Sunday 31 August 2014

Days 137-141: Manali and the Hampta Pass - The kindness of goatherds

Colourful housing in Old Manali
After bus-ing past endless ranks of wooded hillsides we arrived in Manali - the cannabis capital of the Indian Himalayas.  The plant grows prolifically by the roadside and is apparently one of the main tourist attractions in the town.  What fools we are to have visited, instead, for the trekking possibilities!

First we spent a day preparing and seeing the sights of Manali, starting with the wooden Hadimba temple which rises almost organically from a woodland setting.  Inside stands a natural cave believed to have been used for meditation by Hadimba, wife of Bhima, in the holy book of the Ramayana.  We took off our shoes, covered our heads with Guy's buffs (outdoor gear that doubles conveniently as temple-wear - wouldn't the manufacturers be surprised if they knew?), and received the tilaka (red mark) on our foreheads.

Then we headed into town to buy trekking supplies. To our surprise, Twinings tea, pesto and tricolor pasta all turned out to be readily available so there was no need to adapt our trekking diet in favour of rotis for breakfast and curried noodles later.

Feeling smug, it was time to be taken down a peg in Old Manali, where we discovered that we are old - completely past it, in fact, in backpacker terms.  In Old Manali, you do not fit into the local scene if you are wearing a single item of clothing that isn't tie-died.  Ideally, you shouldn't have shaved for a few months either and being stoned is definitely an option. We fail on so many counts.

Entrance to the Hadimba Temple
Apples (as well as Hashish) are everywhere in Manali
Nonetheless, we enjoyed wandering around the old wooden tiered houses with cows tethered outside and mountain views beyond.  We tried to take arty photographs (with more success in Guy's case than mine, as usual!), then visited the Manu temple.

Anniversary dinner at Hotel Mountain Trail
It lies at the centre of  the Hindu Noah's Ark story; Manu's ark is believed to have come to rest in Manali after God's flood abated.  The information board admits that there is no archaeological evidence for this, but if you're looking for high ground in the world then the Himalaya is at least a good place to start.

Back at the excellent Mountain Trail Hotel, we met a young couple who were celebrating their fourth wedding anniversay in Manali.  They invited us for dinner 'Punjabi-style' (rotis and dhal - "rice has too much fat in it," they warned us) followed by chocolate cake to celebrate.

The only dampener on our day (apart from the realisation that we aren't correctly attired to be proper backpackers) was the discovery of some information online about a spate of killings in the hills around Manali.  Over twenty people have gone missing in the Parvati valley (the location of a trek we had considered) and there were also reports of a trekker being beaten to death on Hampta Pass (our chosen destination). Was this still a danger? Did we need to change our plans?

We consulted a trekking agency in town that runs treks to Hampta.  "Yes," they told us, "there was a killing there but it was ten years ago.  It's perfectly safe these days to do the trek alone."  The 'ten years' figure corresponded to online reports, while a quick check of the Rough Guide suggested that only Pin Parvati pass, not Hampta Pass, is still dangerous.  As a final cautionary measure, our hotel owner found out for us that a group of trekkers had set out for Hampta Pass the day before us.  Could we catch them up and camp with them for safety?

The trail near to Chikka

Goats on the trail
No problem.  At 10am the next morning, we drove to a dam at 3,000m above sea level and started walking up the river valley.  By 5:30pm we had caught the other group at their second night's encampment, where they met us with respect when they heard we'd come from Manali that morning.  Thanks to weeks on the trail in the Andes, we are well-trained.

The scenery couldn't have been more different from our previous experience of the Indian Himalayas, in arid Ladakh.  Around Manali, the hills are green and lush, the rain plentiful (it kept going for most of the day), and the river valleys sprayed with flowers in all the colours of a Nepali prayer flag.

One of the more friendly river crossings!
White was the most widespread hue, but not in floral form; rivers of sheep and goats flowed past us to a sound track of shepherds' whistles.  "They are descending from the hills before the first snows arrive," our hotel owner told us later.  "In a week or two they will have descended to the height of Manali."  We were to become better-acquainted with the goatherds later in the trek ... but I'm skipping ahead of the story.

On the second day, we climbed the final few hundred metres of moraine to the Hampta Pass.  In doing so, we had crossed from a fragrant pine-clad world to a more austere rocky one; from the foothills, perhaps, into the Himalaya proper.  On our right, high rocky pinnacles probed the monsoon clouds and thick glaciers flowed towards us, while the valley ahead played down the floral theme and picked a more rugged style of embellishment.

Flocks crossing the Hampta Pass
View from the Hampta Pass
GSI tents are the orange dots
Valley of flowers

After half an hour's descent we had reached its bottom and found a large encampment, with the words 'Indian Field Study in Glaciology, 2014' written in stones.  Geologist Guy was pleased to find such a study taking place, while I cynically wondered if this was actually an Indian army encampment training to resupply the troops on the Sichuan glacier in Ladakh, in the world's highest-altitude military stand-off with the Chinese.  But no, the guides accompanying the other group of trekkers assured us that it was the Geological Survey of India, not the Indian Army, occupying the camp.  So much for my cynicism.

We made camp early, fortunately, as heavy rain started around mid-afternoon.  We sat in our tent reading 'Collapse' by Jared Diamond while hoping that our tent did not illustrate this title under the pressure of the downpour.  Once the thunder abated we poked our heads out and discovered that ours was one of the only tents not to have become waterlogged and had to move.  Full marks to Guy for tent placement.

