Kasol, Parvati Valley
High above Vashisht, in more ways than one thanks to the sticky black Manali hash, or charas, that is the main crop in this region – along with apples – I began musing about altered states of consciousness, as one does. It is everywhere, this stuff: technically illegal and yet widespread. Two old men in Kullu caps, like brimless kepi made of tweed or felt with colourful patterned material around the front, crouched on the steps of a shop and shared a chillum, a straight vertical pipe of charas, at nine o’clock in the morning. In the restaurant overlooking the square three Russians also smoked a chillum, with rather more coughing and gasping, and a Frenchman wearing a blanket rolled an enormous joint. When I went in search of the waiter for the bill he was puffing away too, and offered me some. I declined, went back to my room and was offered some more by my neighbour on the balcony. So it only seemed polite to accept. I’m a five hit wonder these days, upgraded from three hits in Goa, but this stuff is much more powerful. Less giggly than the Afghan hash (although we had just avoided being arrested, so were a little relieved), and really quite mellow. Anyway, the one place that is possibly even more famous for the quality of the charas than Manali is Parvati Valley. Which, coincidentally, is exactly where I am sitting at the moment. So, states of consciousness.
I’m aware that I have a fairly active brain. It’s usually ticking away like a hard drive, making connections, coming up with phrases to describe the things I see, putting things into words. Suddenly when high I become aware of how much is going on in my subconscious, like clicking the system processes tab on a computer to see what’s running in the background. I have extraordinary eyesight, or perhaps vision would be a better word. I see everything. A man walks across a rooftop 300 metres away on the other side of the village and I notice. I realised that from where I was sitting, overlooking the square from a perfect sniper’s spot, I had clocked every single person that was visible. Perpetually watchful. A cat flowed over a rooftop and down a wall in a streak of grey fur, moving so fast it appeared to be almost liquid. Two men on the rooftop far below leaned against the railing chatting, and then slowly turned round and saw me watching. So they got a regal nod (TM). I leaned back in my chair and heard the descending notes of a passage of Grieg’s piano concerto in my head as I did so. My hearing too had become acute – I heard a low conversation from the balcony in the adjacent block, and then a high pitched squealing, like worn brake discs on a bus, round and round – but it was one of the dogs in the village square yelping. There was a low melodic whistle from a mynah bird, and then two of them flew past below me, the white tips of their wings rotating like watching the arc of a kayaker’s paddle in the distance, tracing a figure-of-eight pattern through the air.
As darkness fell lights sprang up all along the valley, small golden pools of light climbing the hillsides and a vast expanse of blackness between them, a solid sheer bulk of mountain. Occasionally a small light would traverse from one bright pool to the other, like a satellite making a steady track across the night sky – except that it was the headlights of a car nosing its way carefully along the road. High in Manali. Lighting suddenly flickered in the distance and reflected off the snow-capped peaks, bringing them into sharp relief and drawing the valley closer round itself. It’s about shifting your gaze from things that are familiar, with their usual semiotic associations, to really seeing them out of context. You can search for the logical explanation to things – you know that the sound you hear is something quite mundane, but there’s something extraordinary in really hearing it. Likewise, looking at the people walking back and forth in the village square, one can see them all as a collection of individuals going about their random ways, but when you look at them from a distance you can see that the trajectories and traceries of the routes they take are as incomprehensible as studying a group of ants. The landscape is so vast, the mountains so high, that we are all dwarfed by it; it is a landscape shaped by forces that could only be called epic in their grandeur. The Vikings believed that giants lived in Jotunheimen, in central Norway. Thor once threw his hammer ‘mjolnir’ at the head of one giant in a fight, but the giant deftly moved a mountain to deflect the blow. The hammer struck the side of the summit and left a deep gash in the mountainside. Well you can see here the geological evidence of a landscape shaped by gods and giants. Or start to believe anything, really.
I was woken at 0630 by shouts of “Eh!” It can’t be the Russians, I thought. Doesn’t sound right. It’s a large group and they are all talking at once. It’s not the small group of Chinese – they were voluble enough over a bottle of vodka the night before, giving short, shrill nasal cries that were somehow unmistakeably linguistically Chinese, and the women shrieking with laughter so that it almost sounded like they were in distress or cries of pain. No, these were definitely Indians; although I couldn’t make out any of the words, the type of sound a crowd of Indians produces is quite different. Someone yelled out: “Oi! Shhh!”, which presumably woke up the remainder of the guests who had been asleep. I emerged bleary-eyed onto my balcony wearing white kurta pyjama and wrapped in my patoo blanket (the perfect garment, as far as I’m concerned), to find three Indian lads standing on my balcony overlooking Vashisht. “Morning,” I croaked, and made for the chair. They all turned round and inspected me. “Hello sar,” one said. I asked where they had come from, as the place was full of them – groups were running up and down the stairs, laughing and shouting. A bunch tried to get into the next room, which I happened to know was occupied, by pushing repeatedly on the door. I told them to stop: “Checkout is at midday. It is quarter to seven in the morning. That room is occupied by people who were asleep. Is this your first time in a hotel?”
