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Mandi to Naggar

Wednesday 23rd March 2011

The men in the green turbans delivered tea, toast and omelettes for breakfast sitting in the garden, while the sun blazed down and it was only nine o clock.

[singlepic id=14 w=320 h=240 float=left]I passed the rest of the morning wandering round Mandi. As well as the huge double-decker market arranged around the gardens in the square, it rambles on and on into a maze of narrow lanes and another first – amongst the usual shops which line every Indian street there were at least two arms dealers – openly selling guns, ammunition and explosives, and we are still a long way from the North West Frontier territory where this is a well known trade.

I took advantage of the internet café again and then visited the only place in town to exchange some more money, just in case I stayed somewhere more remote for the next few days, the Europa Hotel. Above the door, painted in large letters it read Government Licenced Foreign Exchange, so I went through the dark glass doors into a lobby and asked the man on reception if I could change some money. “No.”

Ah well, that was that then – so I used a cash machine again, this time it had an armed guard with a rifle!

[singlepic id=12 w=320 h=240 float=left]With an hour to spare before noon I took the one challenge that this town offered – a climb to the top. The Rough Guide counted 160 steps but I counted quite a few more before giving up. The view was stupendous from the top and well worth it and it must have been good for the circulation too. Children were playing in the temple at the top, incense burned and drums beat and bells jingled. Very atmospheric.

[singlepic id=13 w=320 h=240 float=left]Back at the hotel I checked out and walked down the hill and over the bridge to the bus station, although I think the actual bus stand itself has been demolished and the buses now just leave from random points along the roadside. So sorry Rough Guide, your excellent vegetarian meals from the bus station café are no more.

[singlepic id=15 w=320 h=240 float=left]It wasn’t difficult to find a bus out of town – Kullu Manali Kullu Manali jabbered the conductor of the first bus to pull in, and so I jumped aboard and for once found both a place to put my bag, and a seat. It was even quite comfortable and so I thought I may even go all the way to Manali but paid to Kullu 75 rs.

Maybe I just got used to the driving after yesterday, but this one seemed to go much faster without quite as many dramas, but it still took 3 hours to reach the chaos of Kullu bus station, maybe 60km away, in the red heat of the afternoon. The people began to change again – most of the older men were now wearing the traditional round caps, and women wearing distinctive heavy dresses held up with highly decorative safety pins.

The road was still mountainous but nowhere near as extreme as yesterday’s journey, and for much of the trip we followed the valley on a slightly lower level. It was quite a surprise to enter a “restricted area” starting with a huge dam which carried the road over the valley and the lake behind went on for miles. It was even more of a surprise to turn off the valley road into a tunnel hewn out of solid rock – both very poorly lit and unlined and we thundered through it at top speed for at least 5 minutes so I guess it was several miles long. In the darkness about half way through, we passed a man in a wide brimmed hat in the darkness. How very strange.

Back outside we immediately entered a small town and swerved into the oncoming traffic to cross the road and pull up for a 10 minute tea break. Half way!

The steep valley sides were lined with temples in many places – and huge roadside dhabas were there to cater for the masses but today they were quiet. Some very spectacular locations clinging to the valley sides, with steep zigzagging stairways and even a totally scary suspension bridge filled with mules. This is the one picture I would love to have brought home, but no way to take it!

As we neared the summit we hit the brakes and kicked up a dust storm out of which a chap with a painted bucket got on and passed a small handful of puffed rice to the driver.

This was our good luck charm for the final climb where the gods had to be appeased with small donations in exchange for more rice krispies.  It worked as we arrived safely.

Approaching Kullu we picked up many more people but I never understand how so many seem to get on the wrong bus, as for every person trying to get on, there is always another one pushing back to get back out.  This bus was probably the busiest I have ever been on as despite being a really long distance bus it was picking up and dropping off all kinds of local people.

There’s also always a really old frail couple who cling on dramatically swaying back out of the open door as the bus moves off, while people grab at their sleeves and drag them back inside. Today they squeezed in and sat on my bag so I couldn’t get it out if I wanted to.

And Kullu didn’t really look worth stopping anyway – not the sort of place to linger with baggage, so I stayed on-board to push on up towards Manali, and in particular planning on stopping at Naggar, where the Rough Guide tells us that few visitors bother to stop.  It was pretty busy and pretty hot during the 30 minutes or so which we were there.

The bus finally moved off, but as he was parked in a really strange place, blocking almost every other bus in the bus stand, we made frequent fast but short trips around the area, so it was difficult to get off in case the next one was the start of the next leg of the journey.  Chat masala seller, oranges, ice cream,grapes, beggar – the never ending circle of vendors moving through the bus.  Sales were quite brisk too. It seems nobody can last for more than an hour on bus without 10 rupees worth of spicy chat masala served on a scrap of newspaper with some chopped onion and a squeeze of lemon.  I wonder why nobody comes round selling drinks at all.

