Round the World Travel Guide
Your One-stop Source to Plan & Book Around-the-World Trips
#6: 13th July 2001
Last time I wrote seemed an age ago, we had just arrived in Manali, and since then we have witnessed what I consider the most peaceful and beautiful place I had ever experienced, Chandra Tal, “Tal” meaning lake, also known appropriately as “The Moon Lake”. Here we were enchanted by a long expanse of crystal clear water with not a ripple on its surface, the quietness is deafening, and the noises of nature thunderous in the sheer calm of this magical place.
But we start our instalment back in Delhi, where we took the overnight train to Kalka; a small sleepy town with no special interest to the traveller apart from it is the starting point for the narrow gauge railway to Shimla. When I say narrow gauge I mean the rails were maybe 30 inches, at the most 3 feet apart. On this travelled what I can only describe as a toy train, a bit bigger than the train rides at amusement parks that take you on fun tours around the park, but less than half the size of a normal carriage.
Our connecting train was a first class train only, and was decked out inside with luxurious red velvet armchairs only 3 across in 2 + 1 formation. The carriages carried only 22 people each in their dinky shortness. Each carriage had its own boy who set about as soon as we left the station preparing tea and coffee, supplying biscuits and papers. The service reminded me of the train journey from Mumbai to New Delhi, but with far more thought and courteousness.
A tip was surely going to be asked for we thought, in this age old tradition of rewarding service, not something that has been passed by in the higher class of society in India. Is this a kick back to the British colonial rule that has been carried on whilst so much else had been forgotten I wondered, for tipping is not widely practised in India and when it is, it’s based on 5% maximum up to 20Rs normally. Tipping in restaurants is limited to the small coins in the change, and taxis get nothing, probably because everybody that uses them has to negotiate relentlessly for a reasonable price, and still think it’s too much at the end of the journey.
Our train was destined for Shimla, only 96kms away, but all uphill through the hills and mountains of the Himachal Pradesh countryside. The journey is slow, taking 5 hours to cover the short distance, but soooooo worth it. The slow train gives you a real chance to appreciate the lush green hillocks and take in the goings on in the villages and fields you trundle past whilst sipping your tea, and crunching on those rich buttery biscuits.
Looking out passing cute colourful stations in miniature emblazoned with plants and flowers, rich saturations of greens, oranges, yellows and reds in manicured beds. The hills criss-crossed with hundreds of paths where grazing animals and their guardians have cut their trails in time, like the tiny lines that mark the back of your hand magnified. Emerald escarpments carrying the scars of rock falls and minor landslides scathing the hillside and far beyond, snow-capped peaks swathed in cotton wool clouds above the pine covered slopes from which burst far off gushes of water cascading down the mountainside over sheer drops in white, never ending threads falling from view across the valley.
The morning sun (the train left Kalka at 0530 by the way) streams through the clouds that hang over the uppermost pine trees, causing shards of light filtering through down into the morning valley scene. Semicircular layers of rough half moon paddy fields worked by elderly women and their daughters up to their ankles in irrigated water run down away from the lower hills and disperse into irregular patterns of differing shades of green rice paddies on the flatter ground.
Now, if you are thinking I am painting a wondrous picture of beauty and nature combined, you wouldn’t be wrong, for these are the thoughts that run through my mind when I look back at those first few hours on the train. A place faintly reminiscent of Switzerland and Saltzburg for those who have been there or even seen the idealic pictures in travel brochures and books. But these views and feelings are to be surpassed as we venture further into this Himalayan state.
We finally pull in to our destination, Shimla, an expensive Indian tourist retreat from the hotter lower ground, a place to escape the monsoon. But we are not staying here, we will come back this way later on our journey to Nahan. Instead, we trudge the road to the bus station after being led astray by well meaning locals that hate to disappoint. We have learnt (silly for me to have forgotten really) that Indians hate to disappoint, or concede ignorance. This means even if they don’t know, or don’t understand, they will endeavour to give some sort of answer or guidance anyway. This often leads you up the garden path, or by that well known Firkin Pub in Chelsea, The Fox and Firkin in a balloon up the creek without a paddle.
The new way is to ask at least three people and take the best of the averages. Do not lead them to an answer like, “is the bus station this way?” as the answer will always be “yes” even though you can ask the same bloke several times and point in different directions each go… Eventually we get on the bus to Mandi, with a driver with a death wish, or just in a hurry to get there.
