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The Very Green Kullu Valley

2nd July 2010, Manali.
I havenít gone far since I last wrote, just a couple of hundred kilometres to Manali, but Iím about to head off into the Spiti Valley, and out of Internet range, so I thought Iíd update you, lest you missed me while Iím gone!

After two weeks I felt it was time to move on from McLeod Ganj. I'd very much enjoyed my time there, amongst the monks and the monkeys - and watching England go through to the second round was a bonus - but there was much more to see in the Indian Himalayas. I booked my seat on an overnight bus to Manali - choosing a "deluxe" tourist bus, as I was a little nervous about the journey (or any bus journey in the mountains, to be honest). I was assured by the travel agent that the bus would not travel too fast, as it had scardy-cat tourists on board, and that the driver would stop for the toilet whenever I liked.

Before I left I had some posting to do - I'd shopped up a storm in McLeod Ganj. It all started one day when I went out to buy a raincoat - then once I'd made one purchase the red mist descended, and I found myself in the grip of a shopping frenzy. I'm not normally keen on shopping, but having a multitude of shops and stalls selling unusual trinkets, thangkas (Tibetan devotive pictures - that bear a similarity to the Indian miniature paintings, which I love) and yak wool clothing was tempting. Plus of course there's that warm fuzzy feeling of knowing that you're helping to support the Tibetan refugee community in buying for them. Yes, it was a purely altruistic shop-a-thon.

I'd seen a stall next to the little post office advertising that they wrapped parcels (conveniently placed for once), so I thought I'd pop down after lunch. I ate in McLo's Restaurant, which overlooks the small main square, and had my nose glued to the window the whole time, watching groups of monks hanging out (one in sunglasses and bright yellow trainers); Punjabi families bickering over where to eat; Tibetans with kind, open faces selling their wares; and of course the gridlocked traffic. It was Friday, and the weekend influx of Indian tourists had already begun. Traffic from three directions sat stalemated, unable to go anywhere, despite the whistle-blowing khaki-clad policemen. One car sat stationary for more than twenty minutes before finally making a right-hand turn. While I watched I saw the guy from India Post pulling his handcart of bagged-up parcels in between the stalled cars to the main road up from Dharamsala.

I proceeded to the shop I'd seen, where an old Tibetan man sewed a sheet of canvas into a sleeve that fitted my bag of goodies perfectly, then another hand-sewed the opening, and sealed the seams with wax, as is the way in India. I borrowed a marker pen and wrote the address on it, then took it next door to the post office. Too late - I'd missed the day's posting (the man with a handcart should have been a sign), and had to come back between 0930 and 1300 the following day, along with two copies of my passport, and two customs declarations, which I could buy from a nearby shop. I duly returned at half past nine the next morning with the correct documentation, waited ten minutes for the power cut to end, then a few more for the computers to boot up, and before too long my purchases were winging their way home.

I checked out at 12, and had over eight hours to kill, so I started with a leisurely breakfast, followed by a walk, then a snack at a cafe with wifi, then dinner - before I knew it, the time had come to board by bus. One advantage to the tourist bus was that all luggage goes in the compartment in the back - it makes me so nervous when my bag rides on the roof. The bus had cushioned, reclining seats - although the frame dug uncomfortably into my back. We set off from the bus stand on time, the passengers being mostly Western tourists, with a few Indian tourists and Tibetan monks thrown in for good measure. Almost immediately my travel sickness kicked in, exacerbated by the winding roads down to Lower Dharamsala - then I remembered what I'd consumed that day: a carrot juice with my banana pancake, followed my a chai; a cappuccino with my spinach quiche, with a lemon iced tea to wash it down; and finally a banana lassi with my pasta. What the hell was I thinking? All that in the space of eight hours - no wonder I felt sick!

As the tightness of the hairpin bends increased (we had to do a three-point turn for one), and fear jostled with nausea for pole position in my mind. I tried not to look at the drops at the side of the road, and cursed the full moon for illuminating them. It took forever to descend to the main town, and then we had the traffic to contend with. I leant my head out of the window to quell my nausea, and sucked in a lungfull of exhaust fumes, which did nothing to help. We picked up one passenger in town (which the conductor seated in the empty seat next to me, quashing my plans to lay down for the journey), and continued on our way, the turns less tight now. It was on one of these bends, just an hour into the journey, that a loud bang startled us all; we had blown a tyre.