With a mass of shouting and hooting and generally jumping forward a foot or two to kick up the dust, we started the final stage of the journey – probably about an hour or so, from Kullu to Patlikuhl where 25 rs later I got out with half of the other passengers.  Usually in such a place, at least one person will look like they are connecting to the “local shared taxi or local bus” but everyone dematerialised in an instant and I was alone amongst the taxis.  Most unusually not one asked if I actually wanted one, or gave the slightest hint that they may be ready to share.

The short trip from Kullu passed many white water rafting businesses – some were open and quite busy looking, lots of old ladies sitting in their porches weaving away to make the famous shawls and pashminas and lots of angora rabbit farms to supply them with the expensive angora wool. Some were open to the public but I’m not sure I would really like to see the conditions inside.

A bus full of people stood over the road, and so I guess this must be it – it was then joined by a quieter second bus and its driver was doing the rounds, banging the tyres with a hammer and getting a solid boing in return. He looked pleased and ignored that most of the tread of one of them had come off in large chunks.  Naggar? Yes.

I hung around for a while, and there were some signs that a shared taxi was getting ready to depart, but nothing immediate.  The bus looked quieter and so I returned to it just as their drivers leapt aboard and started their engines. It was to be a race. The one in front obviously won, as the road was never wide enough to pass, but this didn’t stop us from trying.  We almost made it too, but failed as the other bus pulled out to gain its place again.

We were also fortunate enough to witness one of my favourite driving manoeuvres, carried out to perfection – the swapping of sides of the road with the oncoming traffic.  We did this on a hairpin too.  10/10.  And we overtook a truck as it went round the next hairpin bend, both vehicles parallel before going into the bend, and we got a lead as we both screamed round the corner.  This was advanced driving and oddly felt quite safe.  We got to the top in close second place but the two buses were probably going to race all the way to Manali, so it was far from a foregone conclusion.

So just another dozen bends and we were at Naggar also spelt Nagar and Nagger but always pronounced like nagga.  It was obvious that we had arrived as all the people who had paid 5 rs like me got off. A token offer of help came from a rickshaw driver, and so I asked him how much to the Poonam Mountain Lodge.  50 rs.  No way I said. I can walk it for free.  And so I did.  The fare should have been 5 or 10 rupees at the most. I wish I was better at haggling.

The total distance was about 500 metres – the only problem being that with a bag on my shoulder, the one in three gradient was quite hard going but after completing the course I certainly qualified for my 2 x 10 minutes of aerobic exercise today.

I passed a few locals, totally disinterested in me, but nevertheless I was making a great effort to make it look like I did this sort of thing every day.  When they weren’t looking it was a different story.  At one point I noticed I was breathing rather loudly but covered it up by humming a tune when a local passed me.  I think I got away with it.

[singlepic id=18 w=320 h=240 float=left]At the top it was easy to find the Poonam Mountain Lodge as recommended by the Rough Guide.  It mentions the very helpful host, and they are certainly not wrong there.  With a minimum of fuss I was shown a very nice first floor room with a little balcony, trundled into the kitchen to sign the register, charged 200 /- for my room and offered dinner, which I regret to say that I didn’t take as I was t find somewhere better.

[singlepic id=18 w=320 h=240 float=left]Outside was a strange cacophony of drums and wailing horns.  Something was astir, but I obviously didn’t understand anything about the small gathering of musicians who had started to make their way back down the hill.  Remembering I had only just climbed the hill I wasn’t too keen to go back down, so instead I turned and climbed the last few yards and ended up completely stunned by the view back over the valley from the little village centre.  Snow covered peaks lined the sky, soft rays of light threw the most amazing sheen over the side valleys and the smoke from chimneys and small fires all over the hill all contributed to my first true Himalayan sunset for many years. 

[singlepic id=19 w=320 h=240 float=left]The tiny village on top of the hill centres around the Castle, now a HP Tourist hotel with a 15 /- entry charge for non-residents.  The construction is layered stone and wood – a centurie old design to withstand earthquakes, with intricate carvings and quite beautiful.  I sat on the terrace listening to the drumming and noticed that way down below, an icon borne at shoulder level was charging around at shoulder level up to a wall then back again then up to another and the faster the rhythm the more the icon charged around.

“Excuse me” said the only other person in the hotel.  “I can’t help noticing you are watching the ceremony below.  If you want to see, they will come up to the temple on the hill soon.” He went on to explain that this is the goddess Kali’s birthday and she will be paraded through the town between the lower and the upper temple by the men of the village, and then the women will spend and all-night vigil once the men call it a day.

