The blog zone is a short web-based doodle book of my time in India over the winters of 2002-2003, 2003-2004, 2004-2005, 2005-6 and 2007-8
the blog zone
travels in India over the summer, 2010

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02 Oct 2010

A trip between the rain showers

This trip didn’t go according to my plans, but I’d anticipated that – I went in the monsoon time. Heavy rainfall can disrupt plans even in the rich countries of the world. Yet I hadn't expected quite the enormous and destructive deluge that came in August and September. You’d be best to read this blog from the bottom if you want to have the adventures in the right order.
Click on the small pictures to enlarge them

In Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand I encountered many generous and friendly people, had a fabulous (if rather soggy) time split between camping and staying in small lodges, and delved a little deeper into Kullu, Lahaul, Spiti, Kinnaur and the Pindari.

Wet season


24 Sep 2010

Piddling down on the way to the Pindari

It was familiar ground for me again – Almora, Uttarakhand. My final mountain port of call on the trip, and I felt grateful to have needed only twelve hours layover in steamy Delhi before catching the evening train back to the hills.

Transport from the railhead at Kathgodam now followed a more circuitous route to reach the city: buses needed six hours, while taxis were able to rumble along rough roads and be there in four – an hour over the regular time. This was all due to a vital bridge outside of Naini Tal, which had been washed away in monsoon floods – tedious and expensive for local people, although I found the new roads and small settlements on the way an interesting tour through rural Uttarakhand.

My taxi driver was a friendly and honest chap (friendliness being the norm for drivers on this route, while – in my experience – honesty seems rather the exception), and offered to drive me for free the extra 15km. to Papparsali – a small settlement on the Binsar road outside Almora – as he knew the family I’d be staying with.

I’ve stayed at Khim’s guesthouse numerous times in the middle of winter, but this was my first summer season there. How fascinating to compare notes with Khim about the heavy monsoon, and how the garden had grown over the summer. For example, his apricots had ripened a full four months earlier than in Kinnaur, my most recent stop in the Himalaya.

Still the rain bucketted earthwards. It began to seem as though my final trek on this trip – to the 5000m high lake of Roopkund – would be cursed. I would be up to my waist in snow if I went in such weather… a lighter and lower trek seemed the sensible choice, one with excellent mountain views yet an easier approach to obtain them. I picked the Pindari glacier trek. It was easy to reach the trail from Bageshwar, near Almora, and the path was paved for a lot of the way. In any case, the monsoon was expected to wane after the middle of September. Little did I know what the weather gods still held up their sodden sleeves.

I’d planned to camp some of the way, but it would have been a shame to pass up the PWD resthouse in Loharkhet, dating from the 1960′s, and with friendly Gudu in a small dhaba nearby to prepare my meals. His free-range hens pecked outside in the rain during the day, pulling delightfully squirmy, plump worms from damp earth. It was good weather for them, and they sheltered inside his small room at night, roosting on soft-drink crates. Even reaching Loharkhet had had its elements of adventure, as multiple landslips (one of which had killed 18 children in a school house) meant bypassing the ochre earth debris. Approaching the village of Song, walking around a huge slip required a detour through fields down to the river and back. The road between Song and Loharkhet was broken in two places, but luckily a slate-paved walking track provided an alternative.

This is the view of my Loharkhet PWD resthouse veranda. I was the only occupant, and was serenaded to sleep by a nearby rushing stream.

Loharkhet PWD resthouse

click the map ▼ below to enlarge it
map of the Pindari trek

Dhakiri kal shrine

Next day dawned rainy. With only grey langur monkeys in the trees as my companions (one advantage of doing this popular trek earlier in the season, and in unfriendly weather), I walked along the path up to the pass known as Dhakiri kal. The shrine up there, shown in my picture above, was a collection of the brightest objects around in the grey weather. Dhakiri village – only a couple of hundred metres below the pass – is a settlement of small dhabas, the government resthouse and yet another PWD resthouse. I chose the latter place to stay. It was grubby but functional, and a good place to dry out after I met torrential rains descending, which turned the trail into a fast-flowing river.

Two days passed, days during which I took small strolls around the meadow, ate, slept and considered my return to Europe in a matter of weeks. The chowkidar in the resthouse cooked my meals, telling me, “Too much rain, Sahib” each time I sat by the cooking fire in his cosy kitchen to eat my dal and rice and sip warming teas. Dhakiri is a cold place in the rains and mists, and I began to miss my down jacket – left in Papparsali to lighten the rucsac load.

