An epic journey from Jaisalmer to Manali. 19hrs back to Delhi by train, 5hrs to Chandigarh and then 8hrs by bus to Manali. The bus trip takes us high into the Himalayas. The driver navigates the mountain passes at a speed that makes me scared to look out the window. In a state of half-sleep, I can remember feeling the cold of the mountains growing and my ears popping.
I am not sure what the elevation is here, but I think it’s over 2000m metres. I can see snow capped mountains in the distance to the north. The city is divided into two sections, new and old. We meet a couple who tell us that old Manali, which lies further up the mountains, is a bit dead this time of year due to the cold.
A good conversation with Leon over dinner about public space in India. We decide that if you look beyond the rubbish in the streets and infernal noise, it has something that we have lost. Big business has not taken over… yet. No one buys food from supermarkets here. They don’t seem to have supermarkets at all. Most people don’t drive. As a result, the streets are full of people talking. You slow the pace at which people move and human interactions flourish. We have lost a lot of this quality of public space for more centralised areas of commerce: the shopping mall, the supermarket.
We took a long walk today up into old Manali. It is the low season and there is a sleepy feel to the place, with lots of the shops closed and just a few locals going about their business. You can see from the shop signs that it must be quite a hip place up here in the high season. Some of the signs are in Hebrew – this is a favourite hangout of young Israelis that come here to get stoned on some of the world’s finest hashish.
Further up the hill and the hotels and restaurants give way to the locals’ houses, some of which are in the traditional Tibetan style. I can see why people like to write in the mountains – it is so peaceful up here. I feel apart from the rest of the world, cut off somehow.
More walking in the mountains today. We walked across the Beas River and up to the waterfall at Vashist. We meet a group of Indian tourists there, one of whom claims his name is “Prince”. Two local boys accompany them. One of them, Krishna, fascinates me. His hair is immaculate and he carries a small mirror and comb with him to make sure he is always looking his best. He speaks with an air of authority about the local trails through the mountains.
The isolation means that there are still a lot of people here living lives in very traditional ways. Everywhere you go there are tough old men and women herding cows, goats and sheep along the roads to graze or carrying enormous bundles of sticks with strength that seems inhuman.
Had a strange experience today that challenged my western attitudes. I was walking around in the mountains again when I met a young man, whose name, I am ashamed to say, I have forgotten. After chatting with him for a while, he invites me to his house, which, I am thrilled to discover, is in the traditional Tibetan style, made from rammed earth and wooden beams. I have wanted to see inside one of these since arriving here. The space inside is small, but the bright white lime mortar of the render makes it seem bigger than it is.
I meet his mother and chat with her for a while before going to his bedroom to drink a cup of chai. As I sit beside his bed, sipping at the burning hot tea, he begins to take his clothes off, casually chatting away as he does. I shift uncomfortably in my chair. He turns to me, naked apart from a pair of briefs, holds up a shirt, and asks me if I like it. I tell him that it is a fine shirt indeed. He smiles and puts it on, followed by a pair of dark blue jeans. The awkwardness passes and I feel embarrassed at having wondered about his intentions. I feel like a prude.
Indians have a different understanding of intimacy. Back in the hotel later on, I tell Leon about the experience and he laughs. Back in Melbourne, we muse, this would just never happen – few people would invite someone they just met into their bedrooms, let alone undress in front of them! A different world indeed.