A narrow, slippery trail cuts through a forest of chestnut, birch, and alder trees. There’s no sign of civilisation, but I continue on it, trusting the directions of a young monk. He’d guided me to a small clearing and told me to keep going until I reach the village of Kewzing in southern Sikkim. Fifteen minutes later, I am convinced that I am lost in the deep woods, until I begin to hear faint voices. The trail leads me to the backyard of a family that is busy chopping firewood. They are clearly surprised to see an uninvited visitor.
Kewzing is about 75 kilometres southwest of Gangtok, and exists in the shadow of its more popular neighbour, the town of Ravangla. Besides a monastery and single house that stand by the road, the village is scattered across the forest, and the homes of its 200-odd residents can only be accessed on foot. Bright green or red tin roofs peek out from the foliage, against the backdrop of the Kanchenjunga range. The peaks of Mount Karbu and Mount Narsing are visible on clear days. It is the dreamiest setting for a life of quiet, I think.
In spite of my surprise visit, I am ushered inside and offered a cup of hot tea. Soon, I am introduced to Tshering Topgay. This young man coordinates the Kewzing Tourism Development Committee, a collective effort by its citizens to practice responsible tourism by opening their simple but comfortable homes to travellers, and introducing them to local culture.
I have spent the previous four days in Gangtok, following the orchestrated routine of most tourists. During my walk through the village with Topgay, I witness Sikkim just the way I’d imagined it before my trip. Here, in Kewzing, there is no urgency, no checklist, and I am allowed a glimpse of the self-contained yet welcoming society. I learn that the residents mostly belong to the Bhutia community and practice Buddhism.
Every home has an elaborate prayer room, and in kitchen gardens I spot ripening tomatoes and chillies. I also notice that many homes have lawns. There is one with old wooden logs used as seats under flowering trees. We pause at another to enjoy a bite of zhero, a deep-fried snack made of wheat. At yet another, we listen to a woman strumming the dramyin, a traditional Himalayan folk instrument. No one speaks fluent English or Hindi, but their hospitality and friendliness effortlessly bridges the language barrier.
Kewzing is located only about eight kilometres away from the Maenam Wildlife Sanctuary. The wildlife park extends all the way to the Rangit River and has about 200 species of birds. I meet Chewang Rinchen Bonpo, the owner of Bon Farmhouse and a well-known ornithologist in the region, who leads birding tours. Though he studied outside the village, Bonpo’s childhood vacations in his family home here involved long hours in the forest collecting fodder and firewood. “I spent so much time surrounded by nature, spotting and observing birds that I decided to move back here and make it my profession,” he says. Even today, Bonpo says he feels childlike glee every time he spots a gorgeous fire-tailed myzorni, green magpie, red-tailed minla, or a brown wood owl during his walks through the area.
Although I can’t stay long enough to try and spot some of these birds, I leave with their song. And the thrum of the dramyin lingering in my mind.