Dhakiri PWD RH

On the morning of day three in the resthouse, I looked out and saw the same heavy rain. It was decision time – to continue to Khati would be an easy downhill walk, but I’d gain nothing there except another set of damp socks. I arrived at a compromise: I’d go back and pitch my tent at the pretty Taladhakri meadows on the other side of the pass, then return to Bageshwar and Almora. Even in drifting mist and hazy views, it was still lovely to be here in Dhakiri, but the mountain views would be lovelier in clear weather. Compare my “best case” view from the Dhakiri Kal with a clear vista of the same I snagged from the Web…

Dhakiri, misty view
my picture

Dhakiri, clear view
uncredited Web photo

Camping was a good choice. With the worst of the rain near the pass behind me (it always rains more near high passes), I was even able to sit outside my tent in weak sunshine some of the time. It was as if the clouds, holding static over the hills for so long, had cried themselves dry, and were recovering enough strength to begin wandering over the sky again.

Tragedy had struck in Papparsali while I’d been away. A huge thunderstorm had caused a landslip very near to Khim’s guesthouse, wiping out thirteen lives. Landslip – the word is inadequate to describe what happens when land you had trusted all your life turns and rollers you out of the picture in just a few minutes. A slip of the pen, a slip on the icy path… so trivial compared with this.

Army personnel and family members had recovered all the bodies but that of a young boy by the time I got back. Even though I didn’t know the people who’d died, I remembered one winter marriage celebration in a house down the hill – a house which had been swept away by thousands of tonnes of trees, earth and rocks. Two other landslides around Almora claimed twenty more lives. Life is precarious in the mountains.

Papparsali following landslip
view of the area where the landslip happened

29 Aug 2010

Gompas to honkers – going south with the floods

Only after nearly two months above 2000m – often with electricity supplied for a few hours every day and hot water non-existent – does reaching a big town like Shimla hold some attractions. The regular apprehensions (chiefly about noise; Spiti and Kinnaur, especially now in the charming town of Kalpa, were generally serene places, either with cool pine forests and warm winds, or brilliant and expansive bare rock and much snow and ice visible all around) about bustling cities don’t go away, but comfortable rooms with dependable electricity become an increasing lure.

I used my time in Kalpa mainly exploring the Rogi road, the slabs area before the village and small meadows above. There was also time to see village women sewing new temple adornments, while the men redraped the very characteristic Buddha in the temple.

Kalpa gompa

Kalpa gompa

The morning bus to Shimla began right from the village, removing any need to walk down to Rekong Peo. However, the bus itself did call in “Peo” (as locals refer to it) to wait for a few more passengers. While we were waiting I heard an unpleasant sound like a sack of potatoes being dropped on a corrugated iron roof, turned to see a young man flying through the air. He’d been hit by a car, which hadn’t bothered to stop after the accident. Bus passengers watched as the bus driver, plus another passer-by, helped the injured man (now clutching his head and wailing in pain) into a flagged-down vehicle. Fortunately, the hospital for Rekong Peo was just up the hill, but I never heard of the fate of the young man.

After a lunch in Jeori (junction town to head up to the monastery of Sarahan, but by this stage I felt a little out-gompa’d and was content just to admire the gentle, rolling hills around Jeori. If you were here for the first time out of Shimla, it would enchant; on the way back from Kinnaur – and especially Kalpa – it’s an optional stop, in my view), I felt pretty happy with the bus trip.

Jeori village

It was only just outside town that we ran into a rockfall, which had both blocked and destroyed the road in some places. It was becoming more familiar now, but still highly tedious: up onto the roof to grab my rucsac, walking across the rockslide, then searching for another bus and specifically, a seat in the bus, slightly better then somewhere on the final row. Once a seat turned up, the rucsac needed hauling up the steps onto the top of the new bus. An hour or so after loading, we were on our way again to Shimla. Narkanda was an unsightly knot of stationary trucks and a great deal of energetic horn-blowing. The bus limped in to Matiana with a puncture, which needed ninety minutes to repair.

Bus with puncture

I grew to like the small town of Matiana and peeped into the government Rest House (Rp 250 per night in a huge room), with an idea of staying the night and motoring to Shimla the following day. Although there was a view over hills to impress from the shared veranda, the electricity was off due to renovation work and I really wanted a hot shower that didn’t come “by the bucket.”

