Monthly Archives: June 2014

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Escape to Manali

The constant and endless movement around the country that had once excited and inspired me was starting to make me grow weary. Apart from a few longer stays in places like Mamallapuram, Pushkar, Hampi and of course the Vipassana retreat I had barely stopped moving in the past 4 and a half months. The summer in the south was slowly creeping north and making itself known with the mercury regularly hitting 47 degrees in Varanasi when I decided I was done with the Indian summer. The Himalayas were calling my name and I dragged me and my sweat-soaked shirt into the travel agent and pleaded for a train ticket north. The agent told me there was one ticket left but it was in the more expensive AC carriage – like I was going to choose anything else at this stage.

Beautiful old houses of Manali

Beautiful old houses of Manali

I stopped in Rishikesh (more to come on this shortly) and met up with some friends I’d met in Pushkar and spent a week exploring the Ganges, the waterfalls and The Beatles Ashram, it was cooler but still a little toasty – roll on the Himalayas.

Before I managed to completely escape the chaos, India had one more surprise in store for me and that was the trip from Rishikesh to Manali. It all faded away like a bad nightmare when I rolled into Manali.

My friends from Rishikesh had arrived the day before and I sent them a message as I got off the bus – ‘Brew some coffee, I’m 5 minutes away’. Sure enough, they greeted me with hugs and coffee and I relaxed into Old Manali.

Old Manali is a cliche mountain town only this time a little different. Where most cliches leave you feeling a little lacklustre through expectations, Manali exceeded all of mine and I knew I wouldn’t be leaving anytime soon.

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The surrounding mountains are covered with pine forests that only give way to the snow line at the top, the rivers at the bottom and the waterfalls that connect the two. The mornings and afternoons are cold enough to warrant a beanie, scarf and hot coffee while the days are warm enough to consider a dip in the icy melt-water.

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While Manali lends itself to the peace and quiet it would be hard to get through a trip here without doing at least one of the adventure sports on offer. I took a few days out of my calendar of R & R and went rock-climbing.

The trekking around Manali is world-class and even if you don’t choose to go on the multi-day treks that are offered everywhere there’s plenty of treks that you can do by yourself (the companies and guides will tell you this isn’t possible but a bit of exploration will prove them wrong). After rock-climbing with the guys at Himalayan Caravan I had a chat with them about potential treks and they gave me plenty of ideas on where to go, they also gave me their mobile number incase I got lost. Walking in any direction will take you somewhere pretty special.

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Three months of vegetarianism would also come to an end in Manali. The Lamb burgers at Shiva Garden Cafe were just too good to pass up for $3. Manali may just have the best western style food in all of India as well as delicious Indian, Tibetan, Nepalese and Chinese dishes. Although being a melting-pot of tourists it was still possible to find some cheaper restaurants ($1 dollar momos became a staple).

The rest of my days there were spent reading, writing, fishing, hiking and sitting in the hot springs in between catching up with the constant flow of travellers through the town.

A spot of early morning fishing.

A spot of early morning fishing.

Eventually the time would come where I would have to re-pack my bags that had exploded across my room and make my way to Srinagar, Kashmir in preparation for an 8 day trek. I had made a lot of friends in the town and left knowing I would be back one day.

Have you taken a break from travel before? Where did you stop and relax?

How I Became a Sculptor in Mamallapuram

The main street of Mamallapuram is lined with countless stalls selling immaculately handcrafted sculptures and most of the shops owners spend there days working on new pieces in front of their store. I was in the rare mood for shopping probably because I had a good reason this time, my dads 50th birthday was coming up and I wanted to send something home for him.

Wandering through a few different stalls nothing seemed fitting, I got chatting with a local sculptor out of the front of his workshop and he downed his tools and invited me in for chai. I was asking him about getting a small piece custom made and engraved when he suggested that rather than pay someone to make it he’ll teach me to make something myself. The idea sounded great except for one small thing – my discernible lack of artistic talent. He was persuasive enough that I agreed to come back and start Sculpture 101 with him the next day.

