WORDS: ALISHA WADIA
PHOTOGRAPHS: VAIBHAV MEHTA
At some 5,800ft, tucked high and above Darjeeling, on a strip of a road snaking past tea gardens wearing a foggy white cloak and trailing off somewhere near a forest infused with the sweet smell of pine, Tinchuley makes for a pretty picture in winter, despite the blistering cold. And Gurung Guest House is a shade better, with snifters of brandy (or rum) and friendly guitar-playing locals for company, while you sit curled around a bonfire and blow white puffs of air just for fun. This place has all the fixings of a very promising weekend in the hills.
Tinchuley, or The Three Ovens (so called for the three oven-shaped hills, or teen chulla), is a wee hamlet that seems like it popped out of Enid Blyton’s The Faraway Tree. It’s home to barely 20 families – an enterprising bunch, too, learning the ropes of organic farming from the World Wide Federation and throwing their homes open to travellers. Among these, Gurung Guest House, run by the Gurung family, is a standout homestay. Brightly-coloured wooden cottages are perched amid a profusion of green, while the garden spills over with orchids and tall trees. For those of you not too keen on roughing it, think ‘homestay’ in bold, black capital letters or like one of those blinking neon signs. It’s rustic and perfectly ordinary, no frills attached. Yet, it’s the just Gurung family treating you like long-lost family, which is the heart and soul of this homestay.
They’ll start by stuffing you with rich, home-cooked dishes, urging you with great enthusiasm to take that third helping. While it’s mostly simple North Indian fare like fiery meat curries, hearty dals and steaming veggies, be prepared for copious quantities to disappear in minutes.
Walk it off; the woods are lovely, dark and deep and scented pine-fresh, rather like a great man once said. Just a hop, skip and a jump or ride away, the Gumbadara viewpoint throws up immense views of far-off mountains and nearby tea estates with wispy bits of mist floating about. While you’re out and about, do see the sights, there are more tea gardens and orange orchards than you can count here. Green Lawns, an organic farm and orange orchard, is lovely for a stroll. It’s less farm, and more forest with dense foliage, overgrown herbs and oranges so fresh and juicy they stain your hands deep amber when you peel them. Spread along the hill slopes, the Rangli Rangliot Tea Estate makes for a peaceful drive.
Take a break from tea plantations and spend some quiet time at a sweet little monastery in Tinchuley. Legend goes that a monk meditated here for years on end, emerging one day with no regard for his growing toenails or unruly hair. If nature’s in a particularly good mood – all beaming sun and powder-blue skies – gasp away at the views of the peaks – except Kalimpong, which is just a blot on the landscape.
Return to some piping-hot tea, a cacophony of cicadas and views of the valley from your balcony at the homestay. Fog gathers thick and fast as the evening grows dark and chilly. And, very soon, the Gurungs will be strumming guitars like rockstars, bursting into song and regaling you with wild tales around a crackling bonfire. And, before you know it, they’ll have you dancing and singing the night away like it’s a family celebration.