I arrived in Ilam, a verdant hill region at the easternmost corner of Nepal, with no clue of what to expect. But it wasn’t because I hadn’t done my homework.
I’d signed up for a home stay with a family so I could learn more about the Nepalese customs and culture. I’d read about the district’s vast tea gardens and rich wildlife, and I knew it relied on agriculture – not tourism like the rest of this mountain nation – for its livelihood. But still I was unprepared to see, well, little else aside from a vast sea of green when the GPS announced we’d reached our destination.
My guide, Narayan, and I got out of the car, stretching after six, long hours on twisting, bumpy roads. Our eyes scanned miles of undulating hills, dense forest of Himalayan chestnut and pine, and tidy agro patches. But there was no sign of our host (or his home for that matter).
Narayan, who has led treks through most of the mountain regions of Nepal including popular Annapurna and Everest, had never been to this less-travelled part of his country before and he, too, was at a loss. Then, over the side of a ridge, a man appeared, ski poles in each hand.
“Namaste. Welcome to my home,” says Kedar Sharma, a 56-year-old journalist who lived in Kathmandu for more than 30 years before returning to his home village to freelance and run his fledgling home-stay business with his wife, Kirin. He handed me a pole, warned the path was slippery because of monsoon season, and we started off. I gamely tried to make it look like the trek to his house was a walk in the park. All the while thinking, “What have I gotten myself into?”
Ilam, which borders the Indian state of Sikkim and sits in the shadows of Kanchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world, gets very few visitors. Nepal’s government is slowly trying to change that, but tourism infrastructure is negligible and most people still head to the tourist-friendly spots such as Chitwan National Park (where I rode elephants and saw rhinos), Pokhara (a picturesque lake-side city where I zip-lined over treetops) and Kathmandu (where the congestion and pollution is so bad, I couldn’t wait to hightail it out of there).
Ilam’s isolation, however, was a bit of a shock to the system. But after a soothing cup of black tea and Nepalese khaja, or small meal, I’d settled into the gentle rhythms of the Sharma family. And over the course of my stay, I gained an appreciation for Nepal’s rich and varied cuisine, particularly after watching Kirin, 48, produce imaginative organic meals on a tiny two-burner stove with fruits, vegetables and meat from her own garden and neighbouring farms.
“We don’t have snow-capped mountains to see and climb. We don’t have snow-fed rivers for rafting and kayaking,” says Kedar, 56, after we’d feasted on the house specialty of tea-smoked chicken and dal bhat – the Nepalese staple of rice with legume soup – curries and a wide variety of fermented bamboos, soybean, dried radish and pickles. “What we hope is that we have something that appeals to a small number of tourists who are interested in Nepal’s subsistence agriculture. I believe we attract people who are keen to learn about how most of the population of Nepal truly lives, and about our authentic cuisine.”
I must qualify this by saying that I eat very little meat, so this region, with its rich soil and abundance of goods, turned out to be a gastronomical treat made all the more special because I wasn’t expecting it.
Like most Nepalese people, Kedar and Kirin are master fermenters, the soul of Nepalese cuisine – and a necessity, given they don’t have a fridge. I tried fermented bamboos, fermented soybean, fermented and dried radish, fermented leaves of the brassica or mustard family, and a wide variety of fermented pickles, syrups and jams. My favourites were tomato-tree jelly and cherry silverberry jam, lathered on rice pancakes.
I also loved their homemade kombucha, which gets it unique taste because its SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast, sometimes called tea fungus or kombucha mushroom) is soaked in lukewarm black tea with sugar. It puts anything on Whole Foods' shelves to shame.
Their neighbour Zac Barton, who hails from Alberta but has lived in Ilam since 2009, popped by one morning to chat about his property, Almost Heaven Farms (AHF), which he describes as entirely “food secure.”
“The most interesting part of our agricultural system is that we need absolutely nothing from outside. We keep all our own seeds, produce all our own compost and work the land by hand,” says Barton, 39, who has four children with his Nepalese wife, Shova. AHF grows 74 fruit, vegetables and spice crops, including almonds, chestnuts, kale, kiwi, chia, millet, rice, mangoes, asparagus, jack fruit, turmeric and – a top seller – blue ginger.
As with Kirin, Barton loves to experiment. He makes kimchi, a wide variety of sauerkrauts and vinegars, including his latest invention, pineapple vinegar. “People who like apple cider vinegar will love this,” he says enthusiastically. “It’s a sweet, tangy vinegar.”
AHF also accommodates house guests, attracting up to 100 visitors a year from Canada, Germany, France, the Netherlands and Britain.
“I moved out here after falling in love with the place,” says Barton, who lived in Kathmandu for six years before he opted for a less populated and polluted place. “The combination of tea estates, small farms and dense jungles creates a landscape that just drips with diversity. But I don’t think East Nepal is ever going to be a hot tourist destination. The people who come here do so for the culture, the people and the food.”
Kedar agrees: “This is a place for people who have already seen a tiger or been on a trek. Travellers come here to stay at farms, eat good, home-cooked meals and to better understand the daily life of a Nepali. You don’t have to earn much to have a lot of riches here."
There is no easy route to Ilam, which fittingly means “twisted road.” Flights run daily from Kathmandu to Biratnagar, an industrial city that borders India. Don’t stop here; there is nothing to see. From there, it’s a five-hour car ride that will rattle your bones. To break up the journey, stop in Dharan and visit the Budha Subba Temple, a famous religious shrine and a favourite spot for engaged couples and newlyweds who tie beautiful threads on fences surrounding towering bamboo trees. The token is said to unite them forever in true love.
Beware of monsoon season, which typically runs from May through to August. Excursions are primarily of the make-your-own variety, such as strolling through tea gardens, exploring the forests with their wildlife, including many exotic birds and the area’s famed red panda, and touring local bazaars such as nearby Fikkal. Roadside stalls overflow with spices and produce and the Nepalese snack, chhurpi (a hardened cheese made out of yak’s milk). Mind your teeth.
There are very few hotels in Ilam, with guesthouses and homestays being the main accommodation. Don’t expect luxury. Sharma’s Homestay (email@example.com) was simple, but clean. A bedroom with half-bath (sink and toilet) and three meals a day costs US$35. The shower is shared. Almost Heaven Farms (permaculturenepal.com) charges US$15 a day.
Spectacular sunrises and sunsets can be seen from Antu Danda in the backdrop of the Himalayan ranges.
The writer was a guest of the Nepal Tourism Board. The organization did not review or approve this story before publication.