Stage One: Parvati.
We could hardly believe it as we sat down in the warm tent on cushioned seats more like beds and perused the menu of Indian, Continental and Israeli food while the more established guests cleaned their chillums. The culmination of a five hour trek through challenging but quite breathtaking scenery led us to this point and it was only then that someone mentioned the hot springs. Pinching myself to be sure my near death experience on our walk had not landed me in some sort of backpacker heaven I was eventually able to relax.
Our journey had begun 3 days earlier in Rishikesh where Leah, Sev and I set off without a clear destination but with a motivation for mountains, nature and adventure. We took the bus to Dehra Dun and then asked where their buses were going. Kasol was the place that jumped out and despite not entirely being prepared for a lengthy Himachal Pradesh local bus ride we took it in our stride and arrived in the early morning for tea and an omlette while Babaji, our guesthouse owner, shared a joint with an Israeli girl on the opposite table.
The Parvati Valley is known for its beautiful lush valleys, its charas and in recent years its influx of Israeli tourists from where a burgeoning psy-trance scene has developed. It was incredible to hike out of the town into the woods, meditate on a rock by the river and enjoy the serene countryside but less enjoyable to hang out due to every place blasting innappropriate music. There was a festival “Shiva Squad” just out of town when we were there but the whole place felt a bit like the dodgy part of a festival to me, all black light t-shirts and posters and people wandering about looking lost, confused and pale.
From here we follow our noses and some scratchy notes from Leah’s sister towards Pasani by hitch-hike and bus before setting off towards Khir Ganga, the destination we know little about.
Pasani is dominated by a hydro-electric dam project, so we just get off the bus and follow a route pointed to us by tourists and locals. It turns out to be the long way, but what a way… Possibly the most amazing trek I have ever been on saw 5 hours of enormous trees, gushing waterfalls, grassy clearings and the light coming through the leaves and making the place look like a kaleidoscope of colour.
It was challenging as well, with steep sections, muddy sections, slippery sections, bits where you had to climb over trees or hop across rocks and the bit where I nearly lost my footing on a rock and slipped down a ravine. I made it though and arriving in the most amazing place with hot springs and schakhlab with nutella has never been sweeter.
We stayed 2 nights, and it would have been longer but we hadn’t really brought anything with us. So then we returned, this time by the more simple, but still beautiful, path and then took a last minute detour to stay at the small village of Tosh. Tosh is actually a village, with people living there, and things happening. I mean, not much happening, but still. We stayed at the basic Last Resort Guesthouse and were really upset while having a rudimentary chat with the woman running the place on understanding that her husband had died three weeks previously falling from a cliff. It was one of those conversations that started normally and then ended up without any of us knowing what to say or do. The eldest daughter came and showed us a photo of her with her Dad and looked sad so we did our best to keep the children amused and were as generous as we could be, although we hadn’t brought enough money with us to be really charitable.
The next morning we stroll down the hour to Pasani and just make the bus for Kasol where lunch is taken and our next long journey on to Reckong Peo via Mandi begins immediately.
Peo is the entrance to the Kinnaur Valley which leads on to Spiti, one of the most remote places in India.
We self-medicate for the overnight bus from Mandi to Peo and riding along the treacherous mountain roads with the bus swinging from one side to the other it was a good move. From the window all you can see is darkness, lit up by the headlights to show either nothing, or a rock face in front of you. Sometimes you can see stars twinkling but then you realise that stars aren’t below you and that actually these are houses a long, long way down in the valley. To say it is terrifying would be an understatement. At times you start praying, chanting mantras, fingering your mala and crossing yourself in an attempt to cover all the potential bases. It turns out this isn’t even the most dangerous road we travel on during the trip.
We don’t stay in Peo, despite the exhausting journey, but take the bus up the mountain to the pretty village of Kalpa where we meditate in the ancient gompa, are amused by the erotic artwork and enjoy not being on a bus for a while.
We had been recommended a place called Chitkul in the adjoining Sangla valley so take the bus along the scarred countryside where dam projects, military bases, and other construction have left the place looking pretty ugly. Chitkul itself seems pretty well shut. We are greeted in an unfriendly manner, if we are greeted at all and the guesthouses seem to be waiting for the season to start. Apparently in a month the valley is lush and verdant but when we are there it is cold, barren and looks like the end of the world. Entertainment is in the form of the farmers abusing some oxen to plough a field but it is effective farming as while we watch they turn the earth, plant some seeds and cover with fertiliser. Food is hard to come by as is decent accomodation and after one night we turn around and get the 6AM bus back to Peo.
From Peo into the Spiti Valley it is necessary to get an “Inner Line Permit” because of the proximity to the Tibet/China border. The talkative travel agent suggests an option for us since we don’t want to take another 6 hour bus journey onwards the same day and so we get the bus to the village of Ribbe where we are put up in a homestay by the generous if slightly overbearing, Siddarth. We are most welcome in his awesome house – one of three his family own in the village, and after all the travel it is the most amazing place to relax.
The sun is shining and we have a lawn to relax and do yoga. Siddarth shows us around the village, taking us to meet his father and baby daughter and arranging for a local monk to give us a tour of the three gompas in the village. Ribbe seems to be a pretty well off place, with Siddarth’s family alone having a large farm growing apples as the cash crop but also almonds and wheat alongside the house among other things. Visiting this “backyard” was absolutely beautiful and felt like the garden of Eden in comparison to Chitkul.
Siddarth also made us sit through his wedding video which was interestingly produced and included a segment that was a good 20 minutes long showing cars arriving. There was a lot of money being draped over peoples necks as well. For an hour or so this would have been interesting but I think the film went on for at least 3 hours. He fed and watered us very well though and it would be churlish to complain too much, even when he woke us up at 6 in the morning with a chai. Ribbe was a great experience and off the tourist route so I’m really happy to have stopped there.
It was here that Leah left us and Sev and I found ourselves waiting by the side of the road next to a chicken stall cursing Siddarth for getting the bus times wrong.