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Back to Northern India Part 1

Back to Northern India Part 2

Onto Northern India Part 4


The Funbus screams up through the Shimla Hills to find the intimidating River Sutlej and its tributaries, the River Beas, trekking guides pretending to be fishing guides, the snow capped peaks of Manali, a visit to Buddha's HQ at Dharamsala & Mcleod Ganj and ends up with a traipse into the back of beyond to stinking Pong Dam to find a certain flair for Punjabi dancing and to catch some more Mahseer of course...

I'd enjoyed my bit of people watching in amongst the "yoga workshops" of Rishikesh. After all, there were plenty of bezerkers floating about the place to keep an eye on, and the eavesdropping was pretty interesting as well. At the place we stayed, there was Rochelle from Oz (amongst others), who when asked where she was from, replied that she was a "child of the government", whatever that was (and I sure as hell couldn't be arsed to ask). There was a confirmed man-hater from NZ who was feeling good about being in touch with her spirituality- although apparently not half as good as she felt about "the downward trend of the price of business class air tickets between Brisbane and Perth these days". Om. There was an English lady who'd hightailed it out there for three month's henna-hugging and left her three kids with her other half in London to "get some me time" whatever that was (and I sure as hell couldn't be arsed...). We met a young English girl who was rooming next to us- very pleasant but quite

clearly not the sharpest tool in the box.
"Hi there. Where are you from?" she asked.
"Cumbria", replied Lynne.
"Oh reeeaally? That's Cool. I thought you were from England"...
And of course there were the ubiquitous supercool Israeli travellers in a cluster of festering dreadlocks, ripped vests and those rubber Croc things on their feet that looked like they'd been shopping for their holidays with Ronald McDonald. I'm lovin' em.











Shimla Hills.

The narrow mountain roads provided some interesting moments.

But most fascinating of all was a strange middle aged lady from Tel Aviv who ghosted about the place with bottle-blonde hair and thick turquoise eye make-up in the style of Barbie-does-Rocky Horror (always a nice touch)- with elocution by Zsa Zsa Gabor- daaaaaling.

Zsa Zsa was also somewhat of yoga nazi, and I was interested to hear all the ailments that could be fended off by breathing out a bit while getting yourself in a headlock. These included migraines, cancer, bowel problems, strokes, heart disease and fertility issues. Amazing. She concluded with a flourish:

Class.



 




"Hiyyaaa!" Waiting for the big pull with Ravi on the Sutlej in one of the few places I could hold the bait on the bottom without a house brick on the line.

"yoga daaaaaling is good forrrr prrrrreventing HIV aaaaalso". Blimey. And to think of all those thousands of hours wasted in the R&D department of AstraZeneca when all they had to do was take a dip in the Ganges and have a bit of a humalong. I made a note to give Terrance Higgins a ring when I got home. When she told me she didn't drink anything other than water cos it was bad for you, or eat anything other than fruit, nuts and veg because "eet is bad forrr yourrr digestion daaaaaling", it confirmed that I was yet again in the presence of either a Chipmunk or another complete mentalist.

But as nutty as High-Fibre seemed in the oasis of (relative) calm that is Rishikesh, she was small beer compared to the resident Monkey Bastards. 

One of the horrible, scabby looking things stumbled across a bin on the walkway outside the room next door and began to have a ferret through it. When it turfed the fag packets and Coke tins out on the floor I sprang from my patio chair and charged at it like a windmill, hissing through clenched teeth... But instead of bolting away across the rooftops the bloody thing just looked me up and down and then charged back, barking through it's own set of horrible bright yellow fangs. Oooh. I swiftly shat my shorts and backed off as it scurried towards me, realising that surviving a medium-rare Indian chicken is one thing, but a nip from this nasty little primate would probably cause more than a smudge in my boxers. The Monkey Bastard continued its offensive, so looking round for available weapons I picked up a chair and threw it, spot on, and it bounced right off its head. There was a split second stand-off while it worked out what to do, and I hoped it didn't just pick the chair up and chuck it back at me. Thankfully it just shook its head, sneezed and then scurried off back along the balcony. The last thing I saw of it was its mangy pink arse disappearing over the railings- and its the only time in my life I've been happy to see a monkey's arse, to be quite honest. I looked down into the courtyard below, and a group of locals were staring up and looking all bothered:
"Monkey Bastard", I explained.
"Ah. Very good sahib".
Monkeys: they're just soooooooo cute.

The Scary Sutlej had a spot of brooding to do. Yikes.

While in town, we did manage a little daytrip to Dehra Dun - by my estimation a town with more open sewers per capita than anywhere else in the world. When we returned to Rishikesh, Anna & Symon from Melbourne (the only other sane people we'd met there) sat and chatted with us up on the hotel roof.
"Where you guys been today?" they asked.
"Dehra Dump". There was a second's silence.
"Erm... right... Why?" That about sums it up, really.

