The Hills

You never step in the same river twice

– Heraclitus

The mountains are as high as the clouds. Rivulets of snow streak their uppermost flanks. Each night the valleys echo to the sounds of drumming from the temple – a constant, chest-shaking thump that rises and falls with the wind, punctuated by the rasping horns and the high reedy skirl of an oboe. The men of the village parade the effigy on a float borne on their shoulders. It is faceless, and resembles an upright sitting figure in a crimson bridal gown, edged with gilt thread and with ten rupee notes pinned to the embroidery. The crowd stand in a circle, women and children in small groups around the edges, and different men come forward to take their turn bearing the load. The effigy sways back and forth on their shoulders, possessed of a momentum of its own, forty-five degrees each way, almost falling, and others rush forward with arms outstretched to support the load.

The interlocutor is gnarled and bearded, his voice cracked with age and passion. He hears the villagers’ babbled complaints, and clutches at his brimless felt Kullu cap as if in exasperation. The goddess speaks through him. “You people have learned nothing!” he cries, and everyone looks bashful and suitably reproached. He goes on berating them in an untranslateable Pahari dialect, and they nod in assent, clasp their hands, and add their own pleas for mitigation. The float spins to face whoever is speaking. Finally some agreement is reached and the crowd look hopeful once more. Three men with long brass horns blast out a discordant note that echoes around the valley as if to underline the pronouncement, then they dismantle their horns and shoulder them. The float leaves the grounds of the temple in a procession, a man at front holding a small brazier containing incense, followed by the crowd. They head down the steep lanes of the village to the syncopated drumbeat. They are making for the house of a local lady. The goddess has been invited to dinner.

All the coaches to the hills from a sweltering Delhi were booked up weeks in advance, but we found a private bus company offering tickets on an “AC Volvo” coach. These long distance workhorses ferry hundreds of thousands of people around the subcontinent each night in varying levels of discomfort. The pick-up point was a fly-blown layby in Majnu Ka Tilla, devoid of shade or any facilities whatsoever, other than a tiny chai stall. The toilet was a nearby wall. Groups of people sat around on their luggage, waiting, blasted by dust from the passing traffic. It was 42 degrees C. Eventually a bright orange coach pulled up and we gained the front seats, then sat in them for forty minutes while various people came and went, filling out forms, loading cargo, selling things. Finally setting off we played stop-go for three hours with the Delhi traffic until the city fell away and we entered the flatlands of Haryana, dotted with enormous roadside hotels that were always deserted and construction sites where new private universities were being built.

Some time in the night I awoke to see small clusters of yellow lights in the sky. We had entered the hills, little settlements stretched out along the ridgelines like constellations. I slept again fitfully, wrapped in the Afghan patoo. Waking again at around three o’clock in the morning I peered blearily through the windscreen in front of me, over the heads of the driver and his assistant. We were near the Himachali town of Mandi, on a narrow road with thick forest on either side. Suddenly, in the glare of the headlights, something jumped into the road in front of us. I saw spots, a long tail… It was a leopard. The driver slammed on the brakes, crates and boxes cascaded into the aisle from the overhead racks, people waking with cries of fright… but it was too late. I saw the animal crouch down, ears flattened, mouth agape in a snarl… and then there was a bump and we struck it. The coach drove on slowly in silence, the driver in shock, unsure whether to stop or not. After a few minutes we pulled in to the side of the road and he got out, inspecting the underside of the coach with the torch of his mobile phone. Small groups of passengers stood around disconsolately. The driver and his assistant were grim-faced. “The leopard has gone,” someone said. “It died.” I felt like crying. Approaching the driver I wanted to offer some consolation, knowing how he must feel. “I’m sorry,” I said. “There was nothing you could have done.” He looked at the ground. It cast a pall of tragedy over the entire trip.

