The drive from Dharamsala to Manali, about eight hours, is staggeringly beautiful, so beautiful I forgot to be scared of the steep drop on the side of the road. Although at one point we were stopped by men in land-diggers who sensed that a rockslide was about to begin. They were right, and we watched as rocks the size of skulls started pouring down the side of the steep hill.
Parts of the drive is along the riverbed, which is lush and this flourescent green, straight out of In the Night Garden or some similarly disturbing Japanese cartoon.
At one point we stopped at a grubby little roadside dhaba so the driver could have a nap (??) and I left my fellow travellers - two Israeli hippies, one Polish Buddhist - and wandered out the back onto their balcony, and was rewarded with this view:
Imagine it with the whooshing, gushing sounds of a swiftly-moving river to complete the imagery.
Manali is an odd place: it's the destination of choice for many honeymooning Indian couples, ageing hippies who enjoy the easy access to the finest of Himalayan charas, as well as an array of local and foreign mountain hikers. So walking down the main street, you are greeted with the sight of spaced-out Israeli hippies on their obligatory post-military-service drop-out-of-life-in-India, Indian brides covered in mehendi, wearing fancy red-and-gold salwar kameezes, and Himachali locals. The locals, particularly the older generation, have a unique gypsy-style dress: baggy pants, a plaid - usually fuschia - blanket-style tunic, a floral headscarf and gold hoops snaking up their ears.
I found a place to stay out of the LP: an old British Raj-era homestead converted into shabby guest rooms, but oh what a view:
Here, I met a young Danish backpacker travelling on his own for six weeks through the Himalayas, attracted to the mountains in that they're the opposite of Denmark, which is as flat as a chapati. I opted to do my own thing during the daytime but for the three nights I was there we would hang out in the evening, sitting on the balcony watching the flickering lights across the valley, drinking rhododendron wine, a regional speciality, and chatting. In other circumstances that might have been a prelude to that special kind of bedroom mountain hike, but he was waaay younger than my married self so I was thoroughly comfortable there would be no awkwardness. We discussed all manner of things: travel, siblings, art, etiquette. He'd recently been on a philosophy summer school so told me about the learnings and teachings of the great Danish philosopher Kierkegaard.
The last night, however, I came up the stairs and found my young Dane looking rather pleased with himself, joined by two Euro chicky babes. The three were drinking on our shared balcony so I joined them and offered up the remnants of my bottle of special Himachali fruit wine (not special as in a Manali Cream way, special in that it's hard to find out of the region). I could see the Dane getting twitchy, all like "am I going to get it on tonight? Which one? Could I be truly lucky and get both?" But try as he might, he could not manage to steer the conversation the way he wanted, given he had three females discussing Gossip Girl for company. (Some things manage to transcend all cultural and linguistic boundaries.)
After some time my phone rang so I withdrew into my room to have my goodnight chat to my husband. The other three were still drinking and laughing outside and I was itching to rejoin them - but wifely duties overrode so I focused on J. "I miss yooou... no I haven't been speaking to any boys etc".
Outside, I heard the conversation lull. Then the Dane, an unmistakeable twang of hopefulness in his voice: "You know, Kierkegaard had some very interesting theories regarding sex".
I took that as my cue to retire.