Feature Story

Himalayan desert oasis, a motorcycle journey

Rice planting by women near Manali
Dal Bati in Old Manali
Samdarshi Ashram near Manali
Riding to Spiti Valley, colors of India: Tibetan prayer flags, Buddhist Stupa & Hindi women in Sari
Past Rothang Pass: Indian snow, sheep roadblock, river flood
Arriving at a Spiti Valley Tibetan village, Deepesh & me
Israeli Shakshuka & Tahini in Samdarshi Ashram
Deepesh & Freimut push American rider out of melted snow stream
Eternal spring, Spiti Valley, Himalaya - India
4000 m.a.s.l. , Spiti Valley, India

It was 5 years ago, soon.

Still, it looks like a dream... not the dusty, hectic India I experienced elsewhere.

You can call it a coincidence. Like anywhere but more so in the rich Indian soup, things just happen.

An overnight ride on a sleeper-bus took me from New Delhi to Manali. It would be my last overnight bus to take ever since. I decided so, or better said... my guts told me so. From then on, only overnight trains and single-day bus rides.

At the time I was staying already far too long in touristic Old Manali. I couldn't leave, couldn't board a bus (the only public transportation in mountainous north of Himachal Pradesh - Himalayan foothills). Why so? Well, that place will go down in my memory as the ONLY place in 2 years of backpacking rural India where I got my digestive system poisoned. I couldn't board anything that didn't have a toilet attached... and Indian public buses, unlike trains, don't.

I split my time between my Rajasthani tailor friend, joining them for Dal Bat they cooked themselves under the cashier desk at their shop or back in their room across the street. They had a seasonal shop in Old Manali market street and off season gone back to their native Rajasthan. After only a day in Jaipur (Rajasthan) on my way north, they were the first Rajasthanies I could call friends.

My other retreat, laying and trying to heal from my stomach instability, was the Anti-Drug Home run by an Israeli non-profit to create a drug free meeting place for traveling Israelis who tend to be constantly engaged in Marijuana (Charas), especially in it's native habitat up north. The main activity in this two story backyard building was watching Israeli movies, while laying on the carpets and cushions or eating meals ordered from the in-house kitchen. There was also a nice garden and a cyber cafe.

It was here that I noticed a small yellow note tacked onto the message board telling about an Ashram not too far (9km) that leads various meditations.

At that time I was already healing after giving up my natural ways (let time and immunity system run their course) and been through a package of antibiotics I got from the Manali public hospital. So I was pretty safe to take this 30 minutes auto rickshaw ride.

I said goodbye to Old Manali and my Rajasthani friends. The few foreigner friends I got to know had already left ahead of me, being in good health.

The rickshaw rolled down through New Manali, the Indian Honeymooners destination, over the bridge at the river below and along the other bank. We past little shops and farm houses all along on the winding road that follows the river. The driver asked locals if they heard about that Ashram he knew nothing of. Eventually we came to a stop in front of what looked like just another house on the road.

Inside I met an American women, the Ashram manager, maybe a flower generation hippie in her youth. She told me the activities are based on Osho's way and the founder of this Ashram, a disciple of his, was off to Russia where Osho apparently gained popularity and so he was leading some workshops there.

I got a room for a steep (in my terms of living...) Rs. 350 a day. The up side, however was it included any activity I would like to join, as well as access to the free kitchen and pantry (cook-it-yourself style).

Being so happy to have a western equipped kitchen, I got to cook for all the residents, just in the passion to be creative and nurturing others. Just to have a little 'restaurant'. In the days to come, in between the Kundalini mediation and the silent ones, My new German Friend, Freimut the makiata-morning-coffee-wala and myself crafted a different meal everyday: Israeli, Italian... I can't even remember what other projects we took.

I found out that the other residents besides myself were all gathered here from different places around the world as a meeting ground for a motorcycle journey across those Himalayan snowy peaks we could see hovering above us on the horizon. The two organizers were Deepesh, a Brazilian and Ash, American. The riders were German, American, Australian... about 4 men and 2 women, to the best of my memory.

In the time we spent there, in front of a green valley that stretched into the horizon, in crips sunny sky of June we got to know each other and I wondered if I could join their trip. I didn't have a motorcycle and far less had guts to maneuver a heavy-weight Royal Enfield through winding mountain trails hanging over hundred feet drops. I also didn't have the type of cash others could afford for a short vacation aboard.

Eventually, I got an answer: it would be Rs. 1,500 for me to ride in the back with one of the organizers.

I agreed.

A few rides in the neighborhood on the back with Freimut and the D-date had arrived.

We got our equipment on board, mine was an 80 liter bulky backpack, and off we went.

We climbed the way up to Rothang Pass, the highest road point before it rolls down into the slanted-eye minorities valleys. On the way I saw a recently killed calf laying by the roadside curve, his eye had that blank stare as if saying, "There's no one in here". Colorful trucks carrying goods to markets on the other side and Indian tourists going to experience snow for the first time were also streaming along. We stopped for a snack at a tent-stall, again a beautiful place in a green, sunny, crisp airy spot. Then, after passing through the low clouds laying on the mountain slopes, we arrived at a small market in a tiny village. I remember the rosary of Tibetan prayer flags with an Indian cow grazing below.

Ahead, climbing higher, we saw the Indian crowds slide the snowy slopes on plastic bags and just standing in the snow taking photos. Then started the descent... the road got emptier.. no tourist SUV's, only trucks or an occasional bus. A group of workers patching the road under a clear blue sky dotted with cotton-ball clouds with mountain peaks stretching into the unfolding valleys ahead of us.

We had to cross through melting snow streams over the road, huge herds of sheep crossing and continued down.

By late afternoon we arrived at a mud house village in the middle of nowhere and no-one. The organizers probably knew the owners from previous trips. By the end of a long bone-shaking day over bumpy roads on old school motorcycles, it was nice to have a warm meal. I treated one of the women for her headache with some acupressure I had just learned from a book I found in the ashram. we all went to our rooms for a much needed night sleep.

On the next day we crossed arid planes with vibrant rivers. The nature of these lands is such. It's a desert abundant with water sources. There's no rainfall here but many rivers criss cross it flowing down from the melting snowy peaks around. The traditional building is built of massive mud walls (about 1 meter thick) to protect from the deep freezing winters. Paper thin flat roofs are not required to channel any rainfall or carry the weight of piling snow. On a surprising rare rain, a few years back, many of these fragile twig roofs collapsed. Being above the tree line, these plains lack the source for wood beams needed for building a heavier duty roof.

We reached Kaza, the valley's "big city", and that's where I departed from the group. They continued for an extra week and I went backpacking, as I do.

This valley is only accessible for 3 months a year. The rest of the time the entrance roads are blocked with heavy snow.

From Kaza I continued east around this huge Indian-Himalayan peninsula engulfed by China. The circular road runs through terraced agriculture and as I looped back west the villages become greener... more in line with the rest of Himachal Pradesh.

About a year later, I got an email from the American Organizer which described the unfortunate death of Deepesh, the Brazilian organizer, due to an asthma attack in the jungle. I remember this generous peaceful friend I spent 2 wonderful days with on the back of his Enfield saddle.


More stories of my experiences backpacking rural India for 2 years on http://jpgmag.com/people/etand/stories

About this documentary project and sharing it on public presentations in California & around USA on My India: Where every village is home

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—The JPG team

1 response

  • Saroj Swain

    Saroj Swain gave props (22 Jun 2012):

    lovely shot and story.my vote!!!

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