We arrive at Biksthang Heritage Farmhouse, at some 1200m elevation, feeling rather rattled. The end of the monsoon has left the former kingdom of Sikkim’s roads in a less than ideal state, with some parts of the road being buried under landslides, others awash with grey puddles that resemble small lakes, and others as pockmarked as a cratered lunar landscape. For hours, we have been in the back of a car, rattling back and forth and up and down like the little metal balls in a pinball machine.
But we’re here now, at this glorious, sprawling cottage property that the Gatso family has called home for 14 generations. And it’s lunchtime. And thank god/Buddha/Durga, lunch is ready!
Owner Dekyi, a former banker, and her dad, Dr Gatso, retired from medicine but relishing his new role as host, show us to our table after a warm welcome. Lunch is served on the outdoor wooden deck overlooking the peaceful pool and the majestic mountains beyond. As the dishes roll out, it’s clear that mealtimes are a serious affair here! With our breakfast in Darjeeling now a distant memory, we scoff down sweet tomato soup; spicy, crunchy fish cutlets; tart and tangy cottage cheese; fried bitter gourd; home grown rice and home made chapattis. Local produce is the star of the show, like dairy products using fresh milk from the resident cows, fruit from the trees around us, and rice from the farm’s own fields.
At other meals, we’re treated to unique local items like wild orchid (bitter but tasty), nettle soup (green, glutinous and very good for you) and crispy cabbage fried in honey and sesame seeds (the best cabbage I’ve ever tasted). Not to mention the aromatic guavas picked from the trees right next to us. With every meal consisting of a spread that fills our whole table, there’s no doubt that we’ll have to get our walking shoes in if we want to avoid rolling out of here.
Maybe tomorrow though….as our room, our own cottage is just so cosy that it deserves to be appreciated – set on a hill above the main farmhouse, down a row of tall, fluttering Buddhist prayer flags like our own special welcoming party. Especially when our bed looks straight out into the mountains the way it does. On a clear day, you can see Mt Kanchenjunga, the highest in India and third highest in the Himalayas; said to be the powerful guardian deity of Sikkim. Unfortunately, this heavenly being spends most of our stay behind a thick guard of clouds, but when it makes a 5am appearance, we are promptly woken with a knock on the door by one of Dekyi’s family as they want to make sure we don’t miss it.
Monastery with a view
No more procrastinating – today we will hike. There are several trails you can take from Biksthang: up to a mountain top monastery, over to an organic farm, or down to a set of watery caves. We choose the monastery, as we can’t resist more of these magical mountain views. It’s steep, rocky and sweaty, but before long we can see the whole valley, and we can even spot the yellow roof of our cottage at Biksthang in the distance. After we catch our breath, the lama shows us round and lets us light a candle. We are told he’s just come out of the mandatory three years, three months, three weeks, three days and three hours of solo meditation. Once we’ve taken our last photo, we make our way back down, painstakingly down the steep, rocky path, both of us even slipping. We stop to make way for the lama on his way to town to shop, who skips down in threadbare flip flops and looks scornful at our slow progress. At least we have some energy for some lazy laps of the pool when we get back.
Time for tradition
Before dinner, Dekyi and her dad have arranged for some local schoolgirls to perform a set of traditional dances. Dekyi’s dad holds court, introducing each number, generously pouring home made millet beer and handing out snacks. We get chatting to the other guests; from Bangalore, an endangered wildlife expert, his radiologist wife and young son; from Delhi, a tall, bearded, ear-ringed journalist and his NGO worker daughter; from Calcutta, a pot bellied, loud voiced patriarch, his softly spoken wife and their gaggle of adult children and grandchildren. At dinner, ever the host, Dekyi’s dad pours out even more homemade liquor.
In the morning, we’re keen to hike to the caves, but the skies haven’t received the memo about the end of the monsoon season and have opened up in a loud, dramatic fashion. It’s a perfect duvet day, and we snuggle up with our books to the sound of the rain.
It’s also a perfect day to indulge in the time honoured tradition of the hot stone bath. Dr Gyatso recalls the ritual as a youngster, when they would bathe in the scooped out trunks of huge trees to keep warm in winter. At Biksthang, they’ve taken things up a notch and custom built their own luxury bathhouse, featuring two wooden, boat-like tubs side by side. The whole process takes a lot of preparation and you must request it 12 hours in advance.
Biksthang engages a local villager to pick a secret blend of bark and herbs, which takes him about three hours, and he refuses to pre-pick them – they must be picked fresh for each bath. He boils them up in a special broth that will be what the bath is made of, tasting it as he goes like a master chef. The same man also selects a set of large rocks, warming them up on a fire, which also takes time.
As we lie in the bath, all we have to do is ring a bell if we want him to add another stone to heat the water further. We hide under the water’s surface as he enters the room, carefully carrying the heavy, sizzling stone with a giant pair of wooden tongs, gently depositing it at the end of the tub in a separate compartment so you don’t burn yourself. We ring…and ring…and ring…until he sadly informs us there are no more rocks left. We have used them all, and as it’s now raining, he can’t heat any more up. Probably not a bad thing, as otherwise we might have stayed in here all night turning into irreversible prunes.
We spend our last morning pottering around the farmhouse, absorbing the historical details from the time when Dekyi’s great-great-great grandfather ran the property. Like the fact the dining room used to be a detention cell for local delinquents, who were tied to the central pole that remains a fixture. In the office on display are original prayer flag stamps from the days when the flags were decorated manually. There are also letters addressed from the government to Dekyi’s great grandfather, who was the first person in Sikkim to write a Tibetan-English dictionary. The detailed, lively paintwork on the exterior makes the whole house come alive, like a giant outdoor children’s nursery.
Upstairs, are old photos of the last king of Sikkim, and Dr Gyatso was one of the last people to treat him before he flew to New York for cancer treatment, where he eventually died, prompting Sikkim to become part of India. The family also has their own Buddhist temple, with statues as elaborate as those found elsewhere and with offerings of fresh milk from the farm’s cows.
It’s hard to tear ourselves away, even when our car arrives us to take us to Gangtok, Sikkim’s capital. Our first driver, after ending the harrowing, rocky journey said to Dekyi that the road was so bad he would never come here again. We can’t guarantee we’ll follow suit.