I wake up with a start, as I feel someone tapping my shoulder. It’s the gentleman who is driving me to my destination, who has an enormous grin plastered on his face, despite the fact that I have spent the last couple of hours passed out next to him, as he has navigated us across two states. It’s time for a chai break, with another two hours left on our journey. I step out of the car and survey the surroundings. The lower Himalayas are dressed in dense foliage, lush green after the monsoon. In the distance, a lake shimmers in the autumn sun. After a refreshing drink of sweetened milk tea, we’re on our way again.
We have moved off the main highway connecting Chandigarh and Manali, and the signs of noisy tourists have all but disappeared. The black strip of tarmac winds its way across little villages and towns, and the only other traffic is the occasional state-operated bus ferrying passengers from far-flung settlements to commercial centres. Before I realise it, we have pulled up at the gates of Rakkh Resort, my base for the next couple of days.
Nestled in the verdant hills of Palampur, perhaps the one thing that sets apart this property is the unexpectedness of it. With hardly any visible signs of commercialisation, not once on the approach was it evident that this 25-key resort spread across 7 acres lay right around the corner.
The long drive from Chandigarh having wiped me out (yes, despite my sleeping through the better part of it), I retire to my tastefully appointed cottage early.
I rise early the next morning, hopeful of catching the sunrise. Anil from the resort volunteers to guide me on a trek to a nearby hill-top and the neighbouring village of Rakkh, from which the property gets its name. We set out, hiking sticks in hand and accompanied by the two resident dogs. The hike is easy enough, suitable for beginners, although my lack of basic fitness starts to become evident after a short, 30-minute climb. We come upon a little bridge over a stream, a perfect spot for a picnic and where guests are brought for a night trek on request. As we climb further up, the pines around thicken, the air gets a little cooler and the vistas reveal more of the lower Himalayas. Although the sun rises before we reach the hill-top, it is a spectacular sight nonetheless; the golden first rays of the day washing the lush hillside in a magical hue.
After the hill-top excursion, it’s time for us to explore the little village of Rakkh, just a few metres below the property. We wander through its lanes, children and dogs eyeing us curiously. Agriculture is a prime occupation in these parts, and harvested crops are stacked along walls of almost all houses. Given that uninterrupted electricity is only a recent phenomenon in these parts, locals have ingenious ways of dealing with life without power. Anil shows me a flour mill powered by running water that has been channelled from little streams nearby. As we step out of one of the little huts that contains one such mill, I’m startled by what sounds like firecrackers and the clanging of metal. Anil looks at me reassuringly and says, “A horde of monkeys must have come to raid the ripe wheat. The villagers have to be cautious, otherwise, they can cause a lot of damage.”
As we make our way out of the village and back towards the resort, we catch a glimpse of some of the aforementioned red-faced mischief makers, who regard us with suspicion. The children waiting by the road for their school bus though are unfazed, paying about as much attention to the primates as the gorgeous snow-clad peaks in the backdrop.
“Almost everybody you meet on the property is a local. Sustainability has been a focus area for us since we set up. Not only is all our staff from nearby villages (as am I), but we also source all the produce which isn’t grown on the property from local farmers and from Palampur.”
As Akhil, the manager at Rakkh Resort, chats to me, I dig into a delicious pahadi breakfast prepared by Sunita. There’s a sour pumpkin curry and gram with mithru (sweetened and fried flatbread). Sunita smiles affably and keeps trying to pile on more and more food onto my plate. I finally implore her to desist, as I’m full to bursting and can feel my body start to slide into a food-induced coma. Sunita knows just the thing to rid me of mid-morning lethargy, and takes me on a walking tour of the property. We visit the herb gardens and fruit patches, the amphitheatre which is used for feast on special occasions, and finally, the infinity pool which is perched on a cliff edge and affords a fantastic view of the valley below. While we go from one spot to another, I notice little stations on the shrubbery-lined path that criss-crosses the property. All the stations are self-serve and can be used to do everything from whipping up a quick instant noodle snack to squeezing some juice out of freshly plucked fruit.
There’s also a small shop within the property that sells local produce and handicraft, most of which is sourced from the staff and other locals. Beaming with pride at the amazing wares on display, Sunita proceeds to undertake a couple of training sessions on pottery making and shawl weaving, something guests often request for. As enthusiastic as I am, the cup I manage to shape clumsily resembles something excavated from an Indus Valley Civilisation dig site, and the shawl I try to add some patterns to is nearly ruined as Sunita patiently looks on at the wanton destruction of her hard work.
For those who want to try their hand at more vigorous options, there is rock climbing and sky cycling within the property as well. The latter involves cycling on a wire across a sheer drop, something like tightrope walking except on a bicycle and as I’m reassured before I pedal onto nothingness, infinitely safer. For the even more adventurous, Bir Biling, one of India’s foremost paragliding destinations is just about a couple of hours away, and the resort management will even book an appointment for you.
Dinner is as delicious as breakfast, and Hema, who specialises in pahadi cuisine, prepares an elaborate meal comprising, khatta mutton (meat gravy with sour pumpkin, burnt walnut, desiccated mango), chane ka madra (chickpea in yoghurt), sarson-palak saag (spinach), dal badi curry (lentil dumpling and potato) and makki roti (millet flatbread). We finish off with seera, a dessert made of fermented, ground and dried wheat. This time around, I do not resist the overwhelming urge to pass out as my body struggles to digest copious amounts of delicious food.
“Pine is an invasive species. It was introduced by the British to replace the Deodars they were stripping the Himalayas of for its wood. But it has no fruit for the fauna, neither can much grow around them. We are trying, very gradually, to replace pines with indigenous varieties that can support and enrich the local ecosystem.”
I am speaking to Ram, a farmer and botanist who is in charge of the landscaping at Rakkh Resort. He explains the challenges of growing on the local red soil and also shares interesting insights into local flora. Sustainability is clearly a focus area, evident in details such as recycling of natural spring water for all usage on the property, zero tolerance for plastic (to the extent of not stocking consumables that come wrapped in non-recyclable material) and exclusive use of local produce.
Respect for the land and local culture is an overarching theme for this boutique property. They’re even selective about guests; those who are looking for loud music and entertainment, are politely informed that no such activities are encouraged here, in this quiet corner of the Himalayan foothills.
As I bid farewell to the warm staff, smiling and waving at me until I turn the corner, I am filled with regret. While most visitors would be happy with a weekend getaway here, I would recommend at least double the time, just so you can absorb and relish the life here.
Samarpan Bhowmik is Deputy Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. Ever on the lookout for novel experiences, he believes the best way to travel is to do it slow. He hopes to hitchhike the length of South America one day.