Where the train chugs slowly though meandering bends in the hillside, this bus charges like a beast possessed up hills and around hair pin bends, blind corners, passing by more sedate drivers and horn depressed at all times. I generally like to read a book on the bus to pass the time, but with both hands firmly clenched with white knuckles to anything that will keep me from sliding off the bench seat of the state bus, it’s a little difficult. The roads are rough, the bends tight, and the carriageway single traffic in most places. Oh, did I mention that we are very high up? And the road falls away steeply down long drops? And we are slightly worried that we might end up flying over the edge into oblivion?
When two buses meet head to head, it’s a stand off, some one has to back up to a passing point, and our driver was mostly adamant that it wasn’t going to be him. Raised voices through the driver’s window ensue, and what seems to be a flurry of abusive hand signals and verbalisation eventually ends in someone backing down. A bus reverses to a point where the other bus can pass with a half a flea’s leg of space to spare before the bus could crash into the unknown below, and the driver cajoles the other driver saying what I can imagine to be…”Call yourself a bus driver, a cow driving a tank backwards could get past there…” and so more insinuations of incompetence and loud verbal exchanges, accompanied by the now common vigorous hand signals… And so another death defying feat is accomplished, onwards to the next.
The bus ride was a bit tainted by a lot of these incidents, thus the view was marred by the need to subconsciously be the driver’s second pair of eyes on the road. Several times my heart was gagging me, and Eddie (who can’t read on a moving vehicle be it train, bus or car for fear of travel sickness) let escape a couple of “eeks” and “OH SHHEEEETTTTT’s”, more of the latter than the former. Bus rides in India are notorious for their late arrivals, sometimes arriving two or more hours late, however… we arrived in one piece 45 minutes early, phew!
Mandi is a quiet town, not many western tourists stop here for north is Manali. However, we have time on our side, and I think if you have it, flaunt it, and Mandi is worth visiting too. There is not a massive amount to do here but it’s a pleasant place to break the journey the Manali, and nearby Rewalsa has an interesting lake and Tibetan feel to it.
There is a common misjudgement in the facial features of the people in this region, and we are guilty of it too, but the lesson is learnt. I think everybody has implanted in their mind what a typical Tibetan looks like, and therefore all those who resemble this look are Tibetan. Not so, for the look is Himalayan. Tibetans look Himalayan, but those in India and Nepal who also live in these regions have the Himalayan look as well, it’s just that we also have a typical Indian stereotype look affixed in our minds too. There are of course Tibetans in India and Nepal, escaping from the overbearing Chinese rule afflicted upon them (no offence to any Chinese readers) but it is, at the end of the day, a regional look, that more than just Tibetans are lucky enough to have. (I really like the friendliness of the Himalayan look; it’s warming, sometimes sensual)
We stayed at a rambling guest house / hotel called the Raj Mahal, it’s an old colonial palace once owned by the Raja of Mandi and has huge high ceiling rooms clad in wood with a balcony over an interior courtyard. We had the superior room that had these attributes at 350Rs, expensive for India but worth the space and the atmosphere. There are lesser rooms, and also a suite for 480Rs (bargain) that had a huge double bed, writing desk, a stuffed bear and a stand of old hunting rifles. It also sported a decadent 60′s style dressing table that kind of wrapped around you and formed the seat all in one go, and a slightly moth eaten but none the less impressive tiger skin rug over a thick pink carpet. Mmmmm lovely…
We spent a day at nearby Rewalsar Lake, even further up the hills about an hour away. We had a more leisurely driver this time, thank the stars. It’s a time forgotten kind of place, with a lake surrounded by temples and Buddhist prayer flags. Some of the Gompas (Buddhist Monasteries) allow visitors to walk around, but you need to ask permission, if you are lucky some one will guide you, and an offering would be appropriate, but do not try to tip anyone.
More interesting are the holy caves up high on a hill overlooking this small town, and 140Rs got us a driver to take us up and spend an hour at the top. Another steep perilous climb and 45 minutes later we emerged through the base clouds at the top. Fluffy white clouds of mist crept by, almost close enough to touch, more clouds were below forming a thin base layer through you could glimpse at times the Rewalsar Lake. Only in an aircraft have I experienced being above the base cloud level, being on terra firma and seeing the clouds below is a little weird.
