Leaving Shimla meant leaving Raja. But it meant going to the one place in the world that might possibly let me pass through this without the standard accoutrement of heartbreak. For the Parvati Valley is truly perfect. The only annoying thing being two flies who seem insistent on living in my room. I`m sure they`re the same two. I`m starting to recognize their different personalities and one is clearly stupider than the other. However, like a dog wanting to be fed, they insist on waking me up in the morning, and getting me out of bed once the sun is up. Fortunately, that`s quite late, for the mountains block out the sky in all directions but straight up.
I gotta just breakitdown.
There`s a river outside my window is serious. We`re talkin class four rapids here. They`re the kind of rapids where if you fall in, you do your best to not thrash around too much for fear of breaking something. Its fresh glacial melt raging down a ragged valley at a bottleneck in the stream. The fortress that is the Sikh Gurudwara guards the pass and sleeps and can feed 4000 a day. My hotel is next door. Between us is the Shiva temple, beautiful, new, completely clad in marble, and all of us are sitting on top of hotsprings which warm the soil of the town. The Gurudwara looks to have been built to withstand a seige and sits on atop both hotspring and cold springs. My hotel could not withstand a siege, however as I have eight panes of glass between me and the river, and a three story drop. The balcony is shared with two other rooms, and, as I said, overlooks the churning river. In the evening the waterlevel rises, presumably due to glacial melt during the warm, clear days. The monsoons are ending meaning the showers are progressively more scattered. Yet the river has a tide that makes it scary during the day, but downright sinister at night. This is the Parvati River. And its interesting to note that she is NOT a wrathful deity. She`s no Durga or Kali. Parvati is the earth-goddess and Shiva is the sky-god, and their cults predate history. As I said before, 57AD coins from the Kushan Empire have greek kings on one side, and Shiva images on the tails side. This was in Afganistan, not far from here. So, Shiva goes way back, and Parvati is one of his older wives. But Parvati ain`t bullshit. No. Her shores are banked with Himalayan Cedar (Deodar?), huge boulders, sheer cliffs, and a road, upon which there is a bus, on whose roof one can ride (^v^)v.
But I digress. The mountains on each side of the valley here are barely climbable, and would give a goat pause to think. But what is most surprising is that there`s nobody here. Kasol, down the valley a bit, nestled in pine forest where the valley widens momentarily, has become a "Little Israel," which has greatly improved the quality of life elseware in the valley. Israelis are great people, and I love them, but the combination with the Hindus is not ideal. These are just two people who will never see eye to eye. My neighbor, Ashley, a fourty three year old painter from Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, put it best, "Israelis are just like the Ugly Americans in Europe in the `50s." As soon as I explained it in that way to my mom, she immediately understood the problem. My generation of backpackers is probably the first for whom the stigma of that generation did not stain Europe. However, it will be much longer until Israelis and Hindu see eye to eye.
Kasol, drawing the fire from Manikaran has left it a ghost town. In five years, five more guest houses were built, but most of them stand empty. There is exactly one proper restaurant in town, the rest being standard fare of any Indian town. The middle of town apparently was swept away by a flood, then an earthquake in 2002, and is today a wide dirt and gravel thoroughfare and the riverfront is a bare fence-baled stone retaining dyke. The market streets on either end are abruptly terminating, allowing one to imagine what probably happened. Apparently the 400 or more year old temple has been buried more than once under silt from the flooding river. The town now sits six feet above the temple`s ground level.
For my needs, I have everything. My window holds a view of the Shiva temple. The river could kill me and take no notice. The hotsprings are a very low sulpher radium springs. The hotel cleans the shared bath regularly, but today the temperature was just right by the afternoon, so I did an hour of yoga in the bathhouse soaking and stretching my weary bones. Finally a series of injuries stretching back ten years has left me with some strange skeletal alignments. And as I work out the most immediate pain, it segues into a pain on the opposite side of my body for which it was compensating. Work out that one, and then there`s another. I finally traced it all the way back to a rollerblading injury in Asheville, NC. It was the summer of 94. I was in a band of somewhat eccentric musicians from Florence, SC. Florence is one of those cities that makes me insist on Firenze whenever talk turns to Italy. However we were going to play on the street in front of the Pizza Shop Tommy occasionally made deliveries for (he was a bike courier). Anyway, the day of our busk, I went out on my rollerblades which I retrofitted with a second brake, to accentuate the Hermetic imagery, to scout out the venue. Lots of police roadblocks closing off all the streets downtown, lots of chaos, all appeared to be a go. But on my way home from recon, I was slaloming between traffic cones, and my toe clipped the extra brake, sending me falling eliptically, onto my shoulder, and then back to my feet. I sorta bounced. And rolled home, not too scraped, but my shoulder definitely didn`t feel right. Going home, I laid down and rested as it swelled. But the show must go on, and my shoulder wasn`t going anywhere, t`was still attatch, for the most part, so off I went to play flute at our "concert". Now, the arm with which one supports the weight of the flute just happens to be the same one whose collar bone I`d just broken. After playing for four hours, I had to go to work, bussing tables on the busiest night of the year. It would be unthinkable to not go to work. The next day was more of the same, but I think I sat out on the fluteplaying. By monday I was in tears, called in sick to work, and licked my wounds. A week later when I finally went to Urgent Care, they x-rayed it, told me it was broken, and offered me an arm sling, which did help at work, but wasn`t worth the 250 bucks.
So, these are the pains that come back to haunt after ten years. But it is frustrating that the more yoga I do, the sorer I become. Still, a new pain is better than an old.
