The thing about wandering or going off route are the adventures that can happen to you, and invariably do. I call it adventuring into the unknown.
Adventuring anywhere in India is a life-changing journey unto itself if you’re even half-awake. India is an enigma. An enigma as in when you’re there, you’ve no idea how it functions, and it can turn some people insane. It’s an assault of the senses, its ethereal beauty and its extremities can take you to the edges of your mind. And in the space of five minutes you can feel every emotion.
I’d heard of Malana, an old Himalayan Indian village on the side of Parvati Valley in Himachal Pradesh, next to the decades-long disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir, which is next to Pakistan at around 8,700 feet above sea level. Malana apparently had its own rules, customs and language, Kanashi. It was isolated from the world, and at the time only accessible by walking for eight hours through the mountains, from the nearby hill village of Jari.
The people there had unique looks and their clothes were made of hemp. I’d been told that you could have no physical contact with them, not even to pay for something. You had to remove your shoes to go into the temple area and would be fined for going near their special deity, Jamlu’s large sacred rocks that lay in the center of the village.
I’d decided to go there with an Indian friend, Vyas, and we’d found ourselves at a good starting point in Jari to make the trek and found a hillside guesthouse for the night.
I’d drunk a soda on arriving at the guest house. My body isn’t used to soda on any day, but with the altitude, it wedged a big heart attack-size gas bubble in my chest, that was still there the next morning. We started walking but I couldn’t go on, and decided I was probably better off laying on a large rock for a while. I told Vyas to go on alone and I’d leave the next day. There was only a certain amount of light to the day so any trek he or I made had to be an early morning start.
The Indian Himalayas are stunning, from any angle. Snow-capped mountain peaks, the green Himalayan lower foothills, valleys with brightly colored mountain flowers. Glacial rivers running through on their vast mission between the valleys hold you like a warm embrace of the hand at around 75 degrees daytime temperature. It was June and perfect.
The next morning feeling much better I left the guest house again, a small bag on my back. I’d left my large backpack at the guest house thinking I was returning in a few days. I had water, mountain cheese, some chapatis and tomatoes, and that was it. I even had simple Indian leather sandals on my feet that I walked miles in, as if on some yogi pilgrimage.
On leaving the guest house, I knew the general direction of Malana but almost as an afterthought I shouted back to the owner as I waved, “how will I know the way to go?”
“There are arrows here and there, on the rocks… Follow the arrows…You’ll see,” and then as his words drifted off, “the animals will tell you the way to go…”
I was alone. Happily, alone. Breathing in the pure mountain air, feeling so free. I’d been told it was about an eight-hour walk to Malana, or 13km through the mountains. It was magical. The scenery, the snow-capped mountains rising above like gentle giants, the vague pathway sometimes disappearing, then an arrow on a rock, faintly there, rubbed off, pointing straight ahead or up a steep dried rocky riverbed. I followed the arrows. I walked. For hours.
Seeing only two humans all day. Locals. An older lady gathering something in the field in the distance, a large basket strapped to her back looking as if she’d been there forever, and an Indian man walked past me on his way going down the mountain with a couple of rugs rolled over his shoulder, maybe a rug merchant on foot through the mountains. Amazing. He hardly acknowledged me. Didn’t lose a step of his mission. I’m invisible. Cool.
A long-haired white mountain goat, suddenly bound down the mountain and appeared in front of me, completely animated. He looked at me, “baar baar baar” he bleated, spiritedly, and looked up the mountain from whence he came, “baar baar baaar” he said again looking at me.
“Are you lost?” I asked. “Baar baar baar” he replied, ran up the mountain and then back down again next to me “baar baar baar”. I stood still.
“Do you have a friend up there?” I asked, realizing I was talking to a beautiful white long-haired magnificent overly friendly goat creature in the Himalayan foothills.
“Baar baar baar” he kept saying springing up the mountainside then back down to me and “baar baar baar”. No one else was around.
Hmmmm, mysterious I thought, but realizing I was going to be losing light if I didn’t get to my destination in the allotted eight hours of walking time I’d been told, I decided to carry on. I told my goat companion, who followed me for about ten minutes, still bleating and chatting away, before he gave up on me, and disappeared back up the mountain. Truly surreal.
I carried on my way, along and around and up and down, and occasionally saw some vague arrow on a tree or a rock. I followed it. The light was fading, and I was supposed to be meeting my Indian friend in Malana, and it was going dark.
I rounded another mountainside, still not really knowing where I was, but on a rock just ahead I made out scratched in the rock, a large ‘K2’. With an arrow straight ahead and up… I had found myself on the route of the second highest mountain in the world – in my leather sandals. And it was not weird.
It suddenly went dark. Some lights twinkled, out of some dense trees over a ravine. A string rope bridge connecting my side of the ravine to the lights, a glacial Himalayan Mountain River gushing below. I scanned the bridge, the sturdiness, the strength, the wear, and tear. It was worn, for sure. Short planks of wood formed the bridge, held between the ropes, over the ravine that ravaged below, and nobody knew where I was. Nobody. It was 1991 and there were no cell phones. No GPS. You could simply get lost or fall off a bridge. It was easy.
I looked down, hesitating, then not stopping, looking ahead toward the lights, holding on to the ropes, one foot in front of the other I made it to the other side, majorly relieved. Following a pathway, as I got closer to the lights, I could hear music playing. I’d stumbled on a solitary hill station ‘café’, tables huddled around each other, dirt floor, a suspended tarp roof, locals intently playing the bottle top flicking game, handfuls of incense burning and a few foreigners, maybe five. I sat in a corner and ordered chai and oatmeal not knowing where I was, but I really didn’t think it was Malana.
The atmosphere, and the music coming through the amazingly-good-speakers-for-a-remote-village, transfixed me. A tape cassette of Seal’s then new album was playing (that I still think to this day is one of the most amazing albums) and sounded so pure and moving in the dark mountain air with a trillion stars. All surreal.
Where was I? Not in Malana. “Oh, Malana is up there, up there over there,” the warm smiling lady wrapped in wool woven blankets motioned with her arm.
“Ahaa” I said with my hands together to thank her, as the realization slowly crept over me as I remembered the guesthouse owner’s words, “the animals will tell you the way to go….”
And miraculously enough when I eventually looked back on a map, it was right there where the goat was, that I should have gone up the mountain. I’d found a hill station named Kasol instead.
Since the 1990s, Malana suffered a fire but survived and a hydroelectric plant has been built in the valley. There is also a road almost to Malana now, so you only have to walk for an hour from the taxi stopping point. But if you do happen to get lost, please listen to the goats.