Shangri La

Leh Ladakh – 29th May 2013
I awoke in the morning to snowfall – thick, downy flakes spiralling softly downward. Nothing could better illustrate the isolation of Ladakh, both geographical and spiritual, from the rest of India. It is 50 degrees C down on the plains, and the bulk of the subcontinent is baking in the summer heat. But here in Ladakh snow is falling, covering the rooftops of the Tibetan monasteries that perch on craggy ridges above a landscape that resembles Mars as much as planet Earth. An Indian family who had flown in from Pune last night emerged blinking into the snow, laughing delightedly like children – it was the first time they had seen it falling. In Srinagar Indian tourists pay to be driven up to the snowline, where they are photographed standing on a pair of skis. But their excitement this morning was infectious – they photographed themselves repeatedly, standing in T-shirts and flipflops, the children viewing the stuff suspiciously before picking up lumps of it and flinging them at each other.

We left Chachoo Palace at 6am, hoping to catch a rickshaw to the taxi stand for a jeep to Leh. There was a time where I felt that I wasn’t properly awake unless I’d had a couple of mugs of strong coffee and a shower. These days I seem to make do with a few swigs of tepid water and a couple of cigarettes. The night before, three Sikhs had turned up, and one had stood proprietorially on the terrace clad only in a string vest, Y-fronts and giant orange turban; his legs were so skinny he resembled some giant orange-headed stork. This morning I spotted him emerging from his bedroom, thankfully fully clothed this time, and bade him good morning, getting a grunt in return. Together with Graham I set off down the road, my daysack on my chest, backpack on my back. Graham’s backpack was clearly designed for the business class of backpacker as it had wheels, so we rumbled down the road until we found a solitary rickshaw at a junction. Somehow we inserted ourselves inside, with our backpacks on our knees, and set off through the deserted early morning streets of Srinagar.

We found a jeep at the taxi stand which was bound for Kargil, halfway to Leh. There were two locals in the front seat already, one with a pointy Islamist-style beard, and a girl in the back that I recognised from Hotel Swizz. We took our seats, myself occupying the bench seat in the boot, and waited for more passengers. We sat there for 45 minutes or so before reaching an executive decision: we would buy the remaining two seats ourselves and therefore have more space for the eight hour drive to Kargil. Despite there being a free seat in the back next to me, the two locals up front preferred to sit almost on top of each other in the passenger seat. They eyed us curiously for a while, especially the girl, but it was more curiosity than anything else. Their names turned out to be Bilal and Bilal, both from Srinagar and working as welders in Kargil, and they were a bit like a comedy duo, with the unbearded Bilal keeping up a continuous commentary in rapid fire Kashmiri, a language which seemed to consist entirely of consonants. Occasionally he would switch to English, which was slightly surreal: “Ice is off!” he would yell. “Here is Kashmir! Ice falling and road is boom!” And so on and so on, for the next eight hours. It was all very friendly, but I couldn’t help but feel that in the UK he would have so many acronyms stuck on him, ADHD, OCD, ASD etc., that he’d be a walking textbook of behavioural disorders. This was never clearer than during one pee stop where he decided to take off his shirt and start doing press ups on the road at 14,000ft. Graham was unimpressed and decided to assist his training by sitting on him, which provoked hilarity from all concerned. Bilal the bearded, who strongly resembled a jihadi, in the nicest possible way, turned out to be the nicest possible bloke, and laughed along at his friend’s antics, as well as offering us some vile-tasting chewing gum repeatedly; I discretely chucked mine out of the window as soon as I could.

We drove through small villages that were lined with poplar trees, past traditional wooden Kashmiri houses that looked almost Alpine. One thing I noticed was that despite their ornate facades, nearly all had corrugated iron roofs which glinted in the sun. The road began to climb, and the scenery too became Alpine – small green fields with dramatic snowcapped peaks in the background. We went up and up, and the landscape became progressively bleaker at every kilometer. The colours changed to monochrome: black rock and white patches of snow, with muted greys from the lowering clouds. The road climbed in a series of dizzying hairpins, meltwater streams cascading over the road, and we navigated our way around huge boulders which had crashed down from the surrounding cliffs. This was the Zoji La pass – the highest point on the Srinagar – Kargil road, at 12,500ft. “Zojila! Kashmir!” yelled Bilal the Unbearded. “Road is ice and too much yet!” Yet? “Watering coming downfall ice! Road is washing!” Ah, wet. We halted briefly at police checkpoints where the driver handed the day’s newspapers to the police, and a stream of banter in Kashmiri took place, carried on at increasing volume as the checkpoint fell behind. Soon we entered a wide Alpine valley with hundreds of horses grazing upon it, and a glacier gleaming in the background. We were entering the town of Somaguri, where we stopped for breakfast. This was two roundels of Kashmiri bread with an omlette sandwiched between them, and at Bilal and Bilal’s insistence, we tried the Kashmiri tea. It looked like regular tea, and even came with milk, but at the first sip I recoiled: it was full of salt. “Yes! Namak! Made in Kashmir!” Well, it was disgusting, but by adding a couple of spoons of sugar I turned it into a sort of tea flavoured rehydration drink, which wasn’t too bad.

Soon we were back in the jeep and heading onwards. The road grew increasingly worse; at one point, while trying to take a photograph through the window, I am pretty sure I turned a complete somersault. A snowdrift blocked the road completely at one point, but an Indian Army bulldozer had just cleared a path through it. We passed a collection of low Nissen Huts and a sign in rocks saying “High Altitude Warfare Training School”. It was a bleak location. Approaching the villagfe of Drass, pronounced “Dross”, the driver cauutioned us aggainst taking photographs: Pakistan lay just the other side of the mountains, and there was a large military presence. Drass announced itself with a sign saying “Second coldest inhabited place on earth” – a record low of minus 60 degrees C recorded in 1995. It had a hunkered down sort of look, with low, Siberian-style dwellings surrounded by rugged moorland and jagged summits. We stopped for another chai, this time without salt, and drew curious stares from the locals. And rightly so – who in their right mind would come to Drass? Only those mad enough to head to Kargil, it transpired.

Huge craggy mountainsides dropped down to a tumbling mountain river. Round one bend we saw a cairn on the far bank with the green and white flag of Pakistan – the river was the border. Approaching Kargil we saw tunnels into the mountainside – underground military bunkers. Kargil itself lacked charm. It felt Central Asian but badly knocked about; the only reason it is Indian territory at all was because of a huge push by the Indian army northwards – otherwise it is essentially part of Baltistan. The people are all Shia, and pictures of Ayatollah Khomeini decorated the walls – just next to a poster advertising emigration to Australia. We managed to locate the Crown Hotel, which the Rough Guide had stated was a run down but acceptable place to spend a night or two. This was rather wide of the mark, as it was possibly the worst hotel I’ve ever stayed in. It had clearly never been cleaned, and I made the mistake of paying 100rs more for an attached bathroom. The toilet had socialist inclinations, as it was slanted firmly to the left. But its presence was almost unecessary, since somebody had decided to take a dump in the corner of the room, which had only partially been cleaned away. On flushing the toilet, water gushed out of the pipe at the back and swirled around the floor, thus turning the entire bathroom into a giant toilet bowl. I turned on the tap only to find there was no more water. There wasn’t any power either, but that is to be expected. Closing the bathroom door as firmly as it was possible to do, I headed back to the bedroom. The bed was about as hard as a barn door, with large holes in the mattress. But I was luckier than Dan and Denise – they lasted 15 minutes before being driven out of the room by swarms of bedbugs. They ended up camping outside, and were woken by a large group of giggling local women leaving the hotel at half one in the morning. Rooms appeared to be rented by the hour. In the morning we stood in a small, miserable and itchy group outside, united by one solitary thought: let’s get the hell out of Kargil.

