With the realization that we had slept late and that our bus was due to leave in a mere forty minutes we rushed around, irritably packing up our few possessions. Arriving at the bus station with just enough time to climb aboard we squeezed our way down the length of the bus and wedged ourselves into two seats at the rear. It was always an uncomfortable and bumpy ride at the back of the bus and that was our payback for not being more organised so it was an enormous relief when we stopped for chai at a tiny village where an old guy, puffing on an enormous clay chillum, entertained us by staggering around, talking and singing to himself between loud fits of coughing.
The town of Bilaspur was full of Tibetans in knee-length, thick woollen chubas and Ladakhis wearing their traditional headwear, not unlike battered top hats with up-turned brims. They looked so exotic compared to the locals. Here, a few people left the bus and two policemen took their places. They were escorting a prisoner in heavy handcuffs and ankle chains. He looked to be in his early twenties and dressed only in a thin shirt and trousers despite the cold. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the poor guy who certainly didn’t look dangerous, only extremely despondent. The road from Bilaspur to Mandi was not in a good state and every few miles we would pass a temporary road-workers-tent-camp with tattered prayer flags flying in the breeze. It appeared to be mainly Tibetan refugees (men, women and children) who were employed as labourers maintaining the roads in this area.
On reaching Mandi, the gateway to the Kulu Valley, the bus pulled into the centre of town for a lunch stop. We alighted and, a few minutes later, as we sat drinking chai in the bus station I noticed that our bus was driving away. We abandoned the chai and ran like lunatics, just managing to leap on through the open door as it moved out into the street. Looking around it became immediately apparent that there were only about six of the original passengers left onboard. What was going on? Where was everybody? Comprehension dawned when the driver turned off the road and into a bus depot where we sat for an hour while the vehicle was washed, swept out and refuelled before returning to town to pick up the rest of the passengers who, unlike us, had been enjoying a leisurely lunch.
A half-hour out of Mandi we found ourselves stuck in a queue of trucks and buses waiting for a large rock-fall to be cleared. The only heavy machinery being used to clear the road was a bulldozer. All of the manual work was being done by smiling Tibetans with picks and shovels. We sat for over an hour listening to the sound of explosions before the bus was able to slowly edge its way through. Then our driver, obviously deciding to make up for lost time, threw all caution to the wind and drove like a complete madman. Most of the other passengers found this highly amusing but, in the failing light and on a rough, narrow road carved out of the sheer rock face with the fast-flowing River Beas a thousand feet below, plus our drivers tendency to recklessly overtake slower moving vehicles on blind corners, Janette and I feared for our lives. As the gorge opened out the road climbed ever upwards. Far below on the river, huge floating trunks of timber looked like matchsticks. We tried not to notice the rusted wrecks of vehicles that had plummeted to the bottom to sit as twisted metal reminders of our likely fate. Looking upward, the mountains towered above the valley and as the sun set behind the western hills we finally rolled into Kulu, physically and emotionally drained.
After asking around we found ourselves a place to stay, a nice, clean room in the Ramneek Guest House with a view from our window over the ‘Maidan’, a large grassy area on the edge of town. This cost us the princely sum of Rs8 per night or about 44Pence. The manager informed us that we could have hot water in the morning, which would be a rare treat as we hadn’t washed in days but, from past experience of such promises, we didn’t hold out much hope. We dragged ourselves to a friendly local eating-place, just a couple of minutes walk from the guesthouse, and had a good meal for the equivalent of 7Pence each. Once again we had to sleep in all the clothes we had with us to avoid hypothermia.
Before leaving England I hadn’t really considered that we would be visiting places that would be so cold. When I thought of India I imagined heat, and lots of it, and, while this was true of the plains, the opposite was true of the hills at this time of year. Because of my desire to, as much as possible, to avoid other Western travellers, we were visiting places at a time when no one else was. And there was a good reason for that – it was bloody freezing. And that was the price we had to pay.
On our first day in Kulu I was awakened at 7am by the sound of tinkling bells as two Tibetans drove a line of pack donkeys past the guesthouse and up the steep hillside. We braved the morning chill and headed for the nearest wooden-shack-chai-shop for hot sweet chai brewed in a smoke-blackened kettle and poured from a great height, through a strainer into two grubby glasses. The grinning shop owner had an impressive white moustache and was wearing a Himachal cap (not unlike a pillbox hat but with an upturned, colourfully embroidered brim) with a woollen muffler wrapped around his head to keep his ears warm. After the chai and a morning cigarette we ate breakfast of eggs-fried, mopping up the runny yolks with freshly-made chapattis as we huddled around the wood-burning clay stove and made small-talk with the friendly owner.
Because the hills around us were so high and the canyon carved by the River Beas so deep, the sun didn’t warm our bones until about nine o’clock. We watched as, under a pale blue sky, soft orange light slowly crept down from the tops of the surrounding hills, gradually increasing in brightness until finally the whole valley was illuminated. And how breathtakingly beautiful it was, this ‘Valley Of The Gods’ with its apple orchards, pine forests and distant snow-capped mountains.