The driver limped onwards a short way then pulled in at a wider, straight section of road. He and the two crew set about changing the tyre - it was the inner one of a set of two at the back, so first the outer tyre came off, then the blown one; the spare was extracted from a side compartment, and put on in it's place. Each time a car approached us from behind, the proceedings were illuminated by their headlights . . . enough at least for me to see that the replacement tyre was as bald as Harry Hill. This did nothing for my confidence, so I took a valium to calm my nerves. This turned out to be a very good move, as once it had kicked in, not only did my fear subside, but I positively enjoyed the journey, which I had not expected to do.

Once the treadless replacement and its running mate had been secured (at least I hoped they had been), we continued on a way; turned around; drove back the way we came for ten minutes or so; did a three-point turn and then stopped while the crew placed the defunct tyre on the roof. We drove on again, and I decided that Talking Head's Road to Nowhere was an appropriate tune to stick on my ipod. Some time later we stopped again, and reversed up to a tyre repair shop at the side of the road. The tyres were again removed; the one on the roof was brought down; the men disappeared for twenty minutes (my guess is for chai); and then finally two tyres were put back onto the axle. Five Indians were doing this: one was securing the nuts with a spanner; another held a torch; two more squatted down to watch; and the fifth provided the entertainment by playing music on his mobile phone.

Finally we were on our way - we'd lost two hours to the breakdown, but this meant we'd be getting into Manali at a more reasonable time to find accommodation, so it was no major drama. The valium had taken the edge off my fears of us driving off the road, so I was able to recline in my almost comfortable chair, listen to music and watch the scenery illuminated by the moonlight - which I now welcomed. We stopped for "dinner" at one in the morning. I felt I'd eaten enough, so stayed on board, watching proceedings through the open door of the bus. The two guys that worked in the dhabba had obviously been filling in the time waiting for us to arrive by drinking, and it was quite comical to watch them serving up thalis and chapatis to the mostly Israeli passengers, getting many of the orders wrong.

I dropped off to sleep an hour or so after we continued our journey, waking every so often to admire the moonlit valleys and the shadowy bulks of the mountains on either side - and also being astounded each time that I had been able to sleep through the screeching roar of the engine. One passenger was alighting at Bhantur, where we arrived at half past five, and I stayed awake from then on. Two things struck me, as I peered, bleary-eyed from the bus window. The first was that the Kullu Valley was extremely beautiful - the road follows the course of the Beas River, which cuts a path between rugged green mountains - and some in the distance that were capped with snow. Dawn's light was just starting to strike the hills, and the scene was stunning and memorable. The second thing to hit me was the abundance of cannabis plants growing at the side of the road - they were everywhere! I had heard this about the Kullu Valley in general and Manali in particular - it is India's premier drug-producing area - but somehow my mind hadn't quite been prepared for the reality of it. The thought went through my head, that if the whole world looked like this, there would be much less war.

A while after seven we arrived at Manali private bus stand, a crowd of drowsy foreigners with little idea of where they were heading. From past experience in India, I had expected a plague of rickshaw-wallahs to pounce on us, but there was only a couple. Maybe it was the early hour, but more likely I think that they're just a bit more laid-back in the mountains; less aggressive than on the plains. I plodded off in what I hoped was the direction of Old Manali, where I intended to stay. The town of Manali is a busy place with horns a-beeping, so most tourists head for either Old Manali or Vashisht, which sit opposite each other on opposing sides of the valley, a couple of kilometres away from the new town. A short way up I encountered a rickshaw filling up at a petrol station. I couldn't budge the driver from the Rs100 he wanted to drive me to Old Manali, but I figured this wasn't the time to barter over a quid, and I agreed to his price.

I got him to drop me at Veer Paying Guest House, that I'd selected from my guide book - but they only had a room without a view for Rs500 - and it seemed a shame to be somewhere so beautiful and not to be able to enjoy the view. I tried a few more places before coming upon Chandra Cottages, a bit further down the path, where I secured a very basic, but large and mostly clean, room with a shared balcony for Rs350 - and the views were great! The early morning sun sparkled on the far-off snowy peaks, and the pine-clad hills in the foreground gave the place a fresh feel. Best of all I finally got my hammock up - for the first time after carrying it around for three months. My neighbour was an English girl named Emily, who had come to India for a month to study yoga - the full on sort of yoga, where you have to purify your body by pouring water up your nose; drinking down, then vomiting up, salt water; and swallowing lengths of cloth which you then pull back up. Think I'll stick with the odd stretch here and there and give all that a miss.

