Manali, India: Wandering with the livestock

While it is true, beloved reader, that you don’t experience our travels with all your senses, this is in part a blessing. While you don’t smell the incense burned in the 4WD every morning before driving through northern India’s Spiti Valley, you are also spared the ass-numbing drive over terribly rocky mountain roads and the delays for road clearing that leave you sitting in the baking heat in a traffic jam. We got out of the Spiti Valley after a two day drive. This was followed by overnighting in Rampur, a town with very little to recommend it, from where we continued to the north, passing through the lovely Jalori pass which was filled with flowering trees and lush vegetation.

The drive was not without incident. Our hired driver Chandasekar accidentally locked the keys in the car at one of the stops. This would have been a bigger problem if the car wasn’t so easy to break into, which then made us thankful that all our belongings hadn’t been ripped off at some point. Other than that it was the usual sights on Indian roads: cows eating milk cartons from roadside rubbish tips, a holy man selling bananas by a bridge and a sign telling us that this was an ‘accidental prone area’ which had fallen down and couldn’t get up.

Manali is in a nice setting surrounded by mountains and next to the tremendous, rushing Beas River. The calming effect of the natural scenery is undone by the torrents of domestic tourists from further south who pack the roads with traffic jams and crowd the footpaths around the clock. Manali is anything but a peaceful city. The only way to escape the clamour is by going to a moderately expensive restaurant to have some good food. The food in general in India is pretty good but there is only so much curry you can eat. Manali caters to the foreign backpacker and domestic honeymoon markets, so offered some welcome variety including fresh river trout, Korean and nachos. The service in some Indian restaurants in the sticks was odd as well. Rather than us giving our order, or even pointing at the menu, we were supplied with pen and paper with which to write our own order down which was then taken to the kitchen for decryption. The most revelatory part of an Indian meal was after eating when fennel seeds and sugar crystals are put out to freshen the breath. They are brilliant for this and leave your mouth tasting much better than the packaged mint that you’d get back in Australia.

We had a bit of a rest in Manali and contemplated heading further north to the moonscape lands of Ladakh, but two more days sitting down in a shared jeep or bus motoring on crap roads and going over the highest pass in the world did not seem attractive at that point in time. The overnight accommodation for the two day trip was known as the ‘ Vomit Hilton’ for its tendency to invoke altitude sickness. Instead we did a three day hike in the surrounding mountains, which was lovely. It was just us and the guide, an experienced mountain man who seemed to glide up the mountain twice as fast as us, even though he didn’t seem to be moving any more quickly. It was miserable weather at the start of the walk, constant rain and mist joined us along with the cows heading for higher ground. Even in the remote mountains you can’t get away from people in India. There were goat herds camped high up in the mountains huddling around their fire as the sodden sheep and goats watched us go by. One shepherd seemed in very jolly spirits as he sang away in the distance; our guide advised us that he was drunk and this wasn’t so unusual for the shepherds in the hills. Which seemed pretty sensible, given the weather and tendency for sheep to mostly stand about.

We camped that night in a permanent camp usually used by school kids on excursion. Our arrival seemed unexpected and the staff were turned out of the dining tent by the guide who proceeded to borrow our camera to take photos of the dirty kitchen and poorly constructed tents. We found one dry tent at least and with about three sleeping bags each taken from the large pile in camp we retired for the day at around 4pm, willing ourselves to be warm. Dinner was passable and the fire was even better as the skies cleared a little in the evening. The chef was stoned which seemed to make his explanation of Tibetan Buddhism more comprehensible. After asking me what my good name was, he regaled us with his philosophical musings on religion, economic migration of Nepalis to India, fatherhood and Buddhism. He also introduced us to the two young Nepali men working with him, who didn’t speak English, but smiled a few times.

The next day was fine and our goal was high altitude sacred Lake Bhrigu. In the morning Sarah made friends with a goat who had spent the night sheltering in the toilet tent. They got on famously but the goat had to go and rejoin its own kind eventually. There had been fresh snowfall overnight on the path we were to take but in the meantime the scenery was gorgeous with brightly coloured wildflowers carpeting the grassy mountainside. Photos do not do justice to the colours. We reached the snowline and it soon became apparent that my indoor/outdoor city versatile slip on shoes did not have a hope in hell of walking on snow. I slipped and slid on relatively flat bits of snow so when our guide took us to a snowy ridge and warned us not to slip here as we could slide right down to the bottom of the gully, I baulked. It seemed foolish to continue so I hid by the tree line further down with a herd of wild horses enjoying the grass while Sarah soldiered on upward to the lake at an elevation of 4300m. She seemed to under the mistaken impression that I was disappointed not to be walking for three hours through snow to see a little lake. She seemed to enjoy it and completed the journey faster than our guide expected, although most of this was about 150m behind him, stopping to catch her breath every five steps.

That night in another camp the cook made vegetable curry, rice, pappadams, mashed potato and a superb desert, halwa (a baked sponge with sultanas). All this using just two camp stoves. At night there was the usual sound of goats wandering through camp and then the dogs kicked up a ruckus. In the morning our guide said he thought they had come across a bear during the night.

Once we got back down to the horn-blaring civilisation of town, we had the joys of an overnight bus to look forward to. Being the height of high season, Manali had proven difficult to leave. Ideally we would have liked to catch a plane out but both airlines servicing the area were in major difficulties. Air India was having an industrial dispute with its pilots and Kingfisher Airlines was on the brink of bankruptcy and had already had planes impounded at Heathrow. Trains were not that much quicker as we had to travel by road quite a distance to get to a station, and they were all full anyway. So the overnight bus to Delhi it was, with the last available seats right at the back.

But we can’t leave Manali without a few photos of Sarah posing with fluffy animals.  Yaks seem to have nice personalities hiding behind their neatly combed fringe and carefully placed hooves.  For some reason there are women renting out hugs with fat rabbits.  The rabbits are fat because they are carried everywhere lest they make a break for it into the hills.

To be fair, the journey was much better than we expected – although our expectations were very low, and included visions of being awake and vomiting all night. There was lots of leg room and the seats reclined a long way. We were just grateful that we had travel sickness medication as the road was windy for a good five hours and people all around us were looking green. One woman politely threw up right after I removed my shoes but I assume that wasn’t the cause. We made it back to Delhi in one piece and grateful once again for the calm atmosphere of Master Guesthouse.

4 comments to Manali, India: Wandering with the livestock

  • richard

    “Photos do not do justice to the colours.” – Even in super-saturated vibrant mode?
    I didn’t realise how little that little lake was til I saw the photo. Looks beautiful though.
    Yaks rule, and that one looks like he’d be easy to ride with those handlebar horns!

  • David Bacon

    The flower photos did turn out better with some level correction but there was no super vivid mode used when taking the shot. They are just really bright flowers.

    Sarah didn’t realise that they had reached the lake at first, It was more about the journey in this case.

    Yaks are like the choppers (motorcycle version) of the domesticated transport world. We’re bummed we didn’t get to do a yak trek (too early in the season). One day!

  • Lisa

    It looks like a stunning region!

    • David Bacon

      It’s great once you get away from the crowds. Our guide was telling us that some people do massive multi-day hikes – up to 20 days in some cases – going into higher passes than we did.

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