Bad Trip

They say the Himalayan hideaway of Malana is Lotusland, home to the world's highest high. But here's what they don't tell you: Getting there can mean surviving a late-winter forced march over an avalanche-choked mountain pass, and dealing with locals who treat you like a loathsome alien. Wow. Sometimes Shangri-La can really suck.

Jan 1, 2005
Outside Magazine

During any extended rainstorm in the foothills of the Indian Himalayas—the kind of biblical-grade deluge that pounds so hard and so long that the sky itself seems saturated with despair—you eventually reach a point where your wheels, both real and metaphysical, start to come off. Your parka suffers catastrophic failure. Your skin takes on the color of uncooked tripe. And the molecules of your brain seem to liquefy, slide down your spine, and collect at your tailbone in a pool of ooze.

I call this the I'd-Rather-Be-Dead Moment.

My five companions and I weren't sure when exactly we'd hit this point. It may have been during our wretched struggle up the 12,000-foot pass—an ordeal that took most of a late winter's week to complete. Or maybe it was on our hellish descent down a 45-degree avalanche chute on the pass's opposite side. Or perhaps it had crept up on us amid the tempest of hail laced with snow peppered with freezing rain that we'd endured the previous night...

Yeah, it was probably then.

In any event, our pod of unlikely traveling companions—a Hindu guide, two porters (one from the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, the other a Nepali), an Israeli army veteran, a half-Japanese/half-Irish photographer, and me—had penetrated a torpid realm of misery by the time we finally achieved our destination: Malana, a collection of leaky cottages in a cheerless alpine valley that exuded all the warmth and appeal of a wet sock. Though no one said a word, I could sense my friends' thoughts plainly enough: Wow. What a shithole.

Clearly, the situation called for strong medicine—a reminder of the luminous vision that had driven us over the pass to begin with. "So, Raja," I inquired, turning to the Himachal half of our porter duo, "where's the hashish this place is so famous for?"

"Why, here is the charas," Raja replied, invoking the Hindi term for the strain of hand-rubbed Cannabis indica that supposedly qualified this hidden Shangri-La as earth's ultimate stoner paradise. He pointed vaguely in the direction of a field full of dead plants and half-frozen dirt clods.

"Over there is the charas," Raja continued, flapping his hands toward a terraced hill on the far side of the settlement's main thoroughfare—a gutter, really—that looked to be awash in a turgid broth of cow and sheep turds, litter, and gelatinized mud.

"Everywhere is the charas!" Raja declared, flinging out his arms. "This is the Valley of the charas, and they are growing too much charas here!"

Raja's rekindled enthusiasm only hinted at the reverence this village evokes among cannabis connoisseurs, who whisper its name in hushed tones wherever potheads huddle.

"And have you tried this charas?" I asked.

"Oh, yes, many times."

"Did you like the charas?"

"Oh, yes, I am liking it too much! Perhaps tonight we will smoke some?"

Let me pause here to state that I normally don't condone hallucinogens and, like any law-abiding square, I play by the rules.

But right then?

Right then I'd have shot my own dog to get the damn charas.

I FIRST HEARD ABOUT MALANA as a high school exchange student in Bombay. There were six of us in the program that year, and in the spring of 1983 we headed north to the Kullu, one of the loveliest valleys in India: a sanctuary of towering forests and thundering cataracts ringed by the snowcapped peaks of the Pir Panjal, one of the longest ranges in the Himalayas. The place was a magical alpine kingdom whose Sanskrit name, Kulanthapitha, means "End of the Habitable World."

All of which sounded cool enough. But what really fired our imaginations was a story we heard about Lord Shiva, the most fearsome deity in the Hindu pantheon, who once spent a thousand years in a meditative trance induced by smoking an ungodly amount of the cannabis growing in riotous profusion around Malana and, indeed, throughout the entire Kullu.

At the head of this valley is a town called Manali, a former staging point for caravans that plied the southern arm of the Great Silk Road. The Kullu's tranquillity was disrupted in the 1960s when Western hippies transformed Manali, which sits at 6,765 feet, into a smoke-shrouded shrine for anyone seeking cosmic enlightenment and killer weed. Which is pretty much what it was when my high school friends and I showed up.

Our goal had been to trek from Manali to Malana via a 12,000-foot pass called Chandrakhani. What we had in mind was a psychedelic ramble taking in both the natural beauty and the natural intoxicants of the area. What we got was a debacle highlighted by an ice storm so vicious that a herd of cattle gathered around our tents one night and froze to death, a flash flood through a streambed where my dysentery-stricken companions and I were seeking relief—forcing us to run for our lives with pants around our ankles—and a midnight raid by a platoon of Indian policemen who mistakenly thought we'd actually gotten our hands on some charas. Needless to say, we never made it to Malana.

So why go back? Because a score needed to be settled, as I struggled to explain one chilly March afternoon to Khem Raj Thakur, 26, who owns a Manali-based adventure company called Snowland Holidays. Khem is a diminutive man with refined features, a quick smile, and a gift for unflappable courtesy that prevented him from bluntly telling me and my travel companion, New York–based photographer Teru Kuwayama, that the idea of making a late-winter dash over the pass was insane. Instead, he gently tried to show us why it was insane.

First, no one had been over Chandrakhani since the previous autumn, so he knew nothing about existing conditions. Second, as he carefully pointed out, Malana's residents deem all outsiders to be untouchables—a theme I hadn't heard before. "If you go there," he warned, "you will not be made to feel at all welcome." And finally, Khem noted, hashish is thoroughly illegal.

Under the Indian government's 1985 Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act, possession of charas is punishable by up to a year in prison. Despite this prohibition, each year the Kullu District produces about 11 tons of charas, the bulk of which is smuggled to Europe