Rishikesh is a nice place to visit and relax for a while, but after a few days I was feeling the itch to get the rods out again- time to get on the bus, head for the hills and get the Mahseer itch scratched- somewhere up the Beas or Sutlej valleys. This seemed like some kind of a plan.

The path north to Shimla required a change of bus in Chandigarh, a strange city of identical, square, concrete buildings arranged around a thousand roundabouts- like Milton Keynes, and after an overnight in a shoe box we found ourselves shoe-horned onto yet another tin crate for several hours. Approaching Shimla the bus squeaked its way up and down the tight hair-pinned hills. But the driver still only had two speeds- "stop" and "full". Very scary, and he must have had a piece of string from his accelerator foot to his honking hand cos it seemed the harder his foot pressed the pedal, the harder his hand pressed the horn, although this was the only concession to road safety he employed. I wondered if Indian bus drivers have to take a test? Or do they just get in and go and leave the rest to natural selection? Somehow we made it, and Shimla eventually crept into view, with its old colonial buildings and myriad of bazaars tenuously clinging to the steep hillsides.

With a little help from one of the Shimla porters called Aziz- whose "I not from Delhi! I not from Agra! Shimla people good people!" sales pitch got him the deal- we got a room with a view up on the hill. Aziz was a lovely bloke whose tiny size belied his strength and he  helped us greatly in our quest to find a bed.


"Cheese".


























Chotu: Sikh and ye shall find the mystical Mahseer...

... And he showed us some lovely Sutlej tributaries-  a much less intimidating prospect than the Big Mamma herself.



















And the Mahseer were only too happy to oblige, with Sgt. Wilko getting in on the action too.

In the end we finished up in Hotel Dreamland. "Dreamland" was probably pushing it a bit, but the view from the balcony was really something else. As we moved in to our new home a tangerine sun slipped lazily behind the foggy hills which seemed to stretch almost to infinity- and heck, it even cooled down which was a welcome change from the hundred degree temperatures of Rishikesh and the Ramganga valley. Very convivial, and it's little wonder that back in colonial days the British shifted their seat of government up there from Delhi lock, stock and barrel to avoid the furnace-like temperatures down on the plains.

Studying my maps and planning a path up the Beas and Sutlej valleys had brought on a bit of a panic attack. Their catchments cover thousands of square kilometres, and for every few kilometres of river there's a load of smaller tendrils feeding the main artery. Then I traced the squiggling lines of blue around a million closely spaced contours and wondered where the hell you start looking in that lot. So the decision was made to get a driver and a guide, which I thought should probably make all the 
























Chotu cunningly camouflaged against the rocks at the confluence.

logistics of it a bit easier. After a couple of hours discussion in Great Escapes Tours & Travel round the corner from Dreamland, it seemed that our man there could arrange a driver, a car and a local guide to take us up into the valleys for a week. He assured me that the guide would be a local fisherman, knew his way up and down lots of the rivers and would speak to the locals to find the best places to go and find a fish or two. Sounded good. But in God we trust; in Indian Tour Operators we reserve the right to be cynical.

We paid the deposit and spent the rest of the day wandering the town getting a few supplies, some new flashy Reebok sandals for Lynne, some bait, and then batting off dozens of the local Bubble-Noses; for whom it has to be said Lynne also did a couple of notable acts of charity. The first was to buy a big bag of bananas at the market. Each time some of the kids accosted us for cash, she'd give em a banana each. On the face of it this might seem a bit tight, but when you realise that most of em's mum will swipe any money off them the minute they walk in the shack, it's probably as good as it gets. The second occurred while a barefooted kid of about 8 years old stood patiently outside the sandal shop inflating and deflating his bubble of snot. As we left he held out his hand, "Money lady. Money" he said. Lynne held up her old sandals- an almost new pair of 80 Rupee Bata specials which weren't proving to be comfortable enough (or the right colour...). 
"Would you like these?" and she handed the sandals over. His bewildered little face was a picture as he stood and scratched his nits. All he wanted was a chapatti. I
imagined the conversation amongst the kids at Bubble-Nose HQ that night:
"You seen that English bird in town today?"
"Yeah- she's nuts, man! She gave us a f***ing
banana! A banana! The cheeky cow!"
"That's nowt. She gave me these! I mean, Bata?! F***ing Bata?! I'm not wearing f***ing Bata!! They're not even f***ing Reeboks, man. She's off her head!!"

There has never been a clause entitled "Acoustics" in the specification of any Indian hotel, and our room at the Dreamland was next to the staff dorm. At 5am next door they started, erm, "excavating". Then they filled up their buckets like a team of a racehorses pissing in dustbins. And then they started clearing their throats- which seems to be some kind of national sport. It starts as a deep gagging sound- a bit like a supermodel fumbling with her tonsils- and then finishes up with the feral wail of an live animal having it's lungs pulled backwards through it's larynx. It went on for an hour or so, and is truly a sound to be experienced, if not appreciated. But at least it got us up on time. Meeting up at Great Escapes an hour or two later, worryingly the goal posts seemed to have moved to another pitch. The guide I'd met a day earlier had "cramp"(?) and had been replaced by another fella

While I was busy retying hooks, Lynneth busied herself catching some little fellas from the clear water of the tributary behind. Chotu made this one into a kebab and ate it.


