When we got to Himachal Pradesh it felt like entering another country. We cycled across stunning landscapes and were happy to spot the first wild monkeys. There were plenty of macaques right next to us, they were sitting on the roadside like sparrows. It was a pleasant surprise to meet kinder people. This was the first time when a motor cyclist stopped to chat with us, not to take a selfie.
Our first destination was the Dalai Lama’s residency, Dharamshala. The way up to the mountain town was one of our favourites. The peaceful surroundings with Tibetan monks and colorful birds were a relief after the busy highway. We wanted to enjoy this environment a little longer so we set up camp early. Our campsite was near the road but hidden by the trees and offered us gorgeous views on the distant mountains. I think this was the first time when we noticed the snowy peaks far away. In the evening the place got less relaxing because we could hear the music from the close by village, but it was still a superb place for a night. In the morning it started to rain so we got an opportunity to sleep in.
In Dharamshala we found a really cool hotel. This time we didn’t choose the cheapest room, it was worth 100 rupees to stay upstairs instead of the basement. This way we had windows and access to a terrace on the roof where we sat to watch monkeys. We loved how they ran up and down on the rooftops of the city. When we went out for dinner one of them reached down from the roof and stole some vegetable at the market. It was epic.
The next day we walked up to McLeod Ganj on a romantic route – a maze of narrow streets of the mountain town that lead to some less-trodded paths on the hillside. This district of Dharamshala is the ‘little Tibet’ where the Dalai Lama and many Tibetan monks live in exile. We visited the Buddhist temple where trees were natural parts of the building, we liked that instead of cutting them down, they were incorporated into the structure of the church. Then we found a café at the best possible location. We had a tea there, overlooking the mountains, the forest and Dharamshala. From there we walked on to Bhagsu waterfall – it’s a nice sight, but too crowded. We left the crowd quickly and climbed a little higher where we met only a handful of people and goats. Back to McLeod Ganj we took a different path and ended up in the hippie quarter where only tourists live who come here to meditate, do yoga, stuff like that.
After two days in this unique town we rolled on. Not far yet because Adam had some pain in his leg. We checked in to a hotel that had good TV channels so we watched movies and relaxed for a change. To enjoy perfect comfort we took home some chowmein in our pot and ate it in bed. Sometimes we need this.
We went downwards from there and still had beautiful scenery. This area wasn’t so full of people, it was possible to take a longer rest at noon without anyone disturbing us. Dogs followed us sometimes, but they didn’t hurt us. There are a lot of stray dogs in India, but they are less dangerous than cows. We got to Mandi in the evening. After finding a room we went for a walk to see a Hindu ceremony. The worshipers rang a bell then queued to get some kind of food. Surprisingly they could stand in line there, unlike in a shop. We took off our shoes in the church like everyone else, but somebody had a problem with us carrying them in our hands, we didn’t get why. So we left to eat some veg burgers. By the way we don’t miss eating meat at all, it’s easy when there isn’t any temptation.
We rolled on along the river Beas. I loved this section with the river next to us and jungle on the other side. Unfortunately some parts of the road were damaged by landslides, probably due to the heavy rainfalls in August, but all of it was rideable. There was a tunnel in our way too, but we managed to bypass it on the other side of the river. What a relief!
We turned from Beas to another river, the Parvati. Nice, narrow mountain road, ravine next to it. Two cars can barely pass each other but there is no railing. Here we found our next camping spot, the place wasn’t in the ravine but on the other side, next to a destroyed Shiva sanctuary. Two cows were lying there but they got bored with us quickly and left. We lit a campfire to cook our leftover pasta from Oman – this was our first and last cooking in India. We were a bit surprised when an old woman turned up, she just sat opposite to us, we didn’t get what she was waiting for. Then she tried to make a phone call, whistled and in a minute a herd of goats was coming down from the hill. A shepherd also came along with two baby goats in his coat.
Next stop: Kasol. The town itself isn’t spectacular, but many people start their hikes from there, so it’s the center of Parvati valley. First day we strolled along a creek, we saved the big trek for the next days. We left our bicycles in Kasol and headed to Rasol with backpacks filled with food, warm clothes and a tent. The remote village can only be reached on foot. Heavy things like cement are brought up using a motorised cable pulley system with a basket above the tree line, anything else have to be carried up by the locals.
