I’m writing this from the confines of a ramshackle tin hut at the top of a mountain deep in a remote part of the Himalayas. We have been stuck here for two days with no sign of a chance to leave.
Our mountain prison is called Malana. This village thousands of feet above a precipitous valley is home to an reclusive community of Hindu Brahmans who are so high caste that they refuse to touch anyone from outside of their community. If you make a purchase in Malana, you must place your money on the ground outside of the store and wait for the shop-owner to collect the cash, to avoid accidental contact. When you walk through the village, there are extremely specific paths that you may walk to avoid tainting the spirituality of the village. If you err from the path the locals yell at you in their language like angry Ewoks (a ancient language which only this community speaks, by the way).
They also grow (some would say) the most potent hashish in the world. The mountainsides and gardens of Malana are covered with acres and acres of wild cannabis. Truly, it’s the only productive thing that grows in this harsh mountain environment, and so it is cultivated with a literal religious fervor.
To the Hindus, Ganja is the body of Lord Shiva. So the drug isn’t seen as a mild vice as we see it in the West, but as a legitimate path towards spiritual awakening. So I think pretty much everybody in this village is stoned. This, combined with the high caste exclusivity, makes Malana a really weird place. And thanks to the monsoon rains we are stuck here.
Our journey began in Manali, Himachel Pradesh (not to be confused with Malana). Well, our journey began in New Delhi but I’ll skip the 14-hour bus ride and slew of tuk-tuks that it took to deliver Natalie and I up from the chaos of Uttar Pradesh to the pristine Himalayas.
Manali is a busy mountain town at the north end of the Kullu Valley, formed by the Beas Rivercascading down from the mountains. It forms the base of an ancient trade route between the Indian plains and the Tibetans of Ladakh.
Riding this epic Himalayan highway to Ladakh was our original goal upon arriving in Manali. But we soon learned of some rules preventing us as Americans from doing this on rental bikes, so we had to develop a new plan.
India is the land of motorcycles, and Himachel is the motorcycling capital of India, so I knew we needed to try a motorcycling road trip even if it couldn’t be the Manali-Leh Highway.
We decided on a trip up the Parvati River valley to Malana. I had heard of Malana from a wise Irishman I met in Pokhara as the source of “Malana Cream,” the best hash in the world. He told me the people there were not truly Indian, but descendants of Macedonians left over from Alexander the Great’s conquest into Hindustan. He also told me that the locals believed themselves to be so high caste that they wouldn’t touch someone from outside the village.
This stuff was just too curious so I was eager to check the place out. We easily rented a motorcycle from a local shop for just Rs. 1200 per day. We got a 2017 Royal Enfield Himalayan 411– a beastly bike with a beefy suspension designed for navigating the challenging dirt roads of the remote Himalayas.
I had an inkling of the challenge that lie ahead- steep, narrow dirt roads hewn into thousand-foot cliffs in death-defying switchbacks. But as with all new challenges, you really can’t comprehend what’s ahead until you dive in…
The Journey to Malana
We picked up our motorcycle and bungee-corded our trekking packs to each side of the back rack. Our tools got bungeed on right above the back wheel. We had spare tubes, spark plugs, fuses, cables, and all the tools like wrenches and pliers and tire irons that we would need in case of some mechanical failure.
The bike looked cool loaded up with all our stuff for trekking- a true adventure mobile designed perfectly for navigating the rough mountain trails that lie ahead. I felt that familiar giddiness of knowing a true adventure lie ahead, with all its challenges and mysteries.
The first part of our journey took us out of Manali and down the great Beas River valley. We took the high road east of the river through the many villages of Kullu. The road alternated between trafficky towns with big trucks loading apples for export down into India, and peaceful winding roads through pine forest. As we descended further, the valley opened up into a huge expanse populated with lots of small homes lining the river and dotting up on the mountains. At some points we could probably see thirty miles across a giant valley to a mountain that disappeared into the clouds.
