Sunday, 21 August 2011


Week 4.

We left for Manali on a creaky old bus on Sunday afternoon. It’s a semi sleeper because sleeper buses are illegal in Himachal Pradesh – the difference between the two is that a sleeper bus has bunks whereas a semi sleeper bus merely has reclining seats. However, as luxurious as this sounds, when everybody reclines there’s simply no room for your legs – and everyone –does- recline. Another interesting design fault in the buses is that all of the windows and air conditioning units leak, making for a less than pleasant journey.

We arrived in Manali after 17 hours of twists and turns through the mountains. Upon leaving the bus we were surrounded by people convincing us to go to their guesthouses, as standard, and after we’d decided on one we were taxi’d to Old Manali.

Manali is beautiful. I’m really going to struggle to convey how different it is to Delhi. To begin with, it has a fantastically crisp, cool climate. The air feels clean and there’s actually a breeze!  After three weeks in humid, polluted Delhi you cannot begin to imagine our joy at actually having to wear a scarf! Because it’s a hill station village in a valley, the road is a winding upwards path, with lots of branches off it, and there is a beautiful view of the river or the opposite side of the valley everywhere you are. 

We were centrally located, right next to three lonely planet listed cafes, which was ideal as it soon became apparent to us that we’d be eating a lot this week! We had breakfast in Moon Dance café, a fantastic place psychedelically decorated (as most of Manali is) and decided upon our course of action. I had found a ‘day in manali for under 4 euros’ online, and armed with this (and no map, there are no maps of Manali so tourists are forced to pay for guides) we set out on a very very long walk.

We started at Manu temple, which was a fairly simple Hindi temple before continuing upwards towards some steps carved out of a massive stone leading apparently nowhere. There were, however, fresh cowpats on them which gave us hope that this was a legitimate route. Throughout the day we would search eagerly for these signs of life in lieu of having any actual idea of the direction we were going.

We walked for what seemed like hours upwards on rocky terrain before reaching a green space overlooking the valley. We then continued walking upwards and onwards, only the path was a little less defined now, we were ducking under branches, pushing through brambles and clambering over rocks, still hoping we were following the directions properly. We came to a peculiarly isolated café in the middle of a field, called Reggae Café. It was tended by a man who invited us to sit down but who explained that they weren’t open; about twenty dogs roamed around the space territorially and barking occasionally. There was a sudden rainburst that lasted for about an hour, but after twenty minutes we decided we’d risk it and carried on down our slippery path.

It was about here that our route got a bit convoluted. We were walking along a side of a valley looking for the village of Gushpal, but we had ended up somehow in a huge apple orchard that kept sloping upwards and downwards as we walked east. However, constant intrusion onto other peoples’ land to ask for directions turned out to be a good approach for us as we eventually made it to this picturesque village with wooden houses and women on balconies working at their looms. It was so quiet, we felt like we’d been transported to another time, despite the occasional tv satellite poking out of the roof of a shack.

We then walked onwards to the village of Vaishist. Not before, however, we’d crossed the river. The Himalayas being the Himalayas, it seems like there’s little need for a bridge across fast flowing rivers in the middle of valleys. We’d searched for a nearby bridge but none presented itself, so instead we had to navigate a way over by stepping on stones closest to the surface of the water. About halfway over we gave up and just waded through, ruining our shoes in the process. The rest of our walk was soundtracked by a constant ‘squelch… squelch… squelch…’

When we reached Vaishist we had lunch in a reggae themed café, and drank a thimble full of whisky toasting the father of a new acquaintance of ours’ birthday. We then went and bathed in the hot springs that are a part of a Hindi temple there. Men and women have separate pools so I parted ways with Johnny and Chris for a while and luxuriated in my first contact with hot water for three weeks.

Afterwards, we befriended a Babaji, who is essentially a hindu holy man – kind of like a pilgrim, I guess. He took us to a café and we had a chat and a cup of chai as the sun set over the valley.

After that we walked home, absolutely exhausted. We went to a restaurant called Shesh Besh for dinner. Shesh Besh became our favourite place to go almost immediately, it’s colourfully decorated, with very chilled music going out over the speakers and chess boards and backgammon boards are on every table. The food is absolutely delicious too, which is a help.

The next day, I was struck down by some small illness which rendered me incapable for the day. I slept and read for the whole day, which was lovely.

