Monday, May 30, 2016

Once upon a weekend in Kasol...

It took us three failed attempts at planning a trip to actually make one happen. It was Shristi's birthday, her little brother was flying in all the way from Bangalore, and she demanded (yes, literally demanded) that we all get our shit together and take her to Kasol for her birthday. We had little choice.

And so, with minimal planning and no fixed itinerary, we were off to the Himalayas for the third weekend of April - 9 of us too, no less. Some of us were wary of travelling in big groups; so many things could go wrong. But we were determined to make it work. Since the plan was made at such short notice, we couldn't get seats in a Volvo. So we hustled it all the way to Bhuntar aboard an HRTC non-AC seater bus. Needless to say, the going was tough, but the morning breeze blowing in my face as we entered the mountains and the hot cup of tea I had at our first stop all but made up for it. After a long overnight journey, we reached Bhuntar by noon. Famished and bedraggled, we found a restaurant, freshened up, and ate, before catching a local bus to Kasol from the bus stop down the road.

The sights I saw on this 1.5-hour bus journey are indescribable. I've been to the Himalayas a lot, but you have to believe me when I say, Parvati Valley is something else entirely. The gushing river smoothing pebbles on its way, the cattle grazing on its banks, the lush green mountains in the background, the grey skies at noon...it was a heavenly ride all the way to Kasol.

En-route Kasol. The sound of the river was music to my tired ears.

I was literally craning my neck out of the window to get good shots of the river. It was too beautiful to just sit back and look at.

Simple homes, simple lives: I love pahadi houses. Hope to have one of my own, someday, very similar to this one. Okay, maybe a bit more romantic. But I'll certainly have cows and dogs.

My first impression of Kasol, formed within my first two hours in the place, wasn't too great. I found the place too 'hippie' for my taste. While I sat enjoying ginger honey lemon tea and butter toast at a roadside cafe, my friends left their luggage in my care and went off in all directions, looking for a cheap and comfortable place to stay. By the time they returned, my mouth was agape. I'd seen people walking down the street drinking beer, I'd observed guys scoring weed from the restaurant owner who had just served me toast, and I'd seen people rolling joints with ease at an arm's distance from me. This place truly was as no-holds-barred as it gets! I was intrigued, if not entirely fascinated.

Kasol is as hippie as it gets - and very commercially so. Shops selling hippie clothing, from crop tops and bikinis to woollen pajamas and shrugs, and bags and socks and chillums and dream-catchers and what not, abound throughout the small town.

Stand in the main square of New Kasol and look up - this gorgeous sight will greet you. I found myself wishing I were skiing up in that snow at that moment. Of course I don't know how to ski, but that's just a minor hiccup. Main thing is to get there. Then I can make my excuses.

Our first evening in Kasol turned out to be the most memorable of all. After having found rooms to crash in at a homestay (with a balcony view to die for), we rested awhile and set out in the evening for food. We ate at the well-known Evergreen Cafe, and though expensive, the food was exquisite and perfect to taste. And as it so happened, my best friend Sushmita, whom I see rarely even though we live merely 30 km apart, had decided to visit Kasol on the very same weekend as I. It was again by sheer luck that we'd learned of each other's weekend plans in advance, so we decided to 'bump into each other' in the hills. It was amazing to see her in an entirely new setting with an entirely new set of people. She had come with two of her college friends. One of them had been my junior in school and I saw her in Kasol after about 7 years. Talk about surprises at every turn!

The group that was.

(L-R) Umang, Sushmita, me, and Rashi (my school junior). It was a happy, happy reunion.

We parted ways with a promise to meet the next day, and I went on with my friends for a walk down the streets of Kasol. Good luck struck again, and we heard a distant melody. Walking in the direction it was coming from, we found a hippie couple playing the guitar outside a cafe and singing songs while a small group of people cheered them on. Now, I cannot stop myself from singing when I find such a lovely atmosphere. Shristi's brother, Digvijay, had brought along his guitar, and so we sat there for the next hour or so, jamming away to our hearts' content. The evening ended late with smiles all around the place. Kasol had finally grown on me, and how!

