The journey to Leh, the place where we aimed to go would take 22 – 26 hours on a public bus which would be absolute torture. Abi wasn’t arsed about going, Charlie was desperate and I was keen, but realistic. The problem we faced was that the most inflexible part of the journey, where things can and do go wrong, meaning hefty delays of weeks are possible, had come at the most inflexible part of the trip. We have a flight out of India next week and so there is no room for delay.
I spoke to Bekkie (kids mum) and she wasn’t keen at all, in fact, the thought of us undertaking one of the most dangerous road journeys on earth was something she was simply not getting on board with at all. I agreed to sleep on it and when I woke the following morning was no closer to having made my mind up than the night before. After some careful consideration I decided we would go for it – But we would do it on a Royal Enfield Bullet with me at the helm. I wasn’t deprived of sleep, preoccupied or high on drugs and so figured it the safest option.
It was around 7am and we packed our things and I arranged to have our bags stored for the week. The plan was to head to Keylong over the Rohtang pass. Spend a day Acclimatising and then ride out the 18 hours to Leh non stop. As I was chatting with the hotel owner he told me that Rohtang pass was closed on Tuesdays to all traffic other than Government buses. We couldn’t afford to waste a day and so we headed off to the government bus stand.
Turns out you have to break the journey. 6 hours on a public bus to Keylong some 70km away, then 22 hours on the same bus to Leh meaning it would take 2 days total if there was no delay. With Leh being at 3500m altitude, the first day would be spent ill, trying to acclimatise. That would give us just two days in Leh before we made the 2 day journey back to Manali and then the 12 hour journey to Delhi the next day. It was ridiculous and just did not make sense at all. I had miscalculated Ladakh and I was pissed off with myself, Charlie was gutted and Abi suddenly had become gutted too.
We sat eating a Nutella Croissant and pondered our next move. We would have being going to Leh for the sake of it, a rushed, cramped journey where we spent more time travelling than actually being there. It was then we struck a deal, we will leave Leh and come back in the future, properly planned, hire a motorbike and make the journey. We all agreed and already Charlie is excited.
The back up plan I had was to head South East, deeper into Himachal Pradesh and into the Great Himalayan National Park.
We took a bus from Manali 2.5 hours south to Kullu where we got booted off, bought some samosas for lunch and then hitched a mini bus further south to Bhuntar which is the transit town for those heading further South, East/West or North. Once at Bhuntar we figured out there wasn’t a bus to Kasol for another hour or so and the collective of people already waiting was massive. The bus station is next door to the airport (bizarrely) which is basically a piece of tarmac and a porta-cabin. But, there is a fixed price taxi rank and so we headed there out of curiosity. The bus would cost us about 100 INR total (£1) but the taxi, for the hour and half jolly would cost 600 INR (£6) for the sake of a fiver we could leave there and then, in comfort and take an hour less than the bus – It was a no brainer and we were soon taking part in the drivers wet dream of being a rally driver, as he peddled to the metal along mountain roads risking drops into gorges about a mile deep.
When we first took a trip around the world I distinctly remember heading South, deep into China and then crossing into Vietnam by land. I was absolutely sideswiped by the sheer beauty of the landscape and was convinced that this was as good as it got. I would compare everything to that journey and think ‘was it as good as…’ and pretty much nothing was ‘that good’ until we hit Sri Lanka a couple of years later. Then I recalled eating homemade banana sandwiches with the kids at the top of Ella’s rock, deep in Sri Lanka. Looking out we agreed we had never seen such beauty, and probably never would again. Sure, places have come close. But nothing has ever quite been so beautiful. Until we got to Himachal Pradesh, and now the Parvati Valley. The Parvati valley and the journey from Bhuntar to Kasol is undoubtedly, without question the single most stunningly beautiful journey we have ever taken. Sri Lanka pales into absolute insignificance and Vietnam is now a distant memory to the jaw dropping beauty of this valley. With 5000m glaciers cut up by a ferocious river and then hefty mountains on the side scarred only by the road it is beauty at it’s absolute best. It is eye watering, breathtaking and even the mind could not dream so beautiful. The sheer scale is spectacular and as we cut around the valley side I looked literally about a mile down into the gorge and was mesmerised. Across the gorge every now and again was a metal wire crossing from one side to the other. At least a mile high and attached only to a single metal cable are baskets. The people use these baskets to daredevil from one side of the valley to the other. It is ludicrous, I saw a kid coming over and couldn’t believe my eyes. Even Charlie didn’t want a go – Not that I would let him! Not that I would even consider it!