Fishing with worms for trout  in the picturesque valley at Jibbi and expecting Hobbits to come skipping down the path at any minute.


Ravi told me this was his first ever fish. Which I'd kind of realised when he wound it through the rod rings and onto the reel.









A likely spot on the Beas that provided some action with Mahseer. That is, before they opened the dam and the water level went up 6 feet in 6 hours. Ho hum again.

called Ravi, and our car had been changed for a "Bolero", whatever that was. A feeling of deja vu was 
crawling under my skin as we trudged up the hill 
with the supplies.
Not again, surely?

Snow Trout. Bait. Nice.

"What the heck?!" The last thing I expected from a rapid on the other side of the world.

 

At least it turned out that Ravi was a nice kind of bloke, as was Kaku the driver, and the "Bolero" turned out to be a big 4x4 rather than the roller-skate I'd began to expect. My pessimism remained hovering just above break-even. It took us an hour to get out of the town, since most of the time we seemed to be in reverse, but eventually we were on the trail headed for Tattapani- first stop on the River Sutlej. When I first saw the river about four hours later, I wondered just what I was going to do with it. In the bottom of the valley an ashen grey, rabid hooligan of a river blasted its erratic path down towards the plains. It looked like it had not a care what stood in its way, smashing itself against house-sized boulders, roaring rapids swarmed over anything that had the temerity to be smaller than a car, and the couple of eddies I could see resembled giant cement mixers. Gulp. My initial awe gave away to respect- not just for the river, but also the Mahseer. It was hard to see how anything could survive in the cauldron- let alone hunt, feed or swim upstream against it to find a spawning ground. Against those obstacles, they have to be truly remarkable creatures. After calling in at the village to claim a bed for the night, I grabbed some tackle, some lures and some atta and wandered off down to do battle with the river. But where?

After a few minutes of sitting with a ball of paste on the bottom in one of the cement mixers, a little cluster of villagers had taken up residence on top of the huge boulder behind me. As Ravi translated I found out that (not for the first time) I was there at the wrong time of year, that (scarily) the river was too low ("over rock best sir" said Ravi as he patted next to his seat on the boulder some ten feet above me), and that there were no Mahseer in the river at the moment, with them all being a hundred miles away as the crow flies down at Govind Sagar Reservoir. This was bad news indeed, but one of the younger lads, Chotu, described a smaller, clear tributary some 25km away which held "many many Mahseer". After a quick word, with Ravi as mediator, the trip was on... yes, Chotu would take us all down into the

 

Ranji The Cowpoker dropped his reins and his overalls before pulling up one of his prize steeds for a family photo- and then sending them for a paddle under my rod tip.

The Cowpoker's bubble-nosed kids helped out with the chilwa catching...

valley early the next morning. He waved goodbye with the words "tomorrow sir you are catching many many Mahseer". I hoped so. I tried a couple of other spots without success during the evening, and tried a few casts with some lures, but the river was so fast it was impossible. A heavy spoon would hit the water some 50 yards upstream and still only end up fishing the 10 yards of margins down under my feet- usually spinning wildly on the surface like a bent propeller. I figured it wasn't going to be a successful presentation and soon tied a house brick back on the end. But fish don't like house bricks either though.

Chotu wasn't hard to find in the next village the following morning, for he had changed into his best clobber for his day out- shiny brand new red Batas, clean jeans and luminous orange Adidas polo shirt. At least mountain rescue wouldn't have any location problems if we ran into a sticky patch. Soon he was directing Kaku up hill and down dale, and after an hour of hairpins we eventually pulled up on the lip of what appeared to be a ravine. Ahead of us a small bridge crossed it, and Chotu leaned over the edge and pointed downwards. There in the pool beneath were dozens of Mahseer, just milling about and waiting for something to eat. None were massive, probably up to 12 pounds or so, but it was more than enough to get me nicely fluffed up. Chotu spoke to the hermit-like old fella living in the shack next to the bridge, and permission was granted for us to wet a line in the river, so we slid down the steep rock face and took up position some hundred feet down in the bottom of the ravine. The fishing was great fun, with lots of Mahseer falling to both bread and atta paste, and soon everyone wanted in on the act with Wilko getting a fish or two, and Ravi, Kaku and Chotu queuing up to have their picture taken. As is normal in India, a crowd from the village soon began to gather on the bridge, and we finished up with about thirty locals gasping in disbelief every time I returned one of the Mahseer to the margins. Another old man joined the crowd and after a minute or two he began ranting at Chotu, who to be fair gave him as good as he got, and even though he explained that we were releasing the fish unharmed and just wanted some pictures of them, apparently the old fella was still convinced that once the fish had been hooked they'd be unable to eat and would starve to death. The row kicked back and forth for what seemed like a lifetime, and in the end we chucked in the towel to keep the peace.
"Crazy man" muttered Chotu as we scaled the cliff face back to the car, "but I am having another very 

...which in turn helped out with the Mahseer catching down on the Beas. Apologies for the pose, but the 3 inch split in the crotch of my shorts made it necessary- and better than an explosion of man-veg across your screen I'm sure.

good place we can be trying. This place sometimes having Mahseer 20 kilo sir".
"Chotu. Come on. Let's whip those snails..."