We had commandeered another jeep taxi, again paying a little extra to get the luxury of space. We headed out of Kargil into a narrow valley with mud brick houses climbing the hillsides. Women wore headscarves, men sported gigantic turbans; it looked just like Afghanistan. Soon the landscape changed again – we saw the first Tibetan-style buildings, bedecked with prayer flags. We climbed more and stopped at a gompa with an incredible background – a panoramic view of the Himalayas. We had a local passenger with us, and he cried out: “There is my home village!” It was a low gathering of mud brick houses down in a valley, near a sign saying “Altitude: 12,500ft”. A small group of women crouched nearby, looking wind flayed. We passed groups of Indian road workers who swung pickaxes and shovels tiredly – any exertion at this altitude is exhausting. Round the hairpins we went, dropping down towards Lamayuru, which had a huge monastery perched above it. A stupa split the road near a barrier, and we filed into the police post to fill out our passport details – as we did so Dan roared past on his Enfield, having got it working again after it got temperamental at 12,000ft. One of the policemen sitting outside on the bench posed for a photograph, and pulled a smile a millimetre wide when being asked to do so.

The sky cleared as we approached Leh through a lunar landscape, and the landscape was painted in tones of light brown, yellow and beige, beneath a deep blue sky. Huge military camps lined the road, and soldiers walked around wearing enormous fleece hats. We got pulled at a police checkpoint on the outskirts of Leh, and stood around in a small group smoking furiously as the driver negotiated with the policeman; we noticed that our cigarettes seemed tasteless, and speculated whether it was the altitude. Entering the town proper we headed up to the district of Changspa, dominated by the enormous Shanti Stupa on the hilltop, and checked into the Oriental Hotel – mercifully free of bedbugs, with a soft mattress, and a piping hot shower, which was badly needed after four days on the road. Stepping out onto the terrace I ordered a masala chai, which arrived in under a minute, and looked out at a line of poplar trees, with a magnificent view of snow-covered mountains beyond them, and I offered up a silent prayer of thanks that I had made that spontaneous decision back in Dharamkot that I head to Ladakh – a journey that I knew was going to be long, difficult, exhausting, but which I am incredibly glad that I decided to undertake. Welcome to Shangri La.

The Veil of Kashmir

Srinagar – 23rd May 2013

A hellish bus journey as usual. I got to Dharamsala bus station at 8.30am, and found that the bus to Jammu wasn’t due until 9.45. It arrived more or less on time, and was a standard Himachal local bus that rattled like an old tin bath. Its bare metal sides proved a drawback in the increasing heat – they heated up like a stovetop in the sun, which shone on my side of the bus for the whole six hour journey. By the time we reached Pathankot the outside temperature was 45 degrees C and the wind through the open windows was like the blast of an oven. Fortunately I had put on my scarf that morning – the natty green and purple one I bought on Chicken Street in Kabul – and I draped it over my head like a shemagh. Many people in the streets were similarly attired; I saw people wearing towels, old shirts and various other items of material on their heads to shield themselves from the broiling sun, including three lads on a bridge carrying a length of material hoisted aloft between them like a giant sunshade. I tried to calculate the right balance between drinking enough water – by now decidedly hot in its bottle – to keep myself sweating but without needing to pee. In this I was fairly successful, in that I sweated continuously, but didn’t pee for the next 14 hours.

Jammu was an inferno – like being trapped inside a casserole dish on gas mark 6. I had met some other travellers on the bus and we set off in search of onward transport to Srinagar; staying over in Jammu, which was hot, noisy, crowded and fetid, seemed increasingly unappealing. We found a vegetarian restaurant with aircon and fans and settled in for the afternoon – it was 6pm and the bus to Srinagar wasn’t until 10pm. I downed a litre of water and a nimbu pani lime water as a chaser; normally I ask for sweet, but they also do a mixed sweet and salty, which I thought might help replenish some minerals I had sweated out. Bowl of Szechuan noodles for dinner followed by chocolate ice cream. On the TV Sikhs sang interminable songs, interspersed with occasional shots of the Golden Temple in Amritsar.

Eventually it was time to board the bus, which had sleeper compartments on one side and seats on the other. I was in a seat, and took my place for the next 13 hours, dripping in the heat. Eventually we moved off and the relief from the heat was immediate – just a breath of cool air through the open window. But we weren’t going far – just a few hundred yards to the petrol station. There was already a queue of coaches filling up, each with their bonnets raised to cool the engine. Filling up took another half an hour, and I resigned myself to a long, hot and uncomfortable night. It was. We joined a queue of trucks heading out of Jammu, and then turned off the main road, grinding our way up hairpin after hairpin on some deserted mountain road, and tentatively crossing bridges just wider than the bus which clanked alarmingly. I must have dozed because when I woke it was after midnight; my shirt was soaking wet, I was sticking to my seat and the passenger in the seat next to me was resting his head on my shoulder. I pushed him off and tried to sleep again. Only another seven hours to go.

I awoke soon after dawn and blinked at the landscape: we were driving along the edge of a mountain valley that plummeted thousands of feet below us. Patches of dirty snow lay on the high peaks opposite, and the valley floor had a river snaking through it. Up at the front I saw the six heads of the driving crew, and the driver himself played a carol on the air horn every time we passed a truck. Off to the right I saw the first army base – a line of razor wire and Indian soldiers standing guard – they sported helmets decorated with bits of foliage and carried SLR rifles, last seen in the UK during the Falklands War of 1982. We swooped around tight bends passing through small villages that were deserted in the grey half-light of dawn. Emerging from a long tunnel we saw another group of soldiers mustering along the roadside for a patrol; they filed off into the trees and down the mountainside. Some carried mine detectors, and I saw several later in the day with sniffer dogs. Speaking later to an American in Srinagar he commented how the thing that struck him about Kashmir compared to the rest of India was that there were many more guns on the streets and far fewer girls. I had to tell him that I hadn’t really noticed it here, but that in Kabul I’d seen the same thing. This is still a conflict zone, although at the moment it’s more of a post-conflict stage – Kabul is still very much mired in a present conflict.

We rolled into Srinagar bus station at 7.30am after a rough night on the road. But the ordeal was far from over – we were still 8km from Srinagar itself. Descending the steps of the bus immediately the touts began to circle, led by one individual in a check shirt. “You want houseboat?” he enquired.
“I give you good price. Guesthouse, houseboat, hotel.”
“I have a reservation already. Hotel Swiss.” (This was a lie, but is a good ploy.)
“Hotel Swiss is closed,” he replied.
“Well you astonish me. I expect it burned down, didn’t it. They always seem to at times like this.”
“Yes, is closed. I have good houseboat for you.”
“Don’t want a houseboat, thank you. I get seasick.”
“You give me one cigarette.”
“No I do not. Go away.”

