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The Story Of How I Came To Own A Himalayan Homestay Called Birdsong & Beyond!

"I chose to go out into the remote, wild, unknown, and make it home," says entrepreneur Kiranjeet Ahluwalia Chaturvedi, who owns Birdsong & Beyond.

The story of my mountain home Birdsong & Beyond started taking shape in 2009, on the internet, the way many stories do these days.

My childhood fascination for a life in the Himalayas led to an internship with a central Himalayan NGO instead of a much prized corporate assignment. But when they offered me a full-time job, I refused. I was overcome by fear and a lack of confidence.

My other longings pulled me away – the longing to fit in, to earn validation from others. By my mid-30s, with all the trappings of a middle-class urban life in place, the call of the snows couldn’t be ignored anymore. So I got to work on it with clearer intentions and a stronger sense of what I needed for myself, and why.

Searching for my dream place

On an online travel and hiking forum I met a woman looking for a buyer for a piece of her paternal farmstead.

I had never heard of the area. I had been trying to seal a deal for over two years in places I was familiar with, but nothing had worked out. Why not explore a new locale, I wondered, and off I went, children and husband in tow.

Birdsong & Beyond

Reaching the rural location of Guniyala Khal felt like a test of my desire to become a mountain dweller. We were caught in the full blast of the last outpouring of a retreating monsoon. The 180 km drive up from Rishikesh was a gripping one. Dense clouds that blocked all vision, hairpin bends, raging river gorges, crumbling landslides, and washed-away roads made a supposedly 6-hour drive take most of the day. We couldn’t imagine what lay ahead of us, and surrendered to the fog.

The next morning was bright and clear. The tinkling of cowbells and birdcalls brought us out of our razais. The grandeur of the snow-peaks up ahead, and the vast miles of ancient forests around us felt straight out of a fantasy.

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Birdsong & Beyond

The section of terrace fields we were being sold was emerald green with the ripening rice crop, scattered with a rainbow mix of seasonal flowers. Fruit-laden trees of pahadi nimbu and malta bejeweled the village landscape at every few steps.

It was so far from my home…

It was picture perfect in its own rustic way. But given how far it was from Gurgaon, how was I to ever imagine this as my second home, and how would I manage the frequent long mountain drives to get here? I struggle with road sickness even though it hasn’t stopped me from going to the hills again and again.

There was no railway station nearby nor an airport. The owner said these were already sanctioned and would come up soon. I clung to that bit of news, knowing fully well how slowly things like this actually shape up.

My husband – a reluctant early partner in my mountain fantasy – was by now so harassed by my constant pining for the hills and the protracted, futile ‘house hunt’, that he just wanted closure to the wanting and the wandering. He insisted the deal be done this time. I agreed to the deal, knowing in my heart that this was not just about owning land, this was not a closure but the beginning.

Was I really just an impractical dreamer?

For the next two two years if I brought up planning to make our mountain home, I was told that having the land was enough for now, we didn’t have funds to do more, that it was a daunting project, and who would do it, and that I was a lazy dreamer with bookish fantasies who lacked the know-how and passion to get on the ground to do stuff in the harsh terrain of the Himalayas.

Was I really just an impractical dreamer? I began to question this instead of believing it as a fact. I also acknowledged it was time to change my attitude, and not wait for someone to do for me what I wanted.

It was my dream and I would have to go for it myself … ‘jodhi tor dak shune kyo na aashe tobe ekla chalo re’. It was time to be a one-woman army and a pioneer, never mind the barriers of unfamiliarity and lack of experience and connections, and above all, to let go my diffidence and wall-flowerish tendency to hide out of sight and earshot. It was time to let go of safety-seeking and approval seeking and fitting-in, to own more of who I really was. Off-the-beaten track choices and decisions demanded certain shifts in oneself. I could not have my cake and eat it too.

It felt like home to me even if a very remote place

There was not a single outsider settled within 100s of miles of our new plot. No woman or man or family from outside visited there regularly, let alone having lived there or built a home without already having old family roots there.

But then had I not always been an outsider of sorts, everywhere? Wasn’t that what made me try so hard to fit in and seek approval? What if I went out on a limb to really do what thrilled me, no matter how off the beaten track?