There is internet here Manikaran. A desktop computer running through a bluetooth connection to a mobile handset. And its standard dialup speed. Not much higher than 14.4 I`d reckon. But its nearly the last internet cafe this side of the Pinparbati pass, at 5,300meter. I wonder if Khirganga has internet access now? Do they even have electricity yet is the question. But internet would follow on the heels of that technology, taking it up to 3,000 meters.
The Gurudwara serves free food, 24 hours a day. Just walk in, grab a plate, sit down on the floor in line with everyone else, and eat until you are full, then go to the tea line and sip your tea, under the curious gaze of the Punjabi pilgrims. The food is good. Rice, Dhal, curry, and Subji, or vegetable masala, Achar, and whole wheat Chapati. Sometimes fresh fruit and fresh curd. The sikhs eat well, food prepared for free, served for free, and eaten for free. And that`s about a hundred yards from my front door, making my stay that much more convinient. I prefer set menus to making decisions.
Ah, the best part. Under the pines all throughout the valley is the natural habitat of hemp. In fact, hemp is the dominant weed in several vacant lots. Now, the "garden variety" hempweed is not where marijiana comes from. Cultivated varieties of this plant produce the finest hash anywhere in the world. Nowhere else in the world is the hemp plant happier.
The locals seem bored, but handling it well. Checking into my hotel, the desk clerk with a wandering eye asked me for my passport information, the standard visiters form, passport and visa number, then asked for my signature. "Can I get you anything, tea, coffee, smoking...?" "What price?" "300 rupees" Same as when I left. Thank God they don`t have inflation in this valley! His first price was his last price and he even showed me his scales and weighed it for me. I doubted its weight (a tolah is just shy of 12 grams, but usually its sold at 10 grams, giving both buyer and seller wiggle room) but it came out at 10.5 grams. Fair enough. Still, a dealer with a wandering eye is a little disconcerting. Its hard to establish trust one eye at a time. But turns out he`s a nice guy and not at all as evasive as he looks.
"Paradise found," says they trekking map, and cheesy as it is, in this case, it doesn`t seem hyperbole. There`s even black market beer (110 rupees) available from closer than the Gurudwara. There`s everything, including two flies who will not be convinced to vacate. I spent all afternoon cleaning and mopping and airing and shaking, and fumigating with dhoop incense. Its designed to keep away the flies, but what it really does is get the flies stoned. So, understandably in this valley, the flies congregated. Dhoop just invited the neighbors. Now that I`m not burning dhoop, I`m left with my two roomates who persist in buzzing around my feet when I`m barefoot or sitting on my computer monitor to get my attention. I try to sweep them out toward the window, but to them its just a big game. First the big one flies around my ear and darts off. A couple seconds later, the smaller dumber one comes along just when I`m right pissed. So guess who gets swatted. About the third time I hit the guy I realized what was going on, so I stopped. I guess you can choose your friends, but you can`t choose your roomates.
Two nights ago at 2:30 am for another example, I went to get in the onsen...errr... hotsrpings bath. The water was fine. So I closed the door. But behind the door was one of those spiders that`s the size of your fist. The ones that hang a good inch and a half off the floor from long, pendulous, yellow and white striped, furry legs. It wasn`t a species of Trantula I`d seen before. The only other time I`ve seen one in the wild was also in India. Anyway, I knew that I wasn`t in any danger. They are hunters, not web spinners. Rather they use their webs just like Spiderman. I knew he knew I was quite a bit out of his league, but the thought of getting naked with him in the room just seemed a bit ill-guided and creapy. So, I carefully shooed him away with a broom. Thankfully he was pretty slow, unlike proper tarantulas. After getting him out and around the corner, I had to chase away one of the large cockroaches we called palmetto bugs in Florida (no palmetto at 1600 meters). He was pretty bright. I guess he saw what went down with the spider, cause when I went for him with the broom, he just bee-lined it for the door.
I came to India to write, practice yoga, and meditate. So far, mission accomplished. I do yoga spontaneously throughout the day, write when I`m inspired, and dabble in .html when I`m not. Watch movies... I watched Crazy Beautiful tonight, and its uncanny how much like Kiersten Dunst looks like Raja. I`ll try not to think about that tonight. Its hard enough losing Raja, but to lose both Raja and Kiersten Dunst would be too hard to take.
A Lecture: Neediness of One`s Environment
The moon doesn`t even clear the trees on top of the mountain in front of my hotel. Yet, here at sunset I can just see the half moon peeping through gaps in the trees. As I lay in my bed, I can watch the moon pass its apex, crawling along the ridgeline. Three more days till the full-ish moon. I ought to think about leaving soon.
I met a girl named Reema who was very unique. Native born and raised in India, she`s short and shapely, she has the skin tone almost of a Tamil. She is one hundred percent middle class Indian and has never been abroad. She`s my age, ten years older than her boyfriend, and had shared his dream of opening a cafe. But their stars didn`t match, and finally his family would not agree to the union. Apparently the age difference wasn`t the issue, it was astrology. Reema is from Assam and on the September 7th will return home to one of several projects that are waiting for her. She`s lived in Mumbai for several years, and is fluent in English down to innnuendo. Her parents are divorced and both remarred, she has a countable number of siblings. She`s done a correspondence IT course, and has worked in the field. She`s helped organize a film festival, and has done voice-overs in Bollywood. She would seem like a totally normal girl, if only she`d grown up in Portland. Not only is she the first approachable Indian girl I`ve met in a year over here, but she`s actually an interesting person I`d love to know anywhere. Now she`s 31 and breaking up with her boyfriend. You can imagine the pressure she`s under at home to get married.
We begin to swear before we can talk.
14 August, 2005. Decided to climb the mountain behind town, so I walked out front of my hotel, and just kept walking straight. Turns out my front doorstep is the trailhead. So, up I climbed.
