On our way back from fabulous Kechopari Lake (Liz’s competition-winning account of which you can find here) we bumped into the President of the Darap Eco-Tourism Committee Project. We had stayed overnight in Kechopari and left it to chance to find our way back to Pelling. Neither of us felt like walking for another whole day, so tried to get a lift with one of the many Jeeps crowding the area. No chance. Luckily for us, our new local friends knew of some people heading back our way and were sure we’d be able to cadge a lift.
A short while later a beaten up diesel truck stopped in front of us and in we piled. Along with a local family of Limboo people. And another family, then three elderly ladies in glorious local dress and bedecked with nose and ear-rings, then a few blokes and some chickens. Then a load of giggling girls. It was all very cosy. The journey which had taken all the previous day was eaten up in just over an hour, during which we were serenaded and sung to the whole way by this motley gaggle of delightful people. Then we came to halt.
Rather dazed and confused Jamie and I jumped off with the rest of them in what turned out to be a tiny village called Darap. It was lovely, but it wasn’t Pelling. The driver would accept no money, it was his honour that we had travelled with him and his family. Jamie pressed some notes on him, which he finally took with much reluctance, but silent gratitude. In the middle of all the commotion and waving of goodbyes a smart little car turned up with a smart looking man at the wheel.
“Get in, I’ll run you back to Pelling.”
Amazed at this apparent serendipity Jamie and I were delighted to accept his invitation. I was reverentially offered the front seat and Jamie had to squeeze in the back. Hehe.
Sushil turned out to be a very interesting guy. He told us all about the state government’s drive to promote tourism, which it had identified as one of its major sources of income. It actively encourages self-help village tourism, offering grants and help to local people to make their homes suitable for tourists. Sushil had studied hotel and catering at university and had set up his own modest concern in Darap. He’d also galvanised local people into a local tourism committee.
“We all work together to promote our area,” he said.
“All those hotels in Pelling? They are not owned by Sikkim people. They belong to some rich man from the south. No wonder you think they are without charm.”
We swapped cards and he graciously dropped us right outside our charmless hotel and refused all attempts to accept payment for the lift.
It took us about two minutes to decide that we would leave Pelling asap and move to Darap.
Sushil wasn’t able to offer us accommodation in his own homestay but he recommended an excellent family very close by. We were thrilled.
Dara Gaon Village Retreat is a small, hidden homestay run by Shiva Gurung and his wife, Radha, with a little help from their children. The village of Darap clings to the foothills of Sikkim’s eastern Himalaya in the shadow of Kanchenjunga, and although just a few miles down the road from the concrete hotels of Pelling’s main drag it is like another world.
We stayed for several days and totally immersed ourselves in Lepcha and Limboo life. Radha showed me how to make momos and Shiva suggested plenty of activities like cultural sight-seeing, bird watching, trekking, fishing and walking. But what made it unique for us was getting to know the local people in and around Darap. Sushil arranged for Purna, a young local student, to take us on a trek off the beaten track.
His parents still live high in the valley in a 200 year old mud and bamboo hut. We drank butter and salt tea, millet beer, rakshi – hooch made from rhododendrons or maize, pronounced ‘roxy’ – and creamy milk straight from the cow. After a particularly happy afternoon sharing this delicious warm schnapps with lots of members of the extended family we had great fun trying to get down the hill before it got dark, and without falling over.
On our last day, as I finished my ablutions in the bathroom, I felt a slight tremor and the ground shook beneath my feet. There was a slight murmuring groan then all was still. It was an earthquake. Months later, back in the UK, Sikkim was hit by a much bigger earthquake, but I’m pleased to say that all our friends, although very shaken, were fine.
To get to Shiva and Radha’s Shangri-la you must get out of the car and do a little hiking: climb a winding, near vertical stone path, and cross a wooden bridge over an ice cool mountain stream into a wide terraced garden. We stayed in one of the two simply built wooden chalets, each with en-suite shower room and wide veranda (complete with heavy rocking chair). It rates as one of the best places I have ever been and we intend to go back. If you’re ever that way, we suggest you stay there too.