Monday, June 9, 2008

Ilam’s pristine beauty

East is east: Ilam’s pristine beauty
Destination: Ilam
How to get there?
Take a plane to Birtamod and hop a three-hour ride to Ilam Bazaar, or catch a bus from Kalanki to Ilam, close to a 24-hour journey.What to take: A nice big windcheater and water proof clothing. The rains might get to you if you don't take care.
Visiting Ilam is a treat for the senses. Covered with the tea gardens that stretch out as far as the eye can see, Ilam is nature at one of her finest. Tea bushes form a uniform pattern as they blanket the hills, making you want to roll down it like you did when you were a kid, without a care in the world. The tea bushes are waist-high and the leaves smooth to touch. Of the freshest green, a sweet fragrance emanates from the leaves, luring bees, dragonflies and people alike.
This is what Ilam is most famous for: tea. Ilam's rolling hills are carpeted with tea, sweet aromatic leaf tea that is the best in the country. And they make for a dazzling view, green on all sides as the hills dip and rise like waves.
Ilam, or rather, Ilam Bazaar, is a three hour ride from nearest Birtamod on a sturdy jeep. The ride is long but anything but boring. As the hills rise, the landscape changes gradually. At places, there are picturesque spots that seem almost out of postcard. Tall trees, elegantly shaped, surround meadows of the deepest green, and if you happen to be heading up in the evening, you can catch the setting sun, its fading rays filtering through the canopy of trees like beams from heaven.
You know you've entered Ilam when you start to see the tea plantations. At first, they're scattered and isolated, small and not very well tended. But as you progress upwards, the plantations grow and keep growing until they're the only thing you can see for miles around. "Every piece of land in Ilam has some purpose," says journalist Rohit Chandra Bhattarai, "Either there is tea, cinnamon, forests or some sort of crop. Not even one inch lies fallow." And it's true. Ilam is green, but not just green, organic green.
After a fiasco a few years back when India returned close to 30,000 kilos of leaf tea because of impurities and chemicals present, locals and factory owners alike are turning over a new leaf, literally. They've discarded the old chemicals and have gone all organic. And because of this, wildlife is slowly returning to Ilam. Now, there are snakes in the underbrush, rats, deer, dragonflies, beetles and ladybirds, some of which were conspicuously absent when chemicals were used. After factory owners started refusing tea with too high a chemical content, farmers caught on and despite the lower yield, seem happy to see the return of fauna.
Ilam grows the best tea in Nepal because of its weather and its idyllic conditions. Tea requires a minimum of 50 inches of rainfall and acidic soil to grow properly and the higher the altitude, the better the flavour. High quality tea grows slower but acquires a better flavour at altitudes of above 5,000ft. Ilam, with its close proximity to Darjeeling, grows arguably the best leaf in Nepal. "Most Nepalis prefer Jhapa CTC tea to our superior leaf tea," says RC Nepal, manager of the Himalayan Shangri-la Tea Factory, "But foreigners know better. Demand for Ilam leaf tea is growing in Europe."
Ilam's weather may be perfect for tea but sometimes can be quite an annoyance. It doesn't take long for storm clouds to gather and rain is intermittent, at least once or twice daily. The air is humid, wet with the moisture and can get quite chilly at times, but makes for great horizon watching. Sitting atop a high hill and watching the storm clouds gather can be fascinating, the speed with which they congregate, dark and angry, only to pour out bucketsful of rain and then disappear as quickly as they appeared.
Ilam's moody, melancholy weather maybe responsible for something that most residents of Ilam are not very proud of: its high suicide rate. Once notorious for having the highest suicide rate in all of Nepal, Ilam's aatmahatya has gone down in recent years. Psychologists at the BP Koirala Institute of Health Sciences in nearby Dharan, offer various explanations to try and account for the abnormal rates, ranging from the weather to proximity to India.
Ilam's most popular destination is the Mai Pokhari, the nine-cornered pond that holds religious, cultural, ecological and biological importance. Mai Pokhari, and Ilam, is home to many endangered species of insects, animals and birds. Ilam, and mainly the upper East region, is also home to the elusive Red Panda. This part of east Nepal, which spreads across Ilam, Panchthar and Taplejung, is home to many endangered species of birds, insects and animals. White rhododendron is rampant and the mysterious beasts like the red panda and the spotted snow leopard are natives.
India is a hop across the border from Ilam. An hour from Fikkal to Pashupatinagar and then you're scotfree to Darjeeling. Although Pashupatinagar doesn't have a customs office so foreigners cannot cross over from here, Nepalis regularly make good use of the open border. But it's not always a good thing, as Fikkal locals report truckloads of Ilam tea being transported over to Darjeeling in the wee hours of the morning to be repackaged and sold as Darjeeling tea. After police clamped down on the trucks, mules and donkeys are now being used.
Ilam has always been beautiful and always been a very productive region of Nepal. Its lush greenery and climate perfect for a variety of cash crops, mainly: alaichi (cardamom), amleso( grass use as broom), adhuwa (ginger) and aolan (milk), the four As that Ilam is most famous for. Ilam will amaze you, from its scenery to it's sometimes heart wrenching chill. It's abundant flora and elusive fauna are something that many researchers and tourists come to see. Ilam is a mini-Darjeeling, just on our side of the border.
(By wave magazine)

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