Old Manali is two or three kilometers uphill from the buzzing New Manali. Behind the souvenir shops and guest houses on the steep main alley are old cottages made from wood, clay and cut stones. The wooden frames of the entrance doors are painted with simple ornaments. Women in colourful Saris sit together and watch the wheat dry in the sun, cows wander the small alleys. The nearby Manu temple is a rather new wooden structure with beautiful carvings. Inside there are ancient relicts. Here is said to be the place where Hindu god Manu delivered the core principles of behavior to mankind.
We spend two weeks in the comfortable Gudu's Orchard Guest house that is only accessible by foot and therefore cut off from any street noise. During the day it is usually sunny and warm, yet after sundown we huddle in long underwear, woollen socks and blankets, listening involuntarily to the wedding parties in the neighbourhood.
Gudu's mother takes Kathrin and me for a hike through gnarling woods to her husbands house. Old Ram welcomes us to sit on the wooden veranda of his old cottage. He smiles and plays with a trapped rat, right beside a cloth full of peas. We sit for an hour and enjoy the view of the Beas river and the waterfalls on the other side of the valley. Not far North, there are snow-caped mountain ranges. Special Bidi. Peace on Earth. In the nearby Rasta Cafe, 50 year old Takashi serves omelet and apple pancake that melt in the mouth. Japanese perfection far away from the Indian tourist track.
On a sunny day, I cycle the 50 kilometers up to Rotang La. The road is paved and in fairly good condition. Switchbacks lead up through pine woods. Once over the tree line, there are amazing views into rocky gorges. In Marih, the last village before the pass, an old woman sells used ski suits and bath robes for the tourists riding up on rented motorbikes. It is getting colder and colder. Thin air, weak legs. At the pass level, the temperature is down to 2°C, and a fierce wind blows. Patches of snow beside the road. I'm happy two Indian tourists share their woollen blanket with me so I can change clothes. I'd die for a hot Chai. Out of nowhere, an old man appears with a thermo, serving Chai! The surrounding summits are in thick clouds. Soft descent, soft switchbacks, hardly traffic - the way back down is almost like flying.
After a week, Kathrin and I rent us a red 350cc Enfield and ride to Manikaran. It is my first ride on a real motorbike since 13 years. The engine bubbles gently and the helmets dampen the omnipresent honking. After a dry and narrow valley, the road leads through picturesque forests with rocks and gnarling Himalayan cedars on the last few kilometers. Easy Rider feelings long time not felt.
Manikaran is blessed with its hot springs. It is a holy place for the Hindus. The legend says, Lord Shiva and his wife Parvati were meditating here for some 10000 years. There are public bathing facilities beside Hindu temples and a big Sikh pilgrim place. A white temple is half hidden behind the clouds of steam. The water in the pools is so hot, it feels like being cooked alive with a strong tickling all over the body. Rejuvenating, indeed. The heat warms our bodies thoroughly. Somewhere on the way back on the next day, Kathrin practices riding the Enfield for a while. Later in the afternoon, we have another swim in the hot springs of Bashisht, near Manali. The bathrooms within the old temple are roofless, with walls of dark cut stones and some sculptures. The water here is less hot, and somewhat white from, well - I hope it is soap.
After Divali (the well celebrated Hindu light festival) the days are getting colder, and the snow line is closing in. Time to say Good bye to our new friends .We are back on the road, with the cacophony of traffic noise in the well populated area on our way to Rishikesh. Soon our fragile state of relaxation is history. Lots of ups and downs on the way down the river won't let us make a lot of pace. But there is swarms of big eagles in the air, and before Mandi the valley narrows to a beautiful gorge. In Bilaspur, Kathrin is fed up with the torture and intends to take a bus on the next day. That proves to be difficult with misleading information at the bus terminal. A man of our age gets curious about us. We sit and talk over Chai. Virender lures us to come to his village on the other side of the water reservoir.