Shimla was reached very late in the night, with a driver who’d been concentrating hard for twelve hours, no windscreen wipers functioning, and heavy, drifting mist on the road. I was so tired myself that I scarcely thought about the risks. A bit of tiresome trudging around the area near Jakhoo Hill turned up a comfortable hotel and I slept well that evening. Next day, it was great to be able to shop on the traffic-free bazaars, and the monkeys were rather entertaining. Sitting on my meshed-off balcony, I was the zoo animal, although the grey langurs merely glanced at me as they went about their lives.

Shimla monkey

It was around this time I began hearing of the ruinous floods in Pakistan and saw how the heavy rain I’d been through earlier now was flowing down to create havoc and human tragedy for low-lying regions.

Shopping bags loaded, I took a final burst of luxury: the next evening’s Shivalik express to Kalka, with misty, sunset views along the early part of the chunketty-chunk! chunketty-chunk! journey on narrow lines.

Delhi was hot and dusty, but I clutched a precious ticket letting me leave the city again for the mountains within twelve hours, so stayed calm.

16 Aug 2010

Onward the roiling river rages – to Kalpa

Nako was interesting and I stayed a couple days. Walks in the hills rising behind the village promised plenty of new vistas, but I had the energy to walk only up to and behind the chortens visible from below. Even gaining a little height, the position – high above the Spiti river, with bare hillside all around – was superb. In drifting mist, the perspective from the chorten at the top of the village was captivating.

view above Nako

Children playing in the grounds of the monastery were friendly and had even learned to beg for “choklit” from package tourists, but not very persistently, and this little girl was happy enough to see her picture on the camera instead of gaining more edible rewards.

Nako - Kinnauri girl

For a variation, moving on along the road in the direction of Shimla required little walking, and I stayed on one single bus the whole way. I’d been telling the travellers I met in Nako that the next section of road, Nako to Chango, was fairly frightening, running so high above the river, but I was to be shown a new level of excitement on the road down to Khab. The ‘Karzigs’ were quite terrifying (hairpin bends dropping steeply to the river); the front wheel of our bus rolling on the final centimetres of solid road as the driver negotiated the tight turns one after the other. Seated directly behind him, I was well in touch with the multiple turns of the steering wheel he needed to perform every fifteen seconds so that the bus stayed on the road.

More open-mouthed wonder came at the bridge at Khab. Here, the sizable Spiti river joins the much more unruly Sutlej. And what a confluence! The water thundered down the channel so fast that the two bodies of water ran side by side for a kilometre, the relatively clearer water of the Spiti quite distinct from the Sutlej. The larger river resembled a thin, rocky concrete mix rather than river water. The whole lot cannoned down the bed of the river, throwing up long, angry sprays into the air where currents dashed against each other or larger boulders resisted the enormous force of the stream. The energy was so demonically terrible that you could momentarily imagine the sprays as steam, or powdered rock. If you were unhurt in a bus which had rolled off the road, falling into this Redimix river would be a quick end.

Shortly after this exciting river confluence-conflagration I perceived how that trees were fading back into the background scheme like a drum and bass line re-appearing in a melody. Small shrubs peppered the hillside, and soon larger pine trees stood clumped in a tentative group on a hillside – my first (non-cultivated) trees seen in nearly two months.

trees appear on the way to Rekong Peo

Kalpa turned out to be as quaint as I was hoping. Stone-roofed houses connected by little paved lanes clung to the hillside, all the time with a stunning backdrop of Kinner Kailash. The school playground in Kalpa must qualify for some award as the world’s most spectacular, but summer’s softness conceals what is probably quite a hard life during the long winter.

School playground in Kalpa

12 Aug 2010

Kaza to Nako: moving with whatever will roll

Twelve kilometres before Tabo village was the closest my taxi could approach. Flakes of rain-softened mud and rock had collapsed over the road before Po village, forcing me to walk around the mess and continue my journey on foot.

In Kaza, after two days of non-stop, fairly heavy rain (rains which had caused such devastation and loss of life in Leh), the hotel owner told me glibly that the road to Tabo would open in “three or four days”. It’s something I had heard before from a hotelier; when stuck years ago between Karanprayag and Rishikesh, with an expiring visa, they promised I’d be on my way in a day or two. Walking over the three substantial landslips I found then, I couldn’t understand anyone with the correct information claiming that the road would open in less than a week.

An Indian riding a Bullet motorcycle offered me a lift, 4km outside of Tabo. A kind gesture, and I was feeling fairly tired at this point (loaded rucsac grinding into me); but the road alternated between pools of deep mud and a rock-studded assault course, so I told him that walking was actually less work.