I rarely revisit places when travelling. Even returning to Goa again was slightly different, as each time it had been in a different part; first Anjuna, then Arpora on a later trip, and this time Siolim. But now I was heading back to Manali, where I had been three years previously after the trip to Afghanistan. The plan was to collect an Enfield motorbike and ride into Kinnaur, then on to Spiti, on the border with Tibet. I had researched different rental places, and found one that did group rides through the Himalayas. Their prices were extortionate, but the mechanic who serviced their bikes had his own company, for half the cost. We arranged to have an Enfield delivered to us in Manali, and it duly arrived outside when we were having lunch at Moondance cafe. The young guy dropping it off handed over all the necessary paperwork – registration, insurance and the rest which is so often lacking in India. In addition there was an impressively large bag of spare parts strapped to the back: accelerator cables, clutch lever, spark plugs, filters and so on. The bike was a 500cc Bullet “Machismo”, of all things. I hadn’t ridden one before, but the design was similar to the Classic I was used to in Goa, so I felt sure I’d figure out its idiosyncracies.

As it turned out, this was a little optimistic. The first problem was how to start the engine. I tried the self starter. Nothing. I flipped out the kickstart and pumped away at it. I might as well have tried to push a boulder up hill with my foot for all the good it did. A small group of lads gathered around us. “Here, let me try,” said one, and he pumped away for a while before climbing off in defeat. Others took his place, trying the Enfield rituals of choke, decompression, kill switch on and off, everything. Nobody could even get it to cough. We rang the delivery guy. “Duh?” he said. “Clutch in and self starter.”

Clutch in. Why didn’t I think of that? I tried it and it worked – the engine roared into life. Broad smiles all round. Riding the bike up the narrow track towards our guesthouse, I knew at once it was going to be a handful. It seemed to have an alarming wobble through the handlebars. The tyres were probably half-flat as usual. The only air pump being on the other side of Manali, through an endless snarl of vehicles, we decided to check them the next day just before we set off.

Heading back down the hill the next morning, fully laden and with K on the back, it took every bit of balance I possessed not to drop the thing. Round one bend I saw that the entire road was covered with a carpet of straw. The locals lay it out so that the tyres of passing vehicles thresh out the seeds – but it was a damn tricky surface to be riding over on tyres which were, indeed, half flat; the front was just under 10 psi, when it should have been 25. With them fully inflated it handled better, but was still challenging to get through the gridlock: Manali was packed nose to tail with minivans and taxis full of Indian holidaymakers. This was peak season, and the sheer number of vehicles had turned the roads into giant tailbacks stretching for many kilometers. Eventually we got free of the traffic, and set off south down the highway which ran alongside the river – a fast-rushing torrent of green tumbling water coming down from the mountains. Occasional rafting camps dotted its banks.

The first spots of rain began to fall an hour out of Manali. It wasn’t too bad, though the road surface immediately became greasy. But we had ridden in worse. We pressed on, stuck in a long line of boxy white people carriers. Then the rain became heavier. Soon it was a full downpour, and I could hardly see. I felt three taps on my shoulder indicating that I should pull over, and wobbled onto the muddy verge as trucks roared by, drenching us with spray.

“There’s a restaurant back there!” shouted K into my ear. Somehow I did a U-turn on the main highway and nosed down a muddy track with led to Garden Restaurant. With numb fingers we undid the bags and headed into a small dining room that was packed with Indian families. Judging by their expressions we might have just arrived from outer space. They stared. They gawped. Small children goggled or burst into tears spontaneously. Removing helmets and sunglasses we took on a more human appearance, and this was further consolidated when we ordered aloo parathas and masala chai. This seemed to break the ice – we clearly ate normal food, and with our fingers too, like normal people. The children on the bench opposite, who had been mesmerised, turned to stare glumly out of the window at the rain once more, like children on rainy family holidays anywhere. After an hour the rain began to slacken and patches of watery sunlight appeared. We set off once again, occasionally passing through patches of drizzle, making for the town of Kullu.

