Parvati Valley

Parvati Valley in India’s Himachal Pradesh region was a total surprise. I had heard much about this area, mainly from pleasant Israeli travellers who spoke very fondly of the region. Indeed the positive sentiments were not misplaced and further still the region was much more diverse then I first realised. Essentially the Parvati valley is a series of small villages near the main town of Kasol encapsulating a mystical never ending valley thick in forest. Travellers rock up to Kasol find a guess house bunker down for a bit before venturing of to explore the abounding villages. Leaving the bulk of your luggage at a trusty guest house and taking a well packed day pack is a good plan of attack before walking, trekking or busing it to which ever village takes your fancy . Each village has its own charm and unique views of the valley as you meander your way through beautiful scenic wondrous mountain side.

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A 30 minute public bus from Kasol started your journey to Pulga. The bus travelling such narrow roadways there was a second driver advising the main driver at the front of the bus, not by steering wheel but  by loud whistle. His various amounts of room to operate were sounded by loud piercing whistles from the assistant at the back. The small town of Pulga nestled itself in and around a large pine tree forest and was reverently referred to as the ‘Fairy Forest’. I did not see any fairies there but there was certainly the remains of many a ‘pshy trance party’ which I’m sure would have evoked fairy like visuals amongst most patrons. Easy enough mistake to make.

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Then there was Kalga up there with the most tranquil, relaxing places to find in the region/country. Only six or so eloquent spread out guest houses nestles themselves through fertile farm land notable rich in apple trees and herbs. The guest house owner would wack wood to the brim in the tandoori oven and set you up with a never ending cup of piping hot chi. If it got too comfortable for you inside you could always retreat to a hammock overlooking the valley and immerse your self in a nice book.

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The cherry on the cake undoubtedly was the unforgettable village of Kheer Ghanga. Its not often I cant speak. Sure I might be lost for words but ill ramble nonsense in a indecipherable languages if I have to until sense is made of it all. But once here even manic dribble was unavhievable. It took a four hour walk from Kasol through lush forest to finally reach a small mountain climb to reach this magical place. What made this place so special, apart from the truly breathtaking walk to get there, was the massive hot spring at the top being serviced by piping hot water straight from the Himalayan Mountains. The view of the valley and mountains sitting strongly rooted opposite whilst relaxing in super-hot mountain water was enough to make one reconsider the positives of showering on a regular basis.

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Returning to Kasol after a trip to a village was nice also evoking feelings of returning to somewhere familiar and homely. Our guest house owner, a former army man called Neggy, would always welcome you back with a beaming smile and take genuine interest in your travels. Then there was the puppy Parvati!

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Early on it became finitely clear that the Parvati Valley is not a place you can travel to but just one time. India on the whole, has this effect on me to but the PArvati valley is an absolute must see for anyone travelling the country.I implore you dear reader come to Parvati Valley and see paradise first hand.

 

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Enfield Experience

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I don’t know much about motorbikes. They have gears, two wheels and are meant to drive in a forward motion… or so I’m told. Since being in India though it was impossible not to stop and take notice of one particular make of bike: The Royal Enfield. They were everywhere we have been, a piece of machinery revered equally by tourist and Indian alike.

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Every town, irrespective of its size had mechanic shops solely devoted to Royal Enfield. Hiring them was easily done as almost every one of these shops also had bikes for hire.  Curiosity killed the cat and this ginger tabby felt the need to hire and ride a Royal Enfield Bullet 350. It cost around $10 Australian dollars to hire one for the day and there were also other models. The Thunderbird 500 looked particularly delightful but these seemed to hire out much quicker than the mass produced Bullet 350’s.

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The highest roads and summits in the world seemed a perfectly acceptable place to test the full force of the bike and personally I was rather pleased with the horn feature. The bike was a huge thrill and handled the bashed and battered roads extremely well.

