An earthquake — the second of the day — rattled the glasses around my rooftop cafe.
Exciting stuff, and the first tremor that I’d felt since waiting to climb a volcano in Sumatra last year. The tremor was just enough to remind me that I was in the foothills of the highest mountains in the world. And it made me want more.
Having recovered from a toxic stomach, and long since given up on my bamboo flute producing anything more than a gasping squeak, it was time to leave McLeod Ganj and the friendly Tibetans there for some real adventure.
I enjoyed a free chiropractic session on a bus that hit its prime during the Korean War and rattled my way higher into the Himalayas to the famous little town of Manali.
After years of vagabonding, you know almost immediately when you come to a place whether you will like it and stay for a while, or if a place will have to grow on you slowly. Like a fungus.
After watching trout jump upstream in the river through town, I liked Manali instantly. I set up camp in Old Manali and stayed for more than two weeks at a friendly guesthouse called the Drifter’s Inn. With a fireplace, board games, fast Wi-Fi, and trout on the menu, this place was an oasis of comfort in a desert of dungheaps I’ve stayed in throughout India. I would have to be forcefully removed by dynamite later.
But even sipping chai and playing Chinese checkers couldn’t compare to what was waiting just outside.
Sun glinted off the snow on distant massifs at the end of my valley. Set against a blue sky, they were impressive, and seemed as good a place as any to get myself into some trouble. I was wild with adventure lust.
Maps were spread on the table; a compass joined. Wood smoke filled my nostrils. A yak laden with straw clambered up the path outside my window, followed by a leathery-skinned woman yielding a stick. Pulse quickened. The anticipation of a quest being born hung heavily in the air. I began planning my route.
I cheated. I asked the laid-back owner of the Drifter’s about how to walk there. On a hand-drawn map, he explained that there was a trail hugging the hills all the way to Solang Valley, but he suggested taking the old road there. Why? The mountain trail was dangerous and hard to follow.
I took the trail.
Sure, the road would have been easier, safer, and probably would have deposited me at my intended destination quicker, but what fun is that? Even if the trip had gone flawlessly, I could never look myself in the mirror again having chosen the road. School girls walk on roads to sell Girl Scout cookies.
Besides, I’ve been carrying a hand-picked survival kit this year and was just itching for a worst-case-scenario to justify its useless weight in my bag all this time.
The walk would be 18 kilometers total, a little over 10 miles after getting lost was taken into account. I bought a bag of cashews for survival food and got an early start in chilly air.
At the edge of Old Manali, I recruited a stray dog who stayed by my side for miles and miles. Dogs, even smelly village dogs like this one, are useful on adventures: they can help find the trail, work as unpaid snake scouts, and even run for help when you get hurt. Or at least that’s what they do in the movies.
Not five feet of the trail was flat, and my lungs were working overtime to keep my aching legs full of oxygen. Every time we stopped, my dog looked at me as if to say, “What, we’re stopping again? The other backpackers never stop this much. And why are you panting?” I blamed the thinner air and told him to shut up.
What if the trail was dangerous? I briefly thought of shivering through a cold night, lost in the hills, and fighting with the dog over whatever cashews remained. I dismissed the thought quickly; I could just eat the dog — of course.
The trail was steep, but easy to follow, and even crossed over private property several times. I could see the green valley far below me and even a person the size of an ant on the road I was supposed to have taken. Sucker!
Just as I was getting into a real survival mood, contemplating using the sun for direction and munching on roots even, I scrambled up out of a ravine and stopped dead in my tracks.
There was a cafe.
I couldn’t believe it. Perched on the side of a hill in the mountain sunshine was an open-air cafe consisting of a few tables with only tarps for cover. Literally in the middle of nowhere, a hell of a walk from anything remotely touristy, I had found the ‘Rasta Cafe.’
A smiling Japanese man with gray hair and missing teeth met me, grinning. I wondered how he could possibly get any business out here, but after seeing the five-foot-tall marijuana plant growing behind his counter, I understood. I also understood why he was perpetually grinning.
Weed grew around the cafe like a corn field. The view of the Himalayas was astounding. I was high as a kite, but only from the thin air and excitement. Seriously. I had accidentally stumbled upon one of Manali’s best kept little secrets. Places like this rarely remain secret, usually because some jerk comes along and puts it on his blog.
“Is that your dog?”
“No, he just followed me from the village.” The dog looked up at me with a cocked head.
“When my dog comes, there will be a problem.”
I thought briefly about his stoned words as I drank my Coke, but at this point, I doubted that anything could disrupt the peaceful vibe in this little herb garden. Was it some sort of Zen riddle that needed further pondering?
