The Himalayan detour

While I was traveling in Indonesia, I picked up a book called Lost in the Valley of Death. I ordered it online with the help of my Balinese homestay host for a too-good-to-be-true price of about USD $2. When the book arrived I was not surprised to find a pirated paperback that looked like it had been printed in a high school library — images off-center, no page numbers, and a tight binding that made it hard to read the words on the inner margins. I got what I paid for.

But the text was all there and I rifled through the pages from front to end in a matter of days. Perhaps a tad sensationalistically titled, it told the story of a nomadic American journeyer and budding Instagram star, Justin Alexander, who looked for meaning in the world through authentic travel experiences. He struggled to balance the demands of capitalism and the more simplistic, genuine lifestyle that he wanted.

After quitting a job in tech that he felt veered away from his true character, he embarked on an adventure that led him to the Himalayas of India, particularly to a long valley gouged into the southern frontier of the world’s largest mountain range: Parvati Valley. Long story short, Justin lived in a cave in the valley, befriended a local holy man, and then vanished on a trek to a holy lake.

He was never seen again, but all signs pointed to foul play by this holy man who later committed suicide in prison before any type of sentencing.

At the time I was reading this book while living in Bali, I, like Justin, also felt a draw to India. The world’s largest country was just a short hop across the Indian Ocean, a mysterious place, rich in culture and tradition, drastically different from the world I’ve grown to know, a place where I also happened to have a few friends made through my previous career in the surf industry.

Listening to my intuition, I followed through and bought a ticket to Mumbai. From there I stuck to a loose plan and traveled for six weeks down the country’s west coast to its southern extreme, mostly on a surf trip, visiting and staying with friends that now run surf schools in the Arabian Sea.

When my surf trip could go no further south, thoughts about the mountainous north began to seep into my thoughts. And the information that I was getting on the ground seemed to corroborate this feeling; several Indian travelers I spoke to told me that it was absolutely necessary to make it to the northern state of Himachal and experience the Himalayas for myself.

With the onset of winter quickly closing my window for moderate hiking weather, my current trip seemingly having reached a ‘dead end’, and a friend that I had made on my journey already in the Himalayan mountains herself, I didn’t resist what seemed like the obvious next step. I hopped on a plane from the extreme south to the extreme north, swapping my board shorts for a down jacket and beanie.

Justin, the protagonist in Lost in the Valley of Death, reminded me a bit of myself. He had quit a career to travel the world, as I did. He had been the lead singer in a Bay Area band, just as I was. Nature was his outlet to satisfy his inner introvert, as it is mine. He was turned off by the overly touristy parts of traveling in favor of something less exciting, but more authentic, just as I am.

He wrote, “I am running from a life that isn’t authentic…I’m running away from monotony and towards novelty; towards wonder, awe, and the things that make me feel vibrantly alive.”

But our similarities stopped there. Justin, who got an eagle tattooed across his chest and traveled with a flute that doubled as a walking stick, was on a much more spiritually-driven journey. He led a risk-fueled life that frequently rode the line of life and death.

But I couldn’t help but notice the coincidence of the Himalayas drawing me, seemingly beyond my conscious control, just as they did to him. Was it my subconscious chasing an adventure that I had recently read in a book? Or was a moderately popular travel destination just beckoning another traveler, as it had done, and will continue to do, to many more?

Admiring the high peaks of the Himalayas.
My first long hike was to this waterfall just west of Manali.

My plane touched down 1,500 miles to the north in the city of Chandigarh — a gateway to the Himalayas. I went straight from the airport to a bus stop where I was whisked away on an overnight bus headed to the mountain town of Manali, situated in a pine-filled valley nearly 7,000 feet above sea level.

As I stepped out of the bus’s steamy interior humid with condensation, I rubbed my eyes to adjust to the piercing sunlight. Dozens of buses were parked on the edge of a gushing river that cut through a dramatic valley. Towering, snow-capped peaks soared above on both sides, reaching altitudes of 20,000 feet. A crowd of locals awaited outside the bus, fighting for the right to be my cab driver into town.

I truly had stepped into a new world. The lush, humid Indian south that I had just left was worlds away. Here in the north, it was dry and chilly. The locals, who had more central-Asian features, spoke new languages and dressed in unique garb, highlighted by the well-known, traditional flat hats.

I spent the next week in Manali at a hostel, balancing work and leisure, exploring the narrow alleyways that climbed up the steep hillsides. As far as Himalayan villages go, Manali is a tad commercial, but there was still a captivating authenticity about navigating the village among the shepherds, farmers, rickshaw drivers, and business owners.

When time permitted I snuck in hikes to explore the abundant nature that surrounds the village. I traversed gullies to discover raging waterfalls and ran into nomadic camps tending to herds of sheep. I couldn’t help but peer up to the highest peaks, bigger than any I had ever seen, and imagine their oxygen-deprived environments.