Interesting to note I actually felt safer riding a motor bike on Indian roads then I have riding on Australian roads. For one thing there are so many more motorbike riders here that car drivers are forced to acknowledge their fellow road users and take greater care when driving. Specifically in Leh with the mountainous roads that suddenly swerve and curve with massive army trucks the size of semi-trailers unknowingly coming in the other direction, every road user’s speed dramatically slows, especially around corners. If in doubt work your horn like it’s going out of fashion. A great way to spend a day…or two

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Lake Pangong, Kashmir

A 6-hour trip by jeep from Leh through some of the most desolate and rugged landscape and we arrived at easily the biggest lake I have ever seen. You knew you had arrived because after passing through what seemed relatively inhospitable land there was suddenly an enormous pool of bright blue water stretching further then the eye could see. Lake Pangong in northern India is so big it stretches well into China. I was told by one cheery local 70% of the lake is in China. The most striking thing about the lake was the variety of colours. If you were back far enough and the sunlight hit the lake in a certain way you could have sworn you were at the ocean, not a lake. The blues emanating from the water bounced off the surrounding sandy mountains and you could be forgiven for thinking you had died and gone to heaven. As you walked closer, delicate greens encompassed the areas close to the shore line where the rocky bottom was visible. From this distance the blue was only noticeable after the drop off in the water, where it suddenly became very deep. Once right by the water it became clearer than crystal. I was told that the lake in India was quite salty and housed no life within, which seemed incredible given the purity of its appearance. Interestingly as the lake stretched into China the salt level dropped and subsequently the lake became rich in life.

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A short distance from the lake and I suddenly thought I was in ‘The Wind in the Willows’. Standing about doing not much at all we were introduced to a creature named a marmot. These creatures resembled a cross between badger and an oversized rat, sporting the biggest buck teeth you will ever see. Our jeep driver insisted on feeding biscuits to them and we got up close and personal. I felt very Japanese as I took photo after photo and laughed uncontrollably at the oddest creature I have ever seen up close.

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The lake and its surroundings was truly a slice of visual paradise that left a lasting impression. 

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Leh Kashmir

 

Leh, the capital city of the Ladakh region in Northern Kashmir, straddles the Line of Actual Control (LAC), a disputed border region between India and China and is situated roughly 3500 metres above sea level.  A gruelling 18 hours by bus, the journey requires the ascent of the Rhotang Pass, the second highest motorable road in the world. Much of this, and other surrounding roads are tended to by approximately 20,000 migrant workers from Jarkhand state. Leh itself, is an area heavily populated by displaced Tibetan Buddhists, however there are also many Western Kashmiris of the Islamic faith. Hinduism is still prominent, with many of the population coming from other states for the tourist season, however Buddhism appears to my eyes to be particularly prominent.  .The two dominant cultures appear get on well and it’s interesting to note the laid back nature of the town. Shopkeepers seem slightly less distraught and more understanding when one vacates a shop without purchasing store goods… slightly. The small city is surrounded by Himalayan Mountains, the larger of which are capped with snow, and I have bruises all over my body from pinching myself in disbelief at these enormous land clumps. By day it warms up nicely and as soon as the sun starts to disappear a palatable chill encompasses the city allowing you to utilise the variety of beanies on offer. 

 

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A stop on the gruelling high altitude bus ride to Leh.

 

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Apple Apprentices

Soon after arriving in Vashisht we met the actual guest house owners who lived separately but in an adjoining building, close enough to say hello each day. Raju, our fantastic host, paid a lease on the property, lived there with his own family and enjoyed a good relationship with the actual land owners.  The upshot  of this being that we saw the owner (‘Aunty’) and her elderly mother (‘Grandma’) on a daily basis. Both were characters in their own right.

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The Aunty:

A workhorse; tirelessly and seemingly forever working on some job. Be it weaving some traditional clothing, sheltering her house from rain or making an assortment of apple based products, she was a real gem. Never without a smile on her face or a willingness to scream at any deserving person, I felt I was communicating on a very human level with Aunty. Her English was as good as my Hindi, yet we said hello and had a chat every day regardless. I think she knew what I was saying…

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The Grandma:

Very funny, slightly crazy. Since being here I have heard 5 different ages for her from different people. 89, 93, 97, 99 and 100. She could easily be any of them. The first thing noticed about this Grandma is she is not particularly fond of other people staying in her guest house. In fact, she openly tells them to leave on a daily basis. Safely positioned on a rooftop directly below and in full view of all the rooms she sits armed with a rickety old walking stick sat on a weathered plastic chair. When she wasn’t smoking a beedi (local cigarette wrapped in dried leaf) gesturing for you to leave, she would be sticking her tongue out at you just when no one was looking. Senile yet crafty.  Despite this she was equally hardworking, often getting a telling off from Aunty as presumably she was doing too much. A large portion of her time has been spent sitting on the concrete roof top smashing apricot and almond seeds to be used at a later stage.