Eventually we found a local bus to take us into town, after repeatedly refusing offers of taxi drivers to charge us 700 rupees for the privilege (the bus cost ten). But as soon as we got off the bus in the town centre, more touts descended. Houseboat, guesthouse, guided tour, etc., etc. I was trying to find Dal Gate, or anywhere to have a coffee, but cafes seemed in short supply. A smartly dressed middle aged man pointed me in the right direction, saying he was going to Dal Gate himself. We walked together, chatting about Srinagar. “These touts are third rate people,” he said. “Not trustworthy. Always thinking how to cheat you.” I agreed with him. After walking for a while together, he casually enquired whether I had a hotel reserved already. “Hotel Swiss,” I replied.
“Oh, very expensive. But I have a guesthouse myself, much cheaper.”
“Frankly you amaze me. Really? You have a guesthouse? Thank you so much and goodbye.”

The reality is that this sort of a thing is always a drag in India. It puts a lot of people off. To be dropped after 24 hours on a bus 8km from a town, to fend off endless touts just trying to get into the town, and then more when you are trying to find a hotel… it’s all a little wearing. It varies from state to state – the north is much worse than the south. Kashmiris have, frankly, an awful reputation for scamming visitors, and it’s not without foundation. This is a shame. If Jammu and Kashmir Tourism Department are serious about trying to encourage visitors, they need to do the one thing that makes the whole experience so irritating: crack down on the touts. It worked in Morocco – their visitor numbers had plummeted because the country developed a reputation for hassle, so the government started rounding up touts and encouraging only licenced guides. I know people who deliberately decided to stay in Himachal rather than come here for precisely the reason that it is so tiresome. It is a shame, as once you get away from the main hotspots of tout activity, everyone else is very friendly.

Hotel Swiss itself wasn’t listed in the Rough Guide, but had a mention in the Lonely Planet – “a pleasant lawn, free tea and wifi, and decent rooms offering excellent value.” In reality the only part of this that applied was the lawn. The room, which was distinctly average, was 1250 rupees a night – a laughable amount. And the tea, which came in thermoses, was charged by the cup at 30 rupees each, but only in retrospect: they wait until you check out to hit you with an extra charge for it. I left the next morning and made for the Chachoo Palace, out towards Khon Khan. This had a recommended stamp in the Rough Guide, and was basically a family house at the water’s edge, surrounded by houseboats. It was less than half the price of Hotel Swizz, with a nicer room and far more pleasant surroundings. Rough Guide 1, Lonely Planet nil – and not for the first time. “The Book of Lie”, as we have dubbed it.

1.30pm on a Friday afternoon in Srinagar. The call to prayer begins. Then another one, from a rival mosque. They sound as if they are competing against each other. Then a third begins, drowning out the other two. It is total discord – a chaos of amplification. One mullah begins preaching, getting more and more strident. He sounds furious. This goes on for almost an hour, and at the end he is literally screaming into the microphone. Graham emerges from the room above onto the balcony, tilts his head in the direction of the din and says: “bloody hell, he sounds a bit cross.” We later meet another couple on a motorbike who had been stopped just as the mosques emptied. They said soldiers had blocked off the roads and there was a heavy military presence. Given the inflammatory sound of the sermon, even without understanding the words, it’s easy to see that the army would want to be prepared for trouble. It sounded far angrier than any mosque I heard in Kabul. In Kashmir, where the only outlet for the frustrations of military occupation are in religion, the mosques become a focal point for resistance. The mood all over Srinagar was tense. It wasn’t just the perpetual hassle from touts – there was something else. One British friend had abuse screamed at him in the street by a couple of men who thought he was Israeli. Women we met complained of persistent harassment. And the Kashmiris I spoke to hated the Indians, who are arriving in hordes, strolling along the boulevard and getting ripped off on boat trips on Dal Lake. Someone pointed out to me that it was a bit like an English family going on holiday to Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles. A large section of the population really don’t want them to be there. I decided I didn’t much want to be there myself, and next morning got a jeep to Kargil: north by north-east. Destination Ladakh.


Dharamkot – 19th May 2013

There is something about altitude that confers detachment, a literal elevation. Somehow one rises above the concerns of everyday life, of the preoccupations of others. Nearly all the world’s great cities are at sea level, with a few notable exceptions. Often a river runs through them. And in order to escape the mental confines of urban life, it is necessary to take more of a bird’s eye view – to look down upon the lives of millions and see them as intricate and incomprehensible as a swarm of ants. Each one has a part to play, a role somehow, and navigates his or her way through the labyrinth of the urban area, up and down elevators, escalators, along transport networks and in and out of buildings. Their mental map is unconscious – they find their way largely unthinkingly, with occasional halts for orientation, checking maps, peering round themselves for signs or landmarks.

I was once in the main arrivals hall of Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris at a time when the arrival of several flights delayed by bad weather coincided with a long-standing French tradition, a strike of some transport workers. The end result was that thousands of passengers filled the hall, thereby obscuring the signs which would have directed them to the assorted outlets and offshoots that they needed. It was a perfect storm in terms of the creation of a swarm, directionless apart from a few yellow-jacketed staff who shouted incomprehensible commands in French. The hall had been designed with an artist’s impression in mind – an elegant interior space, occupied by a few ethnically diverse travellers. But the vagaries of modern air travel make such places an ordeal to be undergone, rather than an elegant intercontinental experience. Form in this case had triumphed over function, and the staff were reduced to hastily erecting whiteboards upon which were scrawled in marker pen the directions for other terminals, other destinations.

One of the things I enjoy about travel is the sense of being completely, utterly lost. If I’m in a place where I can’t read any of the street signs, where all the usual semiotic devices by which we orient ourselves are wholly absent, then at last I really feel that I’ve arrived – although where exactly is unsure. There’s a joy in being lost, off the map, and in simply following your instincts. I remember crossing from Laos into Thailand, and arriving in a place where every single sign was in Thai, which I was unable to read. Even trying to check in to a hotel was complex – the first English lettering I saw was over the foyer of a large building saying “Hotel Krananachangpong” or something. But at reception all the forms to check in were in Thai. Together with the assistance of the clerk I more or less filled them out accurately, with some artistic variation: Mr United Kingdom, arrival date April 1973, place of birth Pakse in Laos. It reminded me of entering Cambodia where the bus driver hastily filled out everybody’s passport details, in my case misreading mine and using my two middle names as forename and surname. Upon leaving Cambodia the Immigration officer leafed through his log, went back and rechecked my passport, looked back at his log, gave a sigh and stamped me out of the country under a different name to the one which I had arrived under. Technically I suppose I am still there.

Altitude. McLeod Ganj lies at around 6,500 feet – 1770m or thereabouts (numbers don’t interest me). Not high – Leh is over twice that – but high enough. Dharamkot is a couple of kilometres up the hill, so maybe 7,000 feet and a bit. But there’s something about the elevation; it’s not as if you suffer from altitude sickness, although a slight shortage of breath is often initially experienced – usually because everywhere seems to be uphill – and yet there’s a certain levity to things, a lightness of being, in effect. It’s the kind of place where former preoccupations and worries appear to be reduced by distance, and made manageable. Things are seen more in perspective. We are pulled this way and that in life, by a thousand and one impulses, guided by impetus, often unaware of why we feel the way we do, why we act in a certain way. Elevation gives us a different perspective; we can examine our trajectories through life and analyse the exact relationship of cause and effect: why do I think what I do. What are the associations hardwired into my brain that make me feel the way that I feel about something? How can the moo of a Himalayan cow remind me of a hill farm in Wales, which leads me to some kind of reminiscence about childhood, which makes me wonder where I live now and its effect upon my psyche. “Where are you going? Everything is already here.” So said Ted Hughes in his poem You Drive in a Circle. We are all driving in circles, all the time. Do any of us really know where we are going? Desire pulls us in one direction, notions of what we ought to do in another, and we swing from one extreme to another.

