Shades of Green
Himachal Pradesh, India
Manali, Himachal Pradesh, India.
After a few days in Delhi, Dan and I headed north for the Himalayas, starting at the foothills of the western range in the town of Manali. As I caught my first sights of the lush green of the Himachal Pradesh region, the same thought and stupid awestruck face kept hitting me: I had never seen mountains like this. At times I felt like I was out west back home in the Rocky Mountains, but the extreme density of the forest on the absolutely sheer faces of these mountains blew me away a little extra.
Manali is a beautiful riverside town that serves as a halfway point between Delhi and the region of Ladakh (our subsequent destination) along the Manali-Leh highway. The town itself is split between Old Manali and New Manali. Old Manali is where we stayed, in a quiet, beautiful hostel, the Orchards House – The Hidden Tribe, situated at the top of the mountainous town right off the main road, nestled between acres on end of apple orchards. New Manali has only more recently developed with the boom of Indian tourism in the region during the pandemic when international travel was restricted, providing a small but bustling downtown area with rows of shops and stalls showcasing the region’s many souvenirs and an introduction to the Tibetan cuisine that defines the Ladakhi region to the north.
Although I had had experience with truly chaotic markets and over stimulation already in Delhi, the bustlings street markets of New Manali still gave me that same taste of India, in it’s own slightly more consumable fashion for someone who’d only been in the country a few days. There I tried my first serving of pani puri, a somewhat sweet (maybe tangy?) and savory street snack consisting of a hollow ball of puri (crispy deep fried bread?), filled with a brothy burst of cumin, coriander and other spices that I can only guess at but that collectively make up the explosion of smells that filled my nostrils every time I walked through the streets. Dan watched me, smiling from a little ways as I tried my hand at haggling (aka competitive verbal Indian sport), ensuring I wasn’t totally ripped off on my first few purchases. And I had to use every ounce of willpower not to stop for too long and stare into every shop, or I’d risk my non-confrontational self being cornered by an all too vigilant and insistent salesmen.
Despite the craziness, everything about India feels exhilarating, especially in those first few days. And in those somewhat tame street markets of New Manali is where I acclimated to the total lack of regard for personal space, the shouting you get from every street vendor and shop owner as you pass, and the unwavering stares that followed us for being the only westerners within a few block radius (or often more). Particularly at first, it was somewhat intimidating, especially as a woman. I quickly realized that even in more urban areas like Delhi, men outnumbered women on the street at least 5 to 1 (and I think I’m being generous here). Westerners were far and few between, especially coming off of a global pandemic, and I rarely saw western woman traveling without a male companion (although we certainly met some that did, this was just my initial observable experience). As a woman in the US having lived in predominantly big metropolitan cities such as Miami and Chicago, I’ve internalized the need to constantly be vigilant of my surroundings, and now I was in an especially male dominated country, constantly having my attention pulled in a hundred directions. Honestly, I was relieved to have Dan by my side as I acclimated to the intensity of the culture shift, however this sometimes had it’s downsides, as being with Dan usually meant he was given more acknowledgment in most interactions unless I was on my own or unless I purposely and clearly made my presence known.
Getting used to the discomfort, however, seemed easy in retrospect – I was enjoying all the little but plentiful idiosyncrasies of India. There were no rules, no formalities that one must follow, and usually, in my mind’s eye, no sense to most of how India functioned, but yet it did. Everyone simply made it so.
I was looking for a spot to eat one of those first afternoons, when I reached an alley corner within the maze of markets. There stood a small restaurant kitchen no larger than my freshman dorm room, serving classic Tibetan fare – momos (Tibetan dumplings), chow mein (fried noodles and veggies), thukpa (brothy noodle soup classically cooked with mutton, or lamb). This place was open air at each alley side and packed. The kitchen was situated on the street level with at least 6 cooks crammed against the side wall, spilling over the sidewalk with their operation, either chopping, frying or cleaning. Pushed right up against the stove with barely a foot to spare were 2 tables of families contentedly slurping their bowls of thukpa. Just behind those customers against the back wall was a comically steep, narrow and rail-less staircase that could only be accessed from the street alley. We realized this staircase – which would certainly be considered a total safety hazard in the US – led to another 3 stories of the restaurant. Cautious of the somewhat slippery stairs, we made our way up, pressing against the wall as the main server, a teenage boy drenched in sweat, frantically edged around us first carrying trays of thukpa and momos on his way up and then moments later carrying empty dishes and glassware on his way down. It felt like a towering building out of a Dr. Suess novel, with steam whistling out of the windows and the whole establishment teetering with the weight of all it’s occupants. But somehow it functioned, and the food hit as if the neighborhood grandma had just served me up a plate of her most revered comfort food.
