Cheng Chin Yuen

Wednesday, July 12, 2006


Manali (23rd – 27th May)

Quote of the day: ‘I’m not a complete idiot, some parts are still missing!’

Manali can be likened to a hilly version of Bangkok’s Kao San road. There are too many tourists in particular Israelis who in general do not smile and come here to smoke more grass when it becomes too hot to smoke it in Goa. The locals hate their surliness but they do have money to throw after 3 years of national service back home. The perpetual war must have taken its toll on some of these young minds and they come here to let go, behave like idiots and destroy their reputation.

Despite being disgustingly touristy, Manali does have it’s perks. The pine forest in between the new and old parts of town is serene and for 5Rs, you are saved the acrid vehicular pollution on the narrow link-road. The slate-roofed village of Vaishist across the valley is worth a visit if you go beyond the tourist stretch. Here we saw a wonderful black bird sporting a mini-Mohawk with a white tail of two long ribbons. A big dog also decided to adopt me as I went to explore a waterfall, rubbing its side against my legs as it dashed past me from time to time. It decided the jump ship after an attractive traveller came up the path. Here the local women have piercings on both sides of the nose and carry huge loads of soil and vegetables in funnel-like woven baskets.

At one Tibetan pizzeria, I picked up a book about various torture techniques the Chinese used on Tibetan prisoners. One of the many gory methods involved binding the prisoner’s hands behind him and hanging him just above the elbows. The weight of the body would exert immense pressure on the shoulder joints. This technique was known as The Eagle. A fire is lit just beneath the prisoner to roast his feet. Chilli powder is thrown in to enhance the pain in the eyes and open wounds on the body. The prisoners who will not survive are often released to die at home so that the authorities are spared the inconvenience of disposing of the bodies.

I walked about 17 kilometres to Solang Valley one day through apple orchards and golden wheat fields. In between these tracts of farmland were generous clumps of marijuana growing wild and healthy. This explained the readily available supply of hash beneath the bar counters in Manali. Built into the side of some houses were bee hives. I also wormed past a man trying to get his herd of 25 cows up a steep mountain path. When they didn’t move under his whip, he would throw rocks at their backsides. It was quite a mammoth task getting these big girls up the mountain. It also gave me quite a thrill to get through them.

Solang Valley is the one-stop adventure centre where you could ride a horse up the hill to paraglide or roll down the hill in a huge air cushioned ball-capsule. This place is too touristy for me but great for the countless Indian families. Going on a family holiday is a celebrated event in India and a great source of pride for Indian fathers (and for that matter, all fathers alike). It also often involves a lethal shopping and binging spree.

7 men from Harayana decided to adopt me for the afternoon after I stumbled upon them at a shady spot beneath a huge tree. They have come here on holiday without their wives and children to fulfil their ‘mission’. After driving up from Manali, they were quite impressed that I had walked the distance. It was great fun walking with these older guys. They had the regular sense of lewd sexual humour harmlessly targeted at one another. The oldest among them, a 55 year old whom they affectionately call ‘Grandpa’ got most of the flak. Machoism is so infused in these jokers that ‘snaps’ taken are always of them individually ‘paunch-in-hairy-chest-out’ in a tight singlet. The ‘mission’ turned out to be a visit to a temple up the valley to pray to a stone ‘lingam’ (Phallus). The symbol of virility ironically stood beneath a waterfall weak enough to have its flow mystified by the wind before it hit the ground. The pleasant end result is a slime-covered rocky platform for all of us to stand on, high on the side of the valley beneath an almost invisible curtain of mist. The guys took turns to embrace the lingam and whisper their prayers. Sometimes the water flow would suddenly increase with the lull of the wind and the poor soul would get soaked but the holy moment went on uninterrupted.

After talking to the hashish-smoking sadhu and when their clothes have dried, the we walked back to the main tourist fairground to have tea and biscuits. Not only did they pay for my share, they gave me a lift in their SUV back to Manali. The B&W music videos of one popular Indian singer in the 60s was replayed until we reached Manali and the karaoke ruckus only stopped when we got our of the car. Stomachs were already rumbling and the group insisted that I tried a local favourite from a roadside stand. Imagine ping pong sized kuay panti, broken at the top by the vendor’s gritty thumb, and dipped, index finger and thumb included, into a cold mild curry and swirled around until some bits of potato got trapped in the cavity. The mini curry capsule is then handed over to you with yellow curried fingers. Yum Yum! I couldn’t remember the colour of the fingernails before it went into the saffron dip.

Manali is not without hope. There is a great Kebab stall where the dust and fumes of a thousand vehicles marinate the wonderful assortment of chicken, trout, cheese and sheikh kebabs. The staff at Johnson’s Café certainly do justice to the hundreds of rainbow trout they gut everyday. The lush Rivendell-like region around Manali is gutted with small valleys, carved from as many waterfalls getting more powerful from the snowmelt as the days become warmer.

Naggar (27th – 29th May)

Naggar offered us the much needed getaway from the Manali madness. There is nothing much to do here except to enjoy the valley views and silence among a small clutter of slate roofed houses. The Naggar Castle is a good example of how finely alternating layers of wooden beams and stone blocks can be fitted together. The other attraction we visited was the house of a Russian artist whose name I cannot recall. A sign advised, ‘For your full enjoyment, See The House Walk Slowly’. The paints were unimpressive but there were some photographs of the Kirlian Effect which was something new to me.