Susan enjoying pasta in a non-waterlogged tent!
By the next morning, the skies were clear and we set out early in the hope of making the mid-day bus from our destination, Chittru, back to Manali.  We had visions of sitting in Manali with beer and cake by mid-afternoon.  Everything seemed to be going well as we romped down the mountain, taking photos of mountains and flowers and more mountains in passing.  Then the path steepened and began traversing a slab where a ledge a little narrower than the ball of your foot, and irregular handholds, offered onward passage.

Surely this couldn't be the way?  We tried climbing a little higher in the hope of finding an easier route.  Then we saw two men and a goat below us.  We hollered.  They hollered back and pointed to the way they had come (ie. the way we had just rejected).  The guidebook had described this path as 'only for goats', in contrast to the straightforward path on the other side of the bridge-less river.  But we count as goats, right?  And if one had just crossed, on its four knobbly-kneed legs, then so could we.

The slab and river from the far bank (river is about 10m wide!).
We gave it a second shot, but we must have looked pretty shaky as we soon found one of the goat herds skipping along beside us to show us the way.  His footwear was only a notch up from a pair of flip-flops and he definitely wasn't clad in Merino wool or Gore-tex, but his nerves were certainly made from a far superior fabric to ours.  We looked at the seventy-degree slab of rock containing the 'path', then at the fangs of rock protruding from the foaming river below.  We gulped.

With the friendly goatherd's help, we made it across two dubious sections of the slab.  Then, just as a clear path emerged on grassland ahead of us (end in sight!), we came up against the trickiest part of all.  It was a friction move, without any handholds worthy of the name, and Guy decided it was too risky to attempt without a rope.  Only for goats indeed!  There was nothing for it but to retrace our steps up the valley, with our patient goatherd still skipping alongside.

We gave him some money and made a prayer sign, in the absence of common language.  This was our way of saying 'thanks for your help on the rocks' but he may have taken it as an exhortation to get us across the river to a safer path.  Moments later he was standing with his trouser legs rolled up amid the gushing water.  He had found us a section of river where the cascade levelled and broadened slightly so we waded after him, through the liquid refrigerator, where our legs burned with cold.  Then he pulled me up onto the bank, nipped back across the river and waved goodbye.  We breathed a sigh of relief.  Hopefully the ordeals of the day were now over, thanks to the kindness of goat herds.

After an hour's descent to Chittru, a round of chai, and a couple of hours wait for the bus to arrive, we were on our way.  Under motor power once again, Manali was almost within touching distance, wasn't it?  What we hadn't quite realised was that the bus must cross a high-altitude pass to reach the Kullu Valley (where Manali lies); nor had we quite factored in the monsoon condition of the roads.

Fixing the puncture
In fact, it took four hours to traverse the next seventeen kilometres (averaging walking pace) and we gibbered with fear for the duration.  It was one of those journeys on which, if you are that way inclined, you should probably take your last rites before boarding.  I just hope (but doubt) that the driver has life insurance.  Standing in the aisle of the overcrowded bus, I could feel us lurching, almost at capsize-angle, along a rutted track only inches wider than the bus, with the river gurgling at the bottom of the sheer drop on our right.  DO NOT look down!

A couple of days ago I read a newspaper article about a bus coming off the road in Himachal Pradesh and killing most of its passengers.

JCB at work repairing the road
(whilst military trucks wait)
The authorities were quoted as saying that they would be 'investigating the causes of the accident'.  I just hope they don't bust a gut on the investigation; looking at the pot-holed road with its adjoining precipice, the causes seemed relatively straightforward.

After an early stop to fix a punctured tyre, we advanced a few kilometres before our first sighting of oncoming vehicles.  They were waiting for the road to be repaired and we joined them for a couple of hours until two trucks removed the last of the fallen rocks.  I again read 'Collapse'.  What a versatile title it is - appropriate to so many situations!

Once under way again, Guy tried a couple of chirpy comments:

Guy: "Well, at least I managed to get my socks dry while we were stopped" (my internal response: "you'll find that a great comfort when the bus plunges over a precipice").

Guy: "I'm really looking forward to my mutter paneer tonight"  (in my head: "the only thing I'm looking forward to right now is being able to see a hundred metres of road that won't pitch me over a cliff").

Hold on tight (for six hours!!!)
Eventually we reached the top of the Rohtang Pass and began descending - only two thousand metres of descent to go!

We had re-crossed the barrier between the rugged valley and its more fertile sibling.  Wooded gorges surrounded us; pine-clad ridges marched away into the mist; the occasional boulder set off the lush green of the valley sides.  But the beauty of those gorges derived partly from their steep sides over which our bus could so easily topple at any moment.  We gulped again.  It was a day for gulping.

After six hours of standing in the aisle, perspiring with fear, we made it back to Manali.  We expected our hotel to be full, as surely nothing could go right today, but our luck had turned.  The hotel had space; it had food; it had beer.  (There is even an abundance of calming weeds growing along the roadsides outside.)  But a hot shower is the chosen drug of trekkers.

We had only been away from Manali for three days.  It had been one of our briefer treks, but rather an eventful one!

View from the tent at dusk on day two as the storm clears

No comments:

Post a Comment