I am sitting in a quaint restaurant at five in the morning trying to put on paper my varied impressions of a little hamlet called Hile in eastern Nepal, 13 kilometers from Dhankuta, and a four-hour drive from Dharan. I watch with surprise, as outside, along the one single street of Hile, shops begin to pull up their shutters and display their wares. On enquiry, I discover that this, the opening of shops so early is a traditional affair. On further enquiry, I find that actually, people come from far off regions such as Khandbari, Madi, Bhojpur, Diktel, Taplejung, Tehrathum, and so on to purchase goods in Dhankuta and Hile, and travel back on foot to their villages. Since it is always a good idea to start long journeys early in the morning, shops in Hile also do themselves a favor by opening early so that whatever goods need to be purchased can be done before starting off.
The shops are neat and well-stocked; most of the goods are Chinese-made items for daily use. There is a sizeable community of Tibetans here who seem to have a monopoly over the dozen or so hotels and restaurants. Some of them also have shops selling carpets along with Chinese-made goods, and churpi (hardened nuts made from yak milk.) The clean hotels are famous for their momos (dumplings) and tongbas (hot water poured over barley and served in antique looking wooden vessels). As one sips through the bamboo pipes, the fermentation of barley continues, so that you get to drink freshly brewed beer.
The houses of Hile are small but well maintained, and seem to always have a fresh coat of paint, This, I believe, is due to the moist and clean air of the town. Even in June, it was quite cool, and I noticed at least a couple of locals wearing woolen pullovers. Hile reminds me of a miniature Darjeeling, before Darjeeling became dirty and crowded. Hile has an invigorating environment; the road from Dharan is very good, British-made, no less. In fact, Hile has all the trappings needed to become a hill station in the proper senses of the word.
An hour and a half away by bus is a place called Basantpur, which I did not visit, but which I heard was rapidly turning into a bustling town. In fact, somebody told me that there are more lodges in Basantpur than there are houses. After spending a night in a quaint hotel in Hile, I was sufficiently relaxed. Not only that, I was exhilarated enough by the momos and tongba, as also by the invigorating air, to take the 45-minute hike to the famed Pakhribas Agricultural Center, (initially run by the British, but handed over to the locals later). The trek downwards was fine but I had a persistent uneasy feeling wondering how on earth I would trek back up on the narrow rock-strewn path climbing steeply towards Hile for God alone knows how many kilometers.
In Pakhribas, I was handed a visitor’s guide book which had a map of the eastern hills encompassing Solukhumbu, Sankhuwasabha, Taplejung, Okhaldhunga, Khotang, Udaypur, Bhojpur, Taplejung, Tehrathum, Panchthar, Ilam, and Dhankuta districts. The title of the map read, ‘PAC’s Research Command Area’. Within the information office, I noticed a big board saying, ‘Staff Movement’, and below it, the location of various staff on the given day. At the main gate is an office which issues visas for the tour of the center. There are a lot of red-roofed cottage-like quarters with television antennas. These aside, I was thrilled to find a lot of plums, pears, and apples growing abundantly near the helipad next to the meteorological area containing weather-forecasting equipment. The British Overseas Administration began funding the center in 1975. It encompasses a 92-hectare area and the visitor’s guide book highlights that the practical benefits are available to about three lakh households. There are specialist sections on agronomy, forestry, horticulture, and livestock.
Having seen all there was to see, I started hiking back, and on the way up, the hills slowly became enveloped by a slight fog, and halfway up the trail, it started to drizzle. Somehow or the other, I managed to make it to Hile within two hours, and couldn’t help congratulating myself on my effort. Soon afterwards, I started off towards Dhankuta and reached the town in about a half hour. Dhankuta is a moderately busy town, but somehow or the other, one gets the feeling that it is in a mid-life crisis. Travelling down from Dhankuta to Dharan, one has to cross a steel bridge over the big and rich Tamar River; rich in the sense that the water is apparently always full and frothing throughout the year. The drive is very interesting since the landscape is rich in a variety of hill flora.
On reaching Dharan, the air gets pretty hot and humid which is intensified by the crowded bazaar. Otherwise, Dharan is a well-maintained town with excellent roads. One of the bigger medical colleges of the country is located here; in fact, the premises of this college was previously a British Army Recruitment Center meant for recruitment of Gurkhas from the eastern hills for the British Army. Trust the British to build really good infrastructure; the medical college grounds, with its charming quarters scattered amongst spacious and verdant surroundings, is a good example of this. From Dharan, it is only a 40-minute drive to Itahari, a town on an important crossing of the East West Highway.
This once-small town has become much bigger and busier now. Biratnagar, the country’s second biggest city after Kathmandu, is about an hour away. It must be mentioned here that the road from Dharan to Biratnagar is a really good one. Although Biratnagar is known as a commercial center, it has a laid-back feel to it. Life moves on at a leisurely pace here. But, no matter how leisurely Biratnagar might feel, or how neat and clean Dharan is, and no matter how rapidly developing Itahari might look, I can’t turn my thoughts away from the little hamlet called Hile. Needless to say, the succulent momos and the spirited tongbas of the quaint little restaurants there taste much better after the hard walk up from Pakhribas!
Note: This account was written based on a visit quite some time ago; there might have been many changes in the meantime. However, keeping in mind the slow pace of development, especially in the hills, it would be safe to say that the charm of Hile could have remained intact.
-Amar B Shrestha
-Title Photo by Philippe Leroyer/Flickr
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