Another 15 minute climb up a set of white marble steps took us to the caves. Carved deep into the mountain side the natural caves go from one cavern to another, each one getting smaller and more claustrophobic as you go. The middle one stretches up high in a cone and houses a formidable gold statue about 40 feet tall that towers above you. The last cavern you have to stoop to get into, the ceiling flat and low. We sat and contemplated a while having lit incense sticks that surrounded us with rich smelling white streams of smoke, until the air choked us with its intensity.
Outside, whilst putting our footwear back on, a kindly female monk (monkess? They don’t call them nuns in the Buddhist religion) offered some sweet chai, we accepted but I drank both glasses as Ed doesn’t go a bundle on it. It’s rude to refuse. The caves are looked after by the shaved headed women in traditional burgundy attire, and their chattering hung on the misty air as they continuously found something to talk about, even though they spent the majority of time together.
A path leads you further up the slopes to a mystical landscape of stone huts and thousands of prayer flags hung from trees and bushes, made all the more surreal by the wisps of misty powder puff clouds that lay on the hill top. It was a truly abstract scene, a cool backdrop of grassy hillside and grey boulders with mighty trees and bushes decorated with brightly coloured prayer flags all in a misty atmosphere. To enhance the scene, faint mantra or prayers emanated from the dull stone huts that dotted the hillside. The air was quiet, and you couldn’t see further than the mist allowed you to. Atop of the hill a mass of flags hung out from a single tree that dominated the view, a gaiety of colours that reached out in all directions. It was a photographer’s dream of atmospheric compositions.
Back on the bus for a comfortable ride at a comfortable pace to Manali, I will not describe the route as it will sound repetitive, suffice it to say… it gets better the higher you go.
Manali itself is another Indian tourist destination; set amongst hills and pine forests the town is busy and noisy. A short rickshaw drive takes you to Old Manali, a hippie stronghold and Israeli party town. Chillum smokers start early here, sparking up at breakfast and going till they drop. Nice enough in itself, it sports a couple of excellent restaurants and some pretty amazing views from the balconies of some guesthouses. But it is noisy, not so much during the day but the party starts at night with dope smoking revellers laughing and listening to music most of the night outside your balcony.
We tried three guesthouses but came up with the same problem, so we moved across the valley to Vashisht, which is about 4kms out of Manali. You can see Vashisht from Old Manali, but being higher the views from Vashisht over the valley towards Old Manali were superlative. The village itself has several decaying temples and the back streets house the majority of the local inhabitants as well as some hippie travellers who forgot time, or time forgot. These homes are rambling wooden houses, with small rooms, low ceilings and open seating area like a second floor porch or balcony where the washing is hung out. A cross between a miniature farm building and a large doll house. Here the locals call it all “shanty, shanty”.
On a good sunny day it is worth a walk north of Vashisht on a half hour, well marked trail to Gogganee Falls (G pronounced J) where you can take a picnic and sit in the cool waters below by a temple. Another track that leads further up takes you to the base of the falls where a deep pool bathed with sunshine is an ideal place to swim. Cool but refreshing. Local lads come here at weekends to swim, drink and smoke spliffs, but during the weekdays it’s quiet and peaceful, a good place to lie back and read a book (and swim and drink and smoke spliffs if the need takes you).
We stayed at Dharma Guest House, a strenuous short walk up steep stone steps behind the main hot water springs that are natural but are now piped into a special washing-cum-bathing area where locals wash clothes and bodies alike. Our view from the room faces west and offers a fantastic vantage point from which we can admire the pine clad mountains and the roaring white river on the valley floor that is fed from a thousand streams and waterfalls, melting snow and glacial waters. Far and right, mountains speckled with shards of snow, up further out of sight is Chandra Tal, the Moon Lake.
The Jeep arrived a little earlier than anticipated, and the driver spoke very little English. We had specified a guide driver who could speak English so that the journey north would be filled with conversations of “where does that lead to?” and “why are they doing that odd thing with their hands?” There was meant to be another local who had rung before from the agent we booked the jeep, but he didn’t seem to be here yet. We asked the driver whether he indeed was the guy taking us to Chandra Tal, he expressed he was with that shaky head nod that you first find odd but get accustomed to.
We hastily packed the last of our requirements and the driver helped us down the steep steps carrying some of our luggage. Loading the jeep we noticed that there was no camping gear, no cooking stove or other things we had asked to be included. Again we questioned the driver and kind of understood we thought we were picking up the other guy and the equipment on route… or were we just asking leading questions? We hung around for the German Bakery to get its morning delivery of fresh bread for almost 20 minutes, and picking out some cheese onion and tomato filled fresh brown rolls for breakfast and a brown loaf as well, we settled ourselves in the jeep and off we went.
