July 03, 2011

kullu valley blues

Uh-oh. I fear I'm out of shape. Well, I'm not as out of shape as I first feared I was, but I'm still out of shape. We went on a day hike today, and after a mere half an hour of steep ascents, I was seriously dogging it. (M., being ferociously fit, barely even broke a sweat.) We're only 2000m up, and it's our third day here, so it shouldn't be altitude. Fortunately, I seemed to kick it up another gear for the rest of the day, and/or the ascents were lower-grade. I think basically my aerobic fitness is OK, but my anaerobic fitness has gone all to hell. I hope Phil-my-Montreal-boxing-coach never reads this. He'd be so disappointed.

So where was I? Oh yes. Leaving Chandigarh, and ascending into the mountains. We felt them long before we saw them, swaying back and forth with every switchback, as we passed Tata and Ashok Leyland trucks - some driving by night, many more parked beside the road. The only road to Manali and thence Leh, National Highway 21, is not a route for the faint of heart or the low of skill. It climbs and climbs, paralleling and traversing many a sheer precipice and roaring river, and at its best it's two unmarked lanes. Plus there are all the more usual problems of driving in India - the endless traffic, and the endless chaos, and the endless noise as everyone leans on their horn to survive.

Eventually the dark turned to light, though more slowly in normal, as we were driving along a steep gorge with 500-foot walls on either side. The road wound past roadside diners and through fair-size towns overlooking the river whose course we were following (and whose name I never got, though it wouldn't be hard to look up.) Scattered houses and a few temples somehow perched on the other side of the gorge, reached by bridges that were sometimes real bridges and sometimes little more than a pole and two ropes to hang on to while you walk across it. The gorge was lush, overgrown, intensely green. At first a few palm trees still hung on, down at its base, but as we climbed they vanished.

Then, suddenly, a tunnel - a tunnel a full three kilometres long, no less, vast and cavernous - and we emerged into the wide Kullu Valley, at the other end of which I sit and type. It too is a green and fertile land. Apple trees grow everywhere, surrounded by corn. Enormous pines reach a hundred feet or more towards the sky. The road up the valley is bleak and unattractive, and even the attempts at pleasantry by the many hotels and motels (the Kullu Valley received 2 million tourists lat year, 80% of them domestic) do little to leaven its oppressive industrial feel; but everywhere else is green and glorious.

And then, finally, Manali; which is to say, its mud-pit of a bus stand, and overpopulated, overtrafficked streets. The first impression is not exactly welcoming. But the touts weren't too bad, and while my overall impression of the town itself has remained stuck at "dungheap", there are many consolations. There's an absolutely wonderful park on one end of town, a huge and downright mystical cathedral of pines; there's only one official entrance, but I have discovered various other unofficial ones, some of which lead through fields of wild marijuana. Our hotel is a little bit away from the worst of the noise and the chaos. The people here are, by and large, very nice. And Old Manali, on the other end of the park, is a classic hippie-backpacker-oasis a la Yangshuo in China, or Caye Caulker in Belize, or (once upon a time) the Vumba in Zimbabwe, albeit largely populated by that distinctly Indian mix of gorgeous Israeli girls and sketchy Israeli guys. (Apparently spending a few months in India after completing one's Israeli military service is Israel's gap-year equivalent, so the Israelis here tend to be young, extremely fit, and more than a little surly.)

Also, did I mention that there are mountains? There are mountains, green and stark in the foreground, snow-capped in the distance. Today we hiked to an enormous and beautiful waterfall - the "holy place" sign next to it was really quite unnecessary - and (once I caught my breath) back down, and across the Beas River, and through three small villages, all of which are booming: new houses, new cars, new construction, new satellite dishes, the works. Between the cash crops, the tourism, the overall development of the region, and India's more generalized economic boom, Manali seems to be doing quite well.

As further evidence, I give you the ski resort we came across at the very end of today's trek, which in summer is a paragliding / quad-bike / pony-ride / various-other-amusements park, densely populated with domestic tourists. Near it is a sign that proudly proclaims the US$365 million tunnel that will replace the Rohtang Pass we intend to traverse on Tuesday, which will open up an entire new region to year-round access. I'm kinda glad I got here early enough to do it the old-fashioned altitude-sickness way. Kids today. Sheesh.

Pictures to come -

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