Damage to the road in Spiti

The nature of the village felt rather different from Kaza. Mud walls, topped with angry thorns, surrounded the private gardens and private orchards. Locked doors gave the only entrances to these gardens and orchards. Tabo seemed a compartmentalised place, the residents living in chunky, earth and brick houses off dusty lanes. Wild plants had changed to become more thorny since Kaza, I’d noticed that on the walk. Could it be that for people living in Tabo there was a type of morphic resonance with the forbidding, thorn-bearing plants growing in the area? Some shift in mental processes which urged people into defensive mode, the only way a wild green plant was going to survive in this wilderness, with browsing goats. Yet Tabo was splendidly free of motor traffic, with roads cut in either direction, so enjoyment of the medieval buildings and monastery was without fumes. I felt contented, and pleased with the decision to move from Kaza.

Tabo gompa

My next move along the road, to Nako in Kinnaur, had the same qualities. A share taxi to the first block, which was a two-point collapse with a bridge down and buried in silt and a large section of road dropped five metres like tiers on a wedding cake. Two lifts in the same tractor trailer followed this breezy start – once balanced on a pile of gravel (the weight smoothed bumps in the road, but the grit blew in our faces) and once with the trailer empty, and bouncy. I was in the company of around eight other people, Spitians and Kinnauris, some of whom would be with me right until Nako. We walked about five kilometres until an Eicher truck, loaded with road workers’ shovels and picks, stopped to collect us.

We we taken right up to the police checkpost in Sumdo with this lift, where the officer promised me that “light vehicles” were running on the road after a kilometre. This slightly over-optimistic claim actually meant another 5km of walking before a huge Tata tray truck stopped for the group of us. In the empty tray, the bouncing was substantial, but a Spitian woman carrying a child on her back stood bravely at the front, grasping the metal firmly and laughing with her friend when a particularly massive bump sent us all into the air.

Tractor trailer lift

More walking linked the Tata truck lift with one from a small, utility truck. The driver of this vehicle had a wish to tear around corners on two wheels, so it was with some relief that I spotted an HRTC bus coming up behind us and hailed it for the 45-minute ride to Nako. The most punishing part of the road, it began a 1500m climb once outside the hamlet of Chango. The notorious “Malling Slide” was tame for this crossing (often it breaks the road and passengers have to negotiate it on foot to join a new bus on the far side), but the road had one last surprise for us all: coming down from the Slide area, the nearside of the bus hit an overhanging flake of rock and three windows exploded inwards, covering all of those sitting on that side with shards of glass (I was still fishing glass fragments from my pocket a month later – blame the laundry service, I suppose). The bus driver stopped and began shouting at road workers about their not chopping back dangerous overhangs, but personally, I felt he had been a little careless with his speed.

Nako was a welcoming little place after the struggle involved in reaching it. Based around the large lake, it offered another medieval, earth monastery and plenty of walking along paths leading to other villages or more Buddhist relics on the hillside. It was a crossing point for travellers heading deeper into Kinnaur and those – like me – exiting the badlands of Spiti. I was the only traveller on this latter route, and information about the state of the road ahead was eagerly sought by some Spanish women moving by public transport and two Belgian men cycling the whole way through to Manali.

Nako village

Although longer and dustier than a bus ride the whole way, my day of “moving with whatever will roll” ended up being a great, detailed, ground-level look at the Spiti and Kinnaur border region. In the company of local people on my various lifts, it had been a day of bumps, wet boots and not a little laughter.

08 Aug 2010

Leh floods: horror in the early morning

At around 1am in the morning of August the 6th, following extraordinarily heavy rains, tragedy visited Leh. The village of Choglamsar, particularly the Sonamling Tibetan Settlement, was devastated. Officially, 193 individuals were killed with hundreds more missing, presumed dead. Many thousands lost their homes in the torrents of water and mud, which were metres deep in some places. These photographs come from a fellow traveller who was in Leh at the time (five foreigners were killed, while 3000 tourists were successfully evacuated):

Mudslide, Leh 1 Mudslide, Leh  2 Mudslide, Leh 3
Mudslide, Leh 4 Mudslide, Leh 5 Mudslide, Leh 6
Mudslide, Leh 7 Mudslide, Leh 8


02 Aug 2010

Kibber kamping and the kable kar

I’d just had too long in Kaza, waiting for roads onward to become clear after continuing, heavy rains. I think, in seven days in the town, I walked most of the surrounding paths and explored most of the buildings. Some local women I met on one walk were very friendly, and invited me to share their butter tea picnic.