Sculpting away...

Sculpting away…

Venkat – my new sculpture instructor – was patient, persistent and extraordinarily resilient, nothing was a better example of this than his story of losing his home, store and complete collection of his work and tools to the 2004 tsunami. An event tragic enough to floor even the strongest of characters didn’t seem to deter his spirit and with the help of the community he managed re-open his shop not long after.

I walked into his shop at 9:30 the next day and he was eagerly awaiting with the tools laid out and a cup of chai and biscuits. We shared chai and looked through some of his work while I decided what I wanted to make and the type of stone to make it out of. I started carving away at big block of greenstone with the idea of a lizard perched on a rock, this was to be my first piece and more of a practice piece than anything too serious.

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The next two days were spent drinking chai, going out for lunch and sculpting in-between. It was awesome I began to make friends in the town and despite my now sore and calloused hands my lizard was starting to take shape.

Then it all came crumbling down.

I was starting to put the final details on the head of the lizard and must have hammered a little too hard into a fault line in the stone and a huge crack ran through – off with the lizards head! I was pretty disheartened, my hands were killing me and a day and a half of work had just gone down the drain. In hindsight, it seems petty to have become upset at losing one piece when Venkat had lost so much more in the tsunami 9 and half years earlier.

Out came a new block of stone, this time I was using a stronger stone which would be harder to carve but also harder to break. I chose a seated Buddha in the palm of a hand. This piece was literally make or break.

The days rolled on in more or less the same fashion – lots of sculpting and lots of chai. Venkat gave me a little help here and there with some of the finer details (I was still a little rattled about breaking my last piece) and my Buddha was starting to take shape. Four days of sculpting and polishing paid off, I had completed it and couldn’t have been happier.

The finished piece!

The finished piece!

In celebration I took Venkat out for dinner that night at a little local restaurant where we feasted on lamb thali. As with all celebrations in India they never just last one day so the next morning we went to the market to pick up some fresh fish, lamb and beer. Venkat invited his friend, a chef of 15 years at Mamallapuram’s nicest hotel to come and cook for us at Venkat’s hut. Venkat lived in a village about 15 minutes away in a hut with a tiny kitchen and no electricity. That didn’t stop his friend serving up 4 amazing dishes.

Cooking up a storm.

Cooking up a storm.

I’m glad to have made such a great friend in Venkat and it is a true example of his genuine friendliness that during my 6 days of sculpting not once did he ask for a fee or a tip for his services and was reluctant to take my money when I offered it. Mamallapuram is a place I will hold in high regard for a long time to come.

Video: Rock Climbing in Manali

Manali is home to a whole different bunch of adventure sports, something I didn’t quite expect to see in the calmer Himalayan region of India. Although I’m using Manali as a place to rest up after a chaotic 4 and half months in India (not to mention the ride here) I figured a little bit of adventure wouldn’t hurt. Walking into the booking office, I had a choice of of canyoning, trekking, white-water rafting, snowboarding, mountain biking, and paragliding. I’d already taken on paragliding in Varkala and White-water rafting in Rishikesh so I decided to tick off another item off my Bucket List – Outdoor Rock Climbing!

I had done a little bit of indoor before but that’s a whole different ball game. I ended up in a group of 6 plus our two instructors Ravi and Vikram. They seemed very experienced and took the safety side of things very seriously which was re-assuring as some of the rock faces were as high as 30m.

They ran us through a few warm up climbs and gradually stepped up the difficulty teaching us different techniques along the way but they were clearly saving the biggest climb until last.
Check out the video below and see just how big it was for yourselves (there’s a language warning on the video).

If you’re considering taking on any adventure sports in Manali I would highly recommend Himalayan Caravan, their guides were excellent and they even let us climb for 2 hours longer than we had paid for. (I’m in no way sponsored by them but was so happy with the service that I thought I’d share it).

Have you rock-climbed before? What was your experience like?
Is it something you would consider doing?