On my first visit to the local tehsil I had asked the patwari to name the peaks we could view from there. The meadows of Bedni Bugyal and the slopes of Roopkund. The peaks of Nanda Ghunti and Nada Kot. Trishul. Mrigthuni. Haathi Parvat. Valley of Flowers. Neelkanth. Chaukhambha. Gangotri glacier. Names evoking magic, myth, adventure and mystery for me. Names that felt like home. Who was then the outsider? What then was an unknown place?

In the shadow of these mountains, I felt embraced and nurtured. With these eternal sentinels beckoning me with their magnetic magnificence, what or who else was I waiting for?

Planning how and what to build

I started planning what to build and how. I calculated and asked for my share of what more we could reasonably put aside from our family . I connected with other city people who had moved to the hills fully or part-time. I learnt about sustainable construction, solar power and electric circuits, and plumbing and agri-zones. I started survey visits to the site. Alone on the night train from Delhi to Haridwar. In pouring rain and biting cold. On the local bus. In a shared Sumo.

Birdsong & Beyond

At first, I felt sorry for myself, melting into tears in the darkness of a train compartment. I envied those travelling in pairs and groups. I kept to myself and sulked.

Then as I became a regular, people approached me and asked questions, shared information, showed interest. I began to open up to my reality and absorbed what I was seeing and learning. On the drive up in a shared taxi a few months later, my smile was spontaneous as my heart soared at the first glimpse of the snows of Trishul through a gap in the mountain landscape.

Birdsong & Beyond

I welcomed my family to the just finished pinewood cottage in May 2011. Some of them enjoyed the novelty. Others were clearly out of their comfort zone and expressed it. I too felt conflicted between joy, pride and rejection. A few months later, however, a set of old friends visited and helped with some post-construction issues.

The way they made themselves at home, and helped out with teething troubles of a new home made their visit the real house-warming for me. One friend suggested I hire a caretaker and open the cottage for guests, to fend off neglect and disrepair, and to pay for the staff and maintenance, and above all, to have company for myself when I visited for longer stays.

Opening Birdsong & Beyond homestay to guests

The Birdsong & Beyond homestay formally opened for guest bookings in 2012.

In the 10 years since then, after hosting 1000s of guests from all over the world, after many improvements, additions, learnings, mistakes, corrections and changes to what we made and now offer, I can say that while I made my mountain home, it made me. The challenges I faced, the realisations I came to – about the land, the local people, society, myself, family, friends and more – have all changed me in lasting and good ways. Most of it has been a source of deep contentment and confidence.

Over the years, the roads have improved, and a train link is about to start service. The local airstrip already has a daily helicopter service to Dehradun.

When my daughter came to stay during Covid times, she began to teach local children, and then I kept that going. Every planting season we add more trees, food and fruit crops, and flowers to our plot. There is a dog who took shelter with us and some cats who have adopted us. The dream is now a robust reality and I am so thankful.

It wasn’t easy, but Birdsong & Beyond was my dream… and it nurtured other similar dreams

As I write this, I have just launched a new, perhaps far more audacious venture. The idea had been germinating over the years in my mind. Guests often ask me to get them land nearby but many things come in the way. Around my cottage, land is scarce and if and when someone offers to sell, not many city folks actually walk the talk. Most can’t handle the complete break from an urban infrastructure or lack of company of others, or PLUs of similar backgrounds for long. Many still have busy careers and obligations in the city and need easier access to that.

I too want to change my city address to somewhere closer to my mountain home. So I began to look for a suitable location, in the foothills, to create a neighbourhood of like-minded homeowners keen on a more nature-friendly, simpler lifestyle. A few friends who share the dream joined hands with me and here we are, our idea oversubscribed within ten days. Soon we start building the new dream.

If it wasn’t for the breaking of barriers within and around me in creating my mountain home, this latest project would have never taken root. As with my building my mountain home, there are those who pick holes and warn us about this new project not what we should be doing, because it is not for ‘your type’. But who says everything has to fit into pre-ordained boxes and labels and types?

Bias and rigid habits of thought and deep fears are a part of human nature, and so is innovation and breaking barriers. We can choose. I once chose to go out into the remote, wild, unknown, and make it home. I am doing it again, and this time I have even more company than before.

Image source: Airbnb

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About the Author

Kiranjeet Chaturvedi

Kiranjeet Chaturvedi trained as a sociologist, and worked in qualitative market research with the WPP Group for many years. In the last decade she had taken to writing, sustainability consulting, farming and mountain living.   Kiranjeet read more...

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