Kasol is the penultimate stop along the Parvati Valley and just a few km from Manikaran which is the last stop. From there you continue to head East up to the second highest road pass in the world (Pin Parvati Pas) and then on toward Tibet.
Kasol is a magnet for hardcore hashish smokers and as such has the whole chilled out vibe during the day. Restaurants belt out Bob Marley and most visitors have dreadlocks, probably haven’t washed this year and walk around dazed and completely confused.
But Kasol was where we wanted to be, nearby a very special place (see next blog entry)
There is a very real and serious reason we are only in the valley for a couple of days, and why every single move we make within it is carefully planned.
The Parvati Valley, for all its beauty, is home to the best, most potent, most awarded and most revered marijuana in the world. Like everywhere else in HP it grows wild and plants up to about 9ft are common. But in the Parvati it is cultivated and sold and it has made millionaires of farmers who once lived on the breadline. With drugs comes cartels and with cartels comes trouble.
Since the mid nineties dozens of tourists have gone missing in the valley, many have turned up dead, many haven’t turned up at all. Stories of tourists heading here, then getting murdered are all too common. Bodies get washed up on river banks and in various decomposing states have been found in the mountains. No one speaks about it and the police struggle to find not just leads, but to solve anything at all. Travel within the valley alone (without a guide) is dangerous and has been proven to be deadly, all too regularly. Locals are reluctant to speak, and a few years ago the Guardian (UK) sent reporters to find out why people were going missing without any real sense of investigation. Locals shut them out, they were spat at and even foreigners seemed pissed off at their turning up. But what they uncovered was something of conspiracy theories. Something they could never envisage and something that when first warned by the local paper they dismissed as ridiculous.
They were told by a local paper that actually, those foreigners who had been found dead may have crossed the wrong people. The drugs trade is rife in the mountains, and a survivor who saw his 14 year old son and female companion slaughtered was testament to the fact there were robberies in the valley. Oddly enough, in communities so intertwined no one saw or heard anything. But there was no doubt foreigners had stumbled across people that would expire them sooner than they had hoped. But also it was likely foreigners unaccustomed to the ferocious landscape had succumbed to nature and died as a result of poor planning, or by way of misadventure.
The local newspaper acknowledged this, but what they told the British journalists would further mystify the international community. They suggested that actually, many of those that had gone missing, had intentionally gone missing. Living out their lives getting high on drugs deep in the mountains, or as part of the drugs trade itself. Funnily enough, the head of one of the biggest drug operations in the valley is supposedly an Italian women.
The Journalists delved deeper into the theory and were amazed at what they found. It was confirmed to them that were enclaves of foreigners living deep in the mountains, not just a handful but a great number. One was quoted as saying they had left their European country a long time ago and found solstice in the Valley, they were now living illegally and hid for fear of deportation. Or the woman who came travelling on motorbike with her boyfriend. He rode off a mountain and died, leaving her alone. She ended up finding comfort through drugs and was now living deep in the valley. But by and large the journalists came up against a wall of defiance and refusal.
They left Himachal Pradesh with information that was of no use to anyone praying for their lost, loved ones. But with a new slant on the mysteries that Lonely Planet depict as ‘Deadly Vacations’
The Indian police accept there is a problem and HP tourism has suffered greatly as a result of the murders and disappearances.
the Guardian report makes for fascinating reading: http://www.guardian.co.uk/travel/2002/apr/20/weekendmagazine
Even now there is no clear evidence of the murders, disappearances or supposed foreigner enclaves.
But one thing is certain, and endorsed by governments all over the world – Including the Indian Government, and by every major guide book – Trekking in the valley without a guide is dangerous. A guide can steer you away from not just hefty cliffs and imminent death, but will have knowledge of potential hot spots of trouble. Yes the valley is amazing, and yes it leaves you itching to experience its magnitude and beauty.
But it’s not worth dying for.
With that in mind, we planned the next part of our trip very carefully.