Spiti women having picnic Spiti woman dancing at picnic

At the top of town the Sakya gompa held three days of special music and chanting in the lovely prayer hall. I stayed for three or four hours each day, saw the large Tibetan trumpets – and the larger and even more impressive Alpenhorns – played by monks.

Tibetan trumpets


Listen to the Sakya monastery horns, recorded on my camera...

Sakya gompa

Sakya gompa view

In the middle of the day on each day, a modest lunch was served to all in the prayer hall. Home-baked sesame bread with butter, Khir (rice pudding with nuts and dried fruit) plus lashings of butter tea fortified us for the next few hours.

Once in Kibber, I felt I’d left behind the mundane surrounds of Kaza town, even though it was just eighteen kilometres down the road. I’d planned to take a lodge after the evening bus got in, but seeing the thrillingly rock-and-scree-boned landscape, decided that I’d go for a night in the tent. The sense of space and isolation was tremendous, with superb, clear views of the starlit heavens.

Kibber village

Fortune smiled on me the next morning. To aid packing away the camping gear, sun shone from the morning sky, quickly airing the tent and sleeping bag. Walking into the village from my pitch on a fallow field, I saw how villagers largely went about their daily work – tending the pea, barley and potato fields, moving groups of cattle onto scant grazing land, fixing up houses in the brief pause before winter – without much attention paid to visitors. I bumped into a French woman last seen in Kaza, and we agreed to take a day hike to Chichim village, across a splendid gorge. A bridge was under construction across the gorge, but seemed some years before it would be finished.

There were two other ways of crossing the gorge – long and steady or fast and terrifying. A one hour walk down to the Parilungbo stream and up the other side was the long way. You’d need about an hour to a half to reach Chichum this way. By taking a “flying fox,” a small cable car pulled from either bank, you could go from one side of the gorge to the other in less than three minutes. We could see the cable car, and how the view 200m below was straight down to the river.

At the bottom of the gorge we made a small navigation error and began walking to another village, further up a side stream. When we realised the mistake, we were able to wade the stream and head to Chichim village on a road. The village itself was more interesting for its position, although it is quite possible to stay for a night or have a meal there. We chatted with the village schoolmaster, who directed us to the flying fox cable car, and warned us about trapping hands in the cable while hauling it. He told us it was “totally safe.”

There’s no photo of three of us (another villager on their way back to Kibber joined us) sitting in an iron crate little bigger than a baby’s cot. The experience was some moments of pure excitement and almost the same sense of flying as I imagine might be gained from hang-gliding; the combination of speed, exhilaration and ducking my head to keep away from a steel rope and pulley whizzing a few centimetres away meant I hurriedly snapped the view below our basket and nothing else.

Kibber cable car view down

Kibber is the starting point for a few treks into Ladakh and other parts of Spiti. Two trek groups were beginning their travels to Tso Moriri in Ladakh the following morning. Two cyclists from Austria hoped to use their bikes about half the time, and a German couple were taking a more elaborate route to the lake.

Trek preparations in Kibber

I tried a more moderate walk myself the next day: up the Dangmachan hill visible behind Kibber. The peak’s name comes from the U502 map, and is, according to that sheet, well over 5000m high. It was an easy (if winding, because of the altitude) walk up grassy slopes, but monsoon clouds blocked views of more distant peaks. Still, it was excellent as a training walk.

Dangmachan hill view, Kibber

Leaving Kibber was with a small impulse from the weather – the impulse to haul the rucsac over your shoulder and get walking. Heavy rain had not only worked its way through the earth ceiling of my room, but blocked the road down to Kaza. The bus wasn’t running, as the driver himself told us, wrapped in a heavy shawl while he sipped a morning chai. Another traveller, Mark from New Zealand, agreed to walk down the road (it was, after all, just 18km before Kaza, and we were almost sure to find a truck of jeep to hitch a ride from before then) with me. It was fast walking down the hill, and we had time to take some atmospheric pictures of the gompa at Ki, the biggest monastery in Spiti.

Ki gompa


28 Jul 2010

Chandratal dressed by moonlight

Low-level babble on the streets of Manali was all about the weather. I asked a minibus just arrived, carrying six Israeli tourists who’d travelled from Leh. They’d found the crossing very rough, but the Rohtang Pass road was open to most traffic, at least for now.

