Trekking for six hours a day at 4,500m above sea level, the only thing we can think of is warmth: hot food, heated blankets, the afternoon sun, a roaring fire. And a meal that doesn’t consist of dry rotis and boiled eggs—our staple trek diet. So, during our nine-day sojourn through the stark beauty of the Spiti valley, our blinkered focus is a kitchen, any kitchen. And, at the end of each arduous day, we find both warmth and food at successive hearths.
The home-stay concept—a huge hit in tourism-savvy states such as Kerala and Rajasthan—is picking up fast in the remote hills as well. Don’t expect palaces or family mansions though: In the higher reaches of Himachal Pradesh, home-stays centre around villagers who offer room(s) in their own humble abodes. Nor is the experience restricted to lodging: A home-stay offer will typically include all meals with the family, spending time with various members and perhaps even lending a hand with the postprandial chores.
Homecoming: The home-stay at Demul is affordable, friendly and promise a simple but heartwarming stay with all the home-cooked food you could ask for. Rohit Chaudary / Mint
To our frozen brains, though, the kitchen is where all the action is for one very specific reason: the stove. Typically a metal box embedded into the kitchen floor, it is never allowed to go out completely during the day, being the only “heater” in the house. With firewood extremely scarce at such high altitudes, the stoves use cowdung cakes as fuel. The fire needs to be fed constantly; if it dies down even for a minute, the cold seeps into the bones.
But, actually, there’s no chance of that as long as the householders are around. The warmth they extend us casts its glow far beyond the stove. Not only do we get the best, prettiest, sun-facing rooms in the house, we also receive the snuggest quilts and hot water even to wash our hands—which we use sparingly because we know the women have to walk for miles to collect the dung.
Home-stay arrangements, especially in the rural areas, may not be suitable for luxury junkies. But for those who want to tick off the “highest village in Asia” from their must-visit list, it’s the best choice. In Komic—the afore-mentioned highest village—we have our first cup of sweet-sour tsering tea (made out of sea-buckthorn) and our first glass of barley wine while our dinner bubbles on the stove and three-year-old Tawang entertains us, mostly by hiding his toys.
Of course, there are probably a million things to whine about. The food, while fresh and piping hot and always delicious to starving stomachs, is mostly roti, dal, rice and veggies. Service may not be prompt, mineral water hard to come by, and fluffy pristine towels or filchable toiletries non-existent. But the takeaways are elsewhere: a sense of satisfaction, a real acquaintance with the place and its people, a headful of local jokes and myths, and a bagful of requests for photographs to be sent back.
We, for instance, will not forget our glee when we opened our lunch packets the day after our second home-stay to find the pickle we had unanimously declared as our favourite. Or the man of the house who trudged out despite the sub-zero nocturnal temperature to get us something for dessert after we’d mentioned a sudden craving for sweets.
On our last night in Spiti, we were forced to rent a room in a guest house in Kibber village. Even though the owner, a jovial and helpful ex-military man, went out of his way to make us comfortable, it just didn’t click for us. That night, we sat around a dinner table—the first we had encountered in over a week—and toyed with our cutlery and ceramic plates.
All we wanted, we realized, was to be part of a family around a stove.
For details on home-stays available in the Himalayas, visit www.himalayan-homestays.com