Exploring the ramshackle collection of buildings around us didn’t take long and pretty soon we stumbled upon a tourist office where we bought postcards and were given directions to the bank and the post office. At the bank we had the usual hassles (young clerks with oily hair and cheap suits imbued with a false sense of superiority) but our patience held out long enough for us to change some money. As we sat by the river in the sunshine writing postcards, we met two Danish freaks who had just arrived from Manali. They told us that, in the last eight days, four foot of snow had fallen and that the road north would soon be impassable. This put paid to any vague plans we had of heading further up the valley, which was fine by me. It was hard to believe that there was anywhere more beautiful than where we already were.
At the post office we got into a dispute with a disinterested desk clerk who insisted that the postcards only required a 10paise stamp to get them all the way to England. Janette was having none of it and made the guy bring out a pile of books with the listings of postage costs. She found what she was looking for and the guy grudgingly stuck more stamps on the cards but refused to frank them in front of us. Suspicious that he was going to peel them off and keep them she pushed her way into the back room and found the postmaster to complain. He was all smiles and apologies and ordered the (now rather sheepish looking) clerk to frank the cards with his rubber stamp, which he duly did. With a small victory over Indian petit-bureaucracy under our belts we returned to our room at the Ramneek Guest House and managed to fail miserably in obtaining any hot water. So we washed ourselves and most of our clothes in penetratingly cold mountain water. The clothes didn’t look any cleaner but they did smell somewhat better. While Janette was washing I sat outside and watched as a large group of people passed led by three drummers pounding out rhythms that echoed around the valley. An old man blowing on a wind instrument that sounded like a fuzzy clarinet and six or seven women singing in high, shrill voices accompanied them, while all around the procession were children, laughing, dancing and clapping their hands. I thought how wonderful it was to be a bystander at such a real celebration here in the lap of the Himalayas, real in the sense that this wasn’t something performed for the sake of, ‘bus ‘em in, bus ‘em out’, tourists but was a typical part of the culture.
Having finished our chores we took a walk along the river and came across a Tibetan refugee camp of tattered Indian army tents with its brightly coloured prayer flags flying in the breeze. The Rhotang Pass above Manali had always been a trading route between India and Tibet and many Tibetans escaped the Chinese occupation this way. In the bazaar I bought a small kerosene stove but then, as luck would have it, we couldn’t find any kerosene available for sale. Tired of wandering from shop to shop and with the light fading, we took the stove back to our room and went out to a tiny restaurant to eat and keep warm for a while before returning to spend a second arctic night in paradise.
The following morning was bright and crystal clear and definitely a day for exploring the valley. We followed the road north, down the hill, past the Tibetan camp and, to our surprise, discovered another part of the town, the Ankhara Bazaar. This appeared to be the main shopping area and went some way in explaining why there were so few goods on sale in the upper part of the town. Here were all the fruit and vegetable stalls, tailors shops and sundry establishments that one would expect to find, including outlets for the famous Kulu shawl, many with a hand-loom clicking away in the back of the shop. We passed through the bazaar and crossed the river on a long wooden bridge. On the far side we found a track that followed the Beas northward and took us out into the countryside. It was incredibly quiet. Just the gurgle and splash of the river and the call of the occasional bird. At a tiny hamlet about three miles on we passed a group of people playing drums, flutes, cymbals and Tibetan-type, deep-booming, brass horns and carrying a gaily decorated local deity on a portable altar. As we progressed on up the valley we there were more people walking on the track or working in the adjacent fields.
We sat a while with one family as they rested, a young wife breast-fed her baby as the six or seven year-old son threw stones in the river and the husband sat silently smoking a chillum. We had no conversation, we had different languages and came from different worlds but we smiled a lot and ‘namaste’d’ as we parted. It was a connection. It was enough. We sat for about an hour greeting people as they walked past us, making their way along the track. All were courteous and friendly and asked nothing of us except the same in return. We relaxed and tried to absorb the peace and beauty of that heavenly place, to recharge our psychic batteries after all the hassles involved in getting there from Kathmandu.
A little further on we came to a village of stone and timber houses with slate roofs. Here we crossed to the other side of the river and attracted a crowd of children who followed us, laughing and singing. Coming across a wooden shack at the side of the road we stopped for chai and puff pastries and found ourselves in a convoluted conversation with two policemen. From then on, everyone we met on the road was a policeman, which, we thought, was very strange, until we turned a corner and there before us was a huge camp full of them. Following the road down the valley led us back into the Ankhara Bazaar where we bought a cooking pot, a tin of porridge oats and a bottle of kerosene for the stove. Maddeningly, I couldn’t get the stove to work, I pumped and pumped but couldn’t seem get any pressure. So we stomped back to the shop where we bought it and tried to explain to the guy that there was a problem. He fiddled about with it for a while and told us that it was now OK. We should have got him to show us just how OK it was because, on arriving back in our room, we once again attempted to get the bloody thing working with no success at all. I was furious and determined to have it out with the shop owner first thing in the morning.