Besides the downtown area, Manali offered no shortage of incredible scenery and easy hiking trails, and we were so happy to have a taste of fresh mountain air having come from the city smog of New Delhi. One afternoon we found a beautiful hike across the river in the town of Vashist. It was an unsuspecting trail that led to a gushing waterfall and a beautiful overlook of Manali and the mountain ridge under which it sits. We had a trusty canine companion follow us the whole way. We got the sense that she was enjoying the scenery as much as we were, and at some points she would even stop and position herself on steeper areas to help us balance – we called her Nela.
Everyone told me before going to India, that I should probably ease into the food, or to avoid street food altogether. As you can clearly tell from the last few paragraphs, the allure of India’s cuisine had me beat, and I absentmindedly jumped right in. I have no regrets. I simply couldn’t not try all the new and delicious flavors surrounding me! Sadly, my uncooperative gut got hit by my first travel bug only a few nights into our stay in Manali. This unfortunately meant that we would put our planned motorcycling trip on pause, and for a few days I rested, sleeping and waking up to the rain pattering sound of one of the seasons’ remaining monsoons and the views of the beautiful Parvati Valley.
Once I was feeling better, Dan found a tour shop and negotiated a price for a motorcycle rental for 2 nights/3 days give or take, during which we intended to go a couple hours south to the village of Malana, which was famous for its very odd (to most outsiders) culture and its cultivation of a cannabis strain of hashish called Malana Cream. We left some of our stuff and said a temporary farewell to Manali.
NAT’S EYE VIEW: MANALI
Views in Manali could not be beat. Here are a few snaps of me trying to do the beautiful town justice!
Malana, Himachal Pradesh, India.
Manali served as our temporary home while we explored the greater area, including the small, but impressionable, town of Malana. What we thought would be a quick and easy journey to Malana proved to be quite an epic ordeal for a side trip, with a harrowing motorcycle ride on some terrifying roads, half of which were strewn with the fresh chunks of dislodged asphalt and boulders, the remains of the most recent landslides.
Dan got us up safely and in one piece, but the side switches were so muddy and rocky, I spent a good deal of time hopping off the bike and running up the hill so Dan didn’t have to worry about my shifting weight behind him. Some other obstacles included: a waterfall running right over the road and a landslide that had chopped the road up so badly we had to wait as a bulldozer flattened out the rubble; I watched wide-eyed as it worked questionably close to the road’s cliff edge.
I was relieved, to say the least, when we got to the top of the road, where we parked near the entrance to the village known as Malana gate. We were a bit unsure of where to park and where to leave our helmets and motorcycle repair tools, but a man alongside the road seemed to notice us looking around and offered us a hand. He agreed to watch our bike and hold our stuff in his dhaba (think bodega or Indian roadside restaurant), where we happily sat down and placed a couple orders of maggi (Indian version of instant noodles and the flavor packet is masala).
A few moments after sitting in that tiny little dhaba, another group we’d seen waiting alongside the landslide reconstruction zone walked in and sat with us. They were a group of 4 friends in their early twenties and they were simply delightful to be around. From the moment they walked in they wanted to know all about where we were traveling from, but most importantly if we were enjoying our time in India. At one point Dan was talking about all that he’d seen prior to me joining and what we’d been up to and simply said “So yea, we love India.” Two in the group giggled as if it was the funniest things they’d ever heard and simply said “We love it too!” This interaction was so common everywhere we went in India. Most people we met genuinely wanted to know about us and about the US and they sincerely and adamantly wanted to show us a real piece of their home country.