People pin their happiness on the most tenuous of associations. Look back to the last time you felt really happy. Maybe it was something intangible – just a wonderful warm feeling of contentment. Maybe it was a time in childhood when you woke up and the room was full of sunlight and there was birdsong outside and the summer holidays had just begun and would go on forever and ever, and all the magical possibilities of the adventures you’d have stretched out before you. And that feeling stays with you – you remember it and try to recapture it. But perhaps it was an illusion: you felt content because you didn’t have to do something you didn’t want. Your lover became progressively more disillusioned, until one day you sat together at breakfast in a frosty silence and couldn’t even bring yourselves to look at each other. Your magical childhood holiday lasted a few days and then some kind of routine set in, and after a while you pronounced the fatal words: “I’m bored”. Is it all an illusion?

People pin their happiness on others. “If only I could be with him or her,” they think to themselves. Him or her may be a philanderer, feckless, callously indifferent, but in the eyes of the beloved they can do no wrong. Worse, perhaps they can be changed, made to conform to the contours of the mental image assigned them. Searching for happiness by wishing for something that might happen? That way lies disappointment for sure. And the more you try to hang on to the illusion, the more it will slip through your fingers. If you love somebody, let them go. “Everyone has to leave the things they love,” as the Buddhists say.

Looking down on Upper Dharamkot you get a bird’s eye view of village life. A girl sweeps the courtyard with a broom made of twigs. A man leads an unwilling goat into a stall. A black dog, curled up contentedly on the path, suddenly sits up, bristling with attention. It trots along the path and then across the open field, and stands in front of a tree, head cocked to one side quizzically. Then it barks once, twice, and starts scratching the ground. Its bark is high-pitched, outraged. A rustle of foliage in the tree, and a glimpse of beige fur. It is a monkey, which is picking the fruit in quick, deft gestures, one a second, stuffing berries into its mouth. The dog seems hysterical at its presence, and its owner begins whistling, calling it back. Three horses stand beneath a nearby tree, swishing their tails in synchronisation. A woman bent double under the weight of a huge bundle of foliage trudges over to them and tips a basket of leaves onto the ground before them. They whinny in pleasure, or perhaps gratitude. The wind sighs through the outstretched arms of the trees above me, and a lone motorbike thunks along the road in the background, then off up the hill. Evening in the Himalayan foothills.

At 7am I emerge onto the balcony blinking in the sunlight. The heat is already intense. In the UK we have an expression, Indian Summer, to describe a late seasonal warmth in the weather – a last burst of summer before the onset of autumn. Well you should see the real thing. The country bakes. The sun is like a hammer by 9 o’clock in the morning. I walk to the Himalayan tea stall for the first masala chai of the day. Small kids are getting into a minibus, heading off to school – they wear bright yellow shirts and chequered trousers like Rupert Bear. I sit with an Italian in companionable silence, watching the morning traffic past the main junction in Dharamkot – a couple of motorbikes (including one called Vegemite Falafel, written in stylised Hindi script, and ridden by an Australian and his Israeli girlfriend), three tourists on horses, a rickshaw. The cow with the injured leg hobbles over and loiters by the fruit and veg stall. Then a slow saunter to Cool Talk Corner Cafe for coffee. Everybody who comes in is greeted. I’ve been in Dharamkot just over a week and it feels like a community – we all know each other. Walking up the hill from McLeod yesterday everybody I passed smiled at me, whether they were westerner, Tibetan, Indian. It’s self-affirming somehow – no hurrying past, looking away, ignoring someone’s greeting like in London. Here people take the time to acknowledge each other. When you find a place where you feel so at home, you don’t want to leave. But I have to. It’s a fear of inertia, of lethargy or laziness that I’m fighting against. I remember a summer in London when I spent much of the day lying on the sofa watching planes crossing the sky, unable to muster the energy to even go outside. I’ve got three-and-a-half weeks left in India, and while it would be easy to spend the rest of the time sitting in Dharamkot, I am moving on: Jammu, Srinagar, Leh. I want to see snow again on the mountains, feel the chill of evening, see the poplar trees climbing the bare hillsides and look out at the deep ultramarine blue of a high altitude sky. I’m going to Ladakh.

The Age of Enlightenment

McLeod Ganj – 10th May 2013

I remember a story from Zimbabwe, about a young guy who was convinced he had been cursed for some reason. He went to his local sangoma, or witchdoctor, who advised him not to remove his underpants for a month (one can only speculate as to his ailment), and to avoid water for said period. He dutifully did so, becoming progressively more ripe-smelling as the month progressed. He was a student, from what I recall, and lived in a dormitory with his classmates. Eventually they decided they had had enough – he was beginning to smell quite unpleasant – so one night they grabbed him, stripped him of his sacred underpants and stuck him in a shower. Well, he took to his bed after that and essentially gave up: he became convinced that he would die, and after a few days, did so. I heard stories like this time and again in Africa, and it goes some way toward illustrating the power of belief. It was explained to me by an African friend that Westerners had a tradition of rationality whereby their depth of belief was always compromised at some point by seeking logical explanations for things. Africans, on the other hand, had such strong faith in age-old belief systems, older than Christianity and rooted in their cultural sense of identity, that they could somehow will themselves not to live any more.

I mention this really to give an indication of the suspension of belief required to understand how a perfectly healthy, fit young man could literally will himself to death. Here in McLeod Ganj you have the usual assortment of westerners in search of something – some meaning in their lives, some traditional Tibetan cure for their assorted maladies. And usually if the cure doesn’t work, it’s because they haven’t adhered to it rigorously enough. Each has their own individual motive, and yet it’s possible to see certain trends. Russians, for example, underwent 70 years of state-enforced atheism under Communism, and then 20 years or so of the dubious merits of free-for-all Capitalism, with assorted consequent winners and losers. Mostly losers. Communism had failed to provide the promised land here on earth; the Socialist paradise everyone was striving for was pretty evidently still as far away as ever. There was a void of meaning in people’s lives, and so what you saw was the rapid growth of people returning to the Orthodox Church, and the growth of a huge number of cults and assorted New Age belief systems. I remember one group who were discovered last year living in a hole in the ground waiting for the end of the world according to the Mayan calendar, or something. Best thing to do is probably to leave them there. I saw a group of Russians in Vashisht undergoing some basic yoga instruction: they rather stolidly attempted various positions, stretching out their arms and taking deep breaths while facing the sunrise, all with the air of people desperately wanting something to happen while feeling a little self-conscious about it. And it’s quite true that some of the positions are downright undignified; there’s something rather inelegant about the assorted calamitous physiques of the northern peoples crouching down and extending one leg, or trying to touch their toes without their beer bellies flopping out.

