The northern part of the Darjeeling District of India, tucked away between Nepal and Bhutan in the Himalayan foothills, feels completely different from the rest of India – culturally, ethnically, and geographically. It takes dedication to get here; after flying into Bagdodgra airport or taking a train to New Jalpaiguri station, it is a five hour auto ride ride along steep, winding, bumpy mountain roads to the Bijanbari area where Karmi Farm lies.
Once here, you feel quite apart from the rest of India. With a large Nepali population, and a fair number of Tibetans as well, it has more of the feel of those places than of India. The language, food, customs and traditions are all more Nepalese than Indian – even the tea is different. Here in the area of the famous Darjeeling tea, floral and rarely taken with milk, it can be hard to find the chai so ubiquitous in the rest of the country.
Arriving at Karmi Farm, you realize that this is a family home that is very much a part of the surrounding villages and has been for decades. Andrew Pulger-Frame currently runs the organic farm homestay, although his mother or other family members – and even returning guests who are part of the extended family – are often in residence. Karmi is the old homestead of Andrew’s mother Deki, whose family lived there since the early part of the 20th century. In 1960, Deki married a Scottish tea planter, and the family divided their time between India and Scotland.
Andrew had fond memories of growing up in the tea gardens as a boy, and in 1998 he returned to Karmi Farm to open it as a homestay. But it’s far from your typical homestay. Here, guests partake of the nearly endless opportunities for magnificent trekking and bird-watching in the mountains that offer breath-stopping vistas; but Karmi also conducts art retreats and yoga clinics throughout the year. The farm is also home to a medical clinic staffed by many guest volunteers who often come for weeks or months at a time; any guest is welcome to volunteer with the clinic as it offers free and low-cost treatments to villagers, many of whom walk for hours to be seen. I met Tom and Emily, an English couple who had been at Karmi for six weeks working in the medical clinic. You can read their blog about it here.
Facilities are simple and comfortable at Karmi Farm. The main house, where Andrew and any of his visiting family reside, has a couple of rooms that can be let to guests (private or shared bath); there are also two separate thatched-roof cottages, each housing two attached guest rooms with private bath (for a total of 7 twin-bedded rooms). The newest addition is a dorm-style room that can accommodate 6 people. When I stayed at Karmi in November 2010, a group of high school students from Hong Kong arrived to the dormitory, with plans to volunteer at the local school.
Each room includes two twin beds, chairs and low table, bathroom with hot water, and electricity. There is no heating or air conditioning, however; nor television, telephone or internet service. This is a place to get away from it all, and get back to nature. Guests come here to experience the natural beauty of the area, and the authentic hill farming villages that give a glimpse into a lifestyle that seems to rapidly be fading from our modern world.
The main house has two living salons where guests relax, read books, play games, watch a movie on DVD or listen to music. Both salons have a fireplace, which is delightful to sit by on chilly nights. The kitchen in the back of the main house is where meals are taken; since Karmi Farm is pretty remote, all meals are had here – and delicious! In the informal setting guests quickly get to know the staff, many of whom have been with the estate for years. There is also an honor bar in the kitchen, where wine, beer and liquor are usually available for guests to help themselves and keep track of what they owe. Just outside the main house is a large, lovely covered deck. On pretty days, this is a wonderful place to take a meal, or simply sit and read or gaze out at the beautiful mountain view below.
As mentioned, visiting or volunteering with the medical clinic is a big draw for many guests. Saroj is in charge of the clinic, and is a wealth of information about the local lifestyle. Andrew is happy to arrange all manner of hikes, from short one-to-two hour walks to all-day or multi-day treks. For the serious trekker, the Singali La route is incredible, a six day journey from the Nepal border to Rimbik with awesome views of the Kanchenjunga mountain range and Mount Everest. A shorter three day version is also possible.
On my visit, one of my favorite activities was a half-day trek up to the small 17th-century Nezi Monastery. Home to just a few monks, our guide Hisay led us through gorgeous paths where we interacted with villagers to arrive at the hilltop monastery. There, one of the monk’s mother met us to unlock the doors to let us inside, where ancient prayer books piled on top of each other beneath peeling frescoes and Tibetan Buddhist statues. Outside the monastery, we ate a picnic lunch of delicious curried potatoes wrapped in flat bread and served on banana leaves, while our guide played a game of pick-up football with two kids who live at Karmi Farm, where their education is sponsored.
With over 100 species of birds in the immediate vicinity, the area is a birdwatcher’s delight. Once a year, Andrew hosts a painting holiday with art tutors from the U.K., as well as an annual yoga retreat. Please contact him for specific dates and details if you are interested in these special events.
P.O. Kolbong, Via Bijanbari, Darjeeling District, India
Telephone 99 320 60209 or 0208 903 3411
Rates $35 per person, per day – full board, all meals included (alcohol extra)
Shelley Seale is a freelance writer based out of Austin Texas, but she vagabonds in any part of the world whenever possible. Shelley has written for National Geographic, Globe Pequot’s Insider travel guides, CNN, AOL, USA Today and Andrew Harper Traveler Magazine among others. Her book, The Weight of Silence: Invisible Children of India, follows her journeys into the orphanages, streets and slums of India where millions of children live without families. Her mantra is “travel with a purpose.” She can be reached at shelleyseale.com.
Check out more of Shelley’s work in her 52 Perfect Days stories: 1949 Hidden City: Beijing’s Hippest New Spot.