Once I had calmed down we went out for dinner and discovered, two minutes walk from the guesthouse, a place where the locals ate. It was an expansive, wooden building, entered through a small door, where everyone sat on benches around the perimeter facing a huge cauldron steaming above a log fire. Adjacent to this, squatting on the ground, was a guy slapping chappatis into shape and tossing them on to an iron tava to cook. The food was decanted into a galvanised bucket and carried around the circle, everyone being given a ladle full of piping-hot rajma (kidney bean dahl) and a couple of chappatis to mop it up. It felt like we were in a nineteenth century soup kitchen filled with a rag-tag collection of unshaven, blanket-wrapped waifs and strays. But the food was served with a smile and was absolutely delicious. As soon as one’s plate was empty the guy would come around, slop out more dahl and throw more chappatis at you. There was no standing on ceremony, you paid your money and you got your food, all you could eat, as simple as that. We left full and were only charged the equivalent of around 3pence each.
The next day was grey and cold with an icy wind blowing down the valley. We wrapped ourselves up and headed off to the stove shop ready to do battle. The old shopkeeper exuded a palpable sense of dismay as I plonked the useless article down on his counter and told him that it was ‘kaput’ and that I wanted my money back. He did his best to avoid all responsibility, saying that it was our own fault because it was a cheap model and suggested that we have it fixed by a mechanic. At that point Janette kicked in with her ‘shrieking memsahib’ performance and I watched the guy slowly disintegrate. He appeared to grow older and frailer as the verbal assault on his honesty and sense of fairness progressed. Finally he broke and we came to an agreement where, for an extra payment of 5Rupees, he would take back the useless stove and give us a better model in exchange. We returned to the Ramneek and, with our shiny, new stove we cooked porridge which tasted wonderful, all the more so for the hassle we’d been through to get it.
We had both been wearing the Tibetan boots we had bought in Nepal and, warm though they were, I had noticed that the rope soles were beginning to fray. It occurred to me that it might be possible to have them soled with leather by one of the cobblers/shoe repairers in the bazaar. The old boy we took them to didn’t think that it would be a problem so we left my pair with him, arranging to pick them up at 3:30. We had decided that, beautiful and laid-back though Kulu undoubtedly was, winter was on it’s way and we were simply not prepared for it. There was no way of heating our room at the Ramneek and, even wearing all of the clothes we had, we were cold most of the time. Our money was also beginning to run out and we needed to get back to Delhi to find out if anything had come through. We visited the bus station and made a note of bus times down to Mandi where we thought we might spend a couple of days. At least it would be a few degrees warmer. The rest of the day was spent in and out of chai shops, huddling around stoves and fires, trying to keep warm. We returned to pick up my boots, with some trepidation after the hassle we’d had over the stove. But we needn’t have worried. The guy had done a great job. I now had a pair of warm boots with quarter-inch thick leather soles. We immediately took Janette’s pair to be done. In the evening we returned to the communal eating place across the Maidan and were welcomed like old friends. The air was full of wood-smoke and the giant metal cauldron bubbled and steamed. Sitting next to a sweet old man with a pure white beard and a wonderful toothless smile who was wrapped in a thick, bright orange blanket, we once again ate our fill of dahl and chappatis . Then it was back to our room for another bone-chilling night.
Our last morning in Kulu began with hot porridge and bag-packing followed by hot chai and a cheap cigarette huddled around the stove in our favourite chai shop. It was cold again but at least there was a hint of watery sun. We strolled around, sad to be leaving, but then heard the sound of singing accompanied by an Indian harmonium and drumming. Turning the corner we came across a dance troupe of three men, all wearing women’s make up, including one who was fully dressed as a woman in a sari and wig. Next to the harmonium player was a young man selling packs of bidis. They drew quite a crowd of onlookers, but whether they sold many bidis I never found out as we were distracted by another event. A little way up the road a Sikh was lying on his back twitching, with blood spurting out of his mouth. He was obviously having some kind of fit. People stood around and watched with obvious interest but no one made a move to help him. I’m ashamed to say that we did the same. I simply had no idea what the best thing to do was. Thankfully, after a short time he came out of it, got to his feet, dusted himself down and walked away as if nothing had happened.
At 12:30 we hauled our bags on to the bus and thirty minutes later we rattled off down into the deep gorge eaten through the hills over millennia by the river Beas as it made it’s way down to the Punjab. It was the usual mad, scary, overloaded ride, made worse by long delays due to major road-widening works. It took over five hours to cover the 70 kilometre journey. Night had fallen by the time we pulled into the bus-station in Mandi and, too tired to be fussy, we checked into the first place we came across, the Standard Hotel. From the outside it looked quite smart and we had doubts about whether we would be able to afford to stay there. But as soon as we had crossed the threshold it was apparent that it should have been named the Sub-Standard Hotel as it was the traditional bus-station doss-house. For 6 Rupees we were given a windowless, grimy cell with two wooden beds and no mattresses. The place was so noisy that neither of us got much sleep. The following morning, tired, pissed-off, and without even bothering to check out the town, we decided to leave straight away for Simla.