HIMALAYAN TALES #8: MANALI

23 February 2018


001. Manali is a little slice of a winter wonderland nestled at the top of Himachal Pradesh and is where I had my first experience of snowfall EVER (in India, who would have thought!). Overflowing with natural beauty in the form of snowy mountains, rolling hills and valleys to explore. We were two very happy campers and stayed over a week just chilling out, exploring and enjoying the rare untouched nature in a country of 1.3 billion people.

002. We arrived in Manali with prevailing nausea and sleep deprivation after a glorious 17 hours of travel via bus. Though the sight of snow capped mountains, passing yaks on the street and no longer being in a moving vehicle was so damn exciting that we just wanted to explore! After some struggle finding our unsigned guesthouse (which is surprisingly common in India in general), we found ourselves eating at the only cafe open, chatting with the owner and sharing a joint. As far as first impressions go Manali was ticking all the boxes.

003. At this stage it was mid December and the north of India was in off-season. This meant that cold mountain towns generally start to close down because it's too cold (with the exception  of crowds of Indian holidaymakers heading up there over Christmas and New Years). We didn't really mind the lack of other backpackers because it just added to the whole sleepy-village charm. Although I will point out that nowhere in India has heating (at least not on a backpacker budget) and the weather was REALLY cold by my sooky-Queenslander-standards. I would love to visit during Summer one day to see the town at its full potential, pick apples from the orchards and bask in the sunshine (a girl can dream hey?).

004. For our entire stay Bhoomi Holiday Home was our go-to adobe. It was super affordable, had really hot showers and was run by the kindest man ever, Manoj. I would recommend to it everyone! Old Manali is the area we stayed around and had a rad backpacker vibe mixed the village charm. As far as food goes, almost every place serves a mix of the three I's (Indian, Israeli and Italian). Our favourite place hands down though was Raj's Cafe. It was INSANELY cheap and 10/10 delicious. I'm pretty sure we ate our weight in momos and thukpa everyday (with no regrets).

005. From Old Manali you are in an ideal place for some picturesque walks and adventures. Basically at the top of the main street going uphill you can either turn left of right. Left will lead you past a local laundry spot and up a trail that follows along a river. From there you can find somewhere nice to have a picnic or continue on the trail to just explore the surrounding area. If you choose to turn right at the top of the hill you will walk past a temple and then follow the trail into a charming pine forest with an epic viewpoint. Honestly exploring the hills in Manali is just drop dead beautiful everywhere and there is absolutely no way you could ever be disappointed, no matter where you turn!

006. One day we took a day trip to Solang Valley, a super touristy spot BUT with real snow falling from the sky! I had never experienced snow before so it was pretty damn exciting, but if you're looking for somewhere to shred or actually ski it's probably not the place. It was all mostly Indian tourists, just running around, enjoying the snow and taking lots of photos. Taxis are 1500 INR return and they tell you to hire the snowsuits and shoes at one of the hundreds of places along the road on the way for the fix price of 250 INR ($5). It was definitely not cold enough for snowsuits but we both only had a pair of sandals each.. so the gumboots were non negotiable (and I guess you could argue walking around like a marshmallow-cross-power ranger for the next few hours was just a priceless Indian experience).

007. Okay this post is getting long but I can't finish talking about this magic little town without mentioning their local delicacy. Manali Creme- the well known and highest quality hash you can get in India is grown in this region. If you're a stoner this place is what heaven might start to look like... high quality hash, endless nature and cheap Indian food (or is that just me?). Although still 'technically' illegal, it's pretty damn easy to get your hands on some if you strike up conversation with the right people. If you wanna experience Manali like a local this is how to do it. Again, not condemning or condoning anything here merely trying provide transparent information for fellow travellers.

008. Chilled out mountain town number two on the trip is coming at you in the next instalment very soon... Thanks for hanging around!

Lena x

HIMALAYAN TALES #7: RISHIKESH

21 February 2018


001. Welcome to Rishikesh- a little town nestled in the foothills of mountains with the crystal clear, bright blue, icy Ganga running through it. Also more commonly referred to as the yoga capital of India (or even the world?!), where yogis in tights are more common than cows. Rishikesh is a lovely little haven fill with (yeah a lot of westerners) but also lovely green hills, sandy river banks, yoga studios on every corner, small cows (which are extra cute) and delicious healthy food.

002. The main town of Rishikesh isn't actually the part of Rishikesh backpackers refer to when staying in the town. Laxman Jhula is one area people choose to stay, which is straight across from the bridge on the more northern side. It is filled with lots of funky places to eat, shop and yogi your heart out. We stayed at Sonu Guesthouse which had the loveliest room for a super cheap price, plus a little communal kitchen and yoga studio to play around in upstairs. Ram Jhula is the other main area on the southern side directly across another bridge. It is closer to the Swargashram area and is generally a little quieter than the main Laxman Jhula area. We stayed at a place here called Sudesh Guesthouse which was basic and affordable, also with a shared kitchen and yoga hall. Both areas of town are walking distance to each other, so you really can't go wrong with either option.