It was a narrow road with a greasy surface, sloping slightly downhill, with buildings along either side. That much I remember. Groups of schoolkids were heading home, walking up either side of the road, boys in white shirts and blue trousers, girls in long kurta blouses and baggy white trousers, their hair in twin plaits tied with ribbons. There was a group of five or six coming towards me on the right, past a small entrance to a lane or a yard. A dog ran out. It was a flash of black and tan fur. I flung my whole body right, trying to countersteer, braked, and somehow missed it with the front wheel, but I heard a yelp, and must have caught it with the rear pannier. Then the back wheel was trying to overtake the front, and bike was going sideways – upright, but totally out of control, heading towards the schoolkids, who stood frozen with expressions of horror. I flung the bike back the other way, knees slamming into the tank so hard they bruised, and went into a skid in the opposite direction, away from the kids. Directly in front of me was a small maroon car, and I could make out a row of beribboned and plaited heads in the back window. To the left was a wall. There was nowhere else to go. Into the wall I steered, laying the bike down on its side at the last moment. We were doing less than 10mph when we hit it.

I found myself still in my seat, but lying on my side. Miraculously I seemed uninjured. I reached out my arm behind me and encountered K’s leg. “Are you OK?” I called.

“Yaar!” Cushioned by her enormous pink marshmallow of a jacket, she was unscathed.

“OK, get up slow.”

Somehow we got to our feet. The bike engine was screaming, the throttle jammed open, and I flicked off the kill switch. Then there were people around us. Two lads helped lift the bike upright then politely stood holding it until I remembered to put down the side stand. A policewoman appeared from nowhere and hovered at the edge of proceedings. But there was nothing to see: the bike was up, we were uninjured, the schoolkids were OK. “How is the dog?” K asked someone.

“The dog is fine. He hurt his foot.”

I started laughing, then caught myself. My heart was hammering. One of the lads holding the bike said: “You did a good riding. Everybody saw you try to miss the dog.” He nodded emphatically, as if to underscore his words. That was it in a nutshell. I did everything I could, and nobody got hurt. A controlled stop featuring an immoveable object. The policewoman wandered off again and gradually the crowd began to disperse. A procession of saffron-robed Buddhist monks were walking down the road towards us in the rain. One caught my eye and held it, smiling enigmatically. I bowed my head.

Getting back on the bike it became clear that it was far from well. There was an audible ‘tac tac tac’ sound from the front wheel, and the steering wobble was worse than ever. Slowly riding on into Kullu I felt three taps on my shoulder again: “There’s a mechanic on the right.” I U-turned again and pulled up outside a tiny hole-in-the-wall shop littered with bike parts. For three hours an old man and his son dismantled the bike, hammering things into shape, refitting parts, and going off to fetch new ones. The mudguard was bent and rubbing on the tyre. The headlight was broken. And there was a fuel leak from the reserve tap which was dripping petrol into the hot metal of the engine. It was all a bit of a mess.

While we waited for the mechanics to do their work we took stock. We clearly weren’t going to make Narkanda that night, which lay over a 3000 metre pass some four hours away. Then I remembered Kasol. I had been there three years before, and remembered it as a slightly druggy hangout for travellers, but which had plenty of guesthouses. It lay along the Parvati Valley, reached from the junction at Bhuntar which was just to the south of us. “I reckon I can ride there,” I said. “We should make it before nightfall.”

The mechanic lifted his head, overhearing the name. “Yes, you could reach Kasol in an hour, hour and a half?”

So it was decided. We paid the bill – 800 rupees, or £8 – and headed for Bhuntar en route to Kasol.

What I had forgotten, however, was just how bad the road was. It clung precipitously to the edge of the cliffs and was comprised mostly of potholes interspersed with large rocks and soft sand. Many people carriers appeared to be heading the same way, and rather than get a faceful of diesel fumes I carried out some tricky overtakes, sometimes coming within inches of the cliff edge. I feared for the tyres – a sharp rock would cause a puncture, and the consequent loss of control could be catastrophic. Never mind stepping in the same river twice – was it conceivable that I might crash twice in the same day? The bike engine kept stalling on me, but somehow I restarted each time. Finally, after yet another jarring descent, just as night was falling we came into Kasol.