The next day, our group diverged - six of my friends left early for the Kheerganga trek, while the remaining 3 of us stayed back to explore Kasol at a relaxed pace. After they left, Digvijay chose to catch up on lost sleep, and Nikita and I set out for breakfast at Moon Dance Cafe. Over Israeli food and ginger honey lemon tea (yes, I was hooked), we talked about this, that, and the other. On our walk back, we stopped by the bridge in the main square of Kasol and gaped at the rushing river for a while. We had a vague idea that the river flowed somewhere in the vicinity of our homestay, because we'd heard river sounds the night before. This morning, we set out in search of it - and found an utterly enchanting sight right in our backyard.


Nikita and I went crazy with the camera. I have no regrets.

The river, surging away indifferent to our very existence, was so unnervingly beautiful...I ended up writing a couple of poems inspired by it later. We checked out of our rooms in the afternoon, kept our bags with the obliging owners of the homestay, and set out for Manikaran, a 10-minute journey uphill by bus. There, we visited the famed Gurudwara Saheb and were confounded by its sheer white beauty and majesty. Being a Punjabi, I couldn't help striking up a conversation with the Prabandhak ji (head of the Gurudwara committee) while he handed us packets of mishri prashad. He was elated to know I was a writer, and he told us a lot about the Gurudwara's history and how food was cooked there without the use of fuels or electricity. It was an enlightening two hours we spent with him, at the end of which he absolutely insisted that we stay the night at the Gurudwara and eat at the langar. We were enticed by the idea and, after a hearty meal, quickly ran back to Kasol and fetched our bags.

Beauty is thy name, majesty thy second nature.

That's a rather fetching picture of me...oh, did I hear a compliment? Thank you.

Our stay in Manikaran was a delightful experience. Prabandhak ji and his helpers were warm, hospitable and extremely caring people. We had a room that could accommodate 15 people entirely to us. We spent the evening exploring the local market as Digvijay regaled us with his funny antics and imitations of people. I found a set of intricately carved wooden bowls complete with a tray and ladle, and I knew they would make a great birthday present for Shristi. We returned late and crashed soon after. The next morning, we were supposed to wake up early and be shown around the gurudwara's kitchens and hot cave. But we were too exhausted and didn't wake up until late.

Now, we had seen the communal hot baths people came from far and wide to take a dip in. But we were too timid to bathe in a (relatively) open space with other aunties staring at our booties, so we decided to skip it. But then my mom called, and she would hear nothing of it. She forbade me from coming back home if I didn't experience a hot bath at Manikaran's famous hot springs. So, keeping all my reservations aside, I convinced Nikita to accompany me for a rather liberating hot bath at the ladies' communal pool downstairs. Today, we refer to that experience as 'brave new world' (a Shakespeare reference, in case you were wondering).

That afternoon, we bid farewell to our wonderful hosts with a vow to come back for a longer duration when the snow sticks to the ground, and left for Kasol. There, we met the rest of our party, cut Shristi's birthday cake, and bought souvenirs to take back home. Then we caught a bus to Bhuntar, from where we were scheduled to board a Volvo back to Delhi. Our bus was delayed by an hour, and it began to rain while we waited at the bus stop with at least a hundred other travellers headed back to the plains. It was surprising, and strangely comforting, to see among them many faces I'd been seeing around Kasol over the weekend. Some of them had even been on the same rickety bus that had brought us from Delhi. It sort of felt like we had all been on a trip together, even though all we had exchanged over 3 days were occasional glances. It is a rather romantic idea to harbour, but then, what is travel if not the source of some romantic inspiration?


And on that weekend in Kasol, I did find inspiration. To write. To keep in touch with friends (Yes, I've been meeting Sushmita more regularly after that). To not worry about little things and leave them to fate. To live indecisively. And to hold my own, even when everyone is going the other way. Because, you only live once, right?

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