A few months back when I went with Nigel & Ivan the journey ended with the last stop at Kasol. So when Hari gave me a call that he and his girlfriend were going to Kasol for the trek to Kheerganga,it seemed like a good opportunity to finish unfinished business. Though being a third wheel didn’t enthuse me, a trip to the hot springs along with the journey itself was enough for me to say YES!!
The journey started by catching a bus from Kashmere Gate at New Delhi and an overnight journey later we arrived at Bhuntar. Bhuntar is a pretty small town on the way to its much bigger and better known city- Kullu(and past that is Manali). However, in order to go to Kheerganga we need to pass through Bhuntar. From here our first stop would be Kasol where we would spend the day and start with our trek the following morning. We had a small episode where the Taxi guy that we picked up from Bhuntar happened to be drunk at the time. A cop told him to stop and he disregarded this officer of the law and just sped along. Soon after a crazed individual stopped our Taxi man and began ranting. When I enquired what the matter was he said that he and his friend(the crazy guy) had drunk heavily the night before and the cops had taken his phone away. Driving drunk through those roads isnt exactly a walk in the park and I just prayed that we’d make it to Kasol in one piece.
Kasol isn’t the conventional holiday destination. Mountains,good weather & a river nearby doesn’t always transform into a romantic getaway. Kasol is basically two things :Mini Israel & a smokers paradise. Apparently the youth from Israel after their compulsory military service come to Kasol which is a holiday retreat of sorts. The sign boards have English,Hindi & Hebrew for the convenience of the people.At night we walked into a place called Chabbad House which looked like a library. I’d heard rumors that there were places that didn’t allow Indians inside and I wasn’t in a particularly investigative mood mainly because the people inside exuded a cold vibe. Harishankar saved the day though. He marched in and went up to the Rabbi inside and enquired about the place. The Rabbi dismissively waved his hands around and said that it was a Jewish centre and told Hari to go to the back where the food was served,quite dismissively again as though we had rudely interrupted them. We walked into a place with only Jews. For the first time I felt what a white person must feel like in India. All eyes were on us and that initial moment they just looked at us as though someone had put in some new furniture and everyone was looking at something that was out of place. It wasn’t hostile nor was it long, a woman even gave a welcoming smile to Shruti and they got back to whatever they were doing. We sat at what looked like a good spot only to discover to our horror that the entire menu was in Hebrew!! The Kitchen was pretty close by and we spoke to the cooks who were locals. We asked what the usual was and were served an assorment of Schneitzel. The place was pretty good with Table Tennis and even a Trampouline.
The proximity of the village Malana, which produces the best hashish in the world(Its smuggled out of India and sold in Amsterdam) along with the heavy influx of tourists make Kasol an ideal link in the drug supply chain. People smoking joints is pretty much a common sight. Mom and dad smoking a joint while the kid eats his food. People waiting at the bus stand smoking a joint to pass away the time. During lunch we were seated next to a guy who was smoking a joint by himself. We struck a conversation and enquired how hashish was being smoked by everyone. He asked if we wanted some and quickly one of the staff at the eatery appeared showcasing his products. He never pushed us to buy anything. He was very confident about his product and had a take it or leave it attitude. It was quite surprising to see how easy it was to purchase it.
The next day we set out for the trek. We took a taxi to the starting point called Barshaini which is about an hour’s drive and so our adventure began. On reaching Barshaini one of the first things we heard is the security guard gossiping with the taxi driver saying how they just fished out 3 dead bodies from the river. It wasn’t going to be a walk in the park so we braced ourselves for the journey ahead starting with climbing down and then crossing the river.
Once we crossed we could see the other people who were coming back and as far as directions were concerned there were no issues. There were even arrow marks on rocks showing the direction that we had to travel in. We carried our own luggage and it wasn’t a very big deal but in order to truly enjoy the experience I would definitely suggest that one must hire a porter from Barshaini or even enroute. After walking for a while we came across a village where the entrance itself was that of a cafe. It was well kept and we had a couple of snacks from there.