On the walk to the next spot, we had to pass one of the most under-whelming pilgrimage sites I've ever seen, The Shiva Cave (an accolade bestowed on just about any crack in a rock in India) where a little old saddhu and some Monkey bastards sat under a 20 watt bulb taking donations off anyone who happened to be passing (about 3 people a week). Finally we found ourselves at the end of the tributary and its confluence with Mummy Sutlej herself. It looked like a great spot, the murky grey waters of the main river creating a clear divide with the sparkling waters of the tributary, but unfortunately it was more full of snags than fish. While I lost hook after hook on the boulder-strewn river bed, Lynneth did manage to catch three small Mahseer from the tributary on tiny bits of paste, Chotu asking to keep one of them to make into a kebab, before we were finally forced to pack in by rapidly rising river levels threatening to cut us off. Still, it was a pleasant day with several fish landed in lovely surroundings, so I was quite content as the jeep juddered back to Tattapani in the orange light of evening. 

Since we were there in the wrong conditions for fishing the Sutlej (and the fact it scared the shit out of me), we decided to press on in search of some kind of grail.

But the bloke in the tour shop said we'd be going across the Himalayas by Jumbo...?! Done! Again!

The driving drove us crazy. 
Kaku explained; "100km in India
takes 3 hour... 4 hour... 5 hour", and
we seemed to spend more time in the jeep
than on the bank. We'd be up and ready to go
at 5am, but Kaku got up at half seven. Then he'd spend most of the day on the phone to his missus. I thought her name was "Angie", but after a couple of days of "Angie... Angie... Angie..." we found out he was actually saying "haang jee", which basically means "yes dear".
Our man at Great Escapes had written on one of my maps that on the Tirthan River we "could find chance of Mahseer more", but one of Ravi's contacts confirmed that now we "could find chance of Mahseer none" due to a recent shower of dynamite mysteriously dropping into the river.
And so we phoned and we drove and we pissed about.... And then we phoned and we drove... and we pissed

Unfortunately, the week went mostly tits-up from this point on. 

 



Himalayas. Very high and all that. But like a lot of India, it's only pretty if you keep looking up.

about some more, and in the end
I asked Ravi where we were going and what we were doing. His response was not entirely positive:
"I don't know sir. I am trekking guide, no fishing".
Great. The blind leading the blind, you could say.
We crossed the Jalori Pass, which at 3223 metres is by no means a high one in Himalayan terms, but enough for me to have my first brush with headaches and the early stage altitude sickness. Luckily we soon dropped down into the

The postman's off with stress again. The lardarse.

picturesque valley, which to be honest was one of the few highlights of the week; first winding down through clouds and patches of snow and moss covered, petrified looking trees, then the thick pine forest and finally into the Garden of Eden that is Jibbi. Small stone and timber buildings nestled in a verdant patchwork of orchards and fields bursting with crops, and a crystal clear stream babbled its way through the floor of the valley.
"Are there Mahseer in the river, Ravi?"
"No sir". Oh.  
Still, I turned over some rocks in the garden, avoided the scorpions (nice), collected a pot full of worms to have a little dabble down in the stream, and caught a few of what Ravi informed me were "Brown Trout sir", all the while expecting some Hobbits to come skipping down the path at any moment.

In the light of the day's events and Ravi's admission, there seemed to be no point in chucking good money after bad, so I decided to sack it off, get dropped off in the Kullu Valley at Manali, pay the boys what was due and come up with a Plan X. "Please sir. We try one more place. Good place. Please!" he pleaded. The poor bloke was obviously upset, and against my better judgement I gave it one more chance. We ended up at a chai shop just through the stinking 2km tunnel at Aut - the spot where the Tirthan confluences the Beas - while Ravi ran 

 



Rope Idol were auditioning in Manali.

up his phone bill with some urgent negotiations.