The streets were packed. I remembered the way down to Alpine Guesthouse by the river, and fought my way through the traffic, past clumps of Indian holidaymakers who stood with truly bovine passivity in the middle of the road, or platoons of dreadlocked Israelis who would give way to nothing and nobody. I discovered my horn wasn’t working – that most essential piece of equipment for Indian roads – and was reduced to shouting at people to get them out of the way. We wobbled crazily over the boulders that lined the track to Alpine, and finally stopped. Trudging tiredly up to the terrace overlooking the river we saw that it was packed. Groups of young Delhiites sat around smoking hash and loudly talking to each other. It was a dispiriting sight; when I had been here in April 2013 it was all but deserted. We ordered chai from the delightfully camp waiter. A young guy in a hoodie decorated with the Union Jack came to stand in front of us. Did we have any rolling papers? We did. Where were we from? On hearing London he beamed. “I was at university in London! Just near Farringdon – City University. Do you know it?” I did. He loitered for a while, until it became clear that we weren’t really fit for conversation, then he sauntered off, having failed to offer us anything in return for the loan of our papers. It was a fitting introduction to Kasol.

Alpine was clearly full to bursting. Confidentially I took the camp waiter aside. “Do you remember me?” I asked. “I was here three years ago.” He looked unsure. “But I remember you,” I told him, and he beamed. “We have a problem. We need a room.”

He sighed, and said: “Everything fully booked. All Kasol, because of the festival. But maybe you could try Blue Diamond.” It was a large hotel we had passed coming into town. Finishing our chai we climbed wearily onto the bike once more, and headed back along the road to Blue Diamond. I was, by now, almost hallucinating with fatigue. K could hardly stand up. Two utterly disconsolate figures, we swayed up to the reception desk to ask about rooms. A young man in designer specs, who had a rather preoccupied air about him, regretfully informed us that the hotel was full. The time had clearly come to play the sympathy card.

“We’ve had a motorbike accident,” I told him. His forehead puckered in feigned concern. “I can’t ride any more. She has hurt her shoulder.” (It had been injured days earlier, but this was no time for technicalities.) “Do you have anything at all? I can pay cash.”

It was the magic word. He frowned at his register. “There may be a chance… one guest is leaving unexpectedly tonight. 2000 rupees?”

It was an outrageous amount for India. But there it was. I laid out two crisp thousand notes from my notebook and he passed me the register. We were in.

We waited for them to clean the room. The departing guest was an American who had been due to appear at the festival. It now transpired that it had been cancelled, and he wanted a refund. He hung on and on, arguing with reception, going out to his car, coming back for another go… In the end we carried our bags up to the room ourselves and sat on them in the corridor, both periodically nodding off. Eventually the room was ready, and we collapsed on the bed. I must have dozed again, because I was woken at midnight by raised voices outside. Going into the corridor to see the source of the racket I saw that the door to the room opposite was open. Five elderly Sikh men in orange turbans were sitting in a circle on the floor, having dinner, talking loudly. Sighing I went back to bed.

Three hours later I was woken again by the sound of blaring dance music. Cursing, I rose. It came from the room next door. I hammered on it. It was opened by a girl in a hoodie who bobbed back and forth on the spot with a rather glazed look. Seeing my thunderous expression she immediately said: “Sorry sorry sorry.” Behind her the darkened room was lit by flashing disco lights, and I made out the shape of five or six people jerking up and down spasmodically like marionettes, dancing. All were clearly on drugs. I made them turn down the music and stomped grumpily back to bed, swearing like a sailor, feeling very old.

In the morning Blue Diamond redeemed itself slightly when I opened the curtains to reveal bright sunlight and a magnificent view. The forested sides of the V-shaped valley narrowed to end in a jagged barrier of snowcapped summits, a wall of peaks halfway up the sky, scalloped and fluted like icing. It was breathtaking. In the narrow stone-walled lanes just below us Himachali women trudged along with bamboo baskets full of foliage on their backs, fodder for their livestock. The scene was pastoral and somehow timeless. In the garden opposite a man swung a hoe, breaking up clumps of soil in the small strip of land beside his house. A sign on the building next door said “Yoga Centre”. After a morning chai we decided to head out in search of another room, in a normal hotel, where people didn’t hold trance parties in their room at 3 o’clock in the morning. But walking up the lanes behind the main road it soon became clear that Kasol was full to bursting. We tried half a dozen guesthouses without success, each becoming progressively grimier the further we went. All full. But there was one more place we hadn’t tried, halfway up the hillside behind the town. A weathered sign through the trees advertised Deep Forest. Up the steps we went.