Once I'd done some washing and hung it out to dry, I set off to find a place for breakfast. Emily had recommended somewhere, but I'd set off in totally the wrong direction, and ended up on a little path, lined with cannabis, that led to the roaring river, sucking in the sweet smell of marijuana as I walked. Along the way I encountered some female hod-carriers. Each had a stack of twenty bricks, two-by-two. The strap supporting the bricks was placed across their foreheads, and carried that way - and I complain about the pressure on my neck from my camera, I can't imagine how hard that must be. It is the traditional way of carrying things here though, and I've seen men with bags of concrete suspended the same way. The women that work in the fields, harvesting crops, do things differently though - they have a cone-shaped basket attached to their backs, that I'd previously only associated with tea-pickers.

Down by the river I saw a man with a big, white, Angora rabbit under his arm, which struck me as a tad odd until I remembered reading that you can have your picture taken with a fluffy bunny, should you so wish. It seems a strange way to earn a living. Up by the Hadimba Temple you can also have a snap with a woolly lamb, or sitting on a yak. Another popular activity, predominantly for Indian tourists, is to cross the raging river on a zip wire, or by a rope bridge. The town has its share of beggars - the communal garden variety; women and children with bogus petitions that they ask you to sign . . . and give a donation to go with it; also fake saddhus and snake charmers. I was sitting in a travel agents when a man with boot polish on his face entered, wearing an elaborate costume and carrying a plate with burning incense and a number of Rs10 notes arranged artistically upon it. The owner of the establishment went to give him a couple of coins, but he shook his head, pointed at the notes, and stuck his tongue out and opened his eyes wide - I think to symbolise Kali, the goddess of death, who is often depicted with her tongue out.

Old Manali's an odd little place. Tourists outnumber Indians - and, more specifically, Israeli tourists outnumber everyone - there are Jimmy Hendrix, Mika and Jesus look-a-likes all over the place. Consequently all the restaurants serve Israeli food, along with Italian, Chinese, Korean, Tibetan - even Mexican . . . oh, and you can get the odd curry here and there too. Most of the shops, guesthouses and restaurants hand out cards advertising their alter-egos in Goa - it's the norm here for the businesses to spend the winter on the beach, then head to the hills in summer, escaping the heat and monsoons. The best of both worlds . . . as long as you can put up with the bloody foreigners (yes, yes, I know I'm one of them). There are tiny little trendy eateries, like Dylans, that serve up snacks and tasty cookies, and more sophisticated joints with wifi. Emily and I chose the Lazy Dog to watch England get kicked out of the World Cup. Can't really argue with a 4-1 defeat - never mind, maybe 2014 will be our year.

The road to Leh is now open, but the way is still besieged with snow. This means that currently the only option for getting there (other than buying/hiring a motorbike - hmm) is by jeep, in a mammoth 20-hour drive, that leaves Manali at two in the morning, and arrives in Leh around ten the same evening (if you get my drift). This is not my idea of fun. Whilst I'm sure it will be scary, the road - the world's second highest - is meant to be spectacular, and I'd rather enjoy it on a leisurely two- or even three-day drive. It took me a number of times of asking before I understood why the little travel agents kept telling me that the two-day options were not available right now. The two-day "jeep safaris" stop for the night at a seasonal campsite in a place called Sarchu, which sits between the 4950 metre Baralacha La pass, and the 5060 metre Lachlung La pass. There is currently too much snow around at these altitudes for the guys who pitch the tents and run the campsite to have set up shop yet, hence the full-on 20-hour slog is the only option right now.

So my interim plan is to head into the equally beautiful and less-visited Spiti Valley - and the pictures I have seen have impressed me with the stunningly desolate landscape. I plan to base myself in Kaza, and make side trips to Kibber, Ki, Komic and some other places that don't begin with a K - including the monastery at Tabo, which is over a thousand years old, and holds World Heritage status. The region's remoteness means that my mobile and Internet connection will cease to work, but I'm hoping the scenery will get me through this temporary loss. I've read up on the symptoms of AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness - altitude sickness, in other words), as Kaza sits at 3,600 metres, and will be alert to - but hopefully not paranoid about - the symptoms. The main advice is to chill for a day or two once you arrive somewhere high - and I think I can manage that.

Iíve jeep booked for the horrifically early time of 0430 tomorrow morning. Depending on how frightening the journey is, I might get the bus back, as itís considerably cheaper. Theoretically, I could do a loop through Kinnaur and come back via Shimla . . . but that would require a bus ride on "India's scariest road", and I don't think there's enough valium in the world to get me through that!

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