Salyan: off the beaten trail head

 

The obvious stops are a must when you are new to an old town. Without Pashupati, Boudha, Swayambhu and the Durbar Squares, you have not seen Kathmandu.

Just like without Chitwan, Lumbini and Pokhara some would argue you haven’t seen Nepal.

And yet, since Naturally Nepal is the Nepal you are visiting in 2011, it is natural indeed that you are escorted to the obvious parts. But if “Once is not enough” and you are back to the country for a second helping, why not try something new, something hidden but something equally beautiful?

Tucked neatly into the midwestern hills, Salyan is a district without much hype. Surprisingly so, even when it shares its borders with the famous Maoist heartland of Rukum-Rolpa.

Equally impacted by the ten-year insurgency, and yet unequally mentioned in the international media and national conversations, it is an unassuming part of the country.

But, sometimes the best surprises are the ones that have been kept quiet. And, Salyan is no exception.

Complete with stunning hills, delicious cuisine and a reminder of quieter times, it is a place to visit if you need a vacation from your vacation, if the hustle and bustle of Kathmandu is something you could do without for a few days.

Kathmandu, my hometown, is something I can do without every once in a while; so if work or play offers to take me to the less explored parts, I’m always game.

Getting to Salyan is half the fun, since if you take the road you will be part of the changing scenery. So if you heed my advice and skip the 55-minute shortcut flight from Kathmandu to Nepalgunj, you can squeeze yourself into a microbus in the capital city instead.

It won’t even cost you Rs. 3,000 for a roundtrip between Kathmandu and Khalanga.

Some ten hours later, past both hilly and flat terrains, you’ll find yourself in Ghorahi. Give yourself a restful night in the estate-turned Hotel Madhuwan. Complete with a manager who has recently returned from India and décor from the early 20th century, check yourself into one of the 12 bedrooms and tuck in for the night.

Next day, pack up and hop onto a local bus that will take you to Tulsipur. At the Tulsipur bus stop, seat yourself into a bus that will quickly overcrowd with people, animals and sacks of rice, potatoes and what not. But don’t forget to enjoy the scenery, as it quickly changes from flat to hills again.

In some four hours you will find yourself in Srinagar, a growing town where surrounding villages drop by to purchase supplies.

Here the boxes of apples and other goodies stored on the roof of the bus will be dumped for the stores to stock up with. And you’ll soon be on your way to Khalanga, the district headquarter of Salyan. The drive from Srinagar to Khalanga is a pleasant surprise – complete with trees, trees and more trees, a rarity of sort in Nepal these days.

The road, parts of which are still under construction, will arrange for the bus to pass by, but you’ll be too busy if you are as delighted as me to see trees covering the hills yonder into the distance. Unpaved, though, you will be caked in dust, but the road makes this trip much less arduous than it was just a few years ago.

A friend later asked me about the bumpy ride, and he was happy to hear it was smooth, if only dusty. Once you’ve scooted off of your seat at the Khalanga bus stop, make your way for the freshly painted Milan Guest House.

A mere stone’s throw away, the guesthouse is basic, but also described as one of the best in town by the locals. The rooms are clean, even if there is only a common bathroom. But when there is electricity you can flick on the TV in your room. Not bad at all for a night that will cost you less than Rs.400. After settling in and deciding that a walk about and a snack would be nice, the friendly owner of the hotel suggests we walk back to the bus stop and enjoy some of the oranges and peanuts being sold – “Ramailo hunchha,” we were told, it will be fun.

Looking for something more filling though, we hunt for the popular Nepali chowmein readily available in any bhatti or reasonably priced restaurants elsewhere. But we’re told there is no chowmein in Salyan, just chiura (beaten rice), or sukuti. Not in the mood for strips of marinated and sun-dried pieces of ranga (male buffalos), we decline.

However, having arrived on a Saturday when after walking about most of the town –all in less than fifteen minutes – we discovered nothing really was open, so we contemplated the sukuti. The bus stop is the center of town; from there it branches into four directions.

