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.