Himalayas One: Manali
14/10/17 Manali Towns
From the temple, Old Manali evening
New Manali is booming, hotels and holiday apartments are going up everywhere, steadily filling in the skyline to block all but the highest peaks such as Nasogi and Bashisht that still dominate the sharply rising valley. For the last couple of hours daylight we explore the surrounding park; paths winding under a giant conifer forest canopy and amongst glades strewn with huge glacial dumped boulders. In a clearing we arrive at an unusual temple: wooden framed construction with steep teepee shaped granite tiled roof within a round outer pitched roof. The doorway and beams are carved with figures and all around the outside hang horned skulls of Ibex, blue sheep and other mountain animals. Stooping through the doorway into the surprisingly small, thickly plastered interior that muffles all the outside noise, I find a simple shrine dug under the floor in one corner, opposite is a fire pit and in-between the two sits a plain dressed man amongst an arrangement of brass dishes of dye powders, grains of corn and puffed rice, orange marigolds for people to buy and make offerings of.
We walk another kilometre or two, crossing the river to old Manali. Steep streets wind past hippy hangouts, chill zones, cafes offering real coffee and agents selling trekking tours each pumping out there own solemn variation of a Goan trance beat. Real coffee and chicken burgers can wait as we push on into the oldest part of town where some of the traditional half timber long house type buildings with jettied second floors still remain, all be it amongst the concrete new builds and extensions that seem to be smothering the valley. Livestock occupy parts of the long houses and loose hay is stored in the upper parts of some, or in separate ricks neatly billowing out between the wooden beams on all sides.
We reach the temple at the top of the village and look out over the rooftops at the awesome peaks beyond, changing blue to ochre and deep orange as the clouds spill over, the sun drops behind us and the crisp cold air rolls in.
Prayer Flags, Rhotang La
Start the day with omelettes, two eggs beaten in a metal cup with milk, onions, salt and chilli; fried on a gas stove with four pieces of bread soaking up the mixture, folded up and served on a paper plate with chia, cooked one at a time by a smiley street seller as we enjoy the cool morning air. After we hire a car to take us up the Rhotang Pass, 3978 metres up, gateway to the high Himalayas. Beyond here I imagine true wildernesses existing in legendary places like the Spiti valley, territory of wild blue sheep and the almost mythical snow leopard or beyond the next, much more treacherous pass, Rangcha La, a few miles on where landslides and avalanches cut of the civilisations beyond for much of the year. Halfway up, our driver points out a tunnel under construction that will bypass Rangcha La making the outlying region easily accessible when it opens next year, surely this will have a revolutionising affect on the region.
Looking into the Chenab River valley; snow coming down.
In truth the Rhotang Pass is far from this kind of isolation and adventure, but a popular attraction for Indian tourists, who pile out of cars in 1980's onesie ski suits and long fur coats, hired on the roadside for a couple hundred rupees. There are chia sellers, offers of rides on a mule or photos with a yak, but most of the visitors aim for a selfie in a snowy scene, in complete polarity to the landscapes where most of them have come from elsewhere on the subcontinent. As slightly eccentric looking Westerners with easels, paints and drawing boards we however, begin to rival this awesome backdrop in the selfie stakes. All this going on, hardly detracts from the epic panorama of deep valleys, vast peaks spun with clouds that build and fade and build with dramatic speed, sometimes clearing enough to reveal the higher peaks hidden for hours. An animated landscape, shifting, reinventing kaleidoscope, a never static, panning out on every side. We paint and draw through flurries of sleet and snow, pausing only to catch our breathe in the thin air.
Rani Nallah - Scale
16/10/17 Beas River
Beas River at the Manasula confluence
We walk up river from Manali Model this morning, over the steel girder military bridge spanning the gorge and up river from the town to where views open up towards the Solang Valley and snow capped Patalsu Peak in the North. The extent of the river torrent in wet season is made apparent by the 200m or so width of the dry boulder strewn river bed. The main dry season channel of icy clear water runs a bright cerulean blue in the pools between the torrents. The valley is narrow and wooded with mighty conifers that run up the steep valley sides. Brightly coloured farmhouses cling to the river banks and high up the steep valley on improbable terrain, precarious amongst the new build resorts and guest houses going up all around. Above the road, golden bill magpies flop from tree to tree dragging their long streaming tails, stray dogs loyally trot alongside us, dropping away at invisible boundaries. We find a way down onto the river bed, where tin roofed shacks sprawl down the banks from the road, families finding space to live below the flood line. A limping dog that tagged along a kilometre back springs in to life at the site of hens scratching up invertebrates. The commotion alerts some women washing clothes in a brackish stream at the edge of the settlement, their clothes; lime green, chilli red, fiery orange look brilliant amongst the neutral grey river bed stones. I notice for the first time, a tawny coloured cow motionless amongst the boulders behind me, a social plover reels closely overhead, griffon vultures cruise along the rising air at the edge of the ridge a thousand metres beyond. By midday it is too hot and flat bright for painting, so we wait until early evening to find a new spot at the confluence of the Manaslu river looking back up the Beas. The Seven Sisters and the 5932 metre Hanuman Tibba peak rise in the distance, snaring the first wisps of cloud seen all day, reflecting the last colours of sun light.