The other great ethnic minority in the global backpacking community, the Israelis, have similar and yet slightly different motives, depending on where exactly in India they are. Goa is party town – they go there to blow the walls out on a variety of stupefying or stimulating substances. Parvati Valley – that’s all about the charas, or hash. But nobody comes to McLeod Ganj for drugs – unless you’re talking ‘opium of the people’ kind of thing. The Israelis here are looking for alternative answers to the relentless juxtaposition of religion and state that they get at home, and are seeking answers to the inner spiritual contradicitons that they feel. It’s not a negation of being Jewish so much as a reinterpretation of what it really means.

The Dalai Lama once spoke on the subject of spiritual materialism. Buddhism, he said, was not exclusive to any nationality or cultural context, but it did exist within a specific cultural framework, which was Tibetan. And there were people coming from all over the world who were latching on to this and becoming too fixated on the ‘Tibetan-ness’ of it all, when their own religious and spiritual framework, whether it be Christianity, Judaism, Islam, already contained many of the same essential truths. The inner truth, the key message, of how to live, how to connect, already existed – just in a slightly different guise – and so people should in effect start where they are, within their own cultural framework, not abandon everything and chuck themselves into something new, assuming it was the only true path. He gave the example of someone walking round a supermarket, past aisles full of tempting colourful packages, and taking a bit of this, and a dash of that. Then by the time they got to the checkout what they were left with was a disorganised jumble of things in their trolley that made no sense. You see a lot of that sort of thing in India, but especially here in McLeod, given the inseperable connection between Tibetan nationhood, cultural sense of identity, and their own particular form of Buddhism. It’s personal for everybody I suppose, but the gist of it is that you don’t need to walk around in a blanket and dirty feet like a sadhu in order to be spiritual, but if you find that some kind of meditation practice assists you in your day-to-day life, then that is enough in itself. The art of mindfulness, of living in the present moment, not replaying the past over and over, which cannot be changed, or fretting and planning about the future, which is largely out of our control; one has to begin where one is, and come back to the present moment, because it is only there that we truly exist.

McLeod Ganj is filling up fast. It’s the holidays in Uttar Pradesh – which if it was a separate country in its own right would be the sixth largest on earth in terms of population – so there are an endless stream of Punjabis heading to the hills to escape the heat of the plains. McLeod itself has only the narrowest winding streets, totally unequipped to deal with two-way vehicular traffic, and the appearance of a Land Cruiser or similarly large SUV brings the entire town to a grinding halt. I decided, after three days at Green Hotel on Bhagsu Road, to head upwards myself, to Dharamkot – a small village strung out along the hillside above McLeod. Even here the signs of ‘development’ are everywhere – cafes playing rap music or Bob Marley, menus in Hebrew and assorted tattoo parlours. But the higher you go the less prevalent such things are, although each year it steadily encroaches. Bhagsu itself has basically turned into an Israeli settlement; it’s one thing to have a place popular with certain nationalities, like the Russians in Arambol or the Brits in Calangute, but when a group of 30 arrive in a guesthouse, they literally take over. I’ve noticed a numerical demographic at play here: Russians tend to hang out in twos or threes; Brits generally the same. Indians you might get half a dozen or so all together. But the Israelis hang out in groups of a dozen or more. Naturally this has an effect on the atmosphere of a small village. I’m put in mind of the hostel owner I met in New Zealand who said: “One Israeli, no problem. Two, fair enough, if it’s a boy and a girl. Three or more? No way. Because they’ll start a bloody settlement.” There’s some truth in it. Safety in numbers.

I went to a concert last night in Dharamkot, of traditional Indian music with some Sufi qalams. The singer had one of those squeeze-box keyboards I’ve forgotten the name of, there was a drummer, and a gora girl called Emma on violin. They were pretty good really – the singer had real power, and explained each song beforehand to give context to the audience, who were nearly all western. They sat on cushions on the floor in the lotus position, many with their eyes closed, some occasionally swaying from side to side as they were moved by the music. It was all quite amusing, and I tried to work out why. I have no problem sitting cross-legged on the floor – I can do it for hours with no cushion needed – but I prefer to lounge like a potentate while I await the nautch dancing girls. I think the thing that brought a wry smile to my face was the eagerness, the seriousness, the seeking for answers amongst the audience. They hung onto every syllable the singer uttered with that ‘enlighten me’ sort of expression that is not disimilar to a puppy awaiting a biscuit. They sat in the yoga-approved position and tried to hide their shifting in posture as they developed pins and needles in their extremities, with blissfully pious expressions in their urge for meaning, for answers. For want of a better word, it was the very ‘Om-ness’ that I found so entertaining: it makes me want to shake them. And how many of them actually understood a word of the Hindi singing? Perhaps two, if I’m being charitable. But that was no barrier to their enjoyment, so perhaps music genuinely does transcend language. I was rather hoping for a rendition of Khattak’s poem “There’s a boy across the river with a bottom like a peach, but alas I cannot swim”, just to watch the rapt piety of the Om crew in their total incomprehension.

Having bought ‘Albania’ tissues in Goa, the packet I picked up this morning was branded ‘Estonia’.

Dharamkot lies uphill from McLeod Ganj, occupying the upper ground in a ring round the steep hillsides at the top of the valley. Off to the right is Bhagsu – now largely an Israeli settlement – but upper Dharamkot, despite numerous small backpacker cafes, still has the feel of a Himalayan village, in the stairways and small paths that lead between the houses where it is still possible to glimpse in on family life.

It grew dark at 11am and the sky took on an ominous yellow light. Rain came with a sudden crash, right the way across the balcony. ‘Remember the date!’ yelled the Israeli guy next to me above the roar of the water. We huddled under the tin roof as the rain cascaded off the edge in streams of silver, like being under a waterfall. The sky was boiling. It was an odd collection of travellers in enforced proximity, sheltering from elemental forces. I later met a British guy who had been up on Triond, the nearby mountain. He’d been forced to take shelter under a rock, and as he crouched there, a Japanese girl went past in shorts and a T-shirt, shivering and blue with the cold – the hailstones were the size of grapes. He got her in under the rock with him, and later led her off the mountain. He told me this at 10am the next morning, but I later heard a Canadian regaling a group of Israelis with the story – already passed into local legend. After a while the storm abated and the rain settled into a steady drip, which continued for the next 24 hours, a soft hushing drizzle that pattered on the pine needles carpeting the forest floor, releasing the scent of resin and damp woodland undergrowth. Cows were lowing to each other from their stables beneath the houses, and bedraggled sparrows hopped across the verandah seeking shelter; one took refuge between my feet.

The storm brought a tree down across power lines, so there was no electricity for the next two days. Everybody’s smartphone died, and as one of the few with a watch, I got asked for the time on several occasions. I dug out my old Moleskine notebook and Parker pen to write. The opening page of the notebook says: “New Delhi, Christmas Day 2010. Pigeons land on the maidan opposite, throwing up small puffs of ochre red dust as they land. It feels like a long time since it last rained.”

Rain induces introspection, reflection. Walking in the soft drizzle I am reminded of other journeys, in Wales, Scotland. I remember a downpour in Scotland that went on for a week. Last night I fell asleep to the insistent patter of droplets on the slate roof, and this morning I awoke to the same sound. Pulling the patoo closer round myself I huddled in my own small circle of warmth and wished I was with another. Nothing to do, nowhere to go, nothing to do but wait.