However looks can be deceiving. Though the front of the village had a very well managed cafe it seemed as though that was the work of a few of the more enterprising villagers. The rest of the place looked riddled with poverty. The children were pretty much looking for freebies and the clothes they wore didn’t leave much to the imagination about their economic condition. En-route one could also see areas dedicated to growing the marijuana plant. If it was to extract hemp the fibre or use it for hashish one can’t say. It seems as though this could be an alternate source of income because the amount of area that were being used to grow the plant was sizeable.
After the village, the trail was pretty easy and it wasn’t very tiring . We met one of the locals who offered porter services. We declined but did hear him out. He told that Kheerganga was nothing and that there was much more beyond. The real story about what Kheerganga is I do not know. Many say it was where Shiva went to meditate but this character here said that it had a connection with the Mahabharta saga.
En-route there was also a holy place called Rudraprayag which has some religious significance and we saw that many families had come to pray there. The area just after the temple where the waterfall lay was breath taking and could qualify as an excellent picnic spot.
After taking a very long break just relaxing we started our journey again. Things started getting much more strenuous because the incline of the ascent was much steeper. We were out of breath quite quickly and the luggage that we carried didn’t make things any easier. We stopped by another cafe where we met a very interesting fellow. I’d taken my trekking pole with me and lay it on one of the chairs. The guy who owned the shop sat on the chair nearby and began investigating this strange looking device. He was waving it around and inspecting it carefully when I began to explain what it was and how it made trekking a whole lot easier. We got talking and I enquired if the supply chain for the chronic was strong here as well. He said most definitely and called me to come with him to the back. There he took out his products and he had these small weighing machines. He put a block of the hashish on the minuscule weighing machine and exclaimed “thats 17 grams…3400 rupees”. He said that the price depended on the weight and since he had the weighing machine the customer is getting bang for his buck. Getting interested in the economics of it all I enquired when the fresh batches would start to come and if the supply increased would that mean the prices would drop. He said that since production takes place between September-October he had some pretty old stuff but it sold well because it was tourist season. We spoke for a while longer. He even offered me some hashish for free but I politely declined.
The last leg of the journey was tiresome to say the least. There were many moments of frustration because we were growing weary and the end seemed no where in sight. The baggage again made us even more tired. Finally after what felt like eternity we had arrived!!
The Kheerganga campsite was littered with cafes, tents and semi-permanent dwelling units. But the best thing it is known for is the hot springs. There was a hot springs at Manikaren but because it is a Sikh pilgrimage place and because it is relatively easy to reach, its quite crowded. Compared to that and given the population of this country the hot springs at Kheerganga was mildly populated. The geyser was probably somewhere uphill and the bath was shaped like a mini swimming pool. The water was hot. Not lukewarm. HOT!!! Hari and I got in and relaxed there for about 20 minutes. There was a separate area for women where Shruti went. After about 20 minutes I was thoroughly cleansed and even felt quite groggy. We had dinner after that and then called it a night.
The next day we got up early and had some tea at the cafe,after which we went to the hot springs again. Things were quite pleasant and we felt that we would reach in time to catch our bus back to Delhi. Unfortunately, Fate had other plans. In fact these plans seemed so sadistic we later wondered if the cosmos were playing a joke on us. It started with breakfast: Now we came under the impression that we were on holiday, what we didn’t know was that apparently so are the Cafes. The food was being prepared at their own leisure and what was supposed to be a quick breakfast turned out to be an agonizingly long wait.
