Our journey into India's Himachal Pradesh region started in Manali, one of the most popular domestic tourist destinations in the country. Look no further than the supposedly relaxing city's main drag for an understanding of what life is like in what is soon to be the world's most populous country.
The city of Manali, like most in Himachal Pradesh, was once dominated by the forest. Stefje and I were able to experience this past with a long and quiet walk through a park which bisects the town. There was just a single place in the entire forest where the sound of honking cars was finally drowned out by the water, but we thoroughly enjoyed the entire time we could hang out with these gentle giants.
From above, our drone provided a beautiful new perspective.
Our 8 total days in McLeod Ganj were spread out over two separate stays, but the town can be best described by the activities that Isaiah, Stefje, and I partook in every day.
- Indulging in plenty of excellent coffee while sitting in the sun and reading.
- Partaking in a yoga class from one of the many yoga studios in town.
- Eating all kinds of food not available in the rest of India, like green smoothies, salads, and avocado on toast.
McLeod Ganj is worthy of international importance for being home to the exiled seat of the Tibetan government, but it has also gained renown as a chilled out backpacker’s hangout. Two types of backpackers flock to the upper reaches of the town in droves: Israelis and prospective yoga teachers. Both groups make it their home for anywhere from a few days to a month or more, meaning the upper reaches of the mountain hill station are lined with cafes serving falafel and yoga teacher training.
Because so many travelers stay in town for an extended stay, McLeod also offers a wide variety of instructional classes. If you’re interested in upping your game in the fields of woodworking, jewelry making, knitting, or even sitar playing, this is undoubtedly the place to be. Isaiah and I settled for a Tibetan cooking class, ending up with a delicious lunch of noodle soup and more steamed dumplings than we could fit into our stomachs.
The other draw in this region is a retreat into the natural surroundings. Under a bright blue sky and a strong midday sun, we set off on a hike to a nearby lookout. Just 5 minutes in we lost the way, done in by the maze of back alleyways and secluded mountain cafes. Gradually we found the right path, which led across the top of a crowded waterfall and then straight up a steep mountain path. In just a few minutes I was soaked in sweat, overwhelmed by both the strength of the sun’s heat and Isaiah’s blistering pace.
With every stop to catch my breath, I did my best to take in the bountiful natural setting. Ferns, grasses, and nettles protruded from the rocky trail at our feet, while overhead groupings of trees provided shade via their thick canopies.
The trail was arduous. We stumbled through long stretches of frighteningly steep climbing and were periodically rewarded with excellent panoramas of the villages, but were mostly feeling defeated by the strenuous hill.
With great relief we came to a wide grassy plain, where the trail leveled out and we encountered a small community of farmers and their goats. Up here the heat broke, and we relished in the chance to lie down and catch our breath.
A few more wrong turns and a half hour of climbing later, we came to a ridge line which we unanimously agreed would be the highest spot of the day. Finally above the sounds of honking from the thick trails of congested traffic below, a rush of wind dominated my eardrums. Small black birds straightened themselves into speedy projectiles, while wide-winged hawks used the drafts to soar in every higher circles without even flapping their wings.
A night bus dropped us off in the nondescript transport hub of Bhutan at the ungodly hour of 5:30AM, thus announcing our arrival in the Parvati Valley. The early morning had a single redeeming quality: on the ensuing taxi ride to the hill town of Tosh, we were serenaded by majestic natural views.
The road hugged the curves of a raging river that cut a fierce gash through imposing mountain faces. Above the river hung a thin layer of mist, with the clouds billowing like smoke above a fire as the cool morning air trapped all moisture. In the distance, the sun finally made its appearance by crafting a golden hue which glanced across high snowy peaks in the distance.
While Isaiah and Stefje slept, my mouth was consistently agape and my eyes filled with wonder as I took in all the beauty that this region offers. By the time we arrived at our guesthouse in Tosh we were thoroughly tired and dirty, but the beauty of our new view more than made up for it.
After a refreshing breakfast on the sun-drenched patio, Isaiah and I took advantage of the unexpectedly nice weather by beginning our exploration of the surroundings on foot. In order to get there, we first had to stroll through the town. Incredibly, it was like entering a different country.
A walking bridge separated the conflagration of houses from the end of the jeep track, meaning the area was wonderfully devoid of the honking which followed us everywhere else in India. The houses were traditional wooden two story affairs; the lower level was reserved for livestock and food storage, while the upper housed up to three generations in a confined space.
Observing the inhabitants felt like stepping back in time; the men sat around in small circles and the women all wore traditional attire like headscarves, long dresses, and nose rings. Agriculture was the primary industry outside of tourism; even within the residential areas, fields of corn flourished and huge bushels of wheat were laid out to dry.
Gradually, the small grouping of houses faded into the background and the splendor of the forest took over. Our immediate reaction was to stare upwards in wonder at the many thick tree trunks. Pines grew like towering emblems of nature above our heads, oaks spread wide canopies full of leaves, and the few fields of vegetables were interspersed with apple trees.
At eye level, the scene popped with color. Flowers of yellow, magenta, clear blue and purple appeared, but the most attractive were fields of white petals with shiny, pollen-filled interiors.
