Monday, August 13, 2012

Paragliding in Manali

July 7th – July 23rd, 2012

I didn’t expect to accomplish the same quantity or quality of paragliding while staying in Manali after my 6 weeks in Bir.  One factor was that the monsoon was approaching all of north India but another reason is that the topography and meteorology around Bir is more favourable for flying.  Nonetheless, over the 3½ weeks I planned to stay in Manali, I hoped to get some flying in.

I called Ajay, a local pilot and one of the best in India, to see about the conditions.  I flew a tandem flight with him last year from a launch called Marhi which is up past Snow Point on the Rohtang Pass.  It was a Tuesday and I forgot that the Rohtang Pass is closed for road maintenance on Tuesdays so we made plans to meet up and go up the mountain the following day but since it was a lovely day, I hopped in a rickshaw and headed off to Solang Nalla, a small winter ski hill where one can fly although its inundated with tandem paragliders.

I was a bit shocked to have to pay 500 rupees ($10) to ride up in the gondola and then further surprised that I had to hike back down 1/5 of the way to the launch spot.  I think next time I’ll just hike up as it was only about 300 meters up from the landing area.  I took off and just boated around about 100 meters above the launch area but then finally started to get a bit bored so I decided to try and cross over to the next mountain to the east.  It was a low crossing but I continued to ridge soar along the mountain and travelled about 3 kilometres to the base of the Rohtang Pass and then made my way back and ended up landing in the zoo of a landing zone at Solang (a zoo as there’s a constant mayhem of tandems landing, people riding on horses & motorbikes or rolling down the hill in Zorb balls...with a throng of people watching).

The launch at Solang:

Flying above the gondola:

Looking down at the landing zone:

Flying over the launch:

The landing zone circus:

Some guys from Delhi on holidays who were kind enough to give me a lift back towards Manali after it started to rain:

The next day I headed up to a launch called Marhi with Ajay but the conditions weren’t great and I ended up just having a sled ride (a top to bottom flight) but it was still fun to get in the air.  About a week later I went up for another attempt. After parawaiting for over an hour, waiting for the low clouds to clear, I took off and had a couple hour flight but I never got above launch and most of it was spent ridge soaring on the mountain between Marhi and Solang and I did enjoy flying around with 5-6 Himalayan Griffon vultures.

Flying over Snow Point (which is not so snowy right now):

Flying over the switchbacks:

The landing spot at Kothi...a bit hilly but it worked:

Some ridge soaring:

Flying close to trees:

Hmm...should I launch?  Maybe not just yet...a wee bit cloudy:

Hugging the hillside:

Flying towards a big rock face:

So no epic flying in least after my time in Bir but still fun nonetheless.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Hikes, Games & Animal Sacrifices

July 7th – July 23rd, 2012

After Garth left for Leh, I moved into a smaller room, one that I stayed in last year as it’s cosy and has a great balcony looking out at the mountains.  My next door neighbour who had just moved in as well looked familiar... Oh ya, I remember him sitting by himself at a table next to us at the Olive Garden, singing to his chicken tikka!  He was enjoying his meal so much that Matthew was inspired to get the same thing.  Kris hails from the Ukraine and he owns a small business making “wafers” as he explained.  Being an ex-IT professional I immediately thought of silicon chips but no, he meant “cheese wafers”!  Nice.  Kris turned out to be an absolute joy to be around.  You could never predict what he would say or do next (except perhaps “I it, is it time for a beer now?”) and he had my laughing a lot over the next few weeks.

Over the next few weeks I spent a lot of time with an interesting group comprised of Matthew (my US paragliding friend I met in Bir), Robin (my German chess buddy from Arambol), the aforementioned Kris and a couple from Hungary, Peter and Ester (whom Robin met in Arambol after I left there).  A number of hikes, games, dinners, drinks and of course laughs were enjoyed by all.  Matthew, Robin and I even supergeeked out by having a simultaneous three way chess match.  We hung out at either the Olive Garden or Shesh Besh restaurants, or back at the Purnima guesthouse (shooting some pool or hanging out on the balcony)...many late but very fun nights.  