[singlepic id=20 w=320 h=240 float=left]I ate at the hotel restaurant.  Alone of course.  How else, being as there are no guests in the hotel at all tonight.  Some local delicacies to try – Himachal Pulao and Kangra Kadhi were available as specials tonight and I am glad I tried them, as the taste was a whole new experience. Walnuts and fruit baked in the rice, and the Kadhi was heated spiced curd with pakora dumplings.  Totally delicious, and change from £3 again.  The only problem was that the waiter must have had a bad stomach, as he made no secret of it by loudly burping, coughing and drinking lots of water before burping and starting the process again.  He did however give me a big clue about a word which we take for granted.  Kadhi or curry?  It’s the same pronunciation – I will read menus in a whole new light from today.

Just as I wanted to pay came the obligatory power cut and plunged the entire room into darkness.  There was some fumbling at the other end of the room and my bill arrived by torchlight.  Now everywhere I have ever been in India is subject to at least one power cut a day, so I really had to wonder why candles or lanterns are rarely at the ready, even in this top class hotel.  Nevertheless I paid and started to feel the way to the stairs when power was restored.  Burp.  I’m out of here.

Back on the main road, Kali and her followers were in the upper temple so I explored the main road beyond the immediate buildings, in total darkness so I had to be careful not to step over the edge into oblivion but soon reached the level above the temple.  It was unlit but there was frantic drumming and goddesses bobbing around like crazy and suddenly it stopped.  A single voice was screaming and shouting in a total trancelike manner – this seems to be getting pretty serious now.  Its no secret that drugs are farmed in this area and there was certainly signs that someone had taken something!

The drumming had stopped and the voice was calming down, so I turned and headed for home, but something drove me to walk up the lower road towards the temple.  This is a different world from the hotels and souvenir shops above – local shops and cafes were busy but ahead, walking down the road towards me, was the Kali procession.  I set up the camera, started recording, and hoped I wasn’t spotted as I didn’t half feel I was intruding.  A few kids came ahead of the lead horn player.  When he played an eerie noise just like Nellie the elephant screamed out for a few seconds.  Behind him a dozen drummers. Behind them a small crowd around the two deities.  I believe one is Kali and the other her daughter. Gold cloth, bells and cymbals and I didn’t know whether they are supposed to be scary or jolly – but if I had to choose, then scary it is.  Scarier still is the ‘priest’ following.  He is dancing round in a frenzy, stopping to bless or maybe swear at all kinds of things on the way.  Behind him a dozen or two followers.  Many are totally into it, but some stragglers are on their mobile phones!

[singlepic id=21 w=320 h=240 float=left]I was trying to keep on filming as the group had come to a halt just ahead of us and they were drumming up another séance from the holy man.  But unfortunately two kids, left in charge of the local shop, spotted the camera and up came the inevitable “Just one snap”.  Damn – I had to turn it off and switch to flash mode, while they posed outside their shop.  Happy with the results they quickly got back to their duties of putting up the shutters and serving the crunchy remains of today’s (or was it yesterday’s) bread to the salivating dogs on the doorstep.

I moved closer to Kali and watched in awe, the power of the drums was second only to the power of the holy man who spoke to the sound of a bell, after the drums had reached a crescendo then stopped.  I don’t know if he was speaking the words of the holy scriptures or his own making, but the crowd were absolutely riding on every word – every now and then he said something which was repeated by some of the crowd – more in the way of agreeing with him rather than repeating it in a chant.  His language was totally meaningless to me, but his words were strangely compelling and totally magical.  He talked in a frail voice which left me wishing I understood the words but I felt like I was watching something from journey to the centre of the earth, where I was about to be discovered at any time and thrown into the pot.  I was however not even noticed by most of the people, other than the women and children who were smiling and watching both me and the procession from the edges.

Suddenly one of the Kalis started jumping around again.  It circled the procession and dived into a courtyard alongside, momentarily stopping at a doorway before returning to the priest.  Drumming started and Kali lurched to the side again, this time the entire crowd followed to the same doorway.  This was powerful stuff – spine chilling to be honest, but not frightening.  The priest spoke again, the bells chimed and the group re-formed on the road.  Nellie the elephant let out a huge roar and off they went again.  Right outside my Guest House they stopped again, but not for long – just enough time for two more deities to come rushing down the other road before Nellie announced they were off again.

Into the distance went the drumming.  It’s still going on now as I sit on my veranda and write this.

Last night I saw the bad side of alcohol, as whilst seriously thinking I would like a beer with my meal, an adjacent table of rich young Indians drank shot after shot of whisky and became louder and louder.  I saw no reason to join in and gave in to temptation.

Tonight though, it’s only 9pm and there’s nothing open now except for a shop selling local pashminas and the English Wine Store.  OK  so I gave in tonight and bought a small bottle of Old Monk Rum – well it seems kind of appropriate that I should be on at least one illegal substance.  Illegal only in so far as it’s a pure veg building here adjacent to a temple.  Hope Kali doesn’t come to get me – but I don’t think its her temple so I should be OK!

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