A few thousand years ago ago Alexander the Great was making his way over the Himalayas looking for someone to chin. The harsh terrain was too much for him and his posse to bear and so they decided to stop and create a village where they could have kids and live in peace. He eventually bailed, but the remnants of his army stayed. The village, known as Malana sits some 4000m high in the mountains of the Parvatti valley. For years no one knew of the village and over the course of time the village became self sufficient, self governing and completely withdrawn. No one was allowed in unless invited and no one left due to the fact anywhere was at least a days trek away – And in many cases much is the same today. The village of Malana sits in the same spot, perched high on the ridge of a mountain, hidden at least an hours drive through a difficult and dangerous mountain road and completely on the way to no where. It is said by many to be the last isolated civilisation in the world. The village still remains completely unreachable by road and any visitor does so at the behest of the villagers and following an arduous uphill trek.
The Indian authorities leave Malana well alone, and so the small village of cinder houses and their occupants remain free to self govern and as a result create their own laws.
The villagers are devout Hindu’s but have created their own unique caste system (class system) but beyond that, they deem themselves to be the pinnacle of human beings, followed by normal hindus and then the low caste, i.e worst of the worst are non believers. King of the shit flicks are westerners, particularly white westerners and so they are seriously unwelcome in the village.
We drove for around half an hour west along the valley, the road is in poor condition and so travelling even a km takes time.
There are several ways of getting to Malana. Up until a couple of years back there was just two. The first is trekking direct from Jari, it’s around 17km and takes at least a day, travellers would then camp somewhere and then walk back the following day. A killer of a hike deemed to be very hard and not for the feint hearted.
The second option is to take the road down past the hydro plant and then continue on for about an hour until you reach a sign saying ‘welcome to Malana village’ which is an absolute con for two reasons. Firstly you are still at least 90 minutes away from the village via a near vertical trek and secondly because no one is welcome in Malana.
Due to the booming drug trade and the fact Malana is centre of cultivation of charas a track that is a trade route has become passable by vehicles. The track follows the mountain opposite the village and then we were told it was a 20 minute hike up the hill to the village. It’s not, it’s more like an hour – Minimum.
Malana is world renowned for its hashish and the village is now pretty much a working hash factory. Marijuana plants fill the landscape and at up to 9ft tall dominate the surroundings. So important to the villagers is this drug, that families who once farmed crops now farm marijuana. Children help make the ‘cream’ and due to to the sheer isolation of the village the authorities are powerless (or unwilling) to help – Make your own assumptions.
That said, in 2008 a fire ravaged the village destroying half of the centuries old wooden homes. An accident, perhaps. Perhaps not. But some of the people in the valley have become extremely wealthily as a result of the drugs trade and with wealth comes power and in India, money talks.
In order to reach Malana we had decided on the second option, we would trek for an hour and half up to the village. And so, after a terrifying journey on roads which are as dangerous as I can imagine them ever getting, with hairpin corners and absolutely nothing at all to stop a stray vehicle falling thousands of feet into the gorge below, it was a hairy ride. Twice en route we stopped and had to have our passports checked and noted. The first was the entrance to the hydro plant, and the second at a dam much further up.
Eventually we arrived at the start of the trek and set off. We were at about 3200m and so well into risking AMS and after about 5 minutes we realised what a stupid idea trekking there was, the ground was so steep it was an absolute killer. We retreated, jumped back in the car and took the track which is a serious accident waiting to happen, further up the mountain.
You can see the village some 700m higher on the adjacent mountain and so you descend down to the river, cross a bridge and then it is all up hill to the village. It was about 30 degrees, humidity was hovering around 90% and in thin air we ascended to the village. Without question, undoubtedly it is the most physically demanding thing I have ever done since leaving the army. I could not breath fast enough, and every breath just wasn’t relieving my thirst for oxygen. Charlie struggled too and so did Abi, though seemingly less than me and Charlie. It was a killer of a trek with absolutely no respite, or shade whatsoever. Sweat was dripping off our faces like we was under a shower. It wasn’t long before Charlie started complaining of a headache and I felt lightheaded. AMS had arrived and it was at the worst possible time. Though the ground was dry, it felt as though we were climbing a mountain, in a sauna, with a gas mask on and wearing lead boots. It was very hard, exceptionally so.