As we went further down the valley, the towns got busier and more crowded. It definitely felt like India, with honking and pedestrians everywhere and tons of Dhabas (small family restaurants) boasting Indian cuisine from across the subcontinent.
The riding was pretty relaxing, aside for the jarring practices of Indian drivers. There is no right of way and nobody heeds lanes. This means you ALWAYS have to be ready to slam on the brakes in case someone comes into your lane. Many Indian drivers won’t even look before they pass- it is the responsibility of the driver in the opposite lane to squeeze onto the shoulder to make room for the vehicle passing in the other direction. If there is no room both drivers will slam on the brakes to avoid a head-on collision.
I’ve thought a lot about Indian society and their general disregard for rules of any sort. After all- if you know me, you know I can have a tough time abiding pointless rules and the jumped-up authority figures they necessitate. I appreciate that there are far fewer people in India telling you what to do, where to walk, etc…
But it is WAYY better to have traffic laws! Its mind-boggling to watch some motorcyclist just pull out into the road without a single glance at the oncoming traffic. Most times the motorcyclist will offer a humble little beep as he pulls out as insurance against the attention of oncoming traffic.
One benefit of this behavior is that in India everyone drives more slowly and more carefully. They are on the lookout for motorcyclists everywhere, since bikers outnumber cars about 10:1. It is probably safer to drive a motorcycle in India than in some American cities. You could pull the most egregious stuff you can imagine, like driving the wrong way on the highway, or pulling a U-turn in front of oncoming traffic, probably without causing an accident.
Anyway, we came down the valley to the confluence of the big Beas River and the Parvati River crashing in from the east, at the town of Bhuntar. Here we turned east up the Parvati River Valley. The road became more narrow with less traffic. Smooth pavement wound up the valley, through many little villages and patches of deep pine wood. The Parvati River roared below us, frothing down in white torrents from the heights of the valley.
The scene was breathtakingly beautiful, and I smiled as listened to Natalie make noises of wonder and amazement from the seat behind me. Something I love about Natalie is her pure and vocal appreciation of things at all times- from simple toast with butter to a majestic waterfall crashing down from a mountain. Its infectious and we found ourselves ooh’ing and ahh’ing constantly as our motorcycle rumbled up the valley.
Eventually we came to the Malana Valley, an offshoot from the Parvati coming from the north. We crossed the river and headed up even steeper terrain into the Malana Valley.
The Malana Valley was hemmed in by totally vertical walls reaching thousands of feet into the sky. Our road carved up the steep walls in tight switchbacks, and we quickly rose thousands of feet above the bottom of the valley. We passed a large hydroelectric dam after which the roads turned from pavement to loose dirt and stone. This is when things got real.
There were landslides and stream crossings and tight switchbacks where I had to balance the bike while navigating through large stones and loose dirt. There were sections where I had to thread the front tire of the bike through a rock field just three feet from a cliff which extended down a thousand feet to the river below. We had to ford streams which overflowed the road and fell in a waterfall off the cliff beside us. The mountain was crumbling above us, throwing down water and stones from above.
While we were riding, a landslide knocked out a section of the trail just ahead and we had to wait while they brought down a bulldozer from Malana. A parade of cars and bikes sat motionless on the cliffside as we waited. Everyone was in high spirits as we waited, chatting about the road and what we were going to do up in Malana. We met some Indians who told us to meet them at their friend’s café in Malana once we all arrived.
When the road was repaired we threaded our bike through the line of cars and up the home stretch of road towards Malana. Finally, we arrived at the “Gate of Malana.” Nat was pretty stressed out from the ride and I was glad to get off the bike and rest my shoulders and arms. I had needed 100% concentration for hours to navigate that road and it felt good to release my mind and get some chai.
The Malana Village was perched high on the valley wall, about a 800 feet above the “Malana Gate” where we parked our motorcycle. From below, the smoke rising off the village caught the sunlight in a majestic way. From afar, it looked like it could be the seat of Shiva or some other god.
It took us over an hour to climb the steep paved trail up the valley to Malana. We connected with the party of Indians that we had met on the road and climbed with them through the village.
