In search of a writer's retreat
by Hirsh Sawhney
The Indian Express, October 16, 2005
Before our Volvo comes to a complete halt in Manali, the bus is invaded by touts. My Spanish friend and I join the procession of passengers out into the rain, where we're mobbed. Taxi, sir? Bashist, Old Manali?' they implore, mistaking us for firangs in search of charas and a seedy guest house.
Separating ourselves from the swarm of shy newly-weds and complaining families from Delhi, I approach one of the many unoccupied rickshaws. We need to go to Solang,' I say. Within minutes, Manali's scruffy chaos is behind us. We're en route to the Kullu Valley's outermost village. I often flee Delhi's grind to write amidst the area's awe-inspiring Himalayan peaks and rivers.
Shabby wooden huts that rent faux furs to tourists heading to the carnival at Rohtang Pass dot the highway. We pass a cluster of camouflaged army edifices and then cross the roaring Beas River. After 30 minutes of hairpin bends and ubiquitous rain, we arrive in Solang. We walk wearily down a muddy path until we reach our sanctuary, the green-roofed Iceland Hotel.
The Iceland's staff greets us with hugs and puts logs on fire for a hot bath. Our second floor rooms, with brand new carpets and wooden panelling, are perfect for consuming paperbacks. The wide pine window frame doubles as a writer's desk and overlooks cows grazing near the babbling Beas and a vertiginous, craggy ledge.
After settling in, we drink tea in one of the Iceland's many enclosed balconies. The storm masks the gaping mountains and clouds cling to nearby pines, seemingly trapped by the conifers' needles. Today we settle for views of the surrounding hillsexplosively verdant this time of the yearand contemplate lower Solang. Developed over the past decade, this part of the village consists of a few unimpressive hotels, shops and a liquor store. A billboard advertises a soon-to-be-constructed European ski gondola.
For dinnertasty ghar ka khanawe opt for the balcony looking out at the pouring rain, instead of the dining room. Over a beer, Khem, the hotel's owner, tells us about near-death expeditions, occasionally breaking into his easy, contagious laughter. A Solang native, he recounts his journey from being a village porter to a renowned mountaineer and entrepreneur. The black silhouette of a mountain is visible against the purple backdrop.
After 36 hours of tea, books and downpour, there is sunshine at last. The white peaks visible on the horizon make for a hypnotic sight. Parathas are packed for lunch, and we head for a trek towards Patalsup mountain through upper Solang. As we walk past parked snowmobiles, Khem's father, donning a Kullu cap and kurta, is on his haunches with a sickle separating hay to dry in the sun.
On our way to upper Solang, where most villagers reside, we walk through a grove of enormous Himalayan poplars coloured black by the rain. There is no motorable road to the village and we cross the Beas on a teetering footbridge. Crossing the Beas is like going back in time. We ascend a steep path with springs cascading alongside. The village mill, a small stone hut where a water-powered wheel grinds wheat into atta, is a marvel.
Leaving behind terraced fields of corn, we reach the village, consisting of a dozen wooden Himachali homes. With intricate carvings and enclosed balconies, the houses are decorated with green and blue paint and have satellite dishes. We're invited to tea by a man who claims to work in tourism and is awaiting the arrival of the Internet. From his hazy demeanour, I suspect drugs play a role in his personal and professional life.
Forsaking other invitations to tea, we pass women carrying back-breaking loads and climbing tall Himalayan oaks with stumpy, alpine branches. A creeper-like plant, called masha by locals, begins to engulf us; we wade through its spaded leaves and bell-shaped purple flowers. Throughout our arduous 1,000 metre trek, our path is lined by dozens of blooming yellow, purple and red poppies.
As we break for lunch above a treeless valley called Boga, fields of a tiny flower called pamphra sway in the mountain breeze below us. Across lies the sleeping giant, Friendship Glacier, crowned by a pristine blue sky. Wispy clouds shift at 5,000 metres to reveal the white, seemingly insurmountable Hanuman Tibba peak. The only human presence is a line etched into the hillside across the valley, where Nepali labourers are constructing the strategic Rohtang tunnel to Ladakh.
Ambling back to the village, we encounter a farmer removing stones from the canal that irrigates his rajma. "The rains make work difficult," he complains. We ask him how a road would affect his life and alter this romantic setting. "A car could come up and collect my crops. While we would certainly lose something, it would also make a huge difference to our lives."