I quickly learned that I had been saying Himalayas wrong my entire life, as you are supposed to put the emphasis on the second syllable (HiMAlayas). My new friends made this very clear, pulling my leg whenever I misspoke.

The Beas River flows through Manali.

But the most curious part of my trip came when my travel partner, Anandita, informed me of her intentions to go to the village of Pulga, deep in Parvati Valley — yes, the same Parvati Valley where the story of Justin Alexander took place. I genuinely had no plans to go there, even resisting the idea at first, but eventually I gave in, keeping consistent with the go-with-the-flow attitude that had brought me here in the first place.

I tagged along to Parvati Valley via a sluggish, packed local bus that arrived at Pulga after about five hours of windy, narrow roads. We settled into a small homestay nestled in an apple orchard. The town of Pulga, resting on a plateau above the Parvati River, has no roads and can only be accessed by foot. With just a few homestays, some cafes, a temple, and rickety wood houses, it’s a true local Himalayan village. Hash is currency in these parts, as every house seems to have a few ganja plants growing rather neglected outside. The quality of the outdoor weed must not be very good, so it is turned into a more potent hash, which is a ubiquitous, nonchalant part of daily life, whether you are growing or smoking.

I knew that Justin Alexander had left his motorcycle in the neighboring village of Kalga before hiking up to the tent village of Kheerganga, where he lived in a cave for weeks. When I got a chance to go on a day hike, it seemed all too obvious that I would hike up to the same village where he had spent his final days. I really had no intention of following in his footsteps, but I could see that was exactly where my journey was leading me. It was the most popular hike in the area after all.

I made the 7-mile trek through Kalga village and up the valley to Kheerganga, a seasonal tent city terraced into the hillside that houses mostly tourists drawn by the beauty and mysticism of Parvati Valley. There in the village, you can eat basic cafe food (keeping expectations in check given that all ingredients are hiked in) and bathe in a hot spring that flows down the hillside. Unfortunately, the hot spring tub was emptied for maintenance when I visited.

Entering the tent village of Kheerganga.
Chatting with some fellow hikers.
A temple that sits on the hillside above Kheerganga.

I was expecting the tent village to be full of seasoned mountaineers and hikers, but the vibes were actually more along the lines of “this is my first time hiking.” One university group was hiking, I kid you not, with more than 100 people. Nothing wrong with that, but I noticed many people made the trek in quite inadequate clothing with nothing more than a purse or handbag, not even a bottle of water, in some cases. There are a few supply vendors along the way, which make this type of unprepared, chaotic hiking possible.

Nonetheless, I enjoyed walking around Kheerganga and chatting with travelers. Peak tourism season was long-gone with the passing of summer, so, as far as I could tell, I was the only foreigner in the village and people were intrigued as to what in the hell had brought me there.

The whole time I couldn’t help but feel this odd sense of following the path of this man I had only read about in a book. I could picture him sitting in the hot spring tub, something he did every morning according to the book. I could imagine the tent belonging to the holy man, which has since been taken down, that would eventually lead to his death. I even explored the outskirts of the village and clearly could identify the forest he lived in, the only one with boulders big enough to form caves.

I tried to take a lesser-traveled, alternate route back to the trailhead, but I reached a point where I lost the trail in a steep thicket of spiny shrubs, half-chuckling to myself that if I wasn’t careful I would truly follow Justin’s path in Parvati Valley. I pragmatically turned around and retraced my steps to the main, well-trodden trail. Arriving back in Pulga after a full day of hiking, I was devoid of the energy to do anything other than plop on my bed and doze off, dreaming of a book that had somehow morphed into part of my reality.

My trip to India’s north has been a great reminder of why I am traveling and a testimony to the benefits of a flexible, nomadic work lifestyle. I’ve been traveling for a year, mostly with a vague plan that always ends up being the actual plan, so this was the first time where the plan was literally to have no plan. I am lucky to have a lifestyle that allowed for such spontaneity.

I have been taken aback by the people and places who, whether thanks to luck, fate, or the destiny of a book and disappeared traveler, have now etched their marks on my life during this leg of the journey. It’s great fodder to rejuvenate the spark and motivation that brought me to commence this trip in the first place.

While hiking I came across a pack of about 100 goats and their herding dogs.
These local kids hiked up to the waterfall without any supplies, just drinking stream water. They liked that I wanted to snap their photo.
Jogini waterfall is a short hike from Manali.
New Indian friends Abi and Anandita.
Farewells before heading off to Parvati Valley.
Hiking in the ‘fairy forest’ of Pulga.
Kalga village, on the way to Kheerganga.
Parvati Tales homestay in Pulga, with lots of ganja doing its thing in the yard.
I am becoming addicted to Indian ginger, lemon, honey tea.
New snowfall and a crisp morning in Pulga.
Sunset in Pulga.

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