Where Eagles Soar – The First Bit of the Trip

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In the lap of the bounty of nature in the north of my country, there is a little state that is as a jewel set in the necklace of the Himalayas. Like the crowning pearl of this necklace, Himachal Pradesh adorns the lush green heart of India, a wondrously and dramatically beautiful place, where, as this Pilgrim found out, adventure is not dead.

Bhoyonkar Shundor. Deadly Beautiful, like the title of Sunil Gangopadhyay’s short adventure story. My fateful trip to Himachal Pradesh in the first two weeks of May, changed my life and that of my buddy who was with me throughout, plunging head-on into the shitstorm and the sweet bliss of the lull that follows. And I’m pretty sure we changed something in the lives of the people who were with us along the way, as characters in our tale.

I’m building up a little too much. But let my words prove themselves.

If you’ve been reading my blog posts, you would know that I set off from Bangalore in early September with a one-way ticket to nowhere and a rucksack full of whatever I would need for months on the road, and my lovely companion, a handmade Clayton acoustic guitar. I would particularly like to emphasize her importance in my travels, as she has brought beauty into many a heart, with her flawless figure and beautiful song. After a few months on the road, and a few adventures in the South of the country, in Goa, Gokarna, Hampi and Kodaikanal (and the entire Palani Hills area), meeting wonderful, offbeat freaky people, attending some crazy raves, making some good music with people on the go, tattooing some folks now and then, hunting for magic mushrooms in the wild and all in all having a wild and spiritually moving time, I ended up in a Vipassana meditation centre, where the story of my personal life took a drastic turn, upon a higher path. Armed with the Dhamma and the gift of bringing true happiness into the lives of people I met, I set my sights outside the country and visited Nepal, where I spent some great times and brought back many stories, besides other things. I was cooling my heels at home in Siliguri for a while, when Tushar (my friend from college and collaborator in several of my previous travels, see http://blog.roomnhouse.com/2013/12/la-vie-boheme-diary-of-a-tripper/) called up to remind me that we’d planned two weeks in Himachal Pradesh together. The trip was his parents’ graduation gift to him, and I’m a BoHo, so he flew over to Siliguri where we spent a day inventorying our stuff, as we planned to spend the next few weeks trekking and camping, getting away from the houses, the villages and the people. Dad, being a seasoned adventurer himself, was waving a list of trekking and camping supplies around, yelling out instructions, drilling happy camper advice into our noggins. “Familiarise yourself with the contents of your rucksack! Sleeping bag in a plastic bag at the bottom! Warm clothes on top of them! Cooking supplies with the gas stove, double wrapped in a waterproof bag. DON’T LOSE THE FREAKING TENT!”

Dad, how do you lose a tent when you’re sleeping in it?

We got packed and boarded the train to New Delhi, where we planned to stay the night at  my uncle’s place in Govindpuri. Delhi was HOT and noisy and the air was as heavily laden with suspended particles as always. So when we boarded the bus to Dharamshala the next morning, the breeze that blew through the window of the bus already tasted like pure mountain air, and the wheels of the bus went round and round, drumming out a tattoo that sounded like the beats of freedom. The mountains are in my blood. This I have always maintained, having spent my years at high school in Siliguri, right at the foothills of the Eastern Himalayas, and we’d trek and camp all the time in Sikkim and North Bengal and the North-East and Bhutan. But I hadn’t experienced the Greater Himalayas themselves, the middle range known as the Himadri and the soaring, majestically white snow peaks of Himachal Pradesh.
We had the last seats on the right of the bus and when Tushar woke me up in the early hours of the morning as the bus entered Kangra district, H.P., letting me light the first, sweet hash joint of the day, I blew out a stream of blue resinous smoke out the last window of the bus a bit sneakily, and opened my groggy eyes and almost choked. We were driving through the insane loops and bends of the little hills of Kangra, headed towards Dharamshala, but right there, smack dab in front of us, were a range of solid white beasts, the sunrise reflecting like gold off their surfaces. As I smoked what seemed like the best joint ever (forbidden pleasures, anything can go down in the back of a bus!) I gazed at them like a stoned person would at a fast food joint in an oasis in the middle of the desert. I was of course, high, but as Tushar quite lamely put it, we weren’t just high, we were doubly high. Jesus.

Nonetheless, we carried on with the same degrees of nomenclature for all the various altered states we found ourselves in, stretching the joke just quite as far as poor jokes go. As the bus drove through the foothills of this tiny mountain state, I couldn’t help noticing how rich everything looked. Not houses or people, but I mean Nature. Everything that sprung out of the ground here was so full of… the milk of LIFE. Wheat that was golden like the hair of the Girl with the Flaxen Hair. Marijuana bushes that leaped out playfully, enticingly, with their sweet, green teasing gesture of an outstretched palm, ready for a slow, high, five. The Roosters and Cows and other livestock looked like they were on the sets of a Dairy advertisement. Even the few people we saw out so early, walking on the paths and roads of Himachal as if it were all just one, massive garden, looking so happy and so content and well fed and rosy.

