Shimla, Manali, the Spiti valley and McLeod Ganj
30.07.2008 - 25.08.2008
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After Chandigarh, and determined to escape the heat, we headed for the hill station and former summer capital of the Raj, Shimla. Sitting at 2205 meters, Shimla was indeed a lot more cool and comfortable than the plains below it. It sits on a ridge, surrounded by pine forest and, if its clear, beautiful mountain views. Unfortunately, it was not clear while we were there, it was raining most of the time. We stayed a few days, and just walked around a bit. Then we booked a bus to Manali, further up the state of Himachal Pradesh, of which Shimla is the capital.
Following a horrible bus ride of around 10 hours, we reached Manali. Once a quiet unassuming village in the Himalayas, Manali has become a popular traveller hangout, and is the starting point for the popular road into Leh in the region of Ladakh (part of the state of Jammu and Kashmir). Manali sits at 2050 meters, and like Shimla it was nice and cool here, although the sunny clays did get nice and warm. Manali sits in the beautiful Kullu valley, surrounded by green, pine forested slopes. We did some nice walks in the area and enjoyed the natural beauty.
On one of the walks we came across a wedding party, taking place in the middle of a small village. It was very interesting to witness this colourful display.
We also visited the vibrant markets and did some people watching here, and just walked around town.
Manali is divided down the middle by a river, and we found a hotel room overlooking the river and the green banks. The river banks, as well as roadsides and any open piece of land here, are covered in cannabis plants - the plant truly lives up to its name ‘weed’ here! Huge bushes of it are found everywhere, and Manali is rightly famous for its charas as they call it here, although picking it and smoking it are still illegal, and harshly punished. Quite ironic, and a clear example of what a bigheaded illusion it is for any state to think it can outlaw a plant.
As the situation in the Kashmir was only getting worse and worse, we decided to head to the isolated Spiti valley instead, to see if things would clear up a bit, and to have a look at Spiti’s unique mountain landscapes and Tibetan-related culture. We took a public bus there, and despite getting stuck behind a mudslide waiting for a bulldozer for seven hours, we got there in one piece. The drive to and from Kaza town in the Spiti valley was one of the most beautiful journeys we have done anywhere in the world. The first part of the trip, from Manali through the Kullu valley and up the Rohtang La pass (3978 m) and on to the tiny hamlet of Gramphu, the road winds up and along mountain sides, among green meadows and pineforest, allowing brief glimpses of snow capped peaks. The slopes here were covered in an amazing array of wild flowers, adding to the beauty. Delicate yet hardy little flowers in clean whites, bright yellows, vivid purples, shy reds and pale pinks are sprinkled across the mountain sides here. Once you cross the Kunzum La pass (4551 m), marked by a white stupa covered in prayer flags, and enter the Spiti valley itself, the landscape changes.
From here, the road follows the river closely, often balancing precariously high above the river. The landscape here was almost devoid of life, only a few goat herders seem to eek out a living here. It resembles in some way a moonscape - empty and lifeless. The river runs through an empty gorge strewn with large and small rocks, ringed by barren, bare mountain peaks and dust coloured scree or sand slopes - maybe the most desolate landscape I have ever seen, and yet highly dramatic and somehow beautiful in its own way, especially when it opened up and showed amazing views of snowcapped Himalayan peeks.
In this dramatic setting lies the town of Kaza, sitting and a breathless 3640 m. Being above 3000 meters really does not agree with me, and I was quite sick while we were here. I had headaches and nausea, and felt completely lethargic all the time. Quite horrible.
Nonetheless, we stayed in Kaza for a week, and did see some very nice areas, visiting by jeep the nearby villages and monasteries of Komic, Langsa, Kee and Kibber. These glimpses into the life in the valley were fascinating - tiny villages and Buddhist ghompas inhabited by monks and nuns, are scattered around this desolate landscape, like a tiny piece of Tibet in India.
Eventually I could not handle the altitude anymore though, and since it had not cleared up after a week I gave up. We were planning to head up to Leh, but I voted that we headed back down to Manali instead, and we decided to go on from there straight to McLeod Ganj, and steer clear of any more high altitude stuff.
After a horrible night bus ride of 11 hours (or first and only night bus in India!), we reached McLeod Ganj. This rainy little town just north of Dharamsala in Himachal Pradesh, happens to be home to the Dalai Lama and his Tibetan government in exile, which gives the town a very Tibetan feel rather than Indian. The town in popular with travellers, many of whom volunteer for shorter or longer periods of time with the Tibetan community here. We only stayed a few days however, as the rain was just too much. We did do a great Tibetan cooking class, over the course of three days, learning how to make, in turn, Tibetan soup, momo’s (steamed, stuffed Tibetan dumpling) and some fascinating steamed Tibetan bread called Tingmo. Learned a few great tricks there, that we should be able to use when we get back.
McLeod Ganj is s tiny place, and with the constant rain there was not much to do. We walked around a bit, shopping for a few Tibetan souvenirs, and enjoyed the beautifully green valley whenever the sun made an appearance. After a few days, we decided that it was time to head south, braving the monsoon heat of the plains again, as there were still things we wanted to see around India.