We spent one entire day walking 6 kilometers to a Rainbow Trout farm for a trout lunch and dinner. Our fish addiction was stylishly satiated on a tree-shaded platform over the raging river that flowed through the trout troughs. The fried trout was as fresh as it could get and brought back fond memories of the many good alabalik the Cheng family devoured in Turkey. On the way back, we saw the local folks drying the hay on the asphalt road regardless of the vehicular trample. When the hay was dried, it was twisted and plaited like hair before bundled for export.

As you can see, Naggar was nice because there was nothing much to do and nobody to do it.

Sangla Valley (29th May – 2nd June)

The first leg to the fabled Sangla involved a gruelling 13 hour bus-ride from Naggar. The ride took us through some steep gorges, limestone karsts landscape that resembled those in Gui Lin and rice terraces while the daylight lasted. We missed our destination and had to spend the night in a dingy room truck drivers would have felt totally at ease in. There were four beds and we managed to choose the two that had no bugs. It was 2 am and bugs may not matter in the state of exhaustion that we were in.

The second leg of four hours teetered mostly on the edge of a gorge. So sharp was the drop that from the window, you couldn’t see the road. So high was the danger that prayer stops were constructed at the nerve-bending sections so that the driver and passengers could get off and tell God they didn’t want to die today. A sadhu would place the red tikka of protection on their foreheads with the flat side of a toothpick. The sadhu also changed the donated coins for notes with the conductor. At some sections, the road was carved into the rock leaving a overhang for the bus to go under. Some of these overhangs had cracks so deep in them, you hoped the ground vibrations would not dislodge the tons of rock as the bus went through. It was an exciting ride, filled with gory mental pictures of charred bodies trapped in a flaming bus getting mangled as it tumbled in slow motion down the rocky hill side. Aren’t we glad we were taking the same route back?

Sangla is a fitting end to rural India before we spending our remaining days in Chandigarh and Delhi. Graced by the holy mountain of Kailash and a truly authentic slate-roof-wood-and-stone settlement, the good people of Sangla, characterised by their green felt caps, treat tourists as tourists should be treated - with a polite indifference. We were found accommodation by a waiter after a long unsuccessful hunt. He took us to his uncle’s place which was not fully completed but habitable. It was away from the busy main street and had the best view of Kailash. The restaurant people are nice enough to tell us not to order chicken after we complained about a substandard chicken curry. ‘Yes, chicken is not fresh, need many days to come. Mutton very fresh’ This said with so much sincerity that all we could managed was a ‘Thank you very much, tomorrow I will order mutton.’ We did come back the next day and the mutton was as good as promised. One old lady with a fly on her nose cut us two large flowers from her garden when we wandered into her compound. I put them in my hat and that gave her and all we met in the village the giggles. Joyful people make you do joyful things. They let you into their houses so willingly and always try to give you tea. I sort of invited myself into one of the older houses to have a look and went away with a handful of dried apricots. They were given to me by the owner, a lady who had some tongue problems and couldn’t speak but who could sure smile a lot. Not many foreign tourists come to Sangla so it remains largely untainted by tourism and the locals still busy themselves primarily with farming not tourist hunting.

One evening exploration led us into the village’s main temple. Some major festival was on the way. The women were milling around the large courtyard while the men were taking their Gods out of the temple hall. The people here are Hindu but the four Gods they stretchered on four pairs of poles looked like giant Japanese dolls with a mop of black hair that covered their faces. Something like Sadako but with shorter hair, much bigger head. The Gods exited the temple and the half the villagers followed. We followed and followed and followed. They must have walked 3.5 kilometres at least. The pace at the start was furious but slowed down somewhere in the middle when the old folks got tired. We went past two more villages and eventually stopped in a larger courtyard of a new school. Someone told us that they were here to receive another God who was visiting from Uttar Pradesh, the neighbouring state! After the prayers, singing and adorning had been done, the four Gods were bounced vigorously on their poles such that the hair started to jump and you could see the faces more clearly. Pieces of the God’s costume were falling off. Some men carried shotguns ‘in case there is trouble’. Karen saw a group of youths at the fringe of the forest with guns of their own. A cooking fire was boiling the post-festival feast but we decided to head back before it got too dark and the drizzle became too heavy. Their religion may have some Tibetan influences since Sangla once lay on the ancient road to Tibet but it was ranked among the weirdest I have seen in India.

One afternoon as we were having tea, there was excited shouting and men and women started struggling, dragging and lugging their red gas tanks up the road. The waiter that found us our accommodation shouldered two such tanks and walked as fast as he could over-taking many along the way. In such a remote place, there were no gas pipes and gas refills meant bust or boom especially for those running restaurants. We followed the crowd to a small gas lorry that has just arrived. They were all patiently waiting in line to exchange fresh tanks.

When Karen felt like being lazy, I took the local bus back down to the gorge and took a slow sunny walk back to Sangla. Along the way, there were sheep convoys again driven single-handedly. Lorries and buses stopped to let the sheep pass as any injury to any sheep will definitely lead to a big quarrel and a ridiculously high compensation. When the scenery got devastated by a massive dam, I hitched a ride back in a jeep with three local guys. They were having some kind of argument over petrol. On the way, they stopped to buy some siphoned petrol from an army truck only to return it a few kilometres later when they agreed that the quality of the petrol was questionable. They stopped the truck once more, kicked up a fuss and resold the petrol back to the driver. India is kind of strange isn’t it?

I left my hair behind in Sangla as a parting gift and some poor barber became 0.70 cents richer. He was a poor barber as Karen remarked that it was the worst haircut ever and decided to call me ‘tortoise head’. At least my hat will have a better fit.


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