Thus, the following afternoon saw me dropped by a Kaza-bound bus at the collection of small dhabas called Batal. This place has a bridge over the Spiti river, having an impressive setting on the gravelly, wide river, with mountains arranged all around and a couple of glaciers hanging not far from the valley floor.

I realised that my carrying eight days’ food was a tiny bit heavily stocked as I hauled my 15kg rucsac along the path to the lake called “moon lake,” or Chandratal (often it’s spelt Chandertal). Side streams – quite strong and deep enough to need me to ford them with boots and socks off (and which had earlier floored one rider in a British, motorbiking group I talked to in Batal) – came near the start of the walk, but the road was in fairly good condition most of the way. About the same quality of surface as the road ascending to Kunzum-La – a little bit broken up by water and potholes, but crossable in an HRTC bus or 4-wheel drive car with good ground clearance.

approach to Chandratal

Three kilometres before the lake itself comes the final climb, and once over the lip of the path (motor vehicles are blocked access to the lakeside, a rule I completely agree with), I sighted the greenish-blue oval of water and its steep, scree-sided containments. Surroundings of the lake are classed as a wetland, important for breeding birds, and campsites have to be chosen carefully.

Greenish-blue Chandratal

In my five days at Chandratal, I saw two groups of trekkers having to take an early bath because their tent pitches became waterlogged. As the weather warmed, it melted huge snow banks high above the shingle islands they had chosen as camp sites, and by the early evening groundsheets stood in pooled water. My own site had a slight slope, but it stayed dry, even in later heavy rain. As it also received morning sunshine before most others around the lake (including the dhaba at the end and its own luxury, six-hundred rupee tents), I judged the pitch a success.

Reflections in Chandratal

Walks around the lake revealed other mountain perspectives, and the path that ascended to the Kunzum-La. I found the small ponds near the lake the most picturesque, capturing as they did the superb span of mountains around the Baralacha pass. A group of Brahminy ducks flapped off discontentedly when I walked down to investigate the still water, and many small flowers lined its banks.

Pond around Chandratal

Chandratal Edelweiß flower

Chandratal flower 2

Chandratal flower 3

Gaddi shepherds and their sheep and goats are a feature of this area near the Baralacha La pass. At least once a day a herd would bustle through my camp. Unlike other pitches I’ve had in Himachal, the animals were well-behaved and avoided tripping on guy ropes. The shepherds were always friendly, though exactly what they thought of the recent developments to attract more visitors to the lake (motorable road, promotion of the area as an “eco-trekking destination”) came to me only after some conversation with a Lahouli visitor translating. The shepherds are not impressed.

Chandratal shepherd

Chandratal sheep and goats

I think all mountain views are at their most sublime under the light of the moon, and the delays from rain and blocked roads had brought the full moon period right into the middle of my spell at the lake. My picture of the ethereal sight is only this compact description of the scene – a photograph would under-represent it. While the moon wasn’t visible directly reflected in the lake surface from my campsite, the fine, diaphanous clouds flowing over surrounding hills created a picture such as might be expected in the pages of a book about magical landscapes and wizards. A veil of glowing, golden light folded over the peaks, and nearer to the lake, fine cloud drifted in and out of colour as it drew the attention of the moonlight.

12 Jul 2010

The wetness of the Rohtang Pass

From within my sleeping bag, I peered at my watch. It was 03:30 – a time which gave a glow to my cooled intestines, as it would be only an hour and a half to first light, even in heavy weather like this.

Twelve hours earlier, I’d also been looking at the watch. Then, 3:30 in the afternoon had meant it had needed nine hours merely reaching Marrhi, 3300m asl, a place I had got to know rather too well. Depressing progress from Manali, which would normally be only 2-3 hours away by public bus. The HRTC bus I had taken was backed up behind a line of halted trucks, vans, motorbikes and private cars, a sleeping snake wound around two dozen switchbacks on the road from Manali to the magic pass.

traffic snake, Rohtang pass

waiting on the road to the pass

The snake gave brief twitches of life every hour or two, and the line would edge forward. Yet it wasn’t a clearing of the road to the pass that had allowed our side of the road to move. Soon, a line of traffic in the opposite direction slithered past, an unhappy snakely meeting. They had been waiting the longest, and were now hightailing it back to Manali, rather than wait on a hillside for a washed-out road to be fixed. It was 8pm, and the HRTC bus was now stopped about 300m above Marrhi. Clouds darkened and gathered and the tired bus passengers eased their weary positions. I decided to camp, rather than balance myself on a bench seat next to two large, Lahauli men any longer.