One of the 4 in the group named Fuzail, was from the region of Kashmir which he insisted was the most beautiful place in the entire world. In the 15 minutes we spent sitting with him and his friends he had me convinced I couldn’t leave India without seeing the region and he didn’t seem the least bit inauthentic insisting he’d give us a grand tour if we made it to his home. We exchanged instagrams and parted ways.
The hike from Malana Gate was about an hour up. We hiked alongside other Indian tourists, many of which had been there before and were simply making a quick trip in and out for the infamous strain of Malana Creme. Another group of 3 men we’d also seen and briefly chatted with along the road earlier, stopped in front of us for a breath. They insisted we stop at their friends cafe at the top of the path before officially entering the town. The owner welcomed us in as if we had also met years previously in their hometown in Haryana. We sat and drank chai and attempted to broaden our Hindi skills which mainly resulted in some obviously laughable pronunciations. The main thing I gathered was Dan was their brother and so therefore I was their sister, which meant in classic Indian form, we were being kindly taken under their wings, whether we liked it or not.
Malana was an odd town. The people of Malana are known to believe themselves descendants of the Greeks, and more specifically descendants of the soldier’s of Alexander the Great’s army. Although apparently never proven, it’s clear that they look slightly different than most Indians we’d met, with slightly more olive skin tones, often having striking lighter brown, blue, or green eyes. They are of a high Hindu Brahmin caste, and see themselves as being gifted Malana by the Hindu god Shiva himself. Being touched by an outsider is thereby prohibited as it apparently messes with the holy atmosphere and if we attempted to walk down the wrong sidewalk we’d earn a frantic chastising from the townspeople. Additionally, the strain of hashish produced there is known around the world, Malana Creme, and it seems that a large part of their economy thrives off this abundantly growing flower. With this preconception in mind, I expected a town of simple but intentional and impressive design, from its architecture to its social and economic systems. But what we found seemed much different.
The town was clearly poor, and not to sound pretentious, but certainly with little to offer by a Westerners standards. After having ridden up the only road that treacherously led us to Malana, it became obvious that resources were difficult to get to their location high in the mountains. Outsiders certainly did not seem welcome – the hostels for tourist purposefully lay on the furthest end of town away from the Malana people and most of the accommodations were run by non-Malana Indians that had taken advantage of the foot traffic to the town. When walking straight through the town, it was mostly men, and they seemed to be lounging, staring, or playing cards and socializing on the sidewalks. The most striking detail of the town that confused me was the amount of garbage everywhere – for people who thought of themselves and their god given land as so superior, they didn’t seem to care about throwing trash everywhere.
The no-touching rule that’d we’d heard about was evidently not a myth. Hiking up, we passed several village women and each time they would get completely out of our way as we passed or hiss aggressively at us to move out of theirs. Within the village itself there was clearly only one path for outsiders to travel on and it ran directly through the village, no side streets allowed! Dan and I accidentally veered off the main way at one point and started getting yelled at by a group of women some of which stood up and started making shooing motions at us. Being shepherded along the only walkable path through town, stepping between cow dung and plastic debris was certainly a bit of a glum experience.
We followed (more accurately were slightly marshaled) through town by our new friends who either seemed to think we were clueless on our own, or more likely were just displaying the kind of Indian good nature of being (in our view) overly hospitable. Either way they steered us to a group of the only hostels in town. We decided to stay at a different location where we could get a private room, as the hostel they were staying at was simply an open room with mats, and found our way next door. Our room was basically a tin hut situated at the very top of 2 precarious flights of steel staircases. Everything about it was…questionable, from the slightly damp smell and bugginess, to the stained mattress and walls, I couldn’t help but think about what some of my friends back home would think of me sleeping here. I kept hearing my Aunt Julie’s voice, “Hombre, no!” (translation: hellllllll no, man!) in the back of my mind and actually laughed out loud at the thought of forcing her to sleep in a place like this. Our accommodations were definitely rough, but this was one of those obvious times where traveling made me feel a deep sense of gratitude for the fortunate life I live in the states. It would just be one night and it really seemed to be the best option around. Dan had expressed that he wasn’t feeling well so we stayed put and tried to get some rest.