A three storey house in red and yellow dominates the valley. If you draw closer you see a familiar figure on the board outside: a large black hat, spectacles, an enigmatic smile behind the beard. It is our old friend the rabbi, last seen in Kasol: another Chabad, or Israeli government halfway house / Jewish cultural centre. All the signs as you approach are in Hebrew, underlining the exclusivity in a way: if you can’t read them you have no business there. This was rather underscored by the rabbi in dark suit and hat who just came into the cafe I am in and had a long chat in Hebrew with an Israeli couple. As he left he noticed a Mediterranean-looking girl sitting alone by the door. “Are you Jewish?” he asked her.
“No,” she replied.
“Oh, excuse me,” he replied with a smile, and left. He never asked me. Perhaps it was the Afghan scarf.

Little Tibet

The expansive Indian gentleman at the next table offers me food repeatedly – bits of some type of popadom. He is most insistent, so I nibble a bit for the sake of form. He owns a petrol station in Bolton, Lancashire. They are all from Ahmedabad. “England good!” he tells me. “Israel, America not good.” They are all very friendly in a boisterous way.

Just as I emerged bleary eyed in the morning, I was offered a smoke. A group of engineering students from Chandigarh. One was from Shimla and agreed the smoking ban was draconian. Then later again, three chillums overlooking the river. It was with the people who have been looking after the paralysed dog – a German girl and her Indian friend. It died last night. It was canine distemper. They nursed it day and night for two weeks. At least it was well cared for till the end.

Smoking has been a wonderfully social experience, a sharing amongst strangers, a way of meeting people. A girl asks to borrow my tobacco, so I sit and get stoned with two Russian poets, Sofia and Elizabeth. I spot the author of the book she’s reading and read out the Russian letters: Fridrik Nitshcha. “Russia’s problem is that we are Asiatic pretending to be European. There’s an aggression, a rudeness which is barbarian.” We discuss Akhmatova, Durer’s strangeness and the sadomasochism of Swinburne. The concept of the flawed genius and the idiosyncrasy of the creative type. Extraordinary connections.

McLeod Ganj – 9th May 2013
An Australian woman is trying to teach English to the Tibetan monk at the next table: “A miniven uses a lod of pitrol. A Suzuki Maruti is much more economical.” The miniven I took here from Bhuntar undoudtedly used a lod of pitrol, since we spent the entire night criss-crossing Himalayan foothills. I got the local bus from Kasol to Bhuntar, this time securing a seat. Bhuntar itself is unprepossessing – essentially a series of junctions, around which have sprung up the usual dhabas, or small restaurants. I went to a Punjabi one for a paratha the size and texture of a frisbee with disgusting sweet chilli sauce. Chai masala? Chai nahi hai. OK, do you have Coke? Not having. I sat down and started nibbling my frisbee, and after a few minutes a random bloke wandered in and placed a warm 600ml bottle of Coke on the table in front of me. I opened it and it erupted all over the table. They do try, bless them.

I had to wait outside the old Post Office, which turned out to be the office for Swagtam Tours. An old German hippy was also there, waiting for a bus to Chandigarh and thence Nepal – four days’ journey. After a while he departed and a small car pulled up with backpacks stacked on the roof. I knew immediately they were Israelis – they all have these very natty backpack covers, rain or shine, in some heavy duty canvas. They eventually extricated themselves from the car, and looked at the office with some misgiving. “Hi,” I said to one, and got a “Shalom” in return. The next one looked at me for a while so I said “Salaam” in a decidedly Afghan accent. He said “Shalom”, which I suppose is close enough. One of them asked me if this was the bus to Dharamsala. It was, I told him, and he stuck out a hand for me to shake, making some guttural sound a bit like “Hrrrruvvy”. Pardon? “Khruvvie,” he says. “Air, Ah, Vee, Eye.” OK, got it. Ravi. Nice to meet you. We chatted for a while, about London, Israeli cuisine, Parvati Valley. It was nice to actually make contact.

After a while the minibus pulled up and we all arranged ourselves – seven Israelis, three Tibetan monks, one Italian guy and myself, along with four Indians up front. It was the usual ordeal – a tiny seat, and the worst kind of screeching Hindi film music, which did not benefit from the singers mostly being computerised with autotune. I resigned myself to an uncomfortable nine hours; we were supposed to reach Dharamsala at 6am. I dozed for a while, and woke periodically to peer out of the window at deserted towns populated solely by dogs and the occasional policeman. The lights climbing the hillsides reminded me of Kabul. We passed through one town which seemed to be a large army camp; I made out a Hindi sign saying Yol Cantonment, and saw tank barrels poking out from beneath cammo netting. The music was relentless and became a form of torture – I plugged in my headphones, but even Sibelius’s 3rd Symphony on “full power” (a popular expression amongst the youth here) failed to drown out the screeching female vocals. I dozed again, and was woken by the driver switching on the lights. “McLeod Ganj,” he announced. Already? I checked my watch, and it was 2.30am. We climbed endless narrow lanes, doing three point turns to get round the tighter bends, roaring up the slopes in first gear. Eventually the driver swung into a square, deserted except for three policemen and a rather furtive man who was loitering with some intent. Everywhere was shut.

“Green Hotel?” I asked one of the policemen, and he inclined his head up the road. “Shut,” he said, after a minute. The furtive man sidled up. “I have hotel,” he hissed. “Green Hotel shut. Every hotel shut. I give you special discount.”
“No thank you.” I shouldered my backpack and marched off down the road, together with the Italian guy. After a short time I realised we were being followed. Which is how I came to be leading a platoon of backpacked Israelis through the streets of McLeod Ganj at three o’clock in the morning. It was rather weird. We soon found Green Hotel, and it was indeed shut. Ravi lifted a shutter and ducked underneath, wriggling in to the courtyard, but soon emerged and shook his head. Much discussion in Hebrew in low voices. I said to the Italian: “Shall we take our chances with the tout? It’s better than a rooftop.” He agreed, so we made our way back down to the square, followed by the Israelis. The tout was pleased to see us, and led us down a lane and up the stairs of a modern-looking hotel. We were shown a room which was clean and had a large double bed. “1000 rupees,” he announced.
“But that’s for a full night. It’s half gone. So half price is fair.”
“OK, I give you discount – 500 for the room.”
I looked at the Italian. “I’m fine to share if you are.”
He shrugged. “Sure. It’s OK.”
Which is how I ended up sharing a bed with an Italian guy at four o’clock in the morning in McLeod Ganj. Well, it’s better than a rooftop.

In the morning I woke early and headed out into the streets. The first people I saw were a group of three Tibetan monks in maroon robes. I wandered along Bhagsu road, past rows of small shops selling ethnic scarves, until I found a chai stall. Sitting on the step above an open drain, I watched the town come to life. Nearly everyone was Tibetan. Women wore a kind of stripey apron over a long black skirt, and often had their hair in plaits. There were a great many monks, some Indians, and a few western backpackers. But the feel of the place was entirely different to everywhere else I’ve been in India. It’s extraordinary how this tiny subtropical hillstation perched on a ridge high above the plains has become the main refuge for Tibetan exiles and home to the Dalai Lama. The entire region of Ladakh in the north looks like Tibet, is similar in climate and has hundreds of Buddhist monasteries, and yet McLeod Ganj (named after the Scot Sir David McLeod) has become their new home. The girl cleaning my room asks me where I am from. London, I tell her. And you? “Tibet,” she giggles, as if it’s obvious. How long has she been here? “Eighteen years.” Will you go back, I ask her? She laughs: “Not possible.”