Finally, we were hastily ushered back in the jeep and we set off back through the tunnel and headed west, following the Beas down towards the dam at Pandoh. The river looked really uninspiring- like a sedentary brown slug of a canal set in a high sided gorge, the heat haze hanging off the top of the hills:
"Ravi, this looks crap", I noted.
"Ten kilometre more. Please trying sir".
As we approached Pandoh Dam, we encountered more evidence that the beads, plastic temples and Ganesh stickers stuck on the front of every vehicle in the name of road safety clearly donít work, as a bus had smashed into an overhanging rock face at the side of the road, completely crushing the whole front nearside of the vehicle and the roof to about half way down the side. There must have been fatalities, and the scene made us shudder as we crept past the wreckage and crowd gathered around. Oh how we laughed and rolled our eyes on the bus journeys each time we put our lives in the hands of another psychotic bus driver- but it was a stark reminder that hitting anything at high speed in a bus is never funny.

Below Pandoh, the river looked much fishier, the water pushing through the dam and forced its way 

Triund, above Dharamsala- a nice spot just above the trash line.

Hangin' around in downtown Mcleod Ganj waiting for the Laughing Lama to put in a public appearance.

down valley towards Pong Dam, and just a couple of kilometres later I was actually thinking it could be worth a try. White water rapids occasionally gave way to wide, clear blue pools, and huge boulders littered the valley floor. I decided to give it a go. While I mixed up some atta, I dropped out a small knob of bread flake on a size 8 hook to see if I could pick up a chilwa or two. Resting it over a rock it took about 30 seconds to take off, and I grabbed the rod just before it disappeared into the drink. The 8 pound line screeched from the spool, I ran down the sandy beach chasing after it before some fifty yards down the river the hook came out. Bugger!
By the end of the afternoon, I'd managed one small Mahseer of about 3 pounds on the atta, which caused an inordinate amount of deep-joy for such a diminutive fish.

Reservoir arrival. Another "what the f**k am I doing here?" moment.

Kaku whistled and cheered from his chill-out zone where he'd been smoking himself to death up on the cliff, and Ravi woke up from his slumber on his boulder for long enough to join in too. When Ravi's contact turned up and explained that atta was no good, that we needed chilwa, and that dawn was the best time, I'd had enough encouragement to give it another go the next morning.

We'd stayed in some shit-holes during our trip thus far, the derelict hell hole in Paharganj and Shanti Lodge in Agra currently topping the list, but the place in Mandi took it to a new level. Tiny, filthy and noisy, with concrete floors, walls and ceilings, it did have a shower, but you needed to squat over the toilet use it, and it did have a bed, which was like sleeping in a trailer of onions such were the levels of comfort and smell. The rickshaws also seemed to be coming through the window. Pretty rough. I promised Lynneth I'd get up at 5am, fish until the heat hit 40, come back for breakfast, and after that we'd be out of there. 

Kaku managed to drag himself out of the pit at 5.30, and while Ravi had a lay-in he dropped me off at the path down to the river before heading off back to bed. It's a dirty job... I'd mixed some atta with some shrimp paste, unsure of the 'best before' date, but the tin looked like it had probably been bought with war coupons,

Eventually I managed to arrange a fishing boat. The baling bucket came as standard. But where's the sonar? The live well? The GPS?






I caught a few 4 or 5 inch long Snow Trout from the margins and decided to fish a couple of them in the pool. After casting one right into a bit of white water forcing between a couple of huge boulders, within a minute the rod doubled over and I found myself attached to a very lively little number. After a fight fraught with "don't lose the bugger" tension, a perfect Mahseer of about 7 or 8 pounds splashed into the net. And I was delighted with it- trust me, sometimes just catching one fish makes your day,

and I dropped a dollop of it out in the pool while I snatched a few chilwas.

First cast, the rod pulled round and I found myself attached to some kind of fish. Obviously not a Mahseer, I got a bit excited... could it be a new species?! A Rohu? A weird type of catfish maybe? A couple of minutes later a Common Carp of about 2 pounds flopped into my landing net, the like of which there are millions in over-stocked farm puddles throughout Britain. Not quite what I expected.


Pong Dam. The specks in the middle of the picture are workers carrying out repairs. Yes,'tis a big 'un.











A Pongo Mahseer with the lure that saved the day.

when you're a million miles from home and the wheels are coming off on a daily basis! I even had another chance that morning, when another chilwa got chomped and the rod lurched over my boulder, but somehow I grabbed it and missed it, and wound in a limp, battered looking bait fish a few seconds later. As I fished, a family of cow and goat herders made their way up the valley and took up residence on the beach around me. The bubble noses amused themselves by catching some chilwa for me and giggling at their faces in the back of my camera, while the cows amused themselves by taking a bath in my swim and crapping all over the beach. All good fun. 