The tent went up in the very last of the light, on a site I knew was less than ideal, slightly sloping and tellingly free of nearly any vegetation. Water wasn’t a problem – threads of little streams ran all down the hill – but soon after I’d collected it rain began falling. Strong winds bowed in the bell-end area of the tent, where I’d began to heat water on my kerosene stove for some noodles.

In the torrential rain,  the small streams on the hillside presently joined forces and the slope became one giant, flowing watercourse, a curtain of slowly flowing water across the hill. I was thankful for my waterproof groundsheet, but found that what felt to my back to be small cascades trickling below my foam sleeping mat needed care when turning over in the sleeping bag if they weren’t to begin oozing into the tent.

wet camp on the Rohtang Pass

It had been a ding-dong storm for sure, but the worst of it lasted only an hour, and the rain stopped before midnight. This was why 3:30 in the morning was such good news – the day was now in front of me and the uncomfortable night behind.

Postscript: the Rohtang Pass remained closed for a further four days. I retreated to Manali and enjoyed a week of rain-free, warm weather before tackling the pass (successfully) again.

03 Jul 2010

Wetness picks up

On a rainy Sunday morning, backstreets of Bhuntar were only slightly more appealing than those of Bingley, West Yorkshire. Grey drains oozed, clumps of animal droppings spread wider as they wettened, and raindrops sprang renewed after dropping onto plastic packets strewn about the shuttered streets. Nonetheless, on this unpromising day I’d turned up two aces: this was a direct bus to Manali, and I’d bagged the front seat, with a little more room for my legs.

roads along hillsides

The village of Nagar had been in my original plan for a visit – perhaps even to stay there in preference to Manali, but now I felt that the experiencel of a Himachali village had been provided by Mateura near Jari, where I’d been for nearly three weeks. Reaching Nagar from Malana on a short trek over the Chandrakhani Pass was probably the best way to get there. In any event, I was on a direct bus to Manali now, with no decision-wrenching moments during a change of vehicle in Bhuntar and Kullu towns.

Monsoon rains had begun over a month ago, but fell in concentrated bursts, mostly in the later part of the day. Today, as the bus finally pulled into Manali, drizzle gave the place the unappealing sheen of an Indian version of Fort William, where mountains are screened by mist for 300 days per year.

The extended Old Manali – extended since my visit twenty years ago – became an assault course for my autorickshaw, with potholes hidden by water, and a sturdy trickle of water down the steep road. I could expect about five days here, renewing clothes, buying some camping food and sorting out the bus timetables for my onward travels in Spiti and Kinnaur.

After experiencing Kasol in the Parvati valley (to visit there was enough; they had the Internet connection for us in Mateura) I was already prepared for Old Manali, 2010, and in fact it wins in the stakes of peacefulness by not having a through road plied by buses and trucks.

At the top end of Old Manali it is still a peaceful village, but road conditions further down turn walking into a trial of dodging Bullet motorcycles, autorickshaws, private cars, 4-WD local Landcruisers and children performing in monkey costumes to beg for a few rupees. All that’s missing is an elephant begging for coins and perhaps a Kashmiri houseboat tout. I decided to avoid the centre of Manali entirely; there are plenty of quiet walks starting in Old Manali, reaching quiet picnic spots by the river or in high meadows.

29 Jun 2010

Is moody Malana a karmic koala?

At breakfast, our host Ravi greeted us with, “I’ve just had four chillums in my friend’s house..!” before walking unsteadily over to our table to sit down. It was a Malana twist on the, Good morning how are you? to be expected outside of a region famous for its sold-by-the-gram attractions. Ravi told us that about half the men in Malana regularly smoked the village’s hash. Perhaps he'd got this wrong; at his Malana View Guesthouse overlooking the village, the other half never seemed to show.

Malana lodge

Malana has successfully marketed intolerance. Non-caste and low-caste persons must wait outside the village for an invitation to enter, pay for anything they buy in the shop by placing money on the ground, and generally creep around on village paths being careful to touch neither the villagers themselves nor any of the sacred objects.

Malana village

There’s a twenty Euro fine for transgression. It’s the Be A Dalit For A Day tour, with an alpine setting and complimentary spliff before a Nutella pancake and a sound sleep.

