Waking to pouring rain, we couldn’t have decided to drive north in worse weather. Sapna and her husband came with us for the taxi ride; he could not cut stone in the rain. But it was a long difficult ride – little visibility, the windows open to keep the windscreen from steaming up, traffic piling up to a standstill for an hour because of an accident…and then we hit road works.
All the way to Manali the road is being widened. Another huge Indian project that will take at least two years to complete, and probably much longer. In the rain, it was a muddy mess, the new highway cutting through the valley, flattening hundreds of houses in its wake. We reflected that the drive would have been just as wretched on a sunny day, perhaps worse because of all the dust.
Losing the phone number of our homestay from our last two visits, Gerard was not concerned, but in my typical fashion I worried. Would the same room be available…would we even find any room?? But it all worked out. Sumit was pleased to see us and showed us to our room, with an invitation to dinner with his family the following night. We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again, there’s no comparison between restaurant food and home cooking. And this was no exception.
By morning, the clouds lifted and the mountains emerged with a new layer of fresh snow. The view from our window is why we come here and the new coating enhanced the scenery. A few steps up the street we can eat breakfast at Sharma’s outdoor dhaba without sacrificing the view. Hem Raj and his two daughters greeted us with ‘Namaste Ji.’ They have fed us on each visit; inexpensive, wholesome food with fresh seasonal fiddleheads a special treat!
Typically, by the afternoon, clouds build over the Himalyas. From our balcony, the drama of light, clouds and mountains unfolds. The rays of the setting sun reflect off the clouds, washing the snow with color. It’s still cold at night, but with thick comforters and hot water bottles, supplied by our host, we’re cozy.
Fortunately, the season hasn’t started yet. Nagar is beginning to feel more and more like an Alpine resort, each year there’s new hotels. More than one person has told us they never fill up, for one reason there’s not enough for the Indian tourist to do. The majority come from Manali for the day in their large crowded cars. It’s easy to imagine the single-lane potholed road becoming impassable.
Every day we walk in a different direction from town, and so far, on each walk, there’s been a surprise. The village of Rumsu, overlooking the valley, is even older than Nagar. Turning the corner of one of the narrow lanes, we were met by five young Russian artists, painting ‘en plein air’. They’re here for two weeks painting in and around Nagar. Of course, Nicolai Roerich (who lived and painted here in the 1920s) is their inspiration.
On another walk, to a Shiva temple in the forest, we followed the sound of gushing water through thick undergrowth to find a beautiful secluded waterfall.
The following day, up a steep climb to the Krishna temple, a marriage ceremony was in full swing. Circling the ceremonial fire seven times, first, the heavily veiled bride led the groom around, then she followed him.
The forest is full of surprises…but not black flies, mosquitoes or deer ticks.
The day before we left, Gerard and I decided to take the bus to Jana, a village up the mountain from Nagar at an altitude of 6,900 feet. The bus dropped us at a dusty turn around, with a few tea shacks (I do mean shacks!) It could have been an outpost in Mongolia.
The tourist draw is the large waterfall a mile or so beyond, with more shacks serving food alongside. The thali served was all ‘local’ food, red rice, maki (corn) roti, rajma, sag, siddu, and jaggery; we were surprised by the quality and quantity.
But for us walking through the village with its old wooden buildings was the main attraction. The style of these old homes is called Kath-Kuni, where construction typically involves layering alternate courses of random stone and wood. The stone is not bonded but the cedar beams are dovetailed.
Farmers rear their cattle on the lower floor and the heat rises up, a boon in the winter. The family lives above, the floor is cantilevered from the main walls to capture sunlight. Unlike the rigid concrete of today, the unbonded masonery would move during an earthquake, saving the building from collapse.
Toward the end of our stay, a Russian couple from Moscow joined us in the homestay. He is large man with an equal personality and likes to talk. We’re always interested in meeting Russians and hearing their perspective. Current controversial issues were dismissed as ‘political.’ But we’re amused that he confirmed the belief of our friend Tatiana in Agonda, that the government controls the weather every May Day, causing the clouds to break and the sun shine. He says, yes, a chemical is sprayed that disperses clouds. It shall not rain on the May Day Parade! They’ve been coming every year, and stay for six months in India, taking groups of Russians on tours that include Agra, Jaipur and Amritsar and Nagar. While he talks, his wife laughs a lot but does not speak. Unlike him, she understands no English and after a while she disappears into their room. I recognize her discomfort at not being able to participate in the conversation and empathize with her frustration. It’s a little easier for me here in the country, but so much of life takes place outdoors, conversations generally on the street or in restaurants open to the street noise. If Gerard did not repeat for me, when I ask, I would be at a loss. I’m still learning to develop patience and acceptance.
Our stay ended with an invitation to lunch in the village with Sharma’s wife. Not only was the home cooking a delight, her company loving (you’re family), but also it gave us a chance to see inside another of these wonderful three hundred year old houses –and inspect her vegetable garden!