At the bottom of the hill to Vashisht where the road joins the north-south road by the river there was a little confusion. The driver was asking us which way we wanted to go, we reiterated “Chandra Tal, yes” pointing northwards while getting a little nervous about our driver. More shaky nodding of the head and as we were pulling off, another jeep with the guy we recognised from the agent we organised the trip with passed and pulled up. Maybe we were meeting him here, thus the confusion of which way to go, but Ney. As it transpires, the driver who we had questioned and got always affirmative answers, who could not understand a word of English was booked to go to Leh!!! Being about a million miles out of our way, and in the opposite direction we considered ourselves quite lucky and thank the stars that the bread delivery was late, as we wouldn’t know that we were on the road to Leh for hours yet…
Finally, the right jeep, the right driver and a clear English speaking guide who turned out to be the owner coming along for the ride, (the guy who had rung us yesterday and who’s details I will post at the end of this instalment) and of course on the right road. The drive initially takes us up the Kullu Valley to Rohtang Pass; at 3978 metres. At this point you turn left for the Lahaul Valley (and Leh) and right into the Spiti Valley. At Rohtang Pass you are high enough to drive by dirty drifts of snow, now ice and slowly melting in the warmer weather.
Indians come here to hire fake fur coats with matching hats and boots to ride mountain ponies to a vantage point over looking Spiti Valley, could have been nice but for the sheer volume of Indians there. What I can imagine as being a pretty secluded mountain pass has been long ago spoilt by huts hiring clothes, dharbas (basic food huts serving only one or two dishes) and rows upon rows of Indian tourists cars that have churned the ground into mud. We passed by without stopping.
Views from the jeep going up were dominated by the green lush countryside with waterfalls and streams convoluting into the main river that rages down the centre of the valley kicking up a fine mist as it courses relentlessly over boulders and jammed trees. Nothing can stop these waters, its power is phenomenal.
As you cross the pass and descend into the Spiti side, the scenery suddenly changes. The road here is more susceptible to landslide and the land more barren and rocky. Three times we were stopped while transient labourers cleared the road of last night’s rock falls and mudslides. Without vegetation the rubble hills become less stable and landslides are common. It’s a full time job through nine months of the year clearing the roads in these valleys. Labourers come from all over Himachal Pradesh and further to earn a meagre wage from back breaking work to feed their families. They wear ripped, worn clothes; not having had a bath for a long time, bathing in the river is dangerous with the currents and freezing cold. They live in makeshift tent camps near the road that they maintain for the period they are employed, many of them huddled in a torn tent together, their faces constantly curious of Western passersby.
The land in the Kullu valley is good, and the main crop is apples, apples, apples, apples, (and some very juicy apricots as well) from which they make juice and a foul tasting apple wine that could strip paint off the Fourth Bridge, (but no cider, strange but true, to my disappointment – oops English drinking habit shows again…). The land in the Spiti Valley is more barren and hard to maintain, the main crops here are potatoes and peas (Spiti peas?), and the hillsides are neatly divided into little fields to grow these crops on whatever land is workable.
Following the Chandra River the road has become very rough and rocky, being made up of crushed rocks flattened only by the passing traffic, which there is not much of. Going is slow at an average of 15 – 20 kms per hour, it will take us eight hours to travel to 150kms in total, the majority of that time on the last 60kms along the rocky trail that follows the Chandra River. As the river changes course, the road must too, to avoid being washed away. More camps of labourers work breaking boulders into rocks and rocks into stones to shovel into a trailer for the tractor to take to where its needed. More landslides of old are noticeable, some sending huge boulders that Atlas himself would have difficulty lifting. The road is diverted around these masses if they end up in the way.
The river crashes ferociously through the desolate bouldered valley, no trees or bushes, just the odd scrub and fresh grass catching hold of the loose silty land. Waterfalls cascade from all sides, some starting as high up as the eye can see. One stream of water on the far side of the valley was made up of 18 clearly definable falls, finally finishing by running over a long smooth rock and adding its water silently to the white waters of the river. You can see the striations of time clearly marked in the towering rock faces that climb either side of the valley, bands of colour some as striking as cream painted on grey, the mottled shades rust and monotone caress the rock face mixed with sprouting of shrub and purple flowers.