Then they come. Not one, not two, but twenty dogs descended upon us. Dogs only by the loosest of definitions. They were a literal pack of pissed off, growling, fanged monsters, some with empty sockets once belonging to eyes lost in battles long ago. Some foul crossbreed between wolf, rottweiler, and mass murderer, how or why in the world would this happy little Japanese man keep such frothing demonic pets around? Was it his thing? Charles Manson wouldn’t have kept such dogs.
The village dog went from half asleep to berserk in less than a second, and the peaceful cafe was transformed into a barking, biting, lashing hellhole that could probably be heard back in Manali. Amazingly, outnumbered 20 to 1, the skinny little village dog held his ground, and even came between me and the attackers. He was protecting me, and I regretted not giving him at least one cashew earlier.
The Japanese man drooled uselessly, and for a moment I felt a pang of terror that this faithful dog was about to be ripped to shreds, turned into a greasy spot on the grass, all because he had followed me.
I grabbed a stick and joined the front line. I lurched toward the alpha dog, the obvious leader, and when he backed off the others followed too. Whimpering even.
I thought of peeing around the cafe just to mark my newly won territory.
The village dog — yes, I should have given him some sort of name by this point — was still shaking with adrenaline. He was lucky to be alive. Come to think of it, so was I.
“You owe me one.”
Fun over, we hit the trail as quickly as possible. The Japanese man thanked me for my patronage, but probably smoked up half of his inventory to calm his nerves after we left. Peace was restored and everyone relaxed a bit.
Pretty soon, the trail began to split. Then again. Then again. The clear trail forked into a matrix of deer trails, human trails, cow paths, water drainage paths, and brown lines possibly made on purpose to confuse tourists. The guesthouse owner was right, after all.
Knee-high yellow grass was mashed flat in various places, and one of those places where I stepped had no soil below it. The grass was literally concealing the edge of a cliff — a deadfall — which blended seamlessly with the field. Luckily, I was paying attention, otherwise it could have made for a very expensive travel insurance claim.
I wasted hours scrambling down trails that abruptly ended in vertical drops down cliff faces — all with serious ‘pucker factor’ as we used to say in the army — only having to climb up again and follow another dead end. Maybe I would get to break out that survival kit after all.
I was quickly crossing the fine line between “turned around” and “lost.”
Eventually one faint trail led into an orchard with a small house. Where there’s a house, especially a business, there’s usually a path to the valley floor. After a less-than-cordial entanglement with the owner’s barbed wire fence, I hobbled down an impressive set of stone stairs with tiny specks of blood forming around new holes in my shorts.
I used a single alcohol wipe — the only useful item in my two-kilogram survival kit — to clean up.
The road. The same road I could have easily taken from my guesthouse. Grudgingly, with sun fading quickly, I scooted along at high speed toward Solang. The plan was now to catch the last public bus from there around 4:30 p.m. back to Manali. If I missed the bus, I would have an interesting time hitchhiking on a dark highway in India.
As I was mulling over what it would be like to hitchhike on a dangerous road, I passed through several small villages along the way. School kids pointed the way, which I surely couldn’t have found without them. Up and up, the road deteriorated into an ancient stone path, well worn from centuries — no exaggeration — of people, carts, and maybe even a sadhu or holy man making their way over the mountain pass.
The peace, especially compared to the rest of India, was astonishing. I didn’t see another human for quite some time, at least until my road turned into a sprawling boulder field formed by chunks breaking off the last mountain between me and my goal.
Six men appeared suddenly from behind a boulder. Large men, the kind that probably skip the soft porn sprinkled through a typical Men’s Health magazine and go straight to the protein drink ads. With all other human beings well out of range, no one would hear me scream as they robbed me and tore off my fingers one by one to eat. More protein!
Fearing the worst, I literally picked up a rock — there were plenty. At least one thug would get a smart bruise before I was thrown from the mountain. The biggest approached me. I wiggled my working fingers one last time just to remember.
“Army?” he asked, pointing into my chest. Although typically proud of my time in the service, I shook my head no. I was afraid to even speak and betray my accent. Americans, and particularly their army, don’t exactly have the best reputation in many parts of the world. In fact, I wasn’t really that far from the border with Pakistan.
He appeared a little disappointed, but was friendly. I was beginning to realize that I may just survive this social encounter in the middle of nowhere. They spoke only a word or two of English, but I managed to ask for the direction to Solang.
After seeing the dog-tag chain around his neck, it dawned on me: these were off-duty army guys. I immediately regretted telling him that I was never a soldier. Even between enemy states, soldiering forms some sort of a lasting fraternity between men that goes beyond politics. Maybe it’s because all soldiers, no matter what nationality, work their asses off for very little reward.
He pointed me down the correct road, even going out of his way to climb over stone fences and boulders, to help. Despite breaking a sweat on his day off to help a lost traveler, he never once asked for baksheesh money — a tip. I was flattened. Maybe hope does exist for this country where all tourists are usually approached with the enthusiasm of an out-of-control ATM that spits out money.