When Kaku picked me up at about 11 o'clock, I realised I had a diplomatic problem. Mandi was crap, and Lynne was expecting to be out of town that lunchtime. Thing is, I'd been teased enough to want to have another go on the Beas. When I got back into the room, she was laid on the bed, rucksack packed and all ready to go. A bad sign.
"Catch anything?" she asked.
"Erm. Yeah. Erm, look, I reckon I'm gonna fish this evening, luv..."
Bless her, the look on her face said a thousand words, but she took the news well, considering she was now consigned to another night of dhal and chapattis and umpteen hours sweating in an onion basket. We passed a tedious few hours cowering under the fan away from the heat, before I left the room at half four on a bee line for the pool again, this time accompanied by Ravi since he'd finished his lay-in by now. At half six I was back at the room. The dam had been opened and the Beas had risen about 6 feet in the previous 6 hours. The rocks where I'd sat in the morning were now under water, and the river was a filthy brown torrent full of detritus and impossible to fish. Tits up indeed. I finally threw in the towel.

It seemed there was a hotel serving beer in town and we decided to go up there and drown some sorrows. Ravi wasn't so happy, and tried to put us off: "Sometimes there people are drinking too much and getting with fighting sir", he warned. But having negotiated the odd night out in the likes of Bangkok, Cabo, L.A. and even

The aquarium in the fishing lodge wasn't up to much.

The Boat in Barrow-In-Furness, we decided to run the gauntlet for a couple of pints and some kosher pork scratchings at the Raj Mahal in Mandi. The English beer garden turned out to be a little oasis of calm in the end, and the only thing ominous about it was the buzzing mobile phone tower looming overhead from next door. I wondered whether all the headgear on show were really turbans or bandages? 

After another Parantha breakfast, we finished our tour early with a 6 hour drive up to Manali, conducted in deafening silence, the in-car ambience improved none by the thunderous skies and lashing rain we ran into the further we got up the Kullu Valley. Ravi and Kaku were actually good blokes, so after paying them what was due thus far, we shook hands and said our goodbyes- the boss man at Great Escapes should never be putting them forward as fishing guides though, the arse.

Memories of Manali? The lovely snow-capped mountains and visiting a Tibetan Gompa up on a hillside to find a bit of silence for the first time in

This was running about in my bed at Pong Dam. I'm not much of an entomologist (I know it's got more than six legs though), but something told me 
it probably wasn't friendly.

have Yak Butter Tea- probably the worst drink in the world. Shocking. We did a little hiking up either side of the Beas, and one day wandered for miles to find some desolation amongst the snowy peaks and pine trees of the Solang Valley, but instead found dozens of holidaying Indian families bouncing down the hill in Zorb Balls, which was quite a surprise. On the whole, as long as you keep looking up and ignore the litter, Old Manali is a nice place to hang out a while, and the Nepalese fellas running our guesthouse were perhaps the friendliest people you could ever meet. We left with optimism and batteries re-charged, though by the time we'd finished the 10 hour overnight bus drive to Mcleod Ganj, they'd been flattened again.

Mcleod Ganj is the home-in-exile of the Dalai Lama, and as such its a nice kind of town (as they go) of Buddhist Monks mingling with the beggars and backpackers amongst the Tibetan trinket stalls. Lynneth wanted to learn a bit about it all, and being such an avid culture vulture I just wanted to go fishing again (I really must get a proper hobby). Because of various tales people like Chotu told me about all the Mahseer being downstream at the dams at this time of year, I put together a half-baked solo-project to try and find my way down into the Punjab and see if I could finally find a few fish in Maharana Pratap Sarovar, or, nowadays, "The Dam Attractively Known As Pong".

I'd painstakingly worked out my route with a highlighter pen to randomly take in all the best names on my map: a taxi down the hill to Dharmashala, then the bus to Kangra via Gallog, then change bus to get to Jawalmunghi. The driver on this leg of the trip was the ultimate in badge candidates for "No Fear of The Year", and he had me praying for the next uphill section, because it'd stop him going flat out. Painted on the door next to his seat, was the word "Pilot"- clearly aspirational- and somewhat ironically on the back of the lumpy seat in front of me was a strategically targeted sticker advertising "GO-PAK; for both types of piles (bleeding/non-bleeding)", which I thought was a sympathetic touch. Teetering vainly on every hairpin were some incredibly helpful and informative road safety/marriage counselling tips, like: 

ages. We had a glass of Fanta with a nice Tibetan family at their house while they took dozens of photos of their trophy friends from England and their kids stared at us. There was some great food in the form of Hot & Sour Chilli and Chicken Soup, and finding out the big positive influence of Israeli backpackers turns out to be cheese toasties and pizza. There was some terrible food in the shape of Tibetan Mutton Thupka, a kind of veg/noodle soup where the cook has hacked his knuckles into it with a machete. And if you can imagine floating a spoon full of Lurpak in a milky emulsion of PG Tips and Bisto, then you


India went nuts when Richard Gere launched himself at Shilpa Shetty on the telly, but Papa Smurf was probably keeping his head down as well.

 

"If you are married divorce your speed!" and "Dear I like you but not your speed!", but our driver was clearly either divorced, illiterate or myopic- or all three. Nevertheless, once more the laws of physics seemed to count for nothing in these parts, and as we screeched to a halt in a pall of dust I kicked my dirty luggage off the steps of the bus, checked for missing limbs and blew my umpteenth sigh of relief. 