Baba Deep Singh Ji came to Manikaran to meditate. He`s a very famous Baba in the Sikh tradition. It is in his honor that the Gurudwara was built by the river. This is a major pilgrimage destination for Sikhism. The trail I was following was well maintained up to the cave complex where Babaji lived for 40 days at a time in retreat. I discovered his simple shrine, and then was directed in the wrong direction (I misinterpretted his gesture) through the back of the temple grounds. Eventually, beyond two cave dwellings the trail ended. So I just kept climbing up until I reached the trail again. On the way I bouldered over some tricky passages, and waded through hip deep grass. The Himalayas are one of those mountain ranges where you should never assume the ground will continue to be under the grass from moment to moment. The ground has a way of giving out suddenly to a sudden 50 foot chasm, or worse. Its like Lynville Gorge, but on a much much grander scale. So, bushwacking is frought with peril, and should be treated as so, even when you are in an idylic meadow with valley views worthy of postcards in every direction. This is where one needs to remind oneself to keep looking down. As I rested in the meadow, the insects of every kind were chirping and twittering and buzzing. Eagles were soaring through the valley, and the noonday sun was beating down on my military surplus "boonie hat."
At the top, I came upon the back door of a boulder. There were three doors in fact, but what I didn`t realize immediately was that all the doors were connected. Further, several had been leveled inside with sleeping platforms and stairs. But there was still a fourth room I had yet to discover, even after exploring all the caves. Coming out the front door of the boulder complex, there is actually a proper door, and the path to the backdoors isn`t evident. Later, descending the mountain I discovered the cliff at the top of the boulder, overlooking the trail up. Hands down, if the world goes to hell, I`m coming here. This is the singlemost defensible location I have ever found. Across a raging river, a quarter the way up a steep mountain in a cave complex with water resevoir and hidden rooms, and surrounded by big burly Sikhs who hate nothing more than their Hindu and Muslim neighbors. The Sikhs also make up about half of the army at any significant rank. They were the bodyguards of the government until one disgruntled Sikh revenged Indira Ghandi`s siege and storming of the golden temple in Amritsar, killing the militant seperatist leader who`d holed up there thinking she wouldn`t dare. Tens of thousands of Sikh were murdered or disappeared in the following days in Delhi and throughout the Punjab, thus continuing the ongoing cycle of revenge and violence between Hindu and Sikh of the last 500 years. There`s a strong case to be made that Sikhism is in fact a Hindu sect, but the Sikhs won`t even hear of it. The Sikhs are one close-knit family. On pilgrimage, they all eat together and sleep in the same rooms, bath together, and live the same spartan lifestyle run with military efficiency. If things ever got really bad, they could mobilize the entire Sikh population, and they would all slip into their swords and take up arms with one voice. Or at least that`s been the case in the past. In the wake of the Delhi Riots, The Punjab was practically in a state of civil war. But this was the first time that the Sikh turned against eachother, and things petered out to a state of lingering animosity and mutual distrust, but Hindu still go to the Gurudwara for the free meal and are welcomed, and the Sikh temple here proudly displays the Hindu pantheon; as Actualized Beings, all the Gods are venerated in Sikhism. Jesus, Mohammed, Krishna, Shiva, they are all welcome in the Sikh temple. But only the Holy Book is given actual reverence. I lost track. At any rate, sadhus of every sect are reverenced in Sikhism, and they would be welcome and quite at home in this caves.
Further on, I noticed the ridgeline sharpening a little, and in a small clearing, two trails diverging into the words. I took the one that led to the sound of water. In a hollow on the mountainside was a cascading stream of crystal clear water (though the following day it was muddy from a landslide). I figured that this was the bathing area for the cave complex and followed the sadhu`s path to a bathing hole. I found a nice pool where one could just lay down between two small cascades, the higher of which fell easily on one`s shoulders. Looking around, there was no one to be seen, so I stripped down and slid in. Taking the chill of the river into my bones, I then crawled up onto a rock and meditated under the noon sun until the sweat beaded up on brow, then dipped back into the river.
One peculiar feature of the Himalayas at this altitude is the predominance of glitter in the soil. One does not get dusty without getting sparkley, and the silt stirred up in the streams makes one who bathes therein shiny. All the rocks have some sheen to them, and most are just sedimentary pixie dust weathering down and releasing micah in flakes that get into everything just like Sarasota`s powder sand. But the micah flakes are much finer and get up into your pores with room to spare. So one continues to shimmer even after a shower.