Little Israel

Little Israel, the locals call Kasol. It became popular with Israelis about five years ago and now they are here en masse. But the place somehow works its magic on them too, and they are less aggressive than I have encountered elsewhere. I see a small group make their way on to a large boulder down by the river. Two of their number pass them unseen, and when they get halfway across the bridge someone gives a tremendous whistle. The two immediately turn back and go down to join the others. They all begin a cheering and rhythmic clapping, celebrating something. I can tell even from 200 yards they are Israeli. I imagine how it would feel, after three years of military service (two for women), to find yourself in this place. You would celebrate.

The black dog just caught a fish out of the river. It took it behind some rocks for a while, then reemerged and jumped to a boulder in mid-stream. It’s like watching bears in Alaska catching salmon. It stood uncertainly, then repeatedly pawed the water, testing the current. It decided against it, and turned back. Brownie the Dog is just a little too dominant – not much benevolent about him. The females all have a slightly nervous, cowering look, as if expecting to be pounced on at any moment. Then again I know a few humans like that too.

There’s also a cultural divide – or perhaps its a class one. Most locals on seeing a dog hanging around will make a sort of stone-throwing gesture to shoo it away. Most goras (westerners), on the other hand, will beckon it over and start stroking it. But in fact many of the Indian tourists here, who are generally pretty well-off and well-educated, will also pet the dogs. In fact one man buys a packet of biscuits every morning and feeds them to the beige dog.

Likewise there’s a slight gulf in dress. It would be a little odd for a European family in a hotel to come down to breakfast in their pyjamas. But I’ve seen it here a few times with Indians – not just the kids, but the grown-ups too. Sure, it’s a pretty informal place, and indeed I have appeared in white kurta pyjama and blanket in the early mornings, but you won’t see many other westerners do it. In fact one young Delhi guy earlier took it a stage further by swaggering round the terrace in a white vest and boxer shorts. It was during one pyjama and blanket-wearing session that ironically, having earlier spoken about the pleasant lack of bugs here, upon emerging onto my balcony at 4am for a cigarette I saw a spider on the opposite wall whose dimensions were some way in excess of my hand.

But even that momentary jolt of panic was nothing compared to later that morning. I looked down and realised my bag was not in sight. First time in months. I had left it down by the terrace at breakfast (which somehow seamlessly slips into lunch). Checked the room three times. Not there. My passport is in that bag (Sometimes. Sometimes it is in my combats pocket. Now it wasn’t.) Surpressing rising panic I asked in the kitchens, had anyone seen it? They had not. Then I went over to reception. Yes, a small black rucksack – they had taken it indoors along with a packet of Marie biscuits (not mine). My immense relief must have been clear as I instinctively clasped my hands in namaste as thanks. ‘No problem,’ said Om the waiter. ‘Here is good place, safe here.’ Yes, but still. Four-and-a-half months, round India and Afghanistan, and I get absent-minded just once. I had Marie biscuits and a masala chai by way of celebration.

I heard today that the SS had an ‘Alamein’ division, which was mostly made up of Indians – especially Sikh. I know that there were around 50 Brits in the Nordland, which was otherwise mostly Scandinavian. Most of the Indians were ex-POWs, and the Germans appealed to their nationalist sentiment in overthrowing Britain, their colonial rulers. It’s not clear what happened to them afterwards.

Walking towards Manikaran, a village with hot springs where Sikhs congregate for ritual bathing, I was passed by a convoy turbanned riders on five or six bikes, all flying a large orange triangular flag from the handlebars. Not sure where they had come from, but they were combining a bike tour with a pilgrimage. On the other side of Kasol, an hour up the mountainside, is Malana – a village which is so sacred that outsiders must pay a fine if they inadvertently touch one of the houses or the inhabitants. The locals claim to be descendants of Alexander the Great (who my Panjshiri host referred to as Sikander Makdoni), and it’s a possible location for Kipling’s story of The Man Who Would Be King – a great movie starring Sean Connery, Michael Caine and Saeed Jaffrey. There are villages like this all over Afghanistan and Pakistan, claiming descent from Sikander, but this is the first one I’ve heard of in India.

I walked over the footbridge yesterday at a time which must have coincided with school finishing. Dozens of kids, the girls all in white baggy trousers gathered at the ankle, long pink kurta shirts, a black cardigan, and twin plaits tied with white ribbons. The boys were in a more standard western uniform of red jumper and grey flannels. They make their way across the swaying bridge over a raging torrent, then along a footpath slick with mud, passing a herd of goats coming the other way. It must be one of the most scenic school runs in the world. And they do it all alone – there are no adults in sight.

The cloud comes down over the mountain and wind whips up the valley, a precursor of rain. The river sounds louder somehow, as it tumbles and rushes endlessly onwards. The rivers here are all dammed further upstream; they must have been wild torrents indeed beforehand. The beige dog, which has been lying at my feet, goes trotting away and makes its way down to the river, sitting on a boulder in mid-stream, watching the water. Then it spots something and bounds away, a flash of light brown against the white-grey river rocks, its tail bobbing up and down like a signal flag into the distance.

Down at the other end of the village there is a small house with a huge billboard in Hebrew and a picture of a bearded gentleman in large black hat. This is an Israeli halfway house – a sort of government-sponsored lodge known as Chabad – where Israelis who have spent too long on the road, or lost their passports, or generally need reorienting, can turn up and be looked after – presumably with large quantities of chicken noodle soup. During the Mumbai attacks one of the targets was a house just such as this. Israel carry out 18 extractions a year from Goa alone, using the Indian Air Force base at Dabolim. Usually it is in response to a security alert based on intelligence they have recieved. As all Israeli citizens register with their version of the Locate database, as soon as intelligence comes in that there is a security threat, they are contacted and extracted. One day the beaches of Goa are full of the sound of Hebrew, and the next day they are all gone. Every single one.

I’ve not tried the chicken noodle soup, but had something called shaksuka today – a kind of spicy tomato ragout with two fried eggs on top, hummus and pitta bread. It was very good.

There were spots of rain yesterday, and a cool breeze, so I was wearing the pakol hat. It’s very practical – warm and keeps the rain off my specs. But it’s quite symbolic too – although it means different things to different people. Round here the locals wouldn’t recognise it as being specifically from anywhere; although they are worn in Pakistan, the Pakistanis most people encunter here are Punjabi, from the area nearest India. In Kashmir it would be quite another story – despite being equally far from the part of Pakistan where they are worn, it would certainly be seen as a political statement. The pakol is worn more in areas bordering Afghanistan, and in fact is quite closely associated with Pashtuns. So it’s interesting it became the personal choice of Ahmad Shah Massoud, who was Tajik. They had been seen before by westerners on the heads of the mujahideen fighting the Soviets, and indeed in some rather unclear footage, it was almost possible to tell whether the fighters on screen were Northern Alliance by their pakols, or Taliban, in their turbans. The one group around here who definitely do a double take are the Israelis. Pakistan and Afghanistan are the badlands, and it’s a bit like wearing a shemagh, or Palestinian scarf with its consequent associations – which ironically is something that has been widely adopted by British soldiers serving in desert conditions.