I liked the waterfalls and creeks of the trek and the view from up there was astonishing of course. But it saddened us that even a trail is full of trash. In Rasol we couldn’t really find our place. It’s weird that people who live in such a remote place, far from everybody are willing to live so close to each other. We were expecting just a few houses, but at least a thousand people live there, it’s way too crowded. So we hiked further up to find a place where we can at least sit down. We weren’t far from the peak and decided to go all the way. A cow tried to push us off the narrow track, but we succeeded to get to the top. The ridge is full of cannabis plants, 3 metres high at some parts. People sit in a circle and rub the charas (hashish) off the plants. This is everybody’s living.
There were some guesthouses in Rasol but since we brought our heavy tent, we wanted to use it. The place where we slept was just big enough to set up the three-person tent. It was very cold at night and we were afraid that it would rain. Luckily we had only a few drops of rain all night and after sunrise when it got warmer we could get some more sleep. The downpour started right after we got back to our basic room in Kasol. The weather was always on our side while we were in India, rain and wind were rare and they mostly happened when we were inside.
We pedaled on in the Parvati valley, through Manikaran – known for its hot springs – to the end of the tarmac road, Tosh. The route wasn’t made for cycling, the final zigzag was tough. I was wondering if anyone has ever cycled up there, especially with luggage. People normally go by car though they must leave their cars outside of Tosh because the village has only narrow streets. There are a lot of hotels and dhabas and many tourists, almost all of them are Indians. We seldom saw any white people, when we did it was always the same 4-5 people. The residents of Tosh were usually seen while they were carrying heavy weight on their backs.
We switched our bicycles for backpacks once again. We walked on an exciting path to Kheerganga at 2960 metres. Hindus believe that Shiva meditated for 3000 years at this holy place. Along the way we crossed several waterfalls, sometimes dogs showed us the way and we saw new monkeys, langurs. Although the previous day we saw a literal truckload of Indian tourists at the beginning of the trek, we were surprised to meet so many people in the forest. It annoyed us a little because many of them were blasting loud music, like they would get a panic attack because of some silence. As soon as we reached Kheerganga we saw where all those people come from – the hillside was full of tents. Couple of years ago this must have been a tranquil place, but now it’s all about the tent renting business.
We climbed over the army of tents to enjoy being at almost 3000 metres high, then we took a bath in the hot springs. There wasn’t anybody else in the women’s pool, it was so calm. A few minutes of bathing totally relaxed and energized me. We went back to Tosh on the other side of the valley on an easier trail. It had its own beauty – we were lower, closer to the wild Parvati, we even had to cross it. We saw the waterfalls of the other side that we had crossed in the morning and met some forest cows. We arrived back to the village in the evening. For dinner we had the most spicy momos of all the hot Indian food. I already got used to the spiciness that I never really liked, but I couldn’t handle this plate, I gave it all to Adam. When the owner asked us how we liked it I replied in tears: ‘It was so spicy’. We liked Tosh so much that we stayed one more day even if our room was so cold at night that we both had to get under the four blankets we had. Next day we only had a short walk, we mostly relaxed. It turned out to be a good decision to stay because the rain started to fall in the afternoon.
There isn’t asphalt road after Tosh so we turned back. We had lunch at the same little dhaba where we had eaten a double plate last time. After filling our stomach when we were about to leave, Adam had a flat. He changed his tube then we rolled down the valley. We had one more hike planned, to another mountain village, Malana. We stopped at the closest but still far homestay and started early in the next morning. We went on tarmac for a while but there were almost no cars so it was pleasant. We didn’t see many cars because a landslide closed the road, you could only go on foot after that point. Then the more interesting part began, the Malana Steps. It’s so steep that I’d rather call it mountain climbing than hiking. Our offline map only showed this route, it turned out in the village that a longer and less steep path exists too. We took that road on the way back.
Malana’s inhabitants believe themselves to be Alexander the Great’s descendants, they are a bit loony. Outsiders are not allowed to step in the shops or touch locals. When you buy something, they put it on the ground while you put the money on the ground to avoid touching each other’s hands. Like in Rasol, everybody lives off hashish. Malana Cream is very expensive in Amsterdam, here you can get a better price. We bought some for the sake of culture. You can only go up on foot, nevertheless the village is full of houses right next to each other, much more than we expected. We spent there some time than set off to get back to the homestay for the night. We had the tent with us but we couldn’t find any good spots. We learnt from our time in Rasol, this time we didn’t insist on using the tent.
Only one question remained unanswered after visiting Malana: how did this bicycle get up here????