From Jawalmunghi onwards, the driver was a much saner sort, and he took me under his wing for the rest of the journey. And this was very good, because for hours and hours we rattled down the dusty, pot-holed lanes, and I had no real idea where the bus was heading as the surroundings became more and more remote looking by the mile. For a while I really felt that I was travelling to the ends of the earth- or failing that, it could have been Pakistan. We passed through tiny villages like Dehra which felt like they hadn't been inflicted with a visit from a farang since Partition judging by the inquisitive stares at every stop, and eventually we "shot through" the quaintly named Dhalaria (I shit you not). That I remember for two reasons- the first being that it sounds like a condition most backpackers get the minute they touch tarmac (and therefore cloth) in India, and the other being that it was home to the only reference to recycling I'd seen in all the weeks in the sub-continent when I saw on the front of a small shop the words "Pure Pet Recycling" in big yellow letters, which was kind of disconcerting for an animal lover. After seeing the back of Chintpurni and Sansapur, finally the tin crate wheezed to a halt in the middle of another similar looking little town called Talwara and my friendly driver gestured that the next place we stopped would be Pong Dam. At last, the nine hour epic was nearly over. As the crow flies (assuming it has both wings), Mcleod Ganj was just a mere one hundred kilometres away. 

By the time I shook hands with Mr Driver at the military checkpoint at the north end of the dam, the sky had turned to graphite and a hooligan of a gale was blasting straight down the lake, and as the guards looked at me with some curiosity, I stood and gazed at the wild expanse of white horses stretching to the horizon. The first splatters of rain hit my head as I loaded up my monster pack. I turned back and looked at the lake. Yup, it was bad. "How the f*** am I supposed to find a fish in that lot" was about as positive as I could come up with. Other than the guards the place was deserted, and half a dozen of them stared at me intently as I wondered where the hell I was even going to sleep. I'd also figured that there would be a village somewhere near where I could bag a bit of dhal and a chai or something, but I'd got that assumption wrong and as things stood it looked like I'd got a packet of Wrigley's, 6 Ritz crackers and a litre of water to last me the next four or five days. Things have looked better.

A Mahseer down at the dam, and suddenly things are going just fine.

But despite all the khaki and guns, the guards were a pretty helpful bunch once they realised my tube held rods and not mortars, and they gave directions to a "watersports centre" not so far away round the corner. Somehow, between the couple of fellas at the ancient looking office there who spoke not a word of English, and myself who speaks not a word of anything, I managed to buy a ticket to fish the lake, rent a bed in the fishing lodge for a little more than a quid a night, and by careful use of hand signals and scribbles possibly even secure the use of a boat at some point the next day? To this day I'm still not really sure how it happened, but it did!

The watersports centre was hardly Holme Pierrepont, but there was a bunch of school kids from Jammu there with their teachers staying in the hall next door on a 10 day intensive course on how to use a kayak, and a more polite bunch it was hard to imagine. I got a lift back into Tarwala on a 5 rupee bus to get some more water and supplies, then got a lift back again, and settled into "my lodge", feeling slightly weirded-out by the collection of fish in formaldehyde in the lounge area and the musty smell of moths that'd been dead since 1947, as the howling wind whistled and clattered through the loosely shut windows. Once I was in, the kids became my constant companions, as they each took it in turn to have an audience and ask the same questions: "From which country is it you are from sir?", "What is your good name sir?" and "What is your good profession sir?", before thanking me and letting the next one take his turn! Kindly one of the teachers invited me to join them for their meal, and I gratefully accepted, mainly cos it seemed rude not too, and this promptly turned into a routine for each meal time. It took an age to get to sleep in the "suite" that evening as the wind wailed through the gaps in the windows and I wondered what the lake held for me in the morning. When I finally did nod off the only thing to stir me were the cockroaches that ran across my arms and face a couple of times during the night- always a favourite.

At 5am I was chucking some lures around along the bank down from the lodge, but the wind was still howling and I saw no sign of life- and no sign of a bloke with a boat. I spent a boring day waiting for the wind to drop, and when it finally did in the evening, it coincided with the arrival of the bloke from the office who gestured I should follow him. So I had a boat after all... 

Hmmm... about 8 feet long, a couple of planks lashed to sticks for oars and six inches of water sloshing around in the bottom. Not quite what I'd hoped, but it'd have to do. I nodded hello to another fella, office man left, and we baled out. I then sat on the seat which duly split in half and dumped me on my arse on the deck. I apologised profusely and we set sail into the deep blue yonder. Thing is, I found out my lures just weren't small enough- my friend on the oars suggested it with a head wobble, and the fact that as the light failed the Mahseer were chasing fry around everywhere while I couldn't raise so much as a smile seemed to confirm it. When the same thing happened the next dawn, and the next evening, I realised I had a small problem.  