The streets of Dharamshala looked like rickety steps that led, winding all the way up into the hills. The bus took us to Mcleodganj directly, which saved us the bother of getting there ourselves, as we didn’t plan to spend more time than was necessary among civilisation. We alighted at Mcleodganj and Tushar, who is extremely sensitive to the cold, started getting his gear on. His winter gear. Yes, the full regalia. A certain gentleman offered us a room for a reasonable rate, so we grabbed our luggage, five pieces, (which is quite a lot, but we planned to hire a porter on the trek) and followed him through the little suburb of Dharamshala, and he brought us to the Om Shanti Guesthouse, painted green, with the symbol of the Tao (yin-yang for everybody who’s into Confucius), and I noticed, that the room key ALSO had a tag with the Tao on it. Nice.

The day was spent as junkie backpackers will, eating at overpriced cafes where the dumber tourists go, hoping only to score hashish off the waiters, getting let down as the hash wasn’t even worth smelling to check for potency, it was so hard. We finally gave up this self-destructive process and I thought about what to do. Himachal Pradesh is known for Marijuana and Charas, which have been the claim to fame for places like Manali and Malana in recent years. The townspeople of Malana (about 1500 in number) all even have their own, unique language that is completely different from everybody else in the district around, and serves as a code among them, necessary, as their main export for centuries has been hashish. Probably one of the original stoner languages!

From our vantage point up above Mcleodganj on the balcony of the hotel, we spied a tiny outcrop of houses on the hill in front of us, a place that looked likely to be the storehouse of some good resin, so we carried Tushar’s iPad for music and set off on the short walk to the village, which we reached after an hour’s puffing and panting. There didn’t seem to be any people about whom we could ask for clues to the best hash of the hills, as it was mostly rural women carrying water vessels and leading goats and looking at us queerly, so we decided to change our story and waltzed into a courtyard, where an elderly woman asked us what we were doing and we said we were looking for a chai shop. She screamed something unintelligible and we stood looking bemused, till her daughter ran out of the house and we told her what we were looking for. She instantly smiled and said she would make us tea herself. We were surprised at her hospitality to absolute strangers, and even more so when she came back out with a tray laden with tea rich in mountain-goat’s milk and cookies!
We sat there and chatted with the good lady, telling her we planned the next day to trek to Mani Mahesh, which is a common pilgrimage route, though Dad had told us it would be less crowded now in the off-season. She surprised us when her expression changed all of a sudden, becoming something like that of a comic character in an adventure graphic novel when Indie says something like “The Hidden Valley” and all the locals go :O and vehemently try and change his mind.

Yeah, it wasn’t quite as dramatic, but the good lady said we would surely be trapped on the path with no way to go back or forth, as it was absolutely snowed-under this time of year. We nevertheless finished our chai and smoked a joint, and said goodbye to the lady and her mum, who was now smiling at us through crinkly eyes and still screaming incoherently in our general direction, albeit in a more hospitable tone. We namaste’d a few times and took their leave. Wandering up through the little village on the hill, we came to a house that set itself apart from all of the others, in terms of the incredible view, its pretty slate courtyard and its quaint, traditional architecture. As we stood admiring the pretty house, a pretty woman walked out into the courtyard holding the hand of her adorable little son, who was just learning to walk but already quite proficient at gurgling and dribbling at the mouth. We namaste’d and she flashed a dazzling smile from under a veil and we explained to her that we’d stopped because we thought her house was the most beautiful we’d ever seen. She blushed and asked us in and we immediately got down to chilling with the little homie, whose name was Agam.
He seemed extraordinarily drawn to my shades, and kept plucking them off my nose and planting them back again, fascinated by the phenomenon. Meanwhile Tushar was telling the lady that we’d like to set up our tent right next to her house if she didn’t mind, and she said she would call up the menfolk and find out if it was alright. After a few minutes, her husband and his elder brother came and we introduced ourselves and told them we’d like to stay in the village before we set off for Mani Mahesh. The same :O faces again, and as we chatted we got quite pleasantly acquainted with Kishore ji, the elder brother.

We had no idea how close we were to become to him over the next few days. We also finally managed to get down to the point and asked Kishore ji if he new where we could find “the best hash of the hills”. He smiled a crooked smile, which we discovered over the course of our adventures together was his trademark, his craggy face generating radiance. He led us up to a grassy nook above his house, where he reached into his pocket and placed into my hands the creamiest Manali cream I have ever seen. We were rejoicing as we rolled a joint and smoked it high up above Mcleod, and Tushar again cracked out the “doubly high”. We were so pleasantly stoned that we had an amazing time chatting with Kishore ji who was so well informed and so simply profound, he surprised us with his depth and allured us with his experiences and tickled our ribs with his witty, earthy, trademark North Indian jokes, with the proper enunciation typical of Pahadi humour. An ineffable thing to communicate, really.

We learnt a great deal from Kishore ji, about the village, called Cholla, and about places we could visit in Himachal. Kishore ji was quite well-traveled, having been a taxi driver around Delhi for years, and he now drove an auto-rickshaw in Mcleodganj and came home every evening to his amazing, extended family, which basically comprises of the entire village!

Kishore ji said we would have a great time camping, as it had been settled that we would pitch our tent on an outcrop not far from the village, which he said had an even better view. He also extended an invitation to us to feast the next night at a village wedding which was taking place, and of which we’d heard about, from the other people we’d met in Cholla. It seemed like a big event, as most functions are in small villages, and there seemed to be a great deal of excitement about it. We were about to find out why.

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