So, I made the same mistake I made in Italy. Figured the mountain didn`t look so big, so I set out after breakfast, expecting to be back for lunch. I took a litre of water, just to be safe. As it turns out, the "mountains" on either side of the river are rather the big toes of the feet of proper sized mountains. Not foothills. They are false summits in the worst way, since both, quite nearly cliffs, don`t even register as hills when you look down on them from further up, Just the first babystep up the mountain. I had picked a route from the rooftop of the hotel across the river, and kinda missed my turn to the top of the little hill I wanted to climb. Instead, I climbed for a couple hours until I reached a villiage, but not one with any shops. Not even a chai wallah. So I proceeded through town, followed by some children playing with a whistle and a transistor radio. But at the edge of town, they kept walking, leaving me alone and in peace. Very well mannered children, curious, but within reasonable bounds. We played with my camera for a while, and then they passed on. I found a comfortable rock in the shade from which to survey the breathtaking view up the Parvati Valley, with the pastoral, untouched villiage in the midground, and crops of hemp lining the fields, appearing to grow wild (The police will occasionally cut down "crops")
After a few minutes, I started to hear a thump, thump around me. I looked down, and noticed for the first time all the apricots I was standing among. I looked to where I had heard the sound, and there were two bruised, but eminently ripe and delicious apricots. Looking around I saw many more uneaten fruit. Being fallen fruit, according to Biblical and Vedic orthodoxy, they were totally fair game. (You can`t pick fruit in clear conscience, but fruit once fallen is first come, first serve.) The tree was maybe 150, maybe 300 years old, and was scraggly, thick limbs with few fruit bearing branches, but very old. And apparently nobody`s property. So I made my lunch on recently fallen apricots, with a salad of hemp leaves. I think it was the best lunch I`ve ever had. I sat down and rolled a smoke, but just before I lit up, a woman carrying a baby tied to her back with a shawl walked by with another younger woman. The older asked me where I was from and where I was staying in very broken syntax, then invited me back to her house for tea. I`d really been hoping for a chai wallah in the villiage, but who could hope for being invited home for tea with the local beauties! Though I was never sure, I managed to work out that the baby was "maybe nine months old" and the "maybe 15 year old" girl was its mother. The other young woman who was "maybe nineteen or twenty" was her sister, and the mid-40 year old woman was grandmother to the baby.
The baby was totally unsure of me at the beginning. He started to cry as soon as I reached out to him. Gramma left him in the room alone with me and he wasn`t having it at all. I got some great photos of all this. The question I`m left with was why did they invite me into their home when none of them could, or made any real effort to speak a word to me. Just to spend time with some strange American? When I had had my fill of playing with the baby, and he had grown bored with my camera, and I was ready to leave, I discreetly offered money for the chai, not to insult them, but just because I was still unclear if this was business or pleasure. It was refused. She really did just want to have me over for tea.
After lunch fallen from heaven and afternoon tea, I started heading back, hoping to beat the afternoon rain. Heading down, just off the trail I found the most successful natural rock garden I`ve ever seen. Rocks indigenous to the slope, exposed with perfect naturalness on a site somewhat leveled to view a 15 meter waterfall falling away from the villiage, and grow one large, manicured Apricot tree. No apricots left on these branches, and the refuse had been raked into a pile. A well maintained garden; grass undoubtedly mown regularly by sheep and cattle. There I smoked the joint I`d rolled before under the tree bearing gifts to a hungry traveller.
I harvested a handful of the sage though, and have been smudging my room all night to scare away flies. It works better than the dhoop. I figure burning local foliage might discourage the flies better than burning Dhoop from higher up the mountain, which only seems to get them high, and attract more lies.
The really surprising thing about the villiage was the clean, healthy dogs. The first I`ve seen off a leash in India. These dogs were well-fed, healthy, with thick shiny coats. It made me happy to know that at least a few dogs did find a good home in India.
A Lecture: Principles of Elemental Yoga™
A cloud of fog eminates from the hotsprings runnoff emptying into the chilly Parvati river. The fog rolls in through my window like June in San Francisco. The river rages noisily on and on. A part of daily life, but yesterday I began to wonder at what point I should start worrying, as there were breaking waves atop a boulder that normally juts out from the riverbed. Even over the pervasive dull roar of the jumping water, you can still hear the rocks shifting underneith. The dull thud as one boulder hits another boulder. The ground is never stable this close to the river. Its like a perpetual 1-2 richter earthquake rumble. The water is rarely still in my bottle. Fog rolls across my keyboard, in front of my screen while Ulrich Schnauss` lush melodys pour out of my 10 year old Denon studio monitor headphones, which still kick after all these years.
Its still hard for me to imagine that the cliffside of the mountain I see out my window is nothing but the little toenail of the mountain which stands on top. That steep grade which only cedars and sheep can climb is negligible when viewed from higher up. From My hotel room I can`t quite see the creek I bathed in the other day. Its hidden between two crags wedged in the clouds and over the top of the toenail behind my hotel. And here in the narrowing of the valley, the river courses through a small gap between two boulders, the Gurudwara spanning both, forming a formidable fortress. In this season, the mountaintops are never clear of the clouds. I`m biding my time until clearer weather.
August is not really the month to be in India. Its rainy everywhere. Here its neither chilly and damp like the hillstations, nor sauna-like and soaked like the plains. Nor infernal like central India, where 138 degrees in the shade is not unprecidented. But here, the climate is moderate in the summer, and its exciting just to look out the window, and its delightful just to sit in my room on a rainy day, write, smoke, do yoga, and bathe in hotsprings. The sun peaks through the rain, making the muddy turbulent river glow orange. But when the weather clears, I must be on my way.
'Your scholars, by these books, have followed the
[Buddha`s] Blessed Feet in all their wanderings; but there are things which
they have not sought out. I know nothing - nothing do I know -
but I go to free myself from the Wheel of Things by a broad and
open road.' -- "The Lama" in Kipling - Kim
My brother kneels (so saith Kabir)
To stone and brass in heathen wise,
But in my brother's voice I hear
My own unanswered agonies.
His God is as his Fates assign -
His prayer is all the world's - and mine.
Kabir quoted in Kim
Khirganga, India. I`m sitting in a shed, not really a shed, more like a stable for a small horse, at the Ashram in Khirganga. To say this is basic is a stretch. Its not basic, its a wooden box with a small window and a door, adjoined at the back to someone`s kitchen, and at either side to four other rooms. Its the first hotel I`ve stayed in where I felt compelled to use my groundcloth and set up camp. I made the mistake of shaking out the woven plastic matting on the floor, and it emitted a rotting plastic stench. When I say window, I mean a wooden plank that swings open on hinges attached by nails. The craft which went into this room is similar to the level of craft used in shipping crates, but not as sturdy. Needless to say, there is no electricity, so battery life is precious commodity. So I empty my camera cards, refill my ipod, and write by candle light to you.