Finally, we got the food and raced forward.I don’t recommend anyone racing forward like how we did because one wrong move and you’re pretty much a goner. We made good progress in an hour’s time. We rested again and started out after a while. We were making very good speed and were quite relieved. We were close to Barshaini and we could see the dam when Shruti exclaimed that her toes were hurting. We rested for a while and started again but after a while her toes started hurting again. Hari offered to carry her backpack as well as his own.This was clearly chivalry and nothing more. Shruti didn’t see it that way. She retorted quite sternly and said that if we did anything to help her she’d go back home separately. I have to admit it was a bit impressive because I would have gladly given up my bag for someone who was willing. We waited for a while and started again. This time without incident. Just as we had to make the last descent it began to rain. The trail was getting slippery but we pulled through and were back on the ground. Now we had to climb up all the way back on top to Barshaini but thankfully there was a taxi guy who was there at ground zero. Hari gave the thumbs up saying that he was ready to take us to Kullu(we had to catch the bus from there). The Taxi guy said that we were cutting it close and if there is a traffic jam en route we would not make it. Remembering the incident at Bhuntar I asked him “Apne kuch piya hai kya” and he said “Haan, magar apko puchna hai ki kya piya hai”. Basically I asked him if he was high and he said the question is on what? Meaning that he had smoked hashish.
We drove up till Barshaini and he told us to get out.When we asked him why he said that it was for the taxi union to decide who took us to Kullu. This is highly unfair but given how late we were running we didn’t want to argue. We ended up with an OMNI van which was not to our liking. We didn’t put up much of a fight and that was a big mistake. We started out well but the moment we reached Manikaren there was a huge traffic jam with no end in sight. However, we mustered through till Kasol where things got better. The traffic was minimal and there was hope for us. Then we started realizing that this ridiculous car that we got into had a maximum speed of 40 kmph and the engine seemed to be at maximum capacity at this top speed. We could see vehicles zooming past us and I wanted to scream at the driver. I asked him if he could go a bit faster to which he said that the car may topple off. While there was some logic to it even he knew it was bullshit what he was saying and prayed we didn’t make a big deal out of it.
We decided that worst comes to worst we’d intercept our bus at Bhuntar which was en-route. The problem was we didn’t know where the bus stand was. The driver was less than helpful because he said there were two bus stands and wasn’t very clear which bus went where. We did make good time though and it seemed we would definitely make it to Bhuntar if not even Kullu. We spoke too soon. A policeman stopped us at a narrow stretch and called out the driver. We were busy discussing our next move when the cop walks to our Taxi, looks directly at me and says “Do you do drugs?” I was bit shocked at the blatant accusation and replied in the negative. He didn’t really care. He pressed on “Do you know why people come here?”, “Where did you go during your trip?”. This guy here was convinced that I was drug addict for some reason. He told me to get out of the car and began searching my pockets. I told him that none of us did drugs and that we had to go because we would miss our bus. “The bus will wait for you.” he scoffed. It was so frustrating because the more I told him we were late the more he was convinced we were hiding something. He began searching Hari’s bag. And it was a very very through search. He started unfolding the clothes and even looking inside the the flashlight. He asked us suspiciously “What chemical is this?” Apparently he had never seen a glow torch before. After the search he told the driver to open the back of the van to search my bag as well. By this time we showed him a copy of the ticket on our phone. It didn’t deter him and he began searching my bag as well. He wasn’t as thorough with my bag. I explained our plight and told him that we wanted to reach Bhuntar to catch the bus en-route but didn’t know where the bus stand was. Immediately as he heard this he turned on the driver and began shouting at him. He obviously suspected that the driver wanted to cheat us and take us all the way to Kullu so he could get more money. The cop was done after that and told us to leave.
We finally reached Bhuntar and had 45 minutes to spare. The driver got ambitious and told us that he could take us to Kullu. We all told him quite clearly that we had very little faith in his car and we didn’t want to take any chances. We asked a couple of locals as well as the local police who were extremely helpful. We waited for the bus and literally jumped in front of the bus to stop it because Bhuntar was not a scheduled stop. We were pretty much shouting gibberish when the bus conductor asked us why we stopped the bus. He asked us to show the tickets after which he told us to sit. We’d made it!!! The rest of the journey was comfortable and we reached New Delhi the next morning.