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Scrumping- (Fruit Larceny)

For further reading please see:

http://www.worldwidewords.org/weirdwords/ww-scr2.htm

Fresh Himilayan apple juice, apple pie, apple fritters, questionable apple cider… it was a seasonal apple love-in during our stay in Vashisht, Northern India. One needed only go for a 5 minute walk in any direction to spot apple trees fruiting in their abundance. Groups of hardened Indian workers were often seen carrying big baskets on their backs filled to the brim with freshly plucked apples.

One early morning there was an empty basket sitting on the vacant rooftop below belonging to the landowner, Aunty.. Upon closer inspection it became clear this was a big basket and it had straps attached so it could be used as some sort of hybrid basket backpack much like we had seen the local Indian workers fashioning. Was this a subtle hint from Aunty below? Did she want help picking apples? Suddenly where one empty basket had been there was four.

And so it transpired that a group of travellers followed Aunty on a scenic walk out of the peaceful village. Aunty was a hit amongst the town with every other local we passed taking pleasure at the site of such a bunch.

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It was a really nice walk that felt roughly a couple of kilometres took about 25minutes. We reached a hidden path off a quiet track and descended a short way into a serene green apple forest. Under strict instruction regarding which apples were ripe enough to pick and exactly how to pluck them we set to work grabbing only the very red apples.

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Aunty was right in the thick of it; climbing trees, barking instructions and generally laughing at our varying degrees of competence.  Before no time we had filled four 50kg baskets with only the ripest apples.

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Then came the carrying bit. It had all been great fun up to this point. Excellent weather, beautiful gardens and nice walks. But once filled these baskets were heavy, really heavy. The straps dug in to the collarbone and shoulder blade with the extreme weight of the load. The narrow pathways were tricky to scale with the baskets making overbalancing very easy. Whilst taking one of many breaks on the way back a group of locals, numbering around 12, all with empty apple basket backpacks walked past on their way to get some freshuns. The site of me sweating panting and struggling to get up without overbalancing attracted some hearty chuckles.

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Making it back to the Aunty’s house was like finishing a marathon…or a lot like I imagine finishing a marathon would feel like. The walk there had taken around 25minutes…the walk back took around an hour. We were told we had saved the family around 1000 rupee in labour costs by helping pick and carry the fruit. It seemed hard to believe but locals doing this job did multiple trips in a day.

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We sat on the roof top with the Aunty and Grandma admiring our bounty. The grandma stuck her tongue out at me and gestured to leave once more. I pointed at the apples and got a wry smile but only for a second.  Aunty just laughed at our exhausted state and made some chai.

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Cooler Climates

Sitting on the balcony of the highly positioned ‘Zuri Guesthouse’, overlooking the Himalayan foothills was quite an introduction to the small village of Vashisht, Northern India. A fourteen hour bus journey from Delhi to Manali had preceded these first glimpses of amazing snow-capped mountains before the rickshaw powered ascent to the village.

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A little dishevelled from the overnight trip which featured India’s next top F1 super car super star (fronting as a bus driver), it all seemed quite surreal upon arrival. Spellbound by the drastic change in landscape, weather and pace of life, combined with a lack of sleep, I found Vashist rather magical. There was the encapsulating natural pine forest, mountains so high that only the clouds obscured the peaks and the cool Himalayan weather which welcomed and refreshed instantly. The close proximity of the low lying clouds was easily observed for hours on end.

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In the village locals, tourists, dogs and cows all politely shared narrow rocky pathways that abruptly veer, ascend or descend. You can journey from the main street to a spectacular but unsuspecting waterfall within five minutes.  The village and surrounding areas were rich in a variety of spiritualism and seamlessly blended a range of cultures most noteworthy being the Tibetan and Hippy influences. These cultures perpetuated a peaceful harmony through shared interests noticeably with locals, pilgrims and tourists alike coming to the famed local hot spring. It was a temple which housed a hot sauna like bathhouses which had naturally hot flowing water from the Himalayan Mountains and was also thousands of years old. Rather hot but very relaxing.

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Barely enough time to put my bags down at the guest house and I was welcomed by a snake charming guru, who just happened to be walking past. This crafty individual was charming indeed, especially when he held a cobra to your head. The ‘Snake Baba’ gave assurances the snakes (there was three of them) were either not poisonous or had been de-fanged. But he also told me there was no cost involved prior to whipping out these impressive snakes and asking for 300 rupee. So I found it a little tricky to totally believe everything and proceeded to keep a safe distance. The cobras in particular were rather impressive to see, from behind the frilled neck had markings similar to eyes.