I cannot stress enough how staggering, sheer, and massive the Himalayas are. I am a fit man, with a twentyfive kilo pack, and a seven mile hike took me right up to my limit. I arrived at four after walking a very leisurely pace, stopping to admire each waterfall and tree. But by the end, I had definitely lost my sense of humor. In the heightened awareness that can only come by scrambling around boulders and over tree roots bare to a thirty foot fall, everything seemed to have taken on an added lustre, the colors seemed brighter than they should on an overcast day. I love the sparkle that comes to life from confronting death.
The trail leading to Khirganga is typical of trails in these mountains. They simply go where the mountain allows, which is never anywhere close to the river, and has big arcs over the toes of the mountain which jut out, occasionally climbing fifty meters to a fordable section of creek that continue to carve at these crumbling summits. Most of the hollows running down the mountainside house a small stream, some of which are quite impressive. Waterfalls are so common as to barely be worthy of notice until the clear fall exceeds a hundred meters.
Getting here was a delightful misadventure. After several false starts I managed to peel myself out of Manikaran, and boarded a bus to Pulga. This much I thought I knew. But in the five years since I was here they have begun the monumental undertaking of taming the Parbati river. This is to be accomplished with a combination of dams, resevoirs and tunneled runoffs to neighboring watersheds. The progect will generate 2 megawatts of electricity, potentially providing the valley 24 hour electricity. Manikaran still has periodic blackouts of up to two or three hours and there`s load-shedding in most villiages, usually at night. The town effectively has a "lights out" when the power goes down around 9 or 10pm.
So past the end of the road had become unrecognizable since my previous visit. the river has been culverted at a narrow cataract in the mountains and bursts through this aperture with fury beneith a new bridge, bypassing the old trail, and considerably shortening the hike. As none of the maps have account for the new project, they all shown two river crossings which were now unnecessary. In indecision, I asked several people for directions, including a policeman, who all confidently misdirected me. I took the high road instead of the low, and found myself approximately where my faulty memory of where I should be directed. Past the first river crossinig and into the villiage of Tosh, I made a second wrong turn, passing straight through town on what was now clearly the main road. This then led up a valley system behind the mountain which faces Khirganga. I had hiked another 30 minutes when I came upon an encampment of Ghopis, (cow herders); the camp was all women and children, several quite attractive young girls in fact. There was much bustle, but little work being done on a momentary plateau before the ridge started. As I climbed up the ridge everything started looking definitely wrong, but I was still unconcerned. The whole walk I`d had the sense misdirection about me, but couldn`t seem to care. To me, at that moment, being lost was just as valid as being found. So, I climbed to a high point, brought out my binoculars and took the lay of the land. I could see my gopis, several scattered homesteads across the northern valley, and a continuous sheer cliff upon the opposite valley wall. I knew there had to be a trail on the opposite shore, for I`d seen a bridge earlier. I reasoned that the only possibility was a hideous trail that climbed over the cliff and back to the gentler slope where the two rivers joined back in Parvati Valley. Further, straight in front of me through the bows of the cedars, and unnoticable without binoculars and patience, was the villiage of Tosh which I had ignorantly passed through without confirming the trail. So, having resolutely determined that I had no fucking clue where I was going, I decided to spend my afternoon whither I had found myself. I supped on dried dates and salted pistachios, smoked a joint, and meditated beneith the cedars, to the music of cicedas. As the afternoon showers began to creep up the valley, I decided to return to Tosh for the evening, instead of proving myself resilient by camping where I sat. Then, following the ridgeline down to the meadow, I suddenly realized I was standing on a knife-edge of dirt, with a plumet of a hundred feet on one side and twenty on the other. I`ve been on such knife-edges before, but rarely one that felt so temporary.. This unnerved me a bit, and I gingerly picked my way down the slope with caution. There are risks to following the trails of animals far lighter per foot than a bipedal, laden human.
In Tosh, the accomodations are far from stellar For 50 ruppes I stayed in a room no wider than a queen bed (the standard rule here is two single beds side by side with a single sheet spanning them. This sheet is rarely washed, but here the pillows were noticably brackish grey where they should be red. ). There wasn`t an inch between the bed and either wall. At the foot of the bed as an area maybe five by four where one made entrance into the bed. The light is a bulb, with a wire, leading to two frayed ends which one ought to jam into the outlet if one desires light. It was irrelevant, as there was no electricity after dark anyways. The doors opened onto an unrailed four by four foot platform, suspended on sapling trunks, with stairs decending to the yard below. From the Platform, the view was of the snow-capped mountain, nearly 10 km away across the Parvati valley. Everything is on a grand scale in these mountains. Even the false summits seem grand. This is what lends the scale. Even the tiny details are gargantuin. But the hotel would make a building inspector weep. No railings around the first story porch, and stairs meeting at unfortunate angles.
That night was filled with conversation of the party I`d missed the night before, and eveyone was hung over and strung out from the night before. Beer, whiskey, hash, opium and 200 people, predominantly Israeli climbed to a farm at the top of the ridge behind Tosh (which is itself at the top of a ridge, and there`s a ridge higher still, and so on), and stumbled down blindly on into the morning. I met Baba Ram Bo. who is a "tourist baba" at this stage in his life, doesn`t wear the orange, drinks, smokes, and parties. He hangs out with westerners in Goa and the Kullu valley. He has plugged into something. that much is sure.