One to Srinagar. Another up a tiny slope to the Milan Guest House, and past that to the government offices, which eventually loops back into the bus stop. The third is down a street of shops and offices selling cloths, cell phones and basic goods like batteries, crackers, glue and what not. The fourth and final one leads past the only cyber café, and onto a maidan, an open ground.

We decided the oranges and peanuts weren’t going to satisfy us, and we could do them at Ratna Park anyway. So we thought, since our stomach had settled after our four-plus-hour bus drive, we’d try the sukuti. Probably the best decision I made all day.

For a mere Rs.40, I got a plate of perfectness – chewy without being impossible, juicy with just the right amount of salt, spices and whatever else they make it with. Let’s just say it was not missing any of the je ne sais quoi. Striking a conversation with our server, I learnt the young fellow had recently returned from a yearlong stint at a restaurant in Bhaktapur to help his uncle with this new business. Pleased with my sukuti, I asked if they had momos, the unofficial Nepali food.

The boy explained that since it was a Saturday, no meat was available in the market and hence no momos. But he suggested I come by the day after.

As the day was drawing to an end, I promised I would and made my way to the hotel, all of fifty feet away. Salyan, lest I forget to mention, struck me as a perfect cross between the small town Mussoorie and the charming Darjeeling. So, if you know anything about hill stations, you’ll know that houses are built with pillars as its foundation so that buildings can actually be built.

In a crowded city, this turns into very messy business; but in a small town, each building is then complete with a scenic view of the hills and mountains. In my rush to take a walk around the city, I had not registered the most brilliant view available from the balcony-hallway of our hotel. As the day was coming to an end and it was just before dusk, I witnessed the most beautiful view – of one hill after another rolling into the distance with a thick layer of fog having descended below, but every bit visible. To top it off, the sun was just about to set, and it was so magnificent that I didn’t dare miss a minute of it to run to my room and find my camera.

I probably didn’t even blink, and instead I tried with all my might to hold that vision in my mind and to lock it into a special corner. The next morning, I woke up early just to have a second peek at the same view. Not a morning person though, I foolishly snoozed my alarm one too many times and missed the sunrise I would have been able to cherish for years. But the sight at 8 am of the sun starting to brightly light the picture was still gleaming. The fog took its time to clear though, and I enjoyed the few precious minutes I was privy to viewing this. I counted one, two, three … up to fourteen hills in the distance that layered one past the other.

And I thanked my lucky stars I had had the opportunity to witness nature at its best without needing to climb the highest mountain or travel to the most talked about destination. I gobbled my granola bar with a cup of ginger tea since a breakfast isn’t normal in these parts. I’m told the largest supplier of ginger in Nepal is actually Salyan. And this quickly becomes evident as I begin to notice how generous they were with ginger in their cooking!

There are two meals prepared and served each day in the hotel we were staying at, or for that matter, at any other restaurant in town. There is no need for a menu for the meal costs about Rs.100 and is always set – a plate of rice, daal, green vegetables, potatoes, pickle and a side of meat (for an additional price) if you are a non-vegetarian.

During my first few meals, I pushed the too-green vegetables aside, thinking they looked artificial as they were a very distinct bright green. It was only in a later conversation that I was told the greens are a real green in Salyan because the vegetables are fresh from the hotel’s garden. I thought I should believe them and knew it was true when I tasted the vegetable – it was absolutely delicious.

So good that in an effort to compensate for the days I’d pushed it aside, I ate the rice with the vegetables alone. A few days in Khalanga and it was time to head back down from the hill. We drove to Srinagar, but having started our return in the afternoon and fully aware of the fact that we wouldn’t make it to Tulsipur that day, we turned on the path heading to Rukum and stayed at a brand new hotel being built by the riverbed in Baral Village, just ten minutes drive from Srinagar.

With the rice paddy below, the gushing rive further down, the dancing hills up front and the hills behind, it was soothing.

Vacations are meant to be relaxing. Nepal has a lot to offer, to both its international and domestic tourists. And though Salyan may not be the only hidden gem where journeying, endless cups of ginger tea and walks are a plenty, it is one where I learnt to appreciate how slow and soothing nature of life there can be – I even kept the TV in my room off.

Salyan is not a tourist destination, not just yet anyway, but maybe it’s this feature alone that may make it worth your visit!

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