I hiked up the tributary by Old Manali one afternoon:

The "Chess Bonanza" the first round, I beat Matthew, he took Robin and Robin won over me, so all of the white teams one.  Round 2, Matthew won both his games to finish first and I squeaked out over Robin:

The view from my balcony:

 Playing Carrom with Robin and Kris:

One day we (everyone except Robin...who preferred to sleep in) hiked up behind Vashisht on a path that I descended on last year when I did a three day trek to Bhrigu Lake.  We gained about 700 meters in altitude and made it close to the top of the mountain but rain around our lunch break turned us back.

Ester and Peter climbing up:

Getting higher up:

A mule train coming down the mountain:

Lunch!  Peter, Ester and Kris in the foreground  with Matthew in the back:

This could be their new album cover:

Manali in the distance:

On a walk over to Vashisht we crossed this little temporary did this cow: 

That’s the “hikes” and “games” topics you’re wondering where the “animal sacrifices” come into play...  Well the guys working at the guesthouse told us that there was a special day at the Hadimba Temple with a number of different animals being slaughtered as part of a religious ceremony with an Indian water buffalo being the star of the show.  In the evening there would be a big feast (so at least the animals don’t go to waste).  I was intrigued...not to see the carnage, but being a meat eater I can’t say that there is anything wrong with this festival provided the animals are killed quickly and with minimal pain and afterwards not wasted.

After a late lunch in Shesh Besh, the whole group minus Robin (again, still sleeping) decided to walk over to the temple.  As we arrived at the forest grounds we noticed signs with “No photography” everywhere.  To the side of the temple were 6-10 huge cooking pots, the kind that could have been used to boil European settlers in North America hundreds of years ago, heating up under some fires.  Off to the left in the distance I saw the headless corpse of a sheep being skinned as it hung from a tree by its hind legs.  To the right, close to us was another sheep, this one alive; poor guy, probably another contestant. 

There was a large group of men gathered around the stone square in front of the temple - that must be where the action is.  Kris, Matthew and I tried to edge forward to try and see anything but the Indian men were packed in tightly and if you’ve ever been to India, you know that these guys know the physical keys and tactics to butting in queues.  Near the wall of the side of the temple was a pool of extremely bright red blood.  All of a sudden a man walked out from the crowd right passed us holding just the head of a ram by one of its horns.  Whoa.  I can see why they have the “No photography” signs...

I tried to work my way around to the front to see if I could be more successful in penetrating the crowd.  During this time, another ram was led towards Matthew and Kris and they got a glimpse of the curved machete descending down into its neck (thankfully only the top part of the swing).  I meanwhile got a lesson in how easy it could be to get hurt or killed at a religious festival like this.  You know, you hear about people getting squashed or trampled to death at a pilgrimage or festival in the news and I always wondered how it seems to happen so frequently.  Well there was a couple meter drop at the front of the stone platform that everyone was jostling for position on.  I could see that a number of men holding ropes were leading the buffalo around from the far side and soon the crowd was aggressively pushed away from the center and some people including myself almost went backwards off of the platform!

Drums were being pounded in an increasingly furious tempo and volume while some crude type of curved horns were sounding off...something was about to happen.  I was reminded of the infamous scene in the movie “Apocalypse Now” where Martin Sheen kills the deranged general (Marlon Brando) in the jungle.  Even though it was the middle of the day, there was a definite eerie feeling with death in the air.  There was a crescendo in the percussion and the frenetic nature of the crowd and then it was over.  I missed it, the actual execution, but circled back to meet up with Kris and Matthew.  We tried to move back through the throng towards the centre to see what had happened.  At this point men from the middle were trying to work their way back out so we got a chance to move closer.  As I got a couple of rows away from the core I could see the back end of a black buffalo lying still on the ground...and then I got a glimpse of the headless neck.  An Indian man involved in the ceremony looked at me, being the only non-Indian around, and said “Either come in or go” I decided to go for it, not sure of what I was going for.  I took the lead from those around me and dipped my index finger into the pool of blood around its neck and traced it on my forehead to make a tilak.  Okay, that wasn’t so bad. 

I regrouped with Kris and Matthew at the side and suddenly there was another push of people towards us sending poor Matthew unceremoniously onto his butt.  The buffalo was being pulled off of the platform, down a flight of stone steps to be prepared for the feast.  We walked back past the huge boiling pots, stopping for a few minutes to watch the 8-10 butchers sitting on the ground hacking away at various legs and body parts of various animals.  I imagine it was a hell of a feast that night...but we’d had enough.