The next morning, I cavalierly assured them that the mountain could bring me her worst, but could they please direct me to the shortcut to Khirganga. He mentioned the bridge I`d seen the day before, which excited me. I was curious how it got over the cliff face. But I wouldn`t find out. I was not 50 meters out of the villiage before I was lost amidst the terraced fields descending the hillside. I followed the most frequented path in the direction of the bridge, but found myself on deer trails amid a beautiful meadow of chin high hay grass, lined in hemp instead. Still, I pushed on, knowing there to be a trail at the bottom of the terraces at least. Hitting this trail, I second-guessed myself, having lost confidence, and consequently my will to climb over the cliff face I was now seeing more intimately across the river, plunging a solid three hundred feet straight down into the river, with no possibility of a "low road". So, lost, I took the path of least resistance, and ended up back where I had started the day before. This time I took the low road, across the new bridge, and followed some villiagers up the mess of trails around the dam construction site. Reaching the field at the top, and finding a comfy tree, I dried out my socks in the sun, made lunch of pistachios and dates, and had a smoke. Answering the call to nature I learned the viriulence of the local strain of stinging nettle. along the trail, they quickly lose their sting, but just off trail, where one might duck in for privacy, they show no mercy. Hemp leaves make good t.p.
Its a short trail, only 6 or 7 kilometers and for some reason, all the tourists have been diverted to the harder of two. Nevertheless, its a fun hike. There are several large waterfalls, and several more which the slope conceals in its steepness. The whole path is lined in 300 year old cedars, and a few primative logging operations, where cable-transport is the only option for removing the trees. They square the logs, season them and then ship. An hour along the trail, there was a little old lady selling chai. And charas. I was too amused not to buy from her. Something about a gramma who speaks no English holding up a tolah of charas and grinning was too precious. It turned out to be total crap. A mix with some other black goo, or just a particulary low quality. Nevertheless, what was I going to do, go back and complain to gramma over 200 rupees ($5)? Maybe next time. One gets used to these tea and snack shops stuck in the middle of nowhere. They are part of the special charm of hiking the Himalayas.
The trail looks simple, and is not talked about forbiddingly, but nevertheless, there are signs of catastrophe. Nailed to a tree was one that said, " Amihay Cohen (1975-1999) Here fell and died a good man full of joy who wasn`t careful. Please be aware of short cuts. Love you and Alw..." the rest was broken off. The fatal section had no short cuts that I could imagine attempting. A bowl of cliffs with a single passable break, crowned by a 50 meter, two stage waterfall. Mr. Cohen fell seeing this beautiful waterfall in his last moments. There are worse ways to go.
However after four hours, the trail lost some of its novelty and despite my restful pace, I was beat down. It might have been my overloaded backpack, or the several smokes to get that far, but as the Parvati Valley narrowed, in the elevated awareness arisen from exhaustion, I began to remember the trail vividly. This part had been little improved in the previious five years. I started recognizing individual trees, rock cuts still being cut, and one particularly spectacular waterfall, which fell in three or four major cascades from halfway up the mountain opposite straight into the river below. The view of the complete fall was impossible from one location as it twisted through crevice after crevice. Two of the sections were over a hundred meters of continuous drop. The opposite side of the valley is apparently passible only by the most determined mountain goats. Even the ridgeline profile was fractured by cliff faces. After a week with binoculars I could piece together a viable walk-up route to near the summit, but the final ascent would be a bastard, and much easier with proper lead-climbing gear. Needless to say, I could see no reason to attempt it.
Khirganga inspires lethargy like no place I`ve ever been. Its hard to motivate when you are in an encampment in paradise. Khirganga looks not unlike a very small refugee camp, but with a natural hotsprings bath. I stayed in the Ashram that has grown to 29 rooms. As I said before, my first room was a stall only, and comfortable as it was, I changed to a better room the next day. This one was in the new building; the room contained just shy of a double bed, so that the mattress curved up the wall at its width. The room neatly framed the bed, with an additional two feet of floorspace completing a square floorplan. There was a door and a window with glass.
Laying in bed, gazing out the window at the nameless mountain opposite I got all my news for the day. If I woke up and the clouds were at one altitude it meant rain at 4pm; at another, rain all day. If the clouds were racing for the summit (rising quickly) it meant the clouds would burn off and reveal paradise. These three weather patterns came in succession and structured my day accordingly. Waking up, getting free tea at the ashram kitchen, returning to smok and meditate on the floor of my room gazing out at the meadow, the cedars, and the mountain. After an hour, a bath in the hotsprings, then yoga, concluding with another dip in the outside tub. The water at khirganga has a very interesting algae growth that is stark white, without a hint of pigmentation. It grows where the water emerges from the mountain, behind a small Shivaling shrine, and breaks off to cover the bottom of the pool with white flecks that are thought of as Parvati`s milk. And look not unlike curdled milk, for that matter. The water is not hot, but rather the perfect temperature for a bath, and the pool doesn`t have a mitigating cold-stream flowing in. The water is purely onsen water. Slightly more sulphuric than in Manikaran, but still fragrant, not odeferous. The small flakes of Parvati`s milk float like snow in a souvineer paperweight when you move through the water, and rapidly settle.
