21.02.2017 - 11.03.2017 -14 °C
After seeing the mountains from below it was time to go up. For me they pull like gravity – I had to get up there and higher still to explore the greatest range on Earth. Nature’s power and glory that can be seen from space. The bus from Rishikesh to Dharamsala is 12 hours or so through the north Indian night. We got front seats – more leg room I rejoiced. I celebrated too soon; the empty space in front means nothing to brace against as we swing round endless hairpin bends and see-saw over ever-steeper summits. The fresh breeze through the window cracks tops off the five-star sleeping experience.
All this cannot dampen my enthusiasm – I am strangely elated to feel the 5am chill on my face when we pull into the bus station. We quickly hopped up to McLeod Ganj, perched above the town on the way on the snowy tops above. Our first view by the dawn light is breathtaking – having never been to the Alps or any other serious mountains. Seeing them up close is humbling and awesome. We found our Tibetan monastery eventually after a minor detour through the town car park and rubbish dump – this took the edge off the thrill but never mind. Staggering through garbage with my backpack at 7.30am halfway up a mountain is all part of the experience. The monastery is beautiful, its shining gold stupa reflects the pure morning sun, and it’s surrounded by rhododendron. The red-robed are quiet and shy, and very young. The caretaker explains the monastic lifestyle is in decline – the lure of the material world is too strong for most Tibetans to resist, especially after having pulled off the miraculous and dangerous escape from China-occupied Tibet.
McLeod Ganj is home to the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile, as well as several thousand refugees. We visited the museum to find out a little more abut this modern tragedy. It's thoroughly depressing – the Chinese occupation seems dedicated in eradicating Tibetan culture from the world; through brutal repression in the early days and now through the systematic migration of Chinese into Tibet, to the extent that Tibetans are now treated as second class citizens in their own country. It’s hard to see a solution while China is committed to sucking the country (nearly the size of India) dry of natural resources with blatant disregard for the human cost.
After the museum we went for dinner and were joined by a monk. An acclaimed author, he was tortured as a young man but managed to escape over the mountains via Nepal to India. A harrowing story but he spent much more time regaling us with his anecdotes - learning to roller-skate in London wearing his monk robes, rubbing butter on his face at Francois Mitterrand’s house, and using hair removal cream as shampoo by accident. He had us in stitches. The positive force of his personality was amazing – a truly inspiring individual and shining example of the power of Buddhist philosophy.
After a few days in McLeod we moved further up the hill to Dharamkot. We had a couple of small walks – all steep climbs and steps. One takes us to a beautiful waterfall that tumbles in steps and myriad pools from the white peaks above. Kerri was exceptionally brave in scrambling up the narrow and rocky gully to find a spot where we could swim. The water was arctic blue and clear as diamond, with a chill that gives instant brain freeze. There is noone around so we fearlessly skinny dip – refreshing is not the word.
But these short treks are just the warm up. The main event has loomed above us since our arrival. We set off at 8am and huff and puff up for three hours. Pausing to enjoy a chai, we seem to have the entirety of India spread out below us, rolling hills strech and rivers meander, towns and roads wobble in the haze. We must be able to see 20 miles at least; it’s like being in an aeroplane. The path takes us through rhododendrons – flowers bursting juicy red among the grey green hills. Further up we reach the the snow line, and breathlessly scramble the last 20 minutes to the summit. We reach the top and the Himalayan white face of the Dhauladhar range opens up in front of us. We arrived just in time as in just a few short minutes it’s hidden by cloud. We are on the top of Triund, 2975m. It feels like the gateway to a frozen whiteout world with the foothills below and steep face above. It’s as far as we go this time and after 10 minutes on top for photos we turn and descend the same way, pleased with our achievement and buzzing from the fresh air and exercise.
It started snowing in the last place we visited in the mountains, and, as often the way with travelling, just when you are leaving you feel like you have truly arrived. Snowy Old Manali is a windy village nestled in a valley surrounded by cloud swept tops. We stay among the older houses built in the traditional manner huddled around a wooden temple at the top of the town. Down below is the newer more developed section – a cluster of tourist shops and restaurants mostly closed for the off-season, and further still the Beas River, slowly swelling with melt water.
Across the valley sits Vashisht. We stayed there for two nights before switching to our cosier tandoori-warmed room in Old Manali. It was cold over there – although no snow it was several below and the chill drove us to sample the Old Monk rum again – the first time since Gokarna beach, a world away on the Karnataka sands. The appeal of Vashisht? For many it’s the world class hashish. Weed grows naturally in these parts. The other is the hot springs-fed steam baths in the centre of the village. I bathed morning and night to take the cold from my bones. A sauna under the starlight. It felt good to have bath for the first time in three months. The water is slightly sulphurous, and so hot you can only stay in for five minutes. Skin smoothed, circulation boosted. The village seems asleep apart from at the baths; women wash their clothes with their feet on the concrete while gossiping all day, children skip over the warm water gushing, dogs rest in the steam and old men sit deep in thought, their felt hats securely snug over weathered brows.
There aren’t really any tourists in Vashisht or old Manali as the season has not started. I think it must be a different place judging by the number of empty guesthouses, shuttered restaurants and dark shop windows, just waiting for the arrival of tourist dollar to wake them from a long winter’s slumber. The family we are staying with tell us of all night parties and hundreds of charras-smoking hippy tourists. I’m glad to be here in the quiet. I hiked one day to ‘disco valley’, apparently a slice of Goa in the middle of the steep valley behind our house. It’s deserted of course; I was completely alone until I stumbled into some angry dogs and their friendly owners tending their apple orchard beneath the towering tree-clad slopes. The view was undeniably fantastic – a great spot for a party if you are a dedicated psytrance fan.
The walking here is epic – challenging but rewarding. Each bend around the valley brings fresh views of pristine peaks or shining rivers. Birds sang endlessly and it seemed as though spring was in air. Blossom peeked through on the fruit trees on the valley floor.
I say it seemed, because that is how it was before it snowed and the valley was plunged into a shaken snow globe world – the peaks and valleys disappeared into white milky skies that relentlessly dumped snow for a day. Then more snow at night. Then yet more the following day. The village is quiet – dogs driven inside and taxis and rickshaws stranded; there’s no one outside really at all. We stagger out of our nest and luckily the bakery is open- nutella croissants win the day. Time is spent watching the snow fall and playing cards. Kerri sorts through Sock Mountain drying by the fire. And planning. Flights to Thailand are booked but the rest of the trip is a question mark. And behind a bigger question lurks – do we want to go home at all?
Our stay was made all the more cosy by being part of a family. Grandma Joby accosted us and offered us a room, and we ate dinner with them for 6 nights. We chat in terrible English and even worse Hindi. They are warm and kind, with a sense of humour and patience for our strange ways. It's great to eat some home cooked food, although we did have to buy them vegetables when the rice and beans got a little repetitive. They answer questions about life in Manali, family, plans, history, geography as well as they are able. Seems like the grandparents are glad of the company when the rest of them leave for a couple of days. Its nice, feeling like someone is looking after you after some time away. The youngest daughter celebrated her 4th birthday and we joined the party - the kids are surprisingly sweet and well behaved, if a little messy.
I had a slight fever for a few days- another excuse not to go outside. It’s more snow than I have ever seen and still it falls. We abandon plans to leave – the 16 hour night bus down from here is running but sounds too unpleasant to contemplate. Here we remain, keeping the fire lit, saying we hope the snow stops but secretly wishing that it won’t.