A few days later we passed by the temple again and it was creepy to see the massive dark purple bloodstain on the platform...especially knowing what had gone on there.  Thankfully we’d just come from happier times from a short visit to the nearby small, pathetic and seemingly closed carnival park where I enjoyed watching Robin bargain with the ferris wheel operator to take him, an Argentine lady Maria and comical Kris for a ride for 100 rupees total.  After some intense haggling the operator finally succumbed, fired up the motor and whizzed them around on a private ride...sweet.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Cruising up the Rohtang Pass

July 6th, 2012

Matthew had his Enfield motorbike, the one he wants to sell, serviced for the overheating issue we experienced driving up from Bir so he wanted to take it out for a bit of a test drive.  What better test than to slap Garth on the back and head up a mountain.  We cruised north of Manali and started the lovely drive up the Rohtang Pass.  We only went about 13-14 kilometres up, stopping short of the popular area for Indian tourist known as Snow Point (where many Indians experience touching snow for the first time), before turning around and heading back to Manali.  Thankfully the traffic wasn’t as bad as last year when I motorbiked up the same road with my German friends Pascal and Charlotte and the views were quite stunning.

Stopping for a break on the way up:

To enjoy the views:

The road we came up:

Garth and some silly guy named Matthew:

Wouldn't you like to have this bike?  This was the pic Matthew used to sell his bike...and it worked!

The view from the highest point we got to:

Me and my buddy Garth:

The view down: 

A near traffic jam as we hung out at this hairpin corner:

The boys do a fly by:

Now my fly by:

Riding down:

That's a truck smashed down against a rock below one of the many hairpin turns:

I wonder if the guy was okay:

Matthew and I inspecting the truck from above:

The singing motorcyclist:

If you look closely, there's a paraglider flying in the background in the middle of the screen:

Gliding motorless down the mountain:

A slow pass:

A high speed race Matthew and I had as we neared Manali:

Garth left the next day, heading north to Leh to do some trekking.  It was great to share a bit of India with him.  Safe travels Garth!

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Hadimba Temple and Jogni Falls, Take 2

July 4th-5th,  2012

On the first few days in Manali for Garth after our epic motorbike ride yesterday, I thought I’d show him a few of the local sites to get a bit of a lay of the land.  First up was Hadimba Temple that I visited last year which is situated in a pine forest just 20 minutes walk from our guesthouse.  It looks more like a Shinto temple than a Hindu one (not that I’m an expert, that’s for sure!) but regardless it’s a cool looking structure surrounded by nice big pine trees.  After a brief check of downtown Manali we headed back to Manali via the lovely preserved forest along the main riverbank.

Crossing the bridge from Old Manali:

Hadimba Temple:

Downtown New Manali...they are still working on this pedestrian only street since last year!

Getting my shoes fixed...(note even the big hole in the heel of my footwear left something to be desired until this day as I have new socks in that purple bag):

The following day we walked over to Vashisht and on to Jogni Falls, another daytrip I did last year and worth the walk.  The falls were lovely but slightly disrupted by some drunken Indians frolicking in the main pool of frigid water.  After 20 minutes and numerous photos with a couple of the intoxicated guys (posing with sunglasses, without sunglasses, exchanging sunglasses...the combinations went on and on...) we headed back to Vashisht for a drink and a bite to eat with a glorious view of the Manali valley.

The sign says "BRO Blow Horn Don't Get Torn!", okay.  I later found out that BRO stands for "Border Road Organization".  There were a bunch of different signs like this and a couple of my favourites were:
- "Drive on the Roads with Safety, To Arrive Home for Safe Tea"
- "Love Thy Neighbour, But Not While Driving"...huh?  Really?

A temple near the hot springs, which we opted to skip:

What some people like to do with their porches in Vashisht:

Jogni Falls:

Garth participating in the not so well known yet slightly safer "Walking of the Cows":

The view from our refreshment stop:

Garth enjoying his first ever lemonana:

I thought Garth was taking my picture but it turned out to be a he said "Do something..." and this was the best I could come up with:

This is what should have happened in the first place:

Heading back we took the same shortcut that I did last year with the Germans Pascal and Charlotte, the rope river crossing while strapped in by a harness.  It was pricier this year at 100 rupees each but well worth it.