“Yes sar. We are here for trekking. From school in Ahmedabad.”
“Well go and find a mountain to run up or something, and come back when I’ve had tea and a fag.”
“Where are you from sar?”
“Ah! Manchester United!”
“Yes, near there I suppose. Now off you go.” They went.
Anyway, soon somebody blew a whistle announcing breakfast for them. They lined up with metal trays and were given a spoonful each of some yellowish liquid, another of some brownish stodge. There were no chairs in evidence, and no cutlery, but this is no obstacle to a group of hungry Indian lads who just spent all night on a bus – they spread out across the flat rooftop and sat down in little groups, eating with their hands. It’s quite admirably adaptible, really. I decided to check out early – I had to catch a rickshaw down to Manali Bus Stand, and from there, try and get a local bus in the general direction of Parvati Valley. The night before, stoned on the rooftop, I had contemplated the forthcoming journey with some misgiving: I knew it was going to be noisy, crowded, complicated, uncomfortable. But then I thought: where’s the problem? You’ve done it a hundred times before. Zimbabwe was where it all started for me, getting on African buses as a young man, totally out of my depth, standing out a mile as the only white. And every time I was helped out by complete strangers. Well in India it is exactly the same. A conductor walking round with a referee’s whistle announced “Kullu” to me. “Kasol” I replied. He beckoned me aboard a brownish bus and said, “This bus for Kullu. Kullu change to Bhuntar. Bhuntar bus direct to Kasol.” OK, perfect. I found a seat, but my backpack wouldn’t fit in the luggage rack. A man boarded with a bundle of planks and laid them in the aisle, so I did the same. But as more people boarded they found stepping over my backpack to be tricky, so the conductor pointed to the front and said: “put at front”. Carrying 16kg of rucksack on my head as the bus lurched through traffic, and managing not to tread on anyone’s feet or drop it on anyone’s head, I stashed my rucksack up behind the gear lever – a popular place for riding shotgun on short hops, as many people came to sit on it over the next hour. But before we left we had to undergo the ritual parade of the afflicted. First came a young girl, maybe 18, who placed a card before each passenger. It read: “These children are orphan and parent dum not speaking. Please help 5, 10, 15 rupees.” Oh gawd, I thought – please don’t wheel out a bunch of little orphans with big eyes. Happily she didn’t – her takings were decidedly poor. Then I realised a man was shuffling down the aisle of the bus on his bottom. I glanced, and saw a pair of tiny withered legs beneath him. But then I looked into his face, and saw a handsome young guy in his twenties with a determined jaw – a strong character. He looked me in the eyes with a sad half-smile, as if to say, “what can you do?” I could do ten rupees, which he accepted with a nod, and shuffled on.
As soon as we pulled into Kullu bus station I made for the booking office. “Bhuntar bus?” I asked, keeping it simple. “8886” he replied. This is the last four digits of the number plate, should you need to know. “That bus there,” he pointed. It was just pulling out. I made a run for it and having established Bhuntar with the driver, soon found a seat – the bus was half empty. The interior smelled like a flower shop, due to rose incense, and looked like one too – the dashboard had the most amazing dried flower arrangement: they hung from the ceiling, stood in vases on the dash, and swayed from the mirrors. There were also numerous small dolls dangling – they might have been angels, I couldn’t really tell – and the centrepiece for all this was a kind of rectangle of red lights like a Vegas casino which chased each other round in an endless blinking line. The conductor kicked off his shoes and leaned back, the driver put on his shades, stuck some thumping Bollywood dance music on the stereo, and we set off, with me grinning broadly. The last trip from Manali to Kullu had cost 45rs, this one cost 10rs, and was altogether more psychedelic. A policeman jumped on and took the seat ahead of me, reminding me of a time in a certain African country when the bag of marijuana I had stashed under my hat began to stink intolerably of silage in the heat, and wafted great dopey coils of herbal pong around the bus – coupled with little green streaks of sweat down my face. The policeman in the seat ahead on that occasion, bless him, had discretely turned a blind eye, or nose. But I had no excess baggage on this occasion, so I sat back and enjoyed the view out of the window.