Indian Transport: The 24 hours from Hell

It was meant to be so simple, the plan was to leave Rishikesh and head for Manali. It was a rickshaw ride, a train and then an overnight bus into Manali that we could sleep through at least that’s how the travel agent had sold it to us. I had met 3 English lads to share the 18 hour journey with and we assumed it would be a breeze. As with everything in India, nothing is quite as simple as it seems as we were soon to find out. 

We get to Haridwar Railway Station and ask the Station Master when and where our train was leaving from. Platform 4 in half an hour. A train pulled into the station at around the time our train was due but it didn’t have either of our two carriage numbers on it and it was the wrong train number altogether. We could only assume it wasn’t our train right?

Wrong!

An hour later we went to check with the Station Master and only then did he bother to explain that the train had two different numbers and two different names. Well that was a good deal of help now.

Never trust the train numbers!

Never trust the train numbers!



We picked up a kiwi guy who had also missed the train and decided to split a taxi for the 5 hour trip instead of missing our connecting bus. This should be easy there was a plethora of booking agents nearby and we split up and checked out two of them. We got quoted 4500 and 5000 rupees, we decided to go with the cheaper offer, we went back and suddenly he had a change of heart and now wanted 5000, safe to say he lost our business.

Another agent told us he could have us in a taxi within 5 minutes, we would happily pay the 5000 this time to get on the road. We were in a taxi within 5 minutes but that’s when he added ‘We have to go change taxi’s because this one isn’t licensed for interstate travel’ More wasted time. We get to the new taxi about 15 minutes out of town and now that we’re away from the rest of the booking agents he decides he wants 6000 for the journey. Things get heated, we’re arguing back and forth and end up deciding we’d rather miss our connecting bus than pay this scumbag (it’s the only appropriate word for him). We walk away and he calls us back for 5000, we load up our bags and he now demands 5500. We were running out of time and he knew it.

The taxi is on its way and apart from the 3 fatal accidents we see along the way, it’s smooth sailing, that is until we actually get to just outside Chandigarh, the driver starts yelling at us in a mixture of Hindi and English and from what we understand (which wasn’t much) he’s not licensed to drive into the city. We rush out of the taxi and in our haste one of the English lads leaves his iPod.

We pull over a rickshaw and the 5 of us (the other 4 guys over 6 foot) pile in with our backpacks, we’re lying on top of each other with limbs hanging out the doors and window. Cue another argument. We have the destination punched into the GPS on the phone but the driver refuses to follow our directions, instead he pulls over to get directions from another driver who is trying to send us to the public bus station. He’s shouting in Hindi, we’re shouting in English. He drives off and our driver reluctantly follows our directions.

Rickshaws weren't made for 5 people with backpacks

Rickshaws weren’t made for 5 people with backpacks

The others guys bus leaves at 11:30 and we arrive at 11:15 – perfect! As for my bus, well it was due at 9:30 and you would think I would have well and truly missed it. A nightmare experience of Indian transport finally swings in my favour, my bus was late and due any minute now. Well any minute now turned into 1:15 in the morning before I sleepily boarded the bus, it was absurd to think that this was only the halfway mark.

There was to be no sleep on the bus, it raced through hairpin turns on the skinny mountain roads at 60km/h narrowly missing the buses and trucks doing the same in the other direction. This was going to be a long 9 hours I’m just glad that no one was vomitting – just kidding! Wouldn’t have been a trip from hell if the two people next to me didn’t spend the last 5 hours vomitting into a plastic bag. This isn’t exactly what I had in mind when I talked about the Ten Year Holiday.

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The views from Manali were definitely worth it.

What seemed like an eternity later the bus finally rolled into Manali, All around me, the snow-capped Himalayas stretched up towards the blue sky with only rivers and waterfalls splitting them. Everywhere I looked seemed like a postcard picture, the air was clean and fresh and only then could I begin to laugh about the last 24 hours.

Have you had any horror transport trips? Let me know in the comments below, it would make me feel better!