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There was an intrinsic quality to Vashisht that was felt rather than plainly sighted. Many of the people I met had either stayed longer than they anticipated or were returning after staying previously.  The place attracted a particular type of traveller it seemed. Environmentally conscious, open minded free spirits appeared to be the order of the day. One particular chap was an electrical engineer from Sweden living part of his time in India servicing various projects. What does he do in his spare time when he’s not trekking, meditating or doing yoga? He balances precariously on a thin bit of rope and moves himself around acrobatically. Something most entertaining to witness by chance but also not slightly out of place in a quiet backstreet of Vashisht.

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For me the joy of Vashisht lay in the many walks to natural wonders and spiritual places in close proximity to the town itself. The walks displayed majestic country side, housed some of the nicest cafes/guesthouses from great vantage points with interesting wildlife to note. With all these senses being tickled before you knew it you had arrived with yet another great look out revealing mountainside not previously visible.

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After not much time at all it was plainly obvious to see how many people stayed longer then they first planned or felt that strong desire to return after many years. Vashisht was calming, soothing and healing all in one. If the mainly vegetarian cuisine didn’t heal you, the natural hot springs and far spanning views surely would.            

 

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Slip Slop Shave

Suffice to say I’ve always approached hairdressers and barbers with slight trepidation. It’s rarely a pleasurable experience. $25 is the very least you can expect to pay for an unfashionable unforgiving male haircut experience in Adelaide, Australia. It gets dramatically worse if you are female or a male exploring issues of sexual identity. Every uncomfortable minute getting a haircut is spent putting off the inevitable disappointment felt when the barber holds up the mirror and asks you what you think.

“it looks great” you lie through clenched teeth, not wanting to hurt the  clumsy oafs feelings.

“I particularly like how you show of my receding hairline and didn’t cut my ear this time. ”

So as I walked through the new market streets of Kolkata I was ever so slightly wary of the many hair dresser stalls and shops abounding, particularly sceptical of the dated ‘too good to be true’ pictures out the front. Countless male Indian men seemed to approve, appearing to enjoy the experience immensely. Most exited such places looking refreshed, energised and smiling from ear to ear.

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“What is going on in there? Maybe some form of illegal spot fixing of international cricket games” I pondered.

Eventually curiosity killed the cat and I ventured into a tiny barber shop to investigate.  It was very small but still managed to fit three barber chairs. A glassed cabinet housed an assortment of products much like a trophy cabinet and a menu outlay a comprehensive list of services. An oxy bleach or moustache colour struck me as particularly appealing and thusly I elected for a shave with special instruction to leave the moustache. The friendly barber directed me to a free chair and once I was sat comfortably he fiddled before it suddenly jolted back. Barely enough time to readjust and the barber was lathering my face with an assortment of products. Three or so layers later he grabbed a fresh blade and wielded it with finesse and masterful control only stopping to gently reposition my head for greater access. A tiny TV sat perfectly positioned in the corner so that it could be viewed from any of the surrounding mirrors and loudly crackled a dramatic Indian soap opera. I could easily have asked the barber the story line of every single episode ever as between strokes his eyes would quickly dart to assess the latest plot change, never missing a stroke.

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Once cleanly shaved he enquired whether I would like a face massage. Before a single syllable of ‘umm’ could be muttered my face was being pulled contorted and pushed in ways it had not experienced before. Everything got a workout from the forehead, eyeballs, nose, cheeks and chin. It actually started to feel quite relaxing, I was almost dosing off though this could have been from a lack of blood circulation to the brain. After a short while and an emphatic towelling off to rein in any last trace of barber product it was done. Coincidently it was also an add break in the soap opera. 100 rupee (it was originally 50) or one Australian dollar and 83 cents paid and my time in the shop came to an end.

Not sure if I had been assaulted or part of some strange religious ceremony I left the barber with my hand magnetised to my face. So smooth…such lack of hair, what magical creams had that fine fellow lathered on my face? Where once lay a forest of unkempt stubborn stubble now lay skin as smooth as a royal babies bum cheeks. What should I call my new born cheeks? Edward, George or maybe Alexander? Much like the royal baby the naming was irrelevant and no one actually gave a shit, the real news;  an unsuspecting barber in a quaint Indian shoe box barber shop had restored my faith in barbers the world over. As I arrived back to the hotel where I was staying the security guard noticed immediately and gestured in approval towards the moustache. No one had ever complimented me in the past after a visit to the barber.  I entered my room feeling refreshed, energised and smiling from ear to ear.

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