On Wednesday we walked to New Manali and struggled to work out the government bus system. At the bus station there are no signs or apparent bays, instead there is a constant stream of traffic and men standing around barking at each other. Fortunately a kind woman pointed us in the direction of the right bus and we boarded for Solang Valley. When we arrived we found ourselves pilots for paragliding and clambered up to the peak from which we would leap. It was pretty special. Afterwards we zorbed, which essentially involves being strapped into a large inflatable ball and rolled down a hill. It was about as pleasant as it sounds, but I’m glad we did it. On the Zorbing course we met a lovely boy called Thomas from the Netherlands, we went for a drink with him afterwards and he taught us how to play backgammon – what an amazing game!

On Thursday we embarked upon our Great Adventure – or, our day long trek to Patalsu Peak, which is 4200m above sea level. We began at Solang Valley and took a quadbike type thing to the river at the bottom of the valley. Then we walked over a quaint looking bridge and our trek began. At first we were walking through fields and fields of cabbages, then through a small village, then through trees and thickets – all the while going relentlessly uphill. I can’t pretend I handled the whole thing with enthusiasm and grace, at one point I asked Sam to count to 10 while I measured my heartrate and then panicked  ‘My heartrate’s 192bpm! That can’t be possible! I’m going to die! My heart is going to burst out of my chest and run away from me…’ All credit must go to Johnny and Sam for putting up with my constant rest breaks and whinging. I was convinced we hadn’t brought enough water as well, and a dreadful fear of dying of thirst at the summit plagued the entire journey. It would have been just my luck to achieve getting to the top, only to drop dead before I had the chance to even update my facebook status about it…

Anyway, the closer we got to the top, the prettier it became. We had to walk through this beautiful field of wildflowers, and then what looked like a wild strawberry field (this gave me some consolation, at least we would not starve in our 8 hour trek.) Our guide told us it had been just beyond a line of trees and when we got to that point I collapsed upon a stone (that looked just like the stone table I imagine Aslan being killed on. That should have been my first warning.) We ate some of the wild strawberries Sam had thoughtfully collected and I basked in the success of reaching the top.
‘You do know this isn’t the top right?’

shoots through my reveries. I sit up and bluff, ‘um, oh yeah, definitely..’ looking with trepidation at the looming peak ahead of us, that I had hitherto managed to ignore. Having been persuaded to continue by no other technique than peer pressure (less a case of ‘because it was there’ more ‘because they told me to’) I recommenced the trek.

You may be thinking, ah, but what views! Surely the sights you could see from so high must have afforded you some consolation in the depths of your exhaustion?! – unfortunately, by this point we were lucky if we could see the person in front of us, so thick were the clouds we were walking through.  We reached a random assortment of rocks and our guide told us we’d reached one of many potential tops. I felt a flood of relief wash over me, even as I heard him continue

‘but if you want to, we can continue to…’ and he pointed behind him, at a sharp, steep, terrifying looking peak some distance away. It was too much for my poor nerves to bear, and I resolved this time to resist peer pressure and remain behind while the boys continued ahead. I figured that with the murderous gleam in Johnny’s eyes that my complaining had elicited over the past hour, and considering we really were far away from any kind of help, and our water supply really was running dangerously low, it would be best for all parties involved if I stayed behind.

I found a comfortable looking rock (about 8 ft from the ground, heaven knows how I managed to get up there) and took out Sam’s book and attempted to read…

I wake up, having had no intention of falling asleep, as heavy droplets of rain start falling down. I have no idea how much time has passed, the clouds have rolled onwards thicker than before and I’m suddenly feeling disoriented and slightly panicky. It’s really quite cold. I weigh up the risks of getting off the now slippery and wet rock, and staying out in the exposed rain… I decide to throw caution to the wind and clamber down, managing to remain intact. I find a nearby shepherd’s hut and rock back and forth in a corner of it for a while, before attempting to build a fire with wet twigs and a broken lighter (the main lesson I took from this is my future uselessness in a post-apocalyptic scenario.) Fortunately the boys were on their way back and could save me from going crazy from solitude a la Tom Hanks in castaway.

The way back was, if anything, more difficult than the way up. The rain had turned our perilous path into a slushy obstacle course of skids, roots and rocks. We were lucky if we made it 20 metres at a time without one of us slipping over. However, Sam kept an eye on me so my fall rate was significantly less than everyone else’s but our guide who remained curiously unexhausted and pristine. However, we finally made it home – or, to Shesh Besh for a reviving cup of tea and dinner.