The plant which caught our eye the easiest was large stalks of marijuana growing freely in the wild. The distinctive shape was visible everywhere we turned, as Himachal Pradesh is well-known for its weed production.
The trail wound out of town, following the river up into the hills. The water originated straight from the snow-capped mountains, making it crisp and clear. On the outskirts of town there were a few basic campsites, but as the population faded away nature began to dominate. The trees grew more tightly spaced and the undergrowth was thick with weeds and ferns.
Eventually, we came upon a small waterfall, which was gorgeously reflecting the morning light. Water rushed down across a series of two platforms, splashing and careening over smooth rocks to drown out all other sounds. Isaiah found the locale so peaceful that he almost instantly fell asleep, while I let myself become enraptured by the wild nature and solitude that is all too often difficult to come by in India.
When he awoke, Isaiah determined that it was high time for a proper nap in his bed, while I opted to push a little further along. As I progressed up a steep hillside, the trees provided cover from an otherwise intense sun, but I sweated profusely nonetheless. The reward for the additional work was well worth it.
Out of a dense growth of forest came the sights and sounds of a steep, roaring river. The water glistened like a jewel of Mother Nature, protruding from the single part of my vision that wasn’t shrouded in green.
This river was 5 times larger and much steeper than the original stream, meaning the roar of the water thundered across the valley. By walking a few minutes further along, I was able to get one of the only close-up views that was not obscured by the numerous tree limbs. The most intense stretch of water surged over huge flat rocks and then plunged downwards with immense force, creating plumes of spray that arched into the sky.
From this vantage point I began the retreat for nap time of my own, walking slowly to both avoid turning an ankle and better appreciate the spectacular beauty of the forest. I peered upwards at moss growing to dizzying heights, kneeled down to observe a group of ants viciously attacking a large beetle, and kept my neck constantly swiveling to appreciate the plethora of birds.
As I meandered through the wild, some movement in the grasses caught my eye. Closer inspection revealed that a snake was slithering almost directly in front of my feet, staying well-hidden for a few moments before exposing itself on the surface of a rock.
By the time I made it back I was utterly exhausted, meaning it was high time for an afternoon nap. Once I awoke clouds had encroached on our idyllic mountain hideaway, meaning the top activity was now watching them roll gently up and over the hills and slowly flood the valley in rivers of grey.
With the power being out in our rooms for most of the day, we walked the 10 steps to a restaurant with electricity to enjoy a long dinner. While trance music pounded our ears, the room filled with the smoke of more than a dozen joints from the other visitors, proving that the natural highlights are not the only draw for tourists in Tosh.
The following morning we set off on a different hiking trail, this time following a winding road downwards. Whereas the area got progressively wilder the day before, the opposite was true on this day. Soon we could hear loud thwacking sounds, then peered upwards to see men chopping down limbs of one of the many pine trees.
As we got further down the road, the flow of the river slowed and then stopped, with a large dam creating a lake which flooded the valley and many of its trees.
The hydroelectric project was undoubtedly impressive; it fully halted much of the water and let a small portion through with outstanding force. The result was a huge water slide which fed the lower reaches of the river and sprayed mist so high that a perpetual rainbow was visible.
We trudged back up the hill, earning some sweat before packing up and departing from Tosh. A taxi brought us back towards the land of tourist operators and 4G in Kasol, where we were grateful to book a bus for the following day and found ourselves with 24 hours to kill in another one of Himachal Pradesh’s popular tourist destinations.
At this point, Isaiah was thoroughly finished with staying in less than desirable guesthouses, so after lunch the two of us set off to find a good place to stay. By exploring the options we were able to find a luxurious spot in the hills with clean sheets (!!) and spectacular views of the surrounding forested mountains.
Fully satisfied with our new digs, we went out for a hike to see what Kasol is all about. The city is stationed parallel to the Parvati river, which is audible all throughout the village. As we found a trail that skirted parallel to the rapids, the roaring waters drowned away everything but my thoughts and the mist cooled down what had turned into an excruciatingly hot day.
Despite the grandeur of the scene on a macro level, Stefje found the beauty on a micro level, getting up close and personal with a series of beautiful blooming flowers which ranged across a wide variety of colors and shapes.
We were up early the following morning to get another hike in before moving on. This time we followed a trail against the flow of water, steadily progressing away from Kasol and higher into the hills. Our path was lined with numerous types of trees and thick undergrowth, but the main character was mighty pine trees which rose up from the forest floor to build a natural roof over our heads. Their sight was inspiring and their smell intoxicating as followed the clear waters.
Soon the rocky trail was devoid of the rubbish we quickly came to associate with the presence of other tourists, meaning it was now just us and the solitude of a morning in the embrace of nature. Birds chirped above us, water rushed beside us, and once again the honking of cars was gloriously absent.
For my last memorable spot in Himachal Pradesh, I maneuvered to a rock in the center of the river and spun in circles, enchanted by the dense vegetation which rose on all sides.
It wasn’t even 10 AM by the time we made it back to town, meaning we had plenty of time for a good cup of coffee and a long lunch before bidding Kasol and the rest of Himachal Pradesh farewell.