Malana village meeting

Ravi was an outsider who had picked up his own collection of thousand rupee fines but loved the superb mountain perch and – not least – the chance to to make big profits selling on Malana’s famous product. As a user beginning his day with four chillums at nine, he is also firmly dependent on that product himself. By the middle of morning, with a warm sun showering life on the green valley, some of Ravi’s village mates would toddle up the slope to our hilltop guesthouse. Our small terrace area became an island of socialising, and those who shared the smokes seemed to follow his lines of thought on the world, on India and probably even Malana.

Malana lady

Four of us had hiked up to Malana the day before. We shared a taxi from Jari, dropped at the commencement of a path climbing for an hour and a half. Now the hydro-power project is there, the relative isolation of Malana has been whittled away. There are still impressive views to peaks at the head of the Parvati valley, but the HEP plant’s roads, ponds and sluiceways intrude on feelings of a mountain fastness, which must have been superb before. Not knowing if we were right proceeding, we halted at the first building we saw – the village primary school. Soon we were latched onto by a “fixer” and shown to the lodges. We found Ravi’s top, Malana View GH had easily the most impressive position.

Not everyone in Malana was unfriendly. The younger people had had more exposure to visitors, and some of the women gave cautious, Mona Lisa smiles around the Jamlu temple, which we were forbidden to approach or touch.

Malana mother

In the aftermath of 2007's disastrous fire, I saw both the good and the bad. On the positive side, houses have been rebuilt using the traditional wood and stone construction typical of Himachal. However, they were roofed on a budget: shiny zinc corrugated sheets now top the half-traditional dwellings.

rebuilding in Malana

26 Jun 2010

Death and other dynamics

I can write only a little before I need to check on a neighbour. Wait! No, it’s fine - no-one up here's died in the past hour. None of the two occupied rooms (in addition to mine) has had a fatality. I don’t always see how these circumstances squeeze around me, but here in this guesthouse – where I have been staying long enough to see some turnover in stayers – noises of breathing from behind locked doors become important.

Lock and door

Sergei had mastered English enough to ask for a jam pancake in the guesthouse kitchen, so he ate these rather a lot. After I came back from a walk and found his door firmly closed, and silence from within, I felt a certain responsibility to act. Was Sergei inside sleeping very quietly? Was he indulging in something harder than a jam pancake? Sprawled across his floor, comatose?

The questions would surely come, and I began to prepare my answers. Yes, Sergei had seemed normal when I’d last seen him (actually, he was very flushed and with pinprick pupils, but it wouldn’t do to mention this to anyone). No, he hadn’t been looking particularly unhappy. In fact only an hour before I last saw him we had been laughing and joking about the number of cauliflowers everywhere…

Cauliflower haul

24 Jun 2010

The essentially optional umbrella

In the Indian monsoon – even though it may appear as irregular as the cow that ate eighty chapattis – wetness is expected. Rainclouds which visit these hills of Himachal and hang around for days while water tumbles down. Pounds earthwards on occasion, as if trying to purge the land with washing. Or floats in wraps of mist curled around dampened rock ridges.

Tree and Hills

An umbrella’s skin shines brightly as rain catches it and rolls down. An umbrella with ribs, breathing widely in an urgent wind. As the rain shower ushers itself in, the umbrella is essential, but with the half-hour of rumbly warnings that came before the drops, it would have been possible to have skipped home or found better shelter.

I’m in the Parvati valley, where the quenched land is green and generously productive. Apricots and plums are so plentiful right now that ones newly fallen from the trees are left on the ground to rot.

Mateura village scene

As the growing season swings in, village men and women are busy ploughing with bullocks, turning the soil between apple trees so that weeds are knocked back in their summer vigour. Some of the ground being ploughed is very steep indeed and only animals would be safe here.

Ploughing fields

I’m returned to India after a couple of years. Food prices have shot up dramatically, and I find it impossible to imagine how someone living on a dollar a day (around three hundred million Indians) can afford to feed themselves. For the monied tourist, it’s at least comforting to know that other essentials of daily life have not suffered such dramatic inflation. The one-rupee packet of shampoo, which I always buy in preference to a bottle, is still available and seems likely to struggle on through the next decade. Herbal toothpaste isn’t quite so cheap.

daily needs

All of this is being typed from a ‘Net cafe in Kasol. There is no reliable connection in the small village I’m staying in above Jari, so I need to take the bus for 30 minutes to the hub of Babylon to check email and post pictures. Sometimes I get here and find the power off. There is a retreat from the “English Wine” shops, tatoo parlours and foreign exchange bureaux by walking up the Kasol river a few minutes – a good place for a picnic, and, for me, an essential aid to sanity.

Kasol - child beer?

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