After the bath, further meditation and the onset of boredom led me back into studying the Abhidhamma. Again. It took this level of isolation to restart my research. But there literally was nothing to do all day. There was no sense in walking more than a kilometer in every direction, as it was all beautiful. The cowpasture bordered by cedar forest was a natural Zen rock garden; the closely cropped grass and the masterful composition of the stones made natural occurance seem improbable. But it met all the aesthetic criteria of the Japanese art without human intervention. I could and did sit for hours in the field looking at stars, looking at mountian vistas, looking at rocks, four leaf clovers, etc. The rest of the day was spent at one of the three tent-cafe`s talking to my new friend Shahar (sounds like Cheryl with a ghutteral h and rolled r). Shahar has turned lethargy into a virtue, and prides herself on the fewness of paces taken in a day. As much as I tried to emulate her slack, I was inevitably chastised for excessive movement. She spent most of every day in Khirganga at one of two tea shops, and only by bribing her with a joint was I able to get her to go for a walk through the meadow. We made an expedition of it, packed trailmix and cookies, a bottle of water, my groundcloth (which in the end replaced our forgotten raingear), and such things as one needs for an expedition of 500 meters. Stopping on the first ridge in the pasture, we rested on a stone large enough for a picnic, and broke into the apricots and almonds. A final push of five minutes took us to our destination, the highest summit in the field (25m). There, clearly we needed an hours` rest and planning before beginning our descent. We talked of her life growing up in the Kibbutz, a kibbutznik has to start work at 10 years old, and she was having none of it. Eventually her slack was costing her friends, so she started inventing jobs, such as helping out in the library, or in the Seniors center, pouring tea. Shahar was born to slack. Its her birthright.
Hearing her proclaim her unwillingness to work was a strange juxtiposition to Japan, where the expression "ganbatte" carries the connotation of both, "good luck," and "work hard," these two being seen as interdependant. Yet, a beautiful face and sparkling personality have brought the one and precluded the need for the other in her life. She was the quintessential Israeli in India. She has never hated anyone except her senior officer in the Military, and the military was hell on earth for her, as it would be for any other stoner in the world. Women usually have office work for their two years of service, and she has vowed never to work in an office again, and by the looks of it, intends to never work again once she`s married to her boyfriend of three years, who will be joining her in India in a couple months. Shahar fascinated me. I`ve often considered myself a slacker, but by comparison I`m a busybody and workaholic. But isn`t that what travel is all about. Seeing new world views, learning of other cultures; Khirganga taught me a culture of slack at such a magnitude that even the most burned out, couch potato hippie in America would be getting antsy. Khirganga has only two or three solar electicity panels, which power two "streetlights" and a couple stereos at the cafes. The latrines operate on a septic field system, and are flushed by manually filling a bucket in the nearby stream (eminating from the hotsprings... there`s nothing like wiping/washing your ass with warm hotsprings water). So the services are minimal. No telephone, effectively no electricity, no running water unless you count the diverted streams, no T.V., no internet, no truckhorns... no traffic noise. It really is too much. And very hard to leave. Still, I mustered my strength; I thought of travelling with Shahar, seeing if our friendship would develop into something more, but then thought better of it. After all, I`m not really a slacker at all... I just have slack periods, but when I`m on the road, I really enjoy hardship. I couldn`t see us working out. Since Raja, I am very concerned about travelling with anyone--man, woman, or beast.
Rainbows, Shooting stars, Four-leaf clovers, hotsprings. These are my memories of Khirganga. In my memory it looks like a child`s drawing of a fairy land from a storybook. Every evening as the sun ducked below the day`s rainclouds on the western horizon, they would catch the mist of the rains just past and illuminate the eastern valley with single, double and even faint triple rainbows. Because of the ideal conditions, bright sun hitting fine mist, I saw clearly for the first time the phenomenon of Supernumerary Rainbows. From the Encylopedia Britannica, "Occasionally, faintly coloured rings are seen just inside of the primary bow. These are called supernumerary rainbows; they owe their origin to interference effects on the light rays emerging from the water droplet after one internal reflection." They appear as bands of distortion occuring inside the rainbow, like the air is being bent by a sonic blast in a movie. The double-rainbow I saw appeared to be standing right on the edge of camp, on top of a boulder in the meadow, stretching up a hundred meters and then disappearing behind the Tent-cafe across the trail. You could practically touch it as the bright sun shone through the mist. Later that night after saying good evening to Shahar, I stepped out of the cafe, and looking up saw the stars which I have so longed to see all these years since Nepal. The sky had completely dropped for one night, and the glow was spectacular. We were now near the new moon, and the blackness was nearly absolute. As I stared overhead, stumbling up the trail and falling over a cow, then slipping into cowshit, I decided to go into the meadow for a better look. All the cows, for some reason, like to sleep in the middle of the trail in town. So I grabbed my space blanket, some snacks, my starchart and binoculars and went out beyond the glare of the two flourescent "streetlights" in Khirganga. Not far. With 10x binoculars, each empty space in the sky fills with stars under these conditions, and as I stared into the milky way I tried to visualize our galaxy and our planet`s place within. Then, I gazed off into what I took to be the center of the galaxy. Later in Vashisht, I would run into an Astrophysicist recently graduated from Oxford with her doctorate in Microwave background radiation. Her job was measuring the energy density of the universe. Cool, huh. Anyway, she assured me that the universe had no center, and we could Scientifically determine the energy density of the cosmos, and that up to ten to the minus 25th of a second, we were pretty sure where everything came from. I couldn`t quite see the edge of th universe with 10x binoculars, however, so I just let my imagination fill in the gaps exponentially, by powers of ten. I tracked satelites, watched the dim grey clouds of minor astroids burning up in the outer atmosphere, and took the time from the position of the little dipper, using my star chart. Days don`t get better than that, inventing new 10x constellations like the bat, the poodle, the tree of life...).
While I was walking in the meadow the day after a cold snap, I saw the first fall foliage changing in a cooler pocket of the mountains. I could smell snow on the air, and when the clouds cleared, there had been some accumulation above 6000 feet. But seeing fall`s first colors, knowing that I would leave fall and return to the Dry Season once I got down to India, it was like visiting an old friend for just a single day. I`m already missing autumn in Kyoto when all the temples light up in a fire of maple leaves. But I saw my friend the fall foliage, but sadly, I might not see its peak.