Garth getting strapped in:

And he's off...unfortunately he was so fast that I didn't get a chance to switch my camera into video mode before he was across:

Friday, August 3, 2012

Motorbiking to Manali

July 3rd, 2012

With the paragliding ban in effect and pre-monsoon weather rolling in anyways, Garth and I planned to make a move to Manali.  By chance, Matthew wanted to sell one of his two motorcycles, his Royal Enfield, and the best place to make a sale was Manali as many backpackers purchase bikes to make the arduous mountain trek north to the high altitude destinations of Leh and Ladakh.  Matthew presented us the option to take the two bikes to Manali instead of the bus.  It sounded like a good option so we decided to go for it.

We didn’t have the earliest start even though we were up at 6:30am.  We bid Thomas goodbye and hit the road around 10am, me on the Bajaj bike with my paraglider strapped on the seat behind me and the other two guys on the bike 500cc Royal Enfield with all of the rest of the gear. 

Matthew's house:

The view from Matthew's deck where we had our breakfast:

Packing the bikes:

Final checks:

The initial riding was fantastic, beginning with a 2-3 kilometre engineless ride down a smooth and slightly sloped road to the highway.  In fact the road all the way to the next city, Mandi, was a fun up and down curvy road with great views of the mountains on the left and the valley on the right.  The only trouble was that even before hitting Mandi (only 45 kilometres from Bir) we had to stop a few times for the Enfield to cool down.  No wonder Matthew wants to sell it in Manali...just a question of whether we’ll get there or not.

Trying to catch up to the boys:

Matthew and Garth gassing up:

I might as well do the same:

Still behind...

After a few more overheating episodes we decided that it would be best to alleviate some weight from the big bike so I exchanged my paraglider for Garth so Matthew would have all of the gear but would be a bit lighter.  Today was already going to be my longest day on a motorbike in my very short history as a rider...and now we’re putting an innocent human being on the back.  Hmm...  “Hang on Garth!”  I could tell he wasn’t over the moon about the situation either but surprisingly my motorcycle resume is longer than his.

Hmm...would you like to ride with this guy?

Or this guy?

Is that an island?

Crossing a bridge:

A bridge near where we stopped for a brief lunch break..can't remember the name of the place:

We continued to limp along towards Manali, stopping every half an hour or so to rest not only the overheating bike but our sore butts.  Some sections of this “national highway” wouldn’t be considered a secondary road back in Canada.  However I fully enjoyed the views, well, actually “fully” would be an overstatement as I had to keep my eye on the road and more so on the honking idiot drivers around me (I wasn’t using “honking” as a replacement for an expletive deletive there....they were just blowing their car horns I’ve mentioned before, Indians seem to think that the horn is as crucial a component of their vehicle as brakes are). 

Matthew suiting up after a break:

A hydro dam we crossed over:

Checking out Matthew behind us: 

Occasionally I would feel the clench of Garth’s legs around my hips as I could sense he felt we were in immediate danger and well, I have to admit that a couple of those squeezings were warranted...

Heading by a crazy temple on the other side of the river:


Driving through along tunnel (5 km long) and I felt like I had a monster chasing me...but it was just the grumble of Matthew's Royal Enfield Motorcyle:

I'm glad I know this guy!

We thought this was a bridge to an island but it was connected to the other side of the river:

Occasionally I would feel the clench of Garth’s legs around my hips as I could sense he felt we were in immediate danger and well, I have to admit that a couple of those squeezings were warranted...

Working on my passing, I think Garth was clenching here:

Now my turn to get passed:

We rolled into Manali around 6pm.  Wow, 10 hours to travel 175 that’s tending to the “Need for Speed”!

We were warmly welcomed in the Purnima Guesthouse, owned by my good friends Manu and Panna, the brothers that run the Olive Garden Restaurant in Goa.  After a much needed shower to wash off the remnants of the road on our faces, our arms and in our ears...we headed to the other Olive Garden restaurant that these guys run in Manali.  Some of the usual suspects of the wait and kitchen staff (Ram, Ramesh, Inder, Sanju, Rishi) also greeted us with hugs as I introduced them to Garth and Matthew.   A real pleasant surprise was to find Robin there, the German guy that I was playing chess with in Goa back in April before I left.  He finally got out of Arambol!  I’m shocked.

Garth and Ram:

Garth, Robin and Matthew at dinner at the Manali Olive Garden:

It’s always nice to receive a warm welcome in a foreign place after a long day of travelling.  Manali, the next few weeks are going to be good!