WORDS: FRIYAN DRIVER
PHOTOGRAPHS: KIRTHIKA PRASAD
GREAT FROM: New Delhi, Nainital
GREAT FOR: Complete isolation and trekking
There once lived a Sanskrit scholar who could put Romeo to shame. So deeply did he love his Polish wife that he built her a sanctuary amid the rolling hills of Uttarakhand’s South Gola Range. Their stone cottage was built in 1933 to satisfy her desire for a cooler climate. Long story short – she felt hot, he felt bad, a house was built. While pessimists might say that she nagged him into constructing it, we’re keeping our rose-tinted glasses on and sticking to the romantic version.
Hidden within dense Himalayan forests, the 45-acre Jilling Terraces estate is only accessible by a 2km hike from Matial Village in Uttarakhand. Before you make your way uphill, your luggage is swiftly loaded onto Sindhu, the resident chestnut-hued horse. As you huff and puff your way up the winding path, locals will zoom past, making you wish you hadn’t cancelled that gym membership all those months ago. You’ll ask “Are we there yet?” only about 50 times before your guide promises that this actually is the last turn. Then, Chestnut House, one of the stone cottages at Jilling, peeks out from behind the mist and trees.
Managed by local couple Dileep and Bimla, the estate is run by friendly staff, all of whom are from nearby villages. Mornings at Jilling are lazy, you sun yourself on the porch with endless cups of tea, have stare-offs with curious langurs, and spot the area’s birdlife, like the magpies that playfully chase each other. Once you’ve finished a late breakfast, go on the 2km trek to Bhairadevi Temple. Ved Prakash, a local armed with limbu-paani and bananas, will accompany you. His silence is refreshing – it allows you to absorb the sights and sounds of the forest, like the cicadas chirping in unison, and the squelch of your footsteps on the forest’s mulchy floor. He only breaks his silence to point out poisonous plants and berries and their natural remedies. His knowledge of the forest has been gained by being part of it, and this practical, holistic approach to nature makes you realise the value of experience over education. Despite the mist that engulfs your path, Vedji carefully guides you to the tiny temple that’s surrounded by oak trees. You can spend hours here, thanks to the calm, listening to a lone priest humming hymns to Radhe-Krishna.
The other trek you could embark on will take you down a dense rhododendron forest, rich with the aroma of wild herbs and flowers. Keep an eye out for the Kalsa River that snakes its way through the valley, and another on the path: the terrain’s tougher on this trek; it’s a steep 35º incline. You will need to make your way up a hill and climb down the other side to reach the village of Panyali. As you walk, curious macaques will follow you, swinging quietly through the branches above your head. If you’re lucky, you’ll run into a 65-year-old shepherd, who shares stories about his run-ins with leopards. His disinterested goats, who have heard the tale one too many times, nibble away at the grass on the mountain’s edge.
At the bottom of the hill, a dirt road – lined with lemon trees laden with fruit te size of tennis balls – will take you to the village. This is Vedji’s hometown, and, after he welcomes you into his home, he’ll proudly show you the patch of pahari kheera (mountain cucumber) on his farm.
When you return to the property, you’re greeted by a cup of hot tea. And, as you settle down to catch your breath, you’ll be very grateful for the romantic Sanskrit scholar who built Chestnut House for his wife.