Hours later Dan had a burning fever and symptoms of Delhi belly much like I had had a few nights prior in Malana…sorry Dan… It was the last place I would have wished for anyone with a fever and bad stomach to have to hunker down in, especially considering the nearest bathroom was a hole in the ground 2 flights of shaky stairs below us, but he needed rest and luckily was able to sleep through most of the night and following morning.
I spent the morning journaling outside our slightly depressing hut, which luckily had some of the most heavenly views I’d seen in my entire life. When I got restless I grabbed my camera and started walking down towards the town. Pretty soon after, a group of boys saw me taking pictures of the views and approached me. They asked me about where I was from and insisted I take some photos of them with my nice camera. We had some language barriers but for the most part understood each other. Mainly they wanted tell to me about Malana and how this place was a holy place of Shiva. Oh and speaking of Lord Shiva, the best way they informed me of honoring Lord Shiva, was to smoke the holy Creme Shiva had blessed the land with, which they immediately offered to prepare for me in a small chillum, a small wooden pipe. They were a funny bunch.
This group was also from the region of Haryana, just southwest of Himachal Pradesh. They spent most of the year hanging out at their hostel/restaurant down the road which they kindly invited me back to. They seemed so interested in having me around, and I again experienced that Indian geniality, with them asking me countless questions about what I was doing in India, what I had seen already, what had been my favorite experience, and where I was heading to next. When there was a slight pause in the flow of conversation I found myself looking around at countless tapestries along the wall depicting Ganesh, Krishna, and of course Lord Shiva. They seemed to catch my wandering eye and continued telling me more about Lord Shiva and some of their Hindu beliefs, to which I listened intently, always amazed at the intricacies of the Hindu religion and their fervent readiness to tell me all that I was willing to listen to. It struck me during this conversation that this was something I had already gotten used to during my short time being in India, but that really was so foreign to me coming from the US, where talking about your religion right off the bat with a total stranger is somewhat of a social taboo.
While sitting and chatting, they insisted that I try a sort of bread pudding, that I later had to look up and learned is called Kada Prasad, a sort of sweet buttery wheat dish. I didn’t exactly like it, but I did notice that this offering produced particularly more than the average insistence, and I got the feeling that this was either some extremely common dish that they cherished or that there was some kind of religious connotation to it. So I quickly ate it and washed it down with water pretending to enjoy it. Unfortunately this earned me some joyful reactions and a second serving, which I tried to politely declined to which I received a slightly disheartened frown. I later learning it was in fact a sacred dish of sorts, often offered outside gurdwara temples, a place of worship specific to the Sikh religion. I’m pretty certain they weren’t Sikh, so hopefully not too much disrespect done…
Worried about too many more offerings, I parted ways with my new friends (this took several attempts) and made my way back to Dan. He was getting up, his fever having just broken. In addition to Dan needing his full strength back before riding down the mountain to Manali (I can’t exactly drive a motorcycle and this was not the road on which to learn), it had monsooned the entire night before, soaking the road and making it unsafe for travel, so we knew had to spend one more night. However, we decided it was time to leave Malana proper, having stayed longer than probably necessary for such an odd and slightly depressing place. Slowly we hiked down and out of town, careful of where we walked in order not to disturb the town’s juju. We spent that night near the river by Malana Gate.
The ride down the next day was not easy, especially for Dan. The roads, although slightly more passable, were still slick and bumpy. It was stressful, no doubt. This part of the story is best told from Dan’s perspective, which you should definitely check out! (Motorcycling to Malana, Land of the Stoner Hindu)
I know there’s so much about Malana that remained a mystery to my eye as an outsider. Despite the oddity that is Malana, the journey there and back was unforgettable. The beauty of the Kullu and Parvati Valley had my jaw dropping even when I was clenching Dan’s body on the back of our motorcycle with a thousand foot drop-off to our side and a dangerously narrow, steep, and winding road to our front.
It was anxiety driving for sure, but fortunately, Dan’s focus down that harrowing mountain road got us safely back, and for that, I’ll give a little extra thanks to Shiva.
NAT’S EYE VIEW: MALANA
The few pictures I snagged below of Malana are from a bench perched above the clouds of the holy valley, rain lightly misting around me, as Dan lay sleeping inside our ragged tin structure recovering from a virus I likely passed to him only several days prior…
But hey! At least the views were incredible.