But we stuck with it, and eventually we started to come into the village.
We expected hostility and the first person we saw, a woman walking round with her boob hanging out and carrying wood literally jumped back away from us. We noticed that the villagers looked Tibetan, with hard worn faces and old clothes. The smell of burning hashish was in the air and the first buildings were beautifully hand built wooden marvels. A sign hanging nearby the entrance to one of the homes said ‘no touch, no picture 1000 Rupee fine’ this was no joke. Touching anything in the village will have you fined and then booted out. Don’t touch the locals, houses and especially the temple. As we entered the village an old man started shouting at us, telling us to leave. We had not come this far to have some giffer who didn’t get the leg over last night boot us out and so we continued.
Of all the days to enter a village that despises westerners, Independence day was probably the worst. With the whole sub continent celebrating freedom from British rule I was well aware of the piss take we probably looked like.
The village is really strange, it’s literally wooden and stone houses that wouldn’t look out of place in the 1800’s. Marijuana fills every spare part of ground and it felt like we had stepped back in time.
There was a real, not so much hostility, but unwelcome feeling. kids were sent in doors. We could see them peeking through the wooden gaps at us, and people literally stepped back away from us and hissed at us. As we walked through the village elderly would shout at us that we couldn’t go a particular way, yet when we turned around to go back they claimed we couldn’t go that way either. In the end I just ignored everyone and we explored the village. Home to about 500 people with seemingly most being kids its a fascinating place, really intriguing. A completely self sufficient place, high in the mountains and isolated not through neglect. But through choice.
Charlie and Abi were mesmerised, this was abnormal to them. I explained it was to me too, but we found a real middle ground with each other when a guy who jumped away from us jumped down a hill and splatted. It was so funny. He was disgusted and started shouting at us in his language (which is unique to the village) we just laughed and walked off.
It was difficult to get pictures since everywhere was seemingly out of bounds, but I hope the ones I did get show the village as what it really is, and really it is beautiful. But we soon got bored of the people shouting we couldn’t go a particular way, people dive bombing out of our way and the guys that had been assigned to follow our every move. They didn’t speak a single word to us, stayed about 5 feet behind us and followed our every move.
It was ridiculously obvious we just weren’t wanted in the village and so when I felt things might start getting a little tense we began the decent out of the village.
What struck me as odd was that I understand we were seen as being the ultimate scum, and that if we touched anything a whole ritual had to be done to ‘cleanse’ the area. I get that, but why weren’t we allowed to explore their village properly? Why did some kids smile yet others fear us? I think Malana hides a secret much bigger than anyone anticipates. Yes everyone knows they are at the heart of the drugs trade in the area but I can’t help feeling it’s more than that. There was a reason why suddenly all hell would break loose if we tried to go a particular way. Or that essentially we were ‘guided’ subtly most of the time, yet accosted some of the time. It was unnervingly suspicious, and as we descended the killer mountain I thought more about what we had seen and how things were. The locals aren’t stupid, they know that by banning people entering the village they will draw untold attention to themselves. But by allowing people in and hampering their efforts to explore, they cause, in my mind even more suspicion and thereby attention.
I thought back to the disappearances in the valley and how the village of Malana is mentioned more than a few times in the theories and suspicions. Did some people go too far, find things they shouldn’t have?
As we walked back down the mountain I was very thirsty, so much so I was trying to moisten my mouth with the sweat dripping from my lip. Abi was claiming she had headache and so I remembered seeing a guy selling water near the entrance to where we trekked. Once there I started to walk up to him and he shouted ‘dont touch’ and stood up, I tried to appeal to his sympathetic side and pointed to the kids saying water. He threw a bottle of water about a metre away from him and then gestured I throw the money at him. It was bizarre, but it seemed that through the hard front, there was a side which was human.
As we retreated back down the mountain my lightheadedness had gone, breathing was back to normal and both kids’ headaches had gone. Faced with mountain sickness we had trekked to an altitude of around 4000m and visited one of the most isolated and unique civilisations on earth. It was the most bizarre experience we have ever had, and I thought back to a little boy I saw looking at us. As I took his photo he flashed a shy smile, a rare sign of humanity.
Proof that no one is born prejudiced.