003. While in Rishikesh we chilled at a lot of cafes, along the river, on rooftops and in yoga halls. If you are vegan and find yourself in Rishikesh you will be spoilt for choice, thanks to all the health conscious yogis. Our favourite place hands down was the Pumpernickel Bakery/Babylon Restaurant which had SO many healthy vegan options, in generous portion sizes and lots of delicious vegan sweets in the cabinet too. The 'reeses' peanut butter cookie dough balls will change your life. The Juice House down in Ram Jhula end was incredibly cheap and delicious. It had oats topped with loads of fruit and the cheapest (and biggest) soy chai in town. Little Buddha was also another funky little place that always was busy and had a good vibes, along with really generous serving sizes. Food prices in Rishikesh were definitely not as cheap as other places we visited in India, but all of it was super healthy and wholesome food, so it was nice to enjoy the taste of health in between the constant curry-coma.

004. It was my 21st birthday while in Rishikesh, which actually still sounds a little surreal to say because birthdays don't really seem like they happen when you are already mid-way through a trip halfway across the world! We decided to splurge a little ($12 each) and visit the Maharishi Mahesh Ashram (better known as the Beatles Ashram). These days it's abandoned, with plants taking over the buildings and independent artists making their mark. I loved the whole experience- worth every penny!  The architecture of the buildings and the meditation pods were beautiful. We even had a little rooftop birthday picnic with aforementioned life-changing-cookie-dough-balls. Exploring all the hidden rooms and discovering art intertwined with the surrounding nature was just magic!

005. Stay tuned for the next post on the trip... a 2 hour taxi ride and 15 hour bus away!

Lena x

HIMALAYAN TALES #6: VARANASI

19 February 2018


001. Varanasi, one of the oldest and most historically rich cities of India. A city of Holy men, Mother Ganga, winding alleys, delicious curries, animals of all varieties and hell of a lot of poop. After our eventful journey, arriving in Varanasi felt like a bit of slap in the face. However, after a couple of days of rest we had readjusted our sleep-deprived mindsets and began to see magic hidden between the chaos.

002. The city of Varanasi is something so unique that I still find hard to put into words to describe. The winding alleys are full of animals, scooters, people and colour! Huge cows, endless dogs, goats and monkeys are EVERYWHERE in Varanasi and as a result so is a hell of a lot of poop (not just of the animal variety either....). Darting around the brightly painted alleys and getting lost is almost half the fun of the city. When you need a breath of (literal) fresh air Mother Ganga and the ghats provide. The river is the centre of life for many people in Varanasi and there is a quiet sense of calmness if you just sit and watch day-to-day life unfolding. Realistically though, walking along the river touts will offer you a boat ride or try to sell you something relentlessly. I suggest heading more towards the Assi Ghat end of the river for a quieter atmosphere that's slightly less tourist-centred.

003. While in Varanasi we stayed in a lovely place called Singh Guesthouse. It was an affordable, clean little oasis from the craziness outside with a big green garden, multiple rooftops and tasty cheap breakfast. The Indian food in Varanasi was SO GOOD! We were spoilt for choice with super cheap and tasty pure 100% veg restaurants. Our favourite one was called Ashok, which was the cheapest by far and always had locals dining in too. Niyita and Shree also get honourable mentions because of their generous (and delicious) thali sizes too.

004. While on the topic of food I may as well mention hash- you can get it almost everywhere in Varanasi. You might even come across bhang lassi or special lassi at one of the many lassi stores around town. It is essentially a dairy based shake laced with THC (or bhang in Indian terms). If you're not into edibles there are always countless touts down to sell you a good time along the banks of the Ganges too, more towards Assi Ghat end. Heck, you might even start talking to one of the holy Babas and light up a chillum with him because they are high all the time man (and not just in the spiritual sense). I'm not here to condone or condemn anything- merely just educate!

005. The cremation ghats of Varanasi are one of key points for any visitor to the city. There are two cremation spots along the river- Manikarnika Ghat and Harishchandra Ghat. Bodies are burned here 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Before the body even arrives at the Holy Ganga, it is washed and coated with ghee (purified butter). It takes 6-7 hours to burn one single body and a large amount of wood that the family must buy for the cremation. The bodies of men are wrapped in white and women are wrapped in red. Pure bodies, such as pregnant women, young children, leprosy sufferers, holy Hindu men and victims of cobra bites, are sunk directly into the river intact. We had a lovely in-depth conversation with a local Indian one night who talked us through everything that goes into the cremation ceremonies and left with a more wholesome understanding of how it all worked.

006. The comfortable feeling of acceptance and almost nonchalance about death was something I found refreshing coming from a Western culture where death is so traumatic and closed-off from everything. It felt really beautiful and moving to see death represented and dealt with so openly. The fact is that death is the only thing in life ever really guaranteed. Without death life in this body would be infinite. Death is a tool, something that should serve as a reminder to just LIVE. I think the confronting but humbling way that Hinduism deals with death on the banks the Ganga opens up so many thought provoking doors and I am very grateful to have experienced something that really blew me out of my Western-trained-mind.

007. Also, just so I don't end on a too-serious note... that goat munching on our banana peels was the FUNNIEST animal we crossed paths with in all of India and I almost always end up in tears looking at its little face. ENJOY!

Lena x 

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