The first day I tried to leave turned out to be Shabbat, and given the perponderence of Israeli, I succumbed to local tradition, by which work and travel is vorboten. The next sunday I began my trek down the mountain. I hadn`t made it out of Khirganga yet when I saw Boris, the Russo-Israeli yoga instructor. I had asked him a few nights before a baiting question, "which style of yoga do you teach?" He`d responded, "Which one do you want?" "Good answer." He followed up a minute later with, "at some point you have to create your own style." This told me he was a kindred spirit, but I didn`t have an opportunity to talk with him further. Seeing him at the last exit to Khirganga, I dropped my heavy bag, and engaged him in a more intimate conversation, introducing myself with credentials so as to cut to the chase. It turns out he is in many ways self-taught, much as I am, but he is far far more disciplined and dedicated to his practice. He has excellent flexibility, and is able to do some complex techniques. However, he isn`t following the teachings of a guru, which can be restrictive. He was talking with a baba, whom I could see was a baba, and yet wasn`t in uniform. It turns out he was fluent in English, having grown up in Calcutta in the sixties. He took his first hit of acid in 1965; orange sunshine, two weeks out of California. The rest follows much as it would in The States, except that at thirty when he left home at 30 to become a baba, he was simply following 5,000 years` precident. He came to Manikaran, where he made his home and apparently owns a shopfront. However, he spends months at a time in Khirganga, and has lived in the caves behind "town" on and off for 20 years. This winter, when snow can block the trail for weeks at a time he plans to spend 6 months meditating in the caves. As for his choice of western clothes over the orange uniform of a baba, he said, "There is not one fucking baba in a million who is legit. Shit, the clothes don`t matter." His command of slang was vintage sixties American. At that time there were many Americans. Which is half-true. We were a greater proportion of the tourists because there simply were fewer tourists. But these days it seems as if there are no Americans in India. Most people say they see perhaps 2 a month. Of which I`m the second. I explain the 12 time zone difference, but really I know there are deeper social factors at work.
Following my feet, I ended up on the wrong trail again, and as I had gotten a late start, the afternoon showers were threatening rain, and I didn`t want to spend the rest of the hike and busride under stormy skies, I stopped in a small villiage and found a room in a house with a family for the night. It was a family of six; mother father, three daughters and a son. I wanted to ask about doweries, but thought it indiscrete with the 21 year old unmarried daughter present. In a region where most girls have their first baby at fifteen, she was definitely an old maid, and looked every bit my senior. Which was disconcerting. I had to remind myself to think of her as sister (didi) and not mama (mataji). Dinner with the family was in the kitchen, which consisted solely of a wood stove and a tin dry-storage trunk. Since I was company, they did me the disservice of a special meal. "Special" is when you make ghee for the occasion, which then becomes the principle flavoring for the meal. A tablespoon of hot ghee is poured over the dhal and another on the potato curry (just potatoes and a few pieces of onion. It was truly too much butter to stomach, and even though I did my best I couldn`t finish the meal that was offered me. The chapatis were made with a coarse-ground whole wheat flour, and the combined heaviness of stone-ground wheat, rice, potatos, and lentils, coated in three tablespoons of ghee overwhelmed my Japanese cullinary sensibilities.
My room had a separate entrance up a flight of stairs and a door I had to duck under to enter. It was reasonably clean, with a bed and two plastic chairs, but seemed spacious compared to the room I woke up in. Still, the Red Roof Inn is luxury compared to almost everywhere I`ve stayed... There was a bare bulb attached to a wire which was hung over a nail, thus resting against a poster of Parvati; I didn`t have a switch in the room to turn off the light, making a fire hazard that would bring tears to the eyes of the most jaded building inspector. Still, it was a warm and comfortable room for one night; and I rested secure knowing the villiage did not yet have 24hr electricity. Looking at the family, with their three cows under the kitchen porch, running water and occasional electricity I did not have a sense of poverty. They seemed practically affluent. All the kids went to school, and the 19 year daughter had already been married off. The children were wearing houseclothes blackened with dirt, but the next morning they were all dressed in clean and pressed uniforms. Yet anywhere else, a house without so much as a T.V., to say nothing of a refrigerator, washing mashine, or kitchen sink, would probably be considered poor. There are more gradations to poverty in India, wherein `three cows` trumps `kitchen sink` in status for middle-class. And the bucket-flush toilet certainly put them a cut above those who simply walked a few meters outside the villiage for their morning constitutional.
I understand now why there are so few amusement parks in India. For just under a dollar you can take a bus ride that makes amusement parks moot. The next morning I found my way back to Bashwani and the bus. Three busses, with super-efficient connections brought me back to civilization, back to 24 hour electricity, dialup internet, beer, and 200 rupee a night hotel rooms. For the entire ride down the Parvati Valley I was on the roof, smoking, enjoying the bright sunshine of a cloudless day. Mountains that had hid behind clouds on my way up were now out in the open. I had the roof to myself and lounged against some hemp gunny sacks filled with someone`s clothes, pots, and pans. But on the roof, you have to stay alert as there are bare powerlines overhead, branches sweeping the roof, and the occasional ambitious briar stalk. The staggering beauty of the valley took me to tears. It also took me away from the Parvati valley. The whole time I was leaving the valley, I had a lump in my throat. I felt like I was LEAVING. I had to remind myself that leaving the Parvati valley means entering the equally world-class Kullu valley, in which I now sit, reminiscing about paradise from paradise. When one is constantly surrounded by beauty, each place impossible to surpass by the next, nostalgia becomes empty and meaningless.