Sep 17, 2018

Himalayan Orchard - The Hidden Gem of Apple Country

A few hours beyond the crowds and mayhem of Shimla, in the quiet village of Rukhla, lies a charming farm stay called the Himalayan Orchard.

I was there earlier this month when the monsoon was still lingering in the mountains and the apple season was at its peak. With all my love for Himachal I have never been there at apple picking time. I have looked longingly at the trees when they were bare and shorn of their fruit or when the apples were the size of small green golf balls but an Apple Orchard in its full glory had continued to elude me.

The roads from Chandigarh are excellent and we made good time inspite of the constant rain. I can understand the concerns about not traveling to the hills during the monsoon, but the peaks playing hide and seek behind the mist, the verdant greenery, the sudden flashing streak of sun through the clouds is something you will only see when it rains in the mountains.

As we neared apple country we could see apple trees dotting the mountain side, looking like shrouded giants under the white nets to protect them from parrots who love to feast on the fruit. As we went in deeper, the apple trees started appearing on both sides of the road, tempting us to just reach out and grab the ripe, shining red fruit. The trucks trundling down the winding roads carrying their loads of apples were another sign that we were really and truly in Apple Country.

Himalayan Orchard sits prettily on a sloping hillside, besides a pocket handkerchief sized garden with an immaculately kept lawn laced with a riot of multi coloured flowers. Painted a pristine white with a pink roof and green trimmings, pretty flower displays peeping out of huge windows gleaming in the sunshine, the cottage looks very welcoming. Beyond the cottage are steeply terraced hills, with their patchwork quilt of apple orchards and thick deodar forests, bumping and merging into each other before stretching on to the rugged peaks beyond.

The Farmstay is run by Devanshe and Mike and is actually Devanshe’s family home. They both met when they were teaching English in Japan and they decided to come back and turn this delightful property into a Farm stay.

Himalayan Orchard is a very beautifully curated home, tastefully done up with either family heirlooms or curios that Devanshe and Mike picked up during their travels. The art and artefacts, the various musical instruments, the ceramics from Japan, the colourful canvases on the walls, the wind chimes and the Koi nobori blowing gently in the wind all reflect a very personal style statement. This is a home where every nook and corner has a story to tell.

The pretty picture windows in each room allow an unhindered view of the mountains and the orchards. I loved the morning times the best with everything serene and quiet and the soft sunlight pouring in through the windows.

We had all staked our favorite corners at the Farmstay and mine was this sit out where Mike and Devanshe have made a pretty trellis for the grape vine. The view from here was picture perfect. The brown knobs that you see supporting the vine are actually from fishermen’s nets in Japan that Mike has painstakingly collected over the years during his walks on the sea shore.

The best thing about Himalayan Orchard is that it is not exactly on the tourist map so along with a peaceful and unspoiled environment you also get a chance to see what life is like in rural Himachal.

The farmstay has its owns stock of cows, chicken and a few goats. There is also a cock that will make sure you are up at day break whether you like it or not. The first morning when I was woken up by the insistent crowing I stumbled outside to hear a different kind of noise, somewhere between shouting and screeching. I started to wonder if this is how the people in this village greet each other but then I couldn’t see any one in sight. Devanshe told me later that this is the noise the workers make to scare away the birds from the apple trees.

The Farm is always busy but there was feverish activity going on in the orchard since it was apple picking time. Usually extra hands are called in to work during the picking season but Himalayan Orchard also gets people from Workaways to stay and volunteer with them. It is a fantastic concept where you can live with a family as a volunteer and in turn get a fabulous insight into the local culture. 

When we were there, we met Olivia and Luke from Britain and Dominique from Slovenia. They not only helped Devanshe and Mike around the farmstay but also chipped in with the apple sorting. 
We decided we wanted to ‘help’ too and made our way down to the apple shed where Devanshe’s father was busy supervising the work. After the apples are picked from the trees, they are brought into the apple shed to be cleaned and then sorted according to size using a machine that has different sized outlets through which different sizes of apples fall into different trays. After sorting the apples are packaged for their Journey in to all corners of India.

Later we made our way down to the orchards where workers were busy picking the apples. Our intention was to help again but I think the only help we did was eating half the apples off a tree!

Tired by my efforts to pick and sort apples I was delighted to discover that the Farmstay has a library and a game room. The library warmed my heart. The book collection is eclectic and the view from the windows fabulous. You not only have hundreds of interesting books to choose from but very picturesque surroundings to read them in. I had to be dragged out of there at meal times.

Meals at the farmhouse table were ambrosial. There was Devanshe’s home made sourdough bread, cheese, plum, gooseberry and ginger chutneys, mushroom pickle and jams and of course freshly made apple juice along with other Indian and continental dishes. When we were there, we had pasta with home grown kale pesto with delicious apple crumble one day and Sidkus made by Devanshe’s mother the next. Sidkus are a traditional Himachali dish made with wheat and stuffed with either lentils or Jaggery. I have eaten them before but I have never eaten more tastier ones than the ones cooked by Devanshe’s mother !

Everyone ate together and the conversations hopped from one topic to another with Devanshe’s father telling us about the orchards, Mike talking about the local folk lore and history, Luke, Olivia and Dominique discussing their travel plans while Devanshe kept an eye on all of us making sure our plates were full and we were eating well.

Devanshe is a wonderful artist and glimpses of her art can be seen everywhere, from the beautiful signboards, the décor inside the house, her gardening, her flowers to the food she cooks.

If you are lucky, in the evenings when the frenzy of activity has died down and every one is in a relaxed and mellow mood, you might catch Devanshe at her Piano, playing something soft and beautiful. Olivia, one of the workaways happened to be a Piano teacher and both she and Devanshe made our stay that much more memorable by their music.

Mike very good humouredly says he is good at something the British would call bodging but we in India call Jugaad. He is excellent with his hands and can do anything from making an apple juice press to building a yoga studio on his own. As you go around the farmstay you would see always see him tinkering with something or the other.

His interest and knowledge about the area’s natural history and topography surpasses that of even the locals. He has spent months mapping and curating trails around the farmstay and has up to 12 trails clearly marked till now. This is no small feat considering the terrain. One of the highlights of our trip was the trek up to Sararu pass with him to get milk for Devanshe’s cheese making and a hike into the surrounding areas for mushroom foraging.

Himalayan Orchard has something for everyone. For people interested in the outdoors there are hikes and treks as short as two hours to as long as two days. For nature enthusiasts and photographers there is an abundance of flowers and plants and butterflies to photograph and identify. You can potter about the farm and take part in the milking, the cheese making and other farm activities. For writers and artists there is peace and solitude and a picturesque view for inspiration.

If you are someone like me who just wants to vegetate, there are many cheerful corners with comfortable chairs and plump cushions that invite you to doze or read or simply be.

Himalayan Orchard is the best of Immersive tourism where you get a deep insight into local culture and lifestyle. There is no television there but fabulous views, books to read, delicious home grown food and interesting conversations.

For me this was a fabulous Detox not only from the digital but also the urban world and an invaluable opportunity to explore the beautiful surrounding area. I will definitely be back for more.

Himalayan Orchard from a Distance 

For more Information about Devanshe and Mike and their farmstay, please refer to their website.

Coming up next – Hiking up to Sararu Pass with #JugaduMike and artisanal cheese making with #FarmerDevanshe


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