Usually he is living in Shimla, yet for the funeral ceremony of his cousin he stays on the farm of his mother. The well maintained house is surrounded by mango orchards and small fields, settled between lush forested hills. The trees are full of singing birds, and monkeys. Water buffaloes are fed on green leaves from the nearby trees. Two shy cats and a dog keep watch. We'd pass the time resting, strolling the fields and the neighbourhood, and eating dahls and vegetables and rice that Virenders mother cooks for us.
Against Virenders will, we take off again, cycling. The minor road via Darlaghat and Dharampur is bumpy, hilly and rather busy. Small settlements are glued on the slopes. Luckily the road from Dharampur to Nahan is better maintained, and almost free of traffic. Monkeys everywhere. From Nahan, there are dreamlike thirty kilometers through thick jungle in the lowlands, before we hit the buzzing Harbertpur. From there, we won't get out of the heavy traffic until Deradhun. The best moments are a dozen of school kids waving at us from a single small motor rikshaw. After we find a reasonable guest house in a narrow alley beside the main road, I venture out to get us some well deserved beers. The next “English beer and wine shop” is a kilometer away, near the clock tower. In the dark, the area looks like after an air raid. Apparently, the wide main road has been milled through living quarters. Three storey buildings with cut walls and open rooms full of rubble still remain on both sides of the road. Add the traffic mess with the horns and the pollution, you'd get a Hieronymus Bosch scenery. Luckily, I get the beers and we celebrate the day in the somewhat noise-reduced courtyard of our hotel.
50 kilometers left to Rishikesh! Heavy traffic until Deradhun airport, then relief – the road narrows, leads through jungle again. On the other hand, big displays with pictures of giant elephants attacking cars warn about the dangers. Apparently, elephants get frustrated about the ongoing cutting of their habitat. A great view over a big rocky riverbed – 7000 kilometer mark on this journey. Little later, we arrive in Rishikesh and cross the mighty Ganga river to Ram Jhula. Temples, ashrams, guest houses, restaurants and souvenir shops are crammed beside each other on the riverside. Narrow streets are full of babas (Indian beggar pilgrims), cheeky cows, horning motorbikes and tourists. We haven't seen foreigners since Manali, so we enjoy the change. Especially in terms of proper Pizza and Pasta!
In Rishikesh the Ganga leaves the mountains. A holy city, which declared itself World Yoga Capital. Every second display advertises Yoga classes. My head is buzzing. Suddenly I hardly feel motivated for Yoga anymore, for the first time in almost three years of practice. Most hotels are new and feel rather sterile, houses for rent are hard to come by. Eventually, we find a room with kitchen space. Some Yoga scholars here recommend their favourite Yoga teacher. Indra, a Norwegian man invites me for a walk to the river. He is doing his morning meditation on a quiet spot at the river that is still covered thick with sand from the recent flood. Nearby, a young baba takes a bath. I can't help following his example. Instantly the mind is washed free of worries, empty at least for a few moments.
Our room neighbour Julian shows me the way to Surinder Singh, the recommended Yogi. His drop-in classes are well visited. About 18 scholars lay on the mats, waiting for the Yogis arrival. Surinder appears, silently stands with folded hands at the window for a minute before he sits down. Then he starts the lesson with “Keep your eyes closed, put hands in Namaste mudra”. Breathing practice is followed by simple postures that get very intense after holding them for minutes. Surinder walks through the scholars, silently and gently adjusting positions with fingertips and toes, smiling behind his long black beard. Some postures he'd explain in detail with possible pitfalls. Bare pure Yoga without unnecessary ornaments. My Yoga set is rather Aerobic exercise compared to his.
We'd read a lot of books, hike up waterfalls. Kathrins friend Daniela visits us in town for lunch. You can imagine the joy for Kathrin, gossiping in her mother tongue with an old friend after months on the road. Where we go next is as clear as the sunsets over the Ganges. I'm waiting for my Vipassana course in Deradhun to begin. Everything starts moving when I call there for course confirmation. The online booking didn't work, the course is full. After a brief investigation, I find another 10-day Vipassana retreat in Jaipur, starting in a few days. I sign on by phone, then Kathrin and I book train tickets to Jaipur. Time to move on.