On the sunlit terrace trance music was blaring out at nine in the morning, totally at odds with the idyllic scene. Small sunbirds flitted through the trees, seemingly undisturbed. Yes, said the owner, somewhat cagily, they had a room. 1500 a night. We asked to see it, and were led halfway down the steps again to a small and rather dingy cavern. The interior was cool and damp. Empty crisp packets littered the floor, and there were dribbles of wax on the surfaces from where innumerable candles had guttered out. It looked like an abandoned drug den. But we were all out of options. I went back to Blue Diamond to fetch the bike, which utterly failed to start; no amount of clutch and self-starter could raise even a cough. Watched by a dozen or so tourists I worked up a sweat trying to kick-start it. At that moment a young Indian guy pulled up on a Classic Bullet. “Here, let me try.”

It took him five minutes, but he somehow kicked it into life. “Your battery is flat,” he said.

“How can it be? I rode here from Manali yesterday! Surely it charged.”

He thumbed the horn, which was silent. “See? No power at all. There’s a guy down the hill who might have one.”

With profuse thanks I climbed back on and headed down to the main road, which was gridlocked again. For twenty minutes I fought my way through it, trying not to stall, finally bumping up the track to Deep Forest. I lugged the bag of spares up the steps again, and staggered dripping into our new room. K took in my expression. “What is it?”

“The traffic. And the bike wouldn’t start again. And the bloody pedestrians…” I froze in horror. “Ohmygod…”

“What?” She craned her neck to see what I was staring at. A hand-sized spider was making its way tentatively down the wall.

“We have to get it out. Right now.”

She approached it. “Oh, but it’s beautiful!”

“I don’t care. I’m not sleeping in here with that thing.”

At that moment a figure appeared in the doorway. It was one of the staff, carrying a long broom. “Excellent,” I said. “Would you mind getting rid of that?”

He took one look at it and deftly swept the creature off the wall and out of the open doorway.

“Thank you so much.”

I was a little freaked out. It’s not exactly a phobia, but spiders – like large roaches – have a curious unsettling effect upon me. Rather shakily I went outside for a cigarette, keeping a watchful eye out in case it came back.

The tragedy of Kasol was that, by virtue of the Parvati Valley producing the best hash in the world, a peaceful Himalayan village had been taken over by the seediest elements of rave culture. The locals trudged along the mountain paths passing tourists coming the other way and the two rarely interacted. In the most idyllic, sylvan glades there was inevitably a cafe which blared out the demented bleeps and thumps of jittery psytrance. And the tourists, whether Indian or Western, ambled about in a stoned haze which, despite their ostensible openness to other forms of consciousness, had had the effect of walling them off from everyone else; few people would meet your eyes in passing. Instead their glance would slide away, with all the neuroticism and anxiety one associated more with big city life. It was as if they had embraced all the trappings of a movement without understanding any of the concepts behind it. And in their dealings with brusque, demanding tourists, the locals too had changed, becoming abrupt and rather mercenary themselves. It was the tragedy of tourism everywhere, underpinned here by a whiff of criminality. There had been many disappearances over the years in Parvati – with the cause ascribed to wild animal attacks, or people falling in the river, which roared and tumbled through the town. But in a recent case three Israelis who had decided to do a spot of camping had been attacked in their tent by a gang of masked men with machetes. Two died, but one survived, despite being thrown into the river, and his account pointed to the most likely source of the disappearances: banditry, fuelled by the drug trade.