Local fella with a Singhada catfish that sucked up my legered chilwa.

In fact I had two, the other one being that after evening meals the kids kept insisting I join them for "happy dancing". I'd been putting it off, but knew I wouldn't be able to stay bolted in the room for ever. This particular evening, under a press-gang of half a dozen small children I folded under the pressure and agreed to join them and their CD player out on the veranda.

But first I needed to address the lure issue. I tipped my tackle box out on the table in the lodge and spread it out. And there, in the middle of it all, was a small metal jig, a couple of inches long, slim and bright pink in colour. It was the smallest thing in there, and as close as I had to fry shaped. With crossed fingers it'd just have to do. I then spent the rest of the evening surrounded by a scrum of kids elbowing each other out of the way to throw their best shapes at me, while I hopped from one foot to another, wobbled my head and unscrewed an imaginary light bulb. I thought I did ok for a lardy middle aged bloke with an arthritic knee and no coordination, but others may mark it differently.

As it turned out, the little pink number saved the day. Just after first light the leaking dinghy was paddled into position just down from the dam, and as the roving hoards of Mahseer sprayed schools of tiny baitfish in all directions, I fired the jig right in amongst them. The first two fish I caught were foul hooked little chilwa on consecutive casts- not quite the expected, but most welcome! I kept them alive in the baling bucket while I

"Mine's a 69er sahib!"
The gauntlet's down for a game of Mahseer Conkers.

Amusing fishing photo... Sometimes Nikon's "Full Auto Mode" just ain't enough.

rigged up a paternoster on the spare rod. Within minutes of it being dropped out, the Baitrunner whizzed to life and I found the bait had been ripped from the hooks. Bugger. So I replaced it with the remaining bait and put it back in the same spot while I continued throwing the jig in amongst panicking bait fish. A few minutes later, as I retrieved the lure at speed, something nobbled it aggressively and I found myself having a run-around with my first Pong Dam Mahseer. The fish zipped around and stripped several yards of the 10lb line off the reel, and I just prayed it wouldn't fall off. It didn't, and (rather sadly) I punched the air with delight as about 3lbs of fish dived head first into the landing net and yet again I practiced the art of disproportionate celebration. My boatman gestured that he wanted to eat it, I shook my head and handed him my camera (see picture left!) before releasing it. He looked very upset, but when I mentioned the internationally recognised idiom of "baksheesh" he brightened considerably. He brightened even more when minutes later the Baitrunner on the chilwa rod clicked into life and a rather manky looking Singhada catfish was wound to the boat, with gobs of mucus dripping from its flanks. He held it up for a photo, and I did the eating gesture to him- at which my man 

Back to Buddha HQ.

smiled and wobbled his head before dropping it on the deck. And thus the spell was broken. I caught another Mahseer that morning on the jig before the sun came up and the lake went dead as if a switch had been flicked, and after that at each dawn and each dusk I'd catch another fish or two- all on the little pink jig. The biggest would only have been 5 or 6 pounds, but having made the journey out there and been initially intimidated by the wild vastness of the lake, every single spot of action was gratefully received. If I ever go again I'll be taking a tub full of tiny spoons and jigs cos nothing else raised so much as a follow!

The middle part of the days were spent fielding questions from the kids, one after the other, and at night times I was always invited to sit and eat with them, before being bullied into another Bollywood Boogie Night, of course. All so very kind, and I've never had so many people want to be my friend! On the final evening I decided to go back into Talwara and buy some goodies to say thanks for all their generosity. This involved the soldiers at the dam "hijacking" one of the many knackered looking lorries for a lift into town, via a massive Sikh fella with a huge luminous orange turban, wild, staring eyes and a furry white beard down to the middle of his chest. I then got lost, bought the goodies,  

missed the last bus back, and then had to pay about ten times the going rate for a drive back to the dam. In fact, so happy was the driver that he invited a couple of mates to come for the ride as well- after stopping at the English Wine Shop for a bottle of whisky and a pack of fags so they could all celebrate the size of his fare properly. I was then driven round the lake for half an hour (as they passed round the booze & fags) until I was wondering if I'd actually been kidnapped. It turned out all they were doing was avoiding going through the dam checkpoint because they'd have had to hand over a fat wedge of rupees for having a foreigner in the car. I was relieved when they finally dropped me off at the top of the lane down to the lodge. At least the kids and teachers seemed to appreciate the sentiment, I guess.

Before leaving on the final morning I managed another couple of Mahseer on the magic jig, then said a dozen goodbyes and headed to the checkpoint to wait for a bus to come. The soldiers hurriedly ushered me aboard a bus they'd flagged down; "Best way, best way, sir!", and just two stops and five hours later I was back looking for Lynne in Mcleod Ganj. Easy as that. What I was doing spending nine hours on a bus to get there I will never know.

Back to Northern India Part 1

Back to Northern India Part 2

Onto Northern India Part 4

 

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