Villages that are marked on the map turn out to be just a cluster of 3 or 4 houses, sometimes less, mostly offering hot food and drinks to passing trekkers and the hard floor for a restless night’s sleep. Shepherds and mountain dwellers congregate in these places for a chat and a warming tea, the air up here out of the sun is now cool. I often wonder how so many strangers to each other always have so much to say. If only I could understand Hindi…
Two stone built houses (huts) had been built using the overhang of a large (I mean huge in the sense of the word massive) boulder, no windows just a door in each. Long since abandoned after the boulder split in half, one half resting precariously but stable on the sturdy walls of the huts. I expect they vacated sharp-ish like.
As we got closer to Chandra Tal the landscape changes, sheer faces become more relaxed gentle slopes, boulders and rocks fade into shingle and silt, and the river becomes flat and wide with meandering arms splitting off and rejoining, hugging the little islands they create. The track climbs and become perilously thin in places, the tyres setting off mini shingle slides down the precipitous slope every time we get too close to the edge, then away from the steep sides of the mountains to a dusty track through sudden grasslands and gentle hillocks, lushness that says the water is close. We end overlooking a clear stretch of shimmering ripple-less water with such serenity it took my breath away. The only other people were locals camped in a small yellow tent in the distance, forestry rangers, and they were to leave the next morning. Far away sheep graze on the opposite side of the lake, tendered by a lone shepherd and his stick.
We made camp, put up the cook tent and set about preparing the feast whilst overlooking the most beautiful and peaceful place I have ever seen, and I consider myself fairly well travelled. A good veg curry later (that Eddie and I cooked, the Indian guys fidgeted with little to do watching us carefully, but they enjoyed it, having seconds and thirds) and a few Rum and cokes to aid digestion, we took a quiet walk to the waters edge. It is dark now, and almost a full moon. The dim light allows you to see the pure waters of the lake and the undisturbed bed far out into the lake it is so clear. To the touch the water is cold, cold enough for you to retrieve your hand quickly at the initial touch. Ducks quack in the darkness and we return for bed.
It takes about an hour and a half to walk leisurely around the lake. The next day we spent exploring, wandering and sitting, contemplating. The quiet here is deafening as I said before, the main constant sound is the gentle breeze that passes by your ears like it does when you stand on a windy bluff or on Brighton Beach but less so. Faraway brightly coloured birds sing their songs, and closer flies buzz by your ears like Formula One racing cars at Silverstone against the quietness of the lake.
Close to the edge you can see shoals of fish wander this way and that reacting to your movements on land, sometimes breaking into two and reforming one dark mass again. Further out the water takes on a light green shimmer and then takes the blue reflection of the cloudless sky. The air seems clearer here and the warmth intense from the bright sun.
Sitting quietly on one side of the lake looking west you can see the Great Himalayan Range, tall majestic mountains with sharp peaks and dark crags, covered in total with white, standing out from the deep hue of the sky. From where we sat we had an unsurpassed vision of the mountain scenery, bright in saturated colours, reflect perfectly in the still waters of the lake. (I finished a roll of film here) It makes my neck tingle just writing about it. I remember a picture very similar, the Himachal Pradesh Tourist Board produced it, and it hung in the first class carriage of the Kalka-Shimla train, straight in front of me where I sat. This image drew us here. How lucky we are to have had that train, that carriage, that chance.
On the other side three guys arrive taking a break from their trip to Kaza on Enfield motorbikes. We were alerted by a shrill cry of pain as one guy decided to be brave and jump in the water (didn’t he test it first?), and it is the kind of temperature that shrinks things to the point of disappearance. He removed himself pronto, much to the mirth of the other two guys, and to us.
From Vashisht we move to Manikaran in the Parbati valley. That is where we’ll pick up again.
We organised our trip to Chandra Tal with Club Adventure, owned by Panna Lal Thakur (who is getting married later this year) in Old Manali. He speaks excellent English and arranged a fantastic trip for us. He is an expert in trekking in this area. His Email is email@example.com, or you can call him at the office on 00 91 1902 51288 or just 51288 locally. He can arrange any length of trek – he is riding an Enfield with an English guy around the region for two months sometime later this year…and you can arrange this before leaving home.
Well, another mammoth installment completed. Email me on firstname.lastname@example.org, otherwise catch up with you later.