After thanking him many times, I had one of those innate, self-preservation realizations that normal people depend on to stay alive. It comes from the same part of the brain that keeps you from picking up rattlesnakes or striking up a conversation with a man holding a flame thrower.
I had wandered into an army post.
Having approached from the backside, I missed all the camouflaged buildings, barracks, fences, and other things that are found on the average army post. I stayed on the trail he pointed out, not sure about India’s policy on land mines. Even more dangerous, I didn’t want to test the nerves of some Indian Army officer assigned to keep casual wanderers out of his post.
Time: 4:05 p.m. Last bus: 4:30 p.m.
Feeling elated, I ran down the road toward town. There was still hope. Not making the bus meant yet another stressful situation to puzzle through at the end of an already exhausting day of bushwhacking and dog fighting. I could see the little village of Solang clinging to the side of a mountain. My bus would be there.
I had a travel friend tell me before I came here that ‘India was a place where you want to laugh with joy one minute and cry the next.’ I took it with a grain of salt along with all the other cliché ways that India is often described by travelers — i.e., ‘sensory overload.’
He was correct. And cry I did when I saw the sizable concrete bridge, the one man-made object I was depending on to reach Solang, was crumbled at the bottom of the river I had to cross.
WTF? A broken bridge…honestly? Who does that? Talk about cliché obstacles. I would have normally been fascinated at seeing this piece of architecture broken to pieces, but the universe was already scooping up a steaming shovel of stuff to throw into my happy little fan if I missed the bus.
Did the soldier radio ahead to blow the bridge? Why would he send me down a road knowing the bridge was out? Seemed a little drastic to stop one lost vagabond just trying to escape.
Time: 4:20 p.m.
I scouted the river frantically for a place to cross, and eventually found some large stones I could jump across. Losing your footing here wouldn’t have been fatal, but it would have been cold, wet, and ugly for sure. I made it across, and climbed a metal construction ladder of all things up to the highway where I continued to run into town.
This was turning into an obstacle course.
Time: 4:35 p.m.
A small gathering of men stood smoking at a road junction; they too were waiting on the bus, which was thankfully running late. The ground was littered with the large grain sacks they used as luggage. A wave of relief spread through my very core. Despite impossible odds, I made it.
Time: 5:10 p.m.
The sun was already behind the mountain and cold air seeped through the barbed-wire holes in my shorts. I began shivering. After all the hurrying, the bus was late. Then for some inexplicable reason, the bees came.
Yes, bees. If I was making this up, I would choose something more interesting, trust me. First one, then a couple more insects joined. Out of eight or so people clustered closely together waiting for a late bus, the bees couldn’t get enough of me while completely ignoring the farmers. They watched with interest from behind dark mustaches.
Bees? Really? Wtf!
The buzzing bastards landed on my neck, hands, and everywhere else they could find exposed skin. I danced around like a madman, waving them off, while seven local men stood staring at me, their expressions never changed. They all suspected that foreigners were strange, and I was doing a good job of confirming that suspicion.
It must have been good entertainment, because they never looked away, and I feel that they are still talking about me over cups of chai to this day.
Eventually the bees left, and more than an hour late, the bus rolled to a stop in a cloud of filthy diesel. Being the last bus, it was so full that the bees couldn’t have squeezed in to follow me. I stood in the doorway as we chugged around sheer mountain dropoffs. I was too numb to care.
Somewhere on the ride home I realized that I had been too busy to take one single picture of the valley from Solang.
Just as I was dreaming of collapsing at the Drifter’s Cafe, we stopped on the highway. The one-lane bridge into Manali was blocked with a broken-down bus, not much unlike mine. On the verge of a freak out, I hopped off and began walking up the steep hill back to Old Manali, mumbling under my breath:
“…there’s no place like the cubicle….there’s no place like the cubicle…”
Again, I found myself wanting to laugh with relief and cry in despair at the same time. India.
Then the rain came and the one stitch of sanity left in my brain snapped with an audible pop!
Even after days of blue skies, an unseasonal rain came from nowhere as I walked the last kilometer home in the dark. Cold water dripped off of my nose. I looked into the black sky and laughed like a maniac. The beggars who usually bothered me on the way home kept quiet this time, either out of fear or pity. One even offered me some money.
I hesitated when I reached the door, waiting for a cloud of locusts to come or whatever other natural obstacle was queued up today. The universe having expended all options, finally relented and let me end the day.
It may seem like I’m complaining, but actually quite the opposite. The best adventures are the ones that go wrong. And they make great fodder for way-too-long blog posts.
As I stumbled into Drifter’s, the smiling owner asked how my hike went. Maybe he was just being polite, or maybe it was too dark to notice that I was wet, bleeding, sunburned, limping, and had already crossed some mental boundary that led to me mumbling nursery rhymes and sucking my thumb.
“Oh, it was great. I took the road.”