Bhuntar was little more than a junction – there was no bus station to speak of – but the conductor pointed to a yellow bus that was just leaving and said “Kasol”. I had to run for it again, round to the back door. The new conductor quickly stashed my rucksack in the boot and beckoned me aboard. It was at this point that I belated realised that the bus was packed. Seriously packed. The door opened to reveal a press of bodies standing on the steps. I took one last look back at the road, and pushed in sideways. It took a few goes, but eventually I got in. The door slammed shut with me firmly wedged in a press of Indian bodies. Then the door opened again and two men looked up at the crush. One had two large cans of paint. “No way,” I said, and he grinned, and squeezed on in. Well, you’ve just got to go with it. Rush hour on the Tube can be pretty intimate as well. But this was definitely taking it up a notch. Someone was standing on my left foot, someone else on my right. I was in a full body embrace with a young man just in front of me with his back to me, and someone else was getting intimate with me from behind. At this point the conductor announced to me “35 rupees”. I couldn’t reach my wallet in my trouser pocket. I couldn’t even see my hand. A woman with a small baby on her back who had squeezed into the rear corner moved a few inches, which enabled me to retrieve my arm from three passengers away and get my money out. The young guy in front of me turned his head a few inches, saw a white face, and grinned in a kind of solidarity. I smiled back and rolled my eyes, apologising for the stage of perpetual frottage we found ourselves in. But it was OK,I thought to myself. I can handle this. Where’s the sense in being precious about it? It’s a cheap bus, and this is how people get around. I realised that I was jammed next to the speaker, which pumped out some classic Hindi film music, and which provided a distraction of sorts from the discomfort.
We hadn’t been going five minutes before we stopped again, and three more people got on. One had two large sacks of rice which went on the floor. The young guy ahead of me moved away and I got a new partner: a little old man in tweed jacket, felt Nehru vest, homespun trousers and kullu cap. In the front of his cap he wore a sprig of foliage similar to heather, which made him look a bit like a Fusilier. He had an imposing waxed moustache, and the rest of him looked like he had been carved out of a very gnarled piece of mahogany. In fact I saw this look several times on the bus: very prominent cheekbones, sunken cheeks, and a firm jawline. They look small, but tough as hell. Friendly, though. Less obvious staring than further south on the plains, and we were bonded by a state of mutual discomfort. One lad stashed his backpack on the rack and then turned to me and beckoned, asking if I’d like to do the same. This involved a musical chairs sort of routine involving four people, but eventually we got my small rucksack off me and it was passed over the heads of various people to be placed on the rack. We ground our way out of Bhuntar and up a steep mountainside. Yeah, this is alright, I thought to myself. The guy to my left doesn’t stink that badly. The bloke behind me obviously isn’t getting any ideas – there’s nowhere else he can stand.
Suddenly the brakes slammed on: we had met a truck coming round a blind bend. Turning my head I could see out of the window, to where the edge of the road dropped away into an enormous valley, at the bottom of which was a tumbling mountain river. The bus reversed. The conductor blew his football whistle, deafening everybody. The driver reversed some more, prompting furious whistle blasts from the conductor, who was hanging out the back door. I realised that the driver couldn’t see the edge of the road, which was a matter of feet away, and that we ran the very real risk of gently reversing over the edge and then presumably accelerating backwards down a half-kilometer of sheer cliff. More whistling, and the driver cottoned on, and engaged forwards again. Standing in a press of bodies, my nose being tickled by the plaited hair of the lady who was now in front of me, I thought: Yup – what can you do? Just go with it. It’ll be alright. I began to compose pithy and vaguely amusing obituaries for myself. About the best I could come up with was: “Still, he had an interesting life, didn’t he?” Happy with that. But my obituary was premature – we got back onto the road again. And by now I had entered a state of mind akin to cosmic fatalism, anyway. Just stop trying to hang onto control over everything, and let go. It’ll be alright.
It was. We made Kasol. I could tell it was Kasol by reading the Hindi script on the shop signs, which often have addresses, and this was backed up by the presence of two white guys with dreadlocks walking down the road. The main traveller hangout of the Parvati Valley. I wriggled my way to the door, which opened and spilled a half dozen people out onto the road, got my backpack from the boot, and watched as the bright yellow bus, packed to the roof, roared off in a cloud of diesel smoke. And I lifted my hand and waved goodbye to it. Another successful journey. Every landing you walk away from is a good one, the pilots used to say in the Second World War as they nursed their damaged aircraft back to airbases across Eastern England. Well every bus journey you successfully get off is a good one too.