And yet there were redeeming figures. The local man carrying a load of firewood who sheltered with us under a tree during a shower of rain, whose rather simian features split into a huge grin beneath his colourful Kullu cap. The local women herding cattle who had a bold, glittering brilliance; they would look directly at you and smile unabashed, quite unlike the ‘modesty’ of the plains. The schoolgirls who ran laughing over the footbridge across the river each day, wildly exuberant, in this, one of the states in India where women were most empowered; perhaps they had a decent future here, not one worn down by grinding poverty and patriarchy. The grizzled Croat who we met for coffee one morning, who had been coming to India for 30 years, and who used to play chess with passers-by in the cafe. And Dr Jain, briskly efficient, lavishly moustachioed and emitting an air of deep respectability, who as it turned out was the only person in Kasol that I really trusted.

Another night, another spider. This time it was even bigger than my outstretched hand. It crept along the wall and then on down the curtain, like something from a horror movie. No wonder the guy at Deep Forest had seemed a little shifty about the room – it was infested with gigantic arachnids. My tropical routine of shaking out shoes became embellished with new additions: turning my clothes inside out before putting them on, or checking both sides of the towel before using it. I slept with one eye open, trying to ignore any strange random tickles on my legs. The sweeper guy was fetched from reception again to dispatch it. “Not killing,” we cautioned. “Just put it far, far away.” He knocked it off the curtain and then lost sight of it. We spent five minutes trying to find the thing again, whereupon it appeared underneath my backpack in the corner.

Waking at dawn, having scanned all surfaces for spiders, I went out for a cigarette, the birdsong in the tree opposite raucous in the cool morning air. Then I thought I heard a cry from within the room. “JEZZZ!”

I rushed in, prepared to do battle with tarantulas. K was sitting on the edge of the bed, tears streaming down her face, clearly in great pain.

“What is it?”

“I can’t get up,” she sobbed. “It’s my shoulder!”

It had been twinging since the night bus to Manali, and now it seemed she had trapped a nerve. She was in a very bad way. I tried to run through our options. We were an hour-and-a-half’s ride down an appallingly rough road from the nearest town, and had a motorbike that didn’t start. She couldn’t walk, or even get up. There was no air ambulance, nor even a road one. I remembered the painkillers I had been given in Venice when I trapped a nerve in my neck; they had got me halfway across Italy the previous summer. But the pharmacist had been most insistent that they must be taken only after food. We had no food. Reception at Deep Forest was such that it was impossible to even get chai before 9 in the morning. Then I remembered the biscuits in my backpack. Checking it carefully for spiders I fished out half a packet of gingernuts, and fed them to her, then gave her two Momendol with our last inch of bottled water. We sat and waited for them to kick in as she shook, trying again to get up and failing.

“OK, we have to get you to a doctor,” I said. “You’re not going to get to Manali like this. So we have to try and find one in Kasol.” Then we looked at each other. “Dr Jain!” we both said at the same time.

After an hour the Momendol were working. I helped her slowly to her feet, and we carefully negotiated the steps down to the road. I was praying Dr Jain’s shop was open – a small ayurvedic clinic near the cafe. It was. He smiled when we came in, then frowned as the extent of K’s incapacitation became clear. He immediately clicked into professional mode, and dispatched a small boy to go and fetch his assistant, who was skilled in spinal problems. Within ten minutes she arrived, and took K into a back room, to a stretcher which was decorated in Rasta colours emblazoned with stylized cannabis leaves. Smearing some gel on her neck and shoulder the assistant placed electronic pads over it, to try and halt the spasming muscles, then did some gentle manipulation. It seemed to help.

“Do you think she can travel? I asked. “We’re supposed to be riding to Kinnaur.”

The assistant smiled and shook her head. “She must rest it. Perhaps tomorrow you can see. But for now you have to stay here.”

I resigned myself to another night in Kasol, in the room of the giant spiders.






One thought on “The Hills

  1. Ahh, nothing if not eventful. Your way is such that I could smell the hash, hear the birds and feel the pain. That’s why I rushed through the spider bits at high speed lest I feel the tickling. Fond greetings and power to the people and bikes.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s