Friday morning we booked our bus home to Delhi for Saturday afternoon, and got a government bus to Naggar. We’d heard there was a castle and a memorial to a famous artist in this town, so we figured it was worth the trip. However, we walked the kilometre to the castle and managed to walk right past it! It was only a chance encounter with a boy we’d met the day before in New Manali that alerted us to our mistake. It’s perhaps the least imposing castle in the world, made of wood and of no great height. We paid our 50rs and went in. It’s fairly disappointing, just a balcony really with some nice views of the valley. In the basement there’s a museum, or, a display case with an assortment of things and no writing explaining them or their relevance to the museum. It was all significantly underwhelming.

We then walked to the Nicholas Roerich memorial a further two kilometres away. It was actually really beautiful and well put together. I enjoyed myself, despite having never heard of him before.

On the way back the heavens opened in a truly spectacular fashion. After about three minutes I gave up any attempt of trying to stay dry and just concentrated on not tripping over my sodden harem pants. On the bus back you could see the rivers and waterfalls had turned brown from the force of the extra water, it was pretty terrifying going round those winding mountain top roads when they were acting as riverbanks themselves with so much water running down them.

The next day we got up and it was still raining. We went to the tourist office we’d booked with and they told us the roads were closed and we’d have to rebook. Suddenly, Manali was looking less appealing. Glumly, we walked to Shesh Besh for breakfast, and we sat inside in the chillout area with cushions on the floor and a television. Our spirits were roused by noticing a stack of DVDs and we spent literally the entire day watching dvds and ordering food at shesh besh. It was a perfect day for just chilling out.

We went to Moon Dance for dinner when I realised there was football on. It seems to be a peculiar trait of mine to enjoy watching football far more when I’m abroad, but I think it’s something to do with missing the pub culture. It follows that where there is an English football game being shown (Liverpool v. Sunderland) there will be English tourists drinking beer, which is the next best thing to a pub, I suppose. Anyway, I was right, and we met a load of just-graduated students from Manchester and two medics from Imperial.

After the football was over, we moved onto a bar/restaurant that was right next to our guesthouse. We could hear the music being played there going on all night every night. It was hilariously typically traveller-esque. There were maybe three travellers in a corner playing on their guitars while people sang along to songs like bob Dylan and the beatles, and even coldplay! Then a really gifted tabla player performed… and people just took turns to play and chill. We ended up staying until about 4.30am, by far the latest night we’d spent out.

The next day, Johnny and I changed our booking for our bus home. The two medics from Imperial had persuaded us of the merits of the deluxe bus, rather than the luxury bus, so we thought, why not! As events transpired, it became apparent that there were many reasons why not.

It got off to a bad star, with everyone having been loaded onto one bus, then asked to move to another. My reclining seat refused to remain un-reclined and in front of us sat two large Indian women, one of whom – to Johnny’s great and ever increasing annoyance- would recline her seat back slightly and then rest her hand above her head on her headrest, which happened to be a few centimetres away from Johnny’s face. There was a constant battle between the two for the entire journey. The woman would flick her hand over her head, Johnny would (first politely, then with rising irritation) ask her to move her hand away, and the woman would look shocked and affronted, only to do exactly the same thing half an hour later. It was infuriating. Then there was the small matter of driving over recent landslide debris and over flooded river banks.

That would have all been fine, but for the punctured tyre about 6 hours in. We had to stop in the middle of nowhere and wait while another tyre was brought to us. It took an agonisingly long time. We passed the time with games of Arrogance with the medics, but it wasn’t exactly the stuff great memories are made of.

Our long journey continued, and as it started raining outside I slowly became drenched due to an incredibly ill-conceived style of window in the coach, which was two glass sliding panels with about an inch of space between them meaning that everyone in a window seat was as subject to the weather as if they were in a (cramped, uncomfortable, cold) convertible.

In the morning, a full 3 hours late, we were unceremoniously dropped off in the middle of nowhere. Well, it was Delhi, but not as we knew it. Rather it was a Tibetan colony somewhere in Delhi and no-one spoke English to tell us where the nearest metro was so we wouldn’t be overcharged to go there by an enterprising rickshaw driver. By now I was near breaking point, I’d barely slept, my hair was a knotted tangled mess and the ridiculous amount of tat I had bought in Manali was weighing me down horribly. I furiously hailed down a cycle rickshaw and on finding my way to the nearest metro, found myself a seat and scowled at anyone who looked at me until I finally reached lovely East of Kailiash in lovely South Delhi.

Thus endeth our week in the Himalayas, with the journey home undoing the effort of unwinding for a week.

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