It reminds me a bit of the Cambodian krama, the traditional chequered scarf. It was adopted by the Khmer Rouge as an unofficial uniform, paired with black pyjamas and a Mao cap. Most popular were red and white chequered kramas, and after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, rather than abandon what was essentially a traditonal item of clothing that had been hijacked, they instead started to manufacture them in dazzling combinations of colours, in a glorious burst of sartorial exuberance after the austere Maoist ideology. But I can’t see technicolour pakols taking off in Waziristan.

The road to Leh Ladakh is still blocked with snow, apparently. 10km north of Manali is the Rohtang Pass (4000m high), which literally means ‘piles of bodies’. It’s the gateway to Ladakh. There is another route which goes through Jammu and Kashmir and then on into Zanskar, but the passes there are even higher. The Manali route climbs over the Tanglang La, at 5328m (17,480ft), making it one of the highest motorable passes in the world. The time to visit Ladakh is June and July really, during their short summer months, but there are rumours of the passes opening in a week or two. An alternative option for me is to head back towards Mandi then up to Dharamsala and McLeodganj, home of the Dalai Lama in exile. It’s a place of pilgrimage for countless Tibetans, as well as an increasing number of westerners – assorted Hollywood stars have had themselves photographed there. Dharamsala is on the other side of Himachal Pradesh, and is in rolling foothills as opposed to the high peaks here. Where I go next depends on the snow melting on the high passes at the moment, which is one of those forces of nature that makes a mockery of human-imposed itineraries and schedules. Nothing to do but wait.


The Parvati Valley

Kasol, Parvati Valley – 2nd May 2013

Kasol is divided into two parts – old Kasol and new Kasol, spanned by a bridge of around 100m. It’s a small place, which caters for the trade in passing backpackers with numerous small guesthouses and shops selling the kind of ethnic tat that backpackers and assorted hippies seem to like. Bob Marley T-Shirts much in evidence and menus in Hebrew; the place is especially popular with Israelis. Marijuana plants grow freely at the roadside and charas – a sticky black kind famed even in India – is smoked relatively openly.

There have been a spate of disappearances from Parvati Valley in the last ten years, usually backpackers who go on treks. Sometimes their mutilated bodies have turned up floating in the river, usually they disappear without trace. Wild animal attacks have been speculated, but most likely is that people stumble across the murkier side of the drugs trade; cannabis is grown on the higher ground, and people inadvertently blunder into situations out of their control, or end up in drug deals gone wrong. There is a certain finesse of etiquette to be observed in buying hash, as in all things. Too blunt or direct an approach can be taken as abruptness or high-handedness. Israelis, for example, who are a fairly direct people, with a bluntness that can seem a little assertive, often find that their manner can cause offence unwittingly. I appreciated the subtlety of a guy in Manali bus station, who, while informing me what bus I needed to take, simultaneously took out a matchbox and slid it open to reveal it packed full of sticky black hash. I smiled in recognition but made no offer, and wordlessly he put it away again while continuing to expound on the timetables of the local bus network.

There has been a trance party going on for the last two days on the other side of the river. It shuts down at 10pm, and then starts up again at 10am the next morning. A small line of bedraggled dreadlockers in Om vests make their way along the river path periodically through the rain. The group from Mumbai who I am sitting with take a very scathing view of the hippies. They are all articulate and intelligent media professionals – one is a Top Gear presenter – who are part of the same cosmopolitan culture you get in any great city: we read the same books, watch the same movies, share the same views about many things. The hippies are regarded as figures of fun – people who’ve bought into one giant cliche, cloaking themselves in the trappings of Indian spirituality without understanding any of it; self-identifying as some part of a counter-culture when they are ultra conformist by all dressing the same way and saying the same things. We fill the pipe with river water from the Parvati and it circulates, as does the conversation: hours of discussing every subject under the sun – an informed and enlightened group. It was the conversation I’d been missing for the last couple of weeks,with everything reduced to backpacker guesthouse superficialities: where are you from, where going, how much did you pay for the hash?

I met a young Russian guy from Krasnodar, I think – somewhere in the south near the Caucasus. He’d actually seen me before in Vashisht and took me for a fellow Russian, so came over to join me at the table for lunch. He didn’t speak much English, and my Russian is negligible, but somehow we communicated. He’d just bought a didgeridoo, although exactly what he was going to do with it I wasn’t sure. India was his first trip overseas. I was, apparently, the first English person he’d ever spoken to. It was interesting to do so, because I sensed an initial wariness which gradually thawed in assorted cliched sentiments which we were reduced to by the language barrier: “Russki, English, same. Friends. Kharasho. All peoples one.” etc. etc.

The monotonous drumming thump of dance music from over the river. What must it be like over there? It would hammer your brain into mush after an hour, let alone two days.

The plant patterns on the curtain are vibrating repeatedly, like apps being shut down, quivering back and forth. Minor hallucinations in a pleasant way.

The trick here is to leave your hot water geyser on, for those rare moments there is power. Eco-mindedness results in cold showers. Everyone has become progressively grubbier. Breakfast by midday is considered good going – time seamlessly passes, everything is slower. And breakfast was porridge with banana and honey, followed by a plate of papaya with lime juice squeezed over it – my old breakfast in Zimbabwe, absolutely delicious. I usually have parathas and achaar, but the places more used to western tourists have accommodated to their tastes.

Its a bit like watching a dogfood advert at times, with dogs leaping from boulder to boulder up the riverbed in a picture of healthy energy. There are three dogs here, and the alpha male is Brownie, with a basso profundo bark. He’s the Dom. He intimidates the others, and quite a few people too. This morning a headmassage guy appeared who was a stranger – not the regular one, who looks like an Australian Aborigine – but different. And Brownie went and held him at bay, standing in front of him and barking. He’s quite hard to physically budge – if you push him aside it is like wrestling a bear. Then there is a smaller black female, who strongly smells. And another brown one which is paralysed. I thought I saw someone take it out the river and bring it up to the bank. Two girls sat stroking its head and explained that it wasn’t an injury – it was a progressive disease. Four different vets said there was nothing they could do, and that if looked after, the dog might have four months to live. There’s not much to be done – it is well cared for, lies in the sun and periodically gets stroked by passers by.

The continual roar of the river, rushing on. Sitting even on the terrace you have to raise your voice a little. A storm came yesterday – first the snowpeaks were swallowed up in white mist, then it blew down the valley whipping up small dust devils and sending pine cones thunking onto the ground as the wind shook the trees. Rain came in a torrent, and then settled into a steady drip and the air smelled vegetative, renewed. After dark a solitary line of torches made their way along the path on the far bank, lights bobbing in the darkness. One made its way down to the river. I fervently hoped they weren’t going to try to cross. Most of the partygoers were Israelis, all of whom have done military service, so they are better prepared for such scenarios. But a night time river crossing of a mountain torrent, with no ropes, in a slightly altered state of consciousness, was too much; the torch lingered a while, went up and down the bank and had second thoughts – it slowly made its way up the hill and rejoined the others. This morning two locals carried the large speakers over the single-plank wide suspension bridge, and then a group of schoolgirls made their way along. They passed the horses tethered beneath the trees slowly swishing their tails, who are used to carry loads up to the village, and crossed over the swaying suspension bridge on their way to school.

A small yellow-striped lizard makes its way across the terrace in a series of spasmodic jerks. Its path takes it right over the top of an ant, which veers course abruptly in a wtf? kind of way, and the lizard keeps going.