifted places with the weather; earlier we would seek sunshine while having tea in the open air seating in the garden just outside the cottage; and then as the months passed we would seek shade whilst sitting on the chorten or even relaxing on the swing located under the pecan nut tree. Evening time almost always meant surreal shades and hues in the sky on cloudy and stormy days.
Just a week before the actual lockdown started, we would sometimes venture to Naggar to a particular café for their delightful cheesecake. The cheesecake love affair only lasted for a few days as the extra-smart owner once served and packed stale cheesecake for us and upon me telling him – ‘It was less than perfect and that it created trouble for everyone’s tummies’ said that the cheesecake was perfect and that maybe we didn’t get the right taste! Needless to say we have never entered the said café again inspite of an entire year of now living in Kullu Valley. After an year, we have learnt that the safest bet for simple and fresh cheesecake in Kullu Valley is at Valentino’s where all of Kullu seems to come at-least once every week.
Tingmo (steamed bread) at Yuthok are usually served for breakfast with a seasonal vegetable. They are nice and plump; made with atta and steamed to perfection. These tingmo’s are a far cry from the blobs of maida that are usually served in restaurants in the name of tingmo. One of the times while enjoying tingmo, I remark that I would like to get a tee-shirt with ‘I love Tingmo’ written on it! One of the days when it has rained and the weather is even nicer, we go walking to the Beas riverbank on the other side of Raison. Our days here are characterised by morning yoga where sometimes Nilza would join us.
I had carried some pulses and herbs from Uttarakhand and those came to create a good change at Yuthok. There was black bhatt ki dall and jambu masala; bhabhi made the bhatt ki dall so nicely that even the Uttarakhandi locals would have been surprised with the perfect taste! Kullvi folks aren’t exactly known for their taste buds in terms of sweet dishes and although I had known this; the feeling was reinforced and after trying the sweets at Chandralok once or twice, I figured it was easier for me to occasionally make a sweet dish. It was by a stroke of luck that I had carried black rice and since it is savoured in small quantities, I was able to make black rice kheer thrice for the entire household. After all, the ghee was excellent and the milk was full fat cream – all it required was slow cooking and the black rice kheer turned out to be quite awesome, with a nutty flavour.
Early morning yoga with Nilza was the funnest; she would first take one of the mats and copy all the yoga poses nicely. She would giggle and make everyone laugh while the meditation session was on. She would continue with her antics and create some new exercises and poses. Sometimes for breakfast, there would be bhaturu’s stuffed with green soybean (grown on the family farm). One of the weekends, our friends created painted artwork and a signboard for Yuthok Homestay. In the meanwhile, Nilza was not to be left behind and painted some pine cones. I tried a paint brush for the first time in my life and painted something on a stone! The LPS juice bottles made for nice planters and after getting painted in a light shade of blue looked very nice.
Once when we had gone for a drive, I had spotted a board ‘Salasar Dhaba’ – Sikar wale and immediately called the phone number. The owner was from Shekhawati itself and one day we decided to surprise the Lahaulis with Rajasthani food and drove to pick dal bati churma from Salasar dhaba. It kept raining intermittently & then remained stormy for 3-4 days, subsequently leading to snowfall in Manali in the end of April. On the same weekend we ended up going for a day hike to Kaisdhar accompanied with Rajeshwar bhai; there was snow on the hike and the last climb to the top of Chambagarh was quite an adventure. The views of the snow clad mountains were epic and the packed lunch felt like a nice picnic in the green meadows of Kaisdhar.
When the fruits were ripe, it felt like an everyday feast. First came the plums, then the apricots and peaches; then the pears, then apples, and followed by kiwi and persimmons. Ice-cream making was fun and the lucha plum jam received a great response from readers and followers across India.
From eating rajma chawal, to going on drives to the impeccably green Lug Valley, to playing sequence, gorging on siddu with chutney & ghee, picnics in the orchard house of the Thakur family, to asking Nilza for strawberries from her farm, enticing aunty to make her special kadhi pakora, watching the pecan nut tree turn from leafless to shade giving in the summer heat, going on ice-cream and juice walks in the ’10 day summer’, reading vintage books from Rajeshwar bhai’s collection, eating broccoli paranthas, going on riverside picnics, gossiping with aunty, uncle, Thakur, bhabhi and Nilza, making sorbets and ice-creams and being adventurous enough to start eating ice-cream with aunty in breakfast – Yuthok Homestay started feeling so much like home that we figured that we could live forever in Kullu Valley and have ultimately started living in a home only 4 kms from Yuthok!
Living at Yuthok provided me enough spaces for impromptu shooting for indilocal products like rugs & dhurries, paintings etc. At first the joy was in seeing flowers bloom, then it was to observe the weather transform from spring to summer and then progress to lush greenery in the monsoon. Finally when we left in September, it was the fag end of the monsoon and autumn chill was the predominant feel in the weather.
‘You can check out, but you can never leave.’