The village was strange. The oldest homes were timber construction, while the newer ones were concrete and brick. The village was crisscrossed with rivulets of water running down from the mountain above, and the paths were all dirt and mud. Big crops of ganja weeds 15 feet tall grew up in every area that was untended, and cows roamed freely.
In the town square, men sat crosslegged on the ground and chatted, smoked, and played cards. Women watched us from the darkness of their homes and dirty children eyed us suspiciously. No one spoke to us besides the men who approached and offered “cream.”
We were careful not to touch anyone or any building. I didn’t take many pictures as it felt like it may have been disrespectful. There was a distinct sense of being an outsider there. I didn’t want to stay for long.
For the tourists, there were several ramshackle hotels bolted on the cliffside outside of town. Our Indian friends insisted we come stay at the hotel with them, but we decided to go to a different hotel on the tippy top of the cliff. We had to climb three sets of rickety metal stairs up a steep cliff to reach our pathetic tin hut on a little outcrop on the cliff. The hut was small and dirty but the view was amazing, looking down out of the valley.
When night fell, we walked down to the other hotel to go hang out with our new friends. They were sitting in a sort of “den” that had soft carpets and multicolored psychedelic lighting with music playing.
The Chillum Den
In the den were several groups of Indians sitting cross-legged on cushions on floor, smoking chillum and listening to Indian trance style music. Nat and I sat down and made ourselves comfortable.
A girl from Himachel Pradesh sat in one of the groups. After some small conversation, I asked her the question that was burning in my mind. When I did, I got a brief lesson in the ancient Indian philosophy of Atomic Theory in Indian Philosophy.
“So what’s the deal with the no-touching rule? Why do these villagers literally jump out of the way when I walk a little too close to them?”
Jaya touched the chillum to her forehead in an ode to Lord Shiva and then took a long, pensive drag. Smoke filled the air and highlighted multicolored beams from the psychedelic lights on the ceiling.
“All matter in the universe is comprised of particles called atoms- this is the smallest form of matter after which division is no longer possible. Atoms vibrate and spin at certain special frequencies which give the atoms, and the matter they comprise, special characteristics. One of these characteristics is a connection to God that you probably can’t observe. But the Brahmans who live in Malana can see it.
“In a place like Malana, every atom in the earth, in the stones on the hill, in the timber that makes that temple down the hill, it all vibrates at a frequency which gives it a great connection to Shiva.
“Although the matter’s connection to Shiva is long lasting, it is also delicate. When humans interact with matter we can change the vibrational state of the atoms. Even simply observing an atom can change its state.”
I sat with this one for a moment and tried to understand the logic with a totally open mind. I responded:
“Okay I can see what you mean about changing the state of matter through observation. I mean, Schrodinger said that simply observing matter can change its state by collapsing the probability wave which describes it. So I guess I can see how observing holy matter might impact the vibrational state of the atoms and alter the matter’s connection to god.”
Jaya looked at me curiously like I was a big dumb idiot. “The point is- there are very specific ways to act in a place like Malana to preserve the atomic state of the matter and its connection to Lord Shiva. The locals here have been stewards of the sacred village for thousands of years and so they see it as their holy duty to protect Malana.
“On one hand, they could ask every visitor to Malana what their religion and what their caste is to determine if the person might know how to behave in the village. But for one- asking one’s caste is actually illegal now under Indian law. Secondly, that’s just impractical. So they impose broad sweeping rules on every visitor to Malana- no touching anything, no touching anyone, no entering any place in the village. Its to preserve the spiritual integrity of the matter in the village in maintain Malana’s Shiva connection.”
“Now You’s Can’t Leave”
That evening, I came down with fever and chills. During the night, I had to make several harrowing descents down the three steep metal staircases in pitch darkness to the bathroom (hole in ground). The next day I was bedridden in our little hut. Nat explored the area while I slept in fits as the harsh mountain sun baked the hut.
At one point, three mountain goats trotted into the hut, bringing about 300 flies with them. I embraced the flies and became one with the goats. When I had to hurriedly descend the rickety stairs to use the bathroom, I envied the goats that they shit where they pleased.
The next day I felt slightly better, but the monsoon rains poured down with a vengeance, turning the paths into running mud which cascaded down the mountain. The road down to civilization was treacherous enough- there was no way I was attempting the ride it in the rain. So we did all we could do and we waited in our little room as the rain fell.
I might have been miserable but I had the company of Natalie and we just treated the whole thing as a comically unfortunate situation. Of all places to get stuck- we get stuck in the village in which wiping our ass with the wrong toilet paper would be committing a blasphemy.
The next day we prayed to Shiva for clear skies and Shiva answered! The new day dawned clear and bright. We hiked down to our bike and got on the road, finally. I was not sad to see the village of Malana dwindling above us.
The road down the mountain was thick with mud from the previous day’s rains. I hate and I fear mud.
Our first spill came as we turned a blind corner on a switchback that hugged the cliff. A big van filled with Indians was coming up the other way and I hit the brakes too hard when we sighted them. The wheels locked and we skidded forward towards the hood of the car. Right before we hit the front of the van we spilled onto our left side to avoid contact. Fortunately the mud was soft and it didn’t hurt too bad.
Our second spill came on a straightaway through an extremely deep patch of mud. The mud swallowed up half of our front tire and we lost all speed and tipped into the mud patch. Nat’s leg was stuck under the bike and I scrambled around, squelching and slipping in the deep mud. We freed her leg and desperately lifted the motorcycle back up onto two wheels. The entire right side of the bike was coated in mud and our shoes were filled with water and mud. Nat had a smile on her face and didn’t seem perturbed in the slightest; I love her for that.
I asked Nat to walk to the end of the mud patch while I navigated the bike through the rest of the mud. I was really rattled and I rode the back brake to avoid picking up too much speed. About 100 ft past the deep patch, the mud formed a thin layer over pavement. I was riding scared and dragging the back wheel and in the blink of an eye my back wheel fishtailed and I landed hard on the pavement again.
My leg was stuck under the bike and I laid on the pavement, beaten. I felt a searing pain and I realized that the exhaust pipe was burning my calf through my pants. I wriggled out from under the bike, bruised and burned and drenched head to toe in mud. My calf was blistering from the red hot exhaust burn. The left handlebar was bent in and I wasn’t sure what other damage was done.
I sat on the pavement and tried to slow my breathing. I let the fear and anxiety wash over me in a big wave and I observed how it felt without trying to think anything. Nat came down the hill and re-assured me, telling me to take my time. She was the perfect picture of calm collectedness, ready to hop back on the bike when I was ready.
For about 10 minutes I sat on the side of the road, focusing on my breath and calming myself. Its like that feeling after you take a big fall while rock climbing and you’re spooked but you have to manage your fear and continue in a focused, calm way. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the mind-killer. The last fall came purely because I was riding scared, so I knew I had to get my shit together and absolutely not take another spill.
I did a quick check on the bike’s components. The handlebar was bent in but drivable. Otherwise all was well. I knew that we were close to the hydroelectric dam, after which the road became pavement instead of mud. All we had to do was get down to the dam and we’d be free and clear.
We descended the rest of the way through more deep muddy switchbacks, across torrents of gushing water. We reached the dam without incident and the road turned to blissful, simple pavement.
The stress of the harrowing muddy descent alleviated as we cruised down beautiful paved roads to the Parvati Valley.
We met the Parvati river, and then we met the Beas River. In Bhuntar we went to a motorcycle repair shop and swapped out the bent handlebars for Rs. 900. Then we got a kid to wash our bike for Rs. 80. All of a sudden, our bike looked brand new with no sign of the day’s “events.”
We arrived back in Manali exhausted and drenched in mud. We got to the motorcycle repair shop and collapsed onto the pavement, waiting for the shop owner to return.
Nat bought a much needed bottle of local apple cider and we slouched on the curb like two dirty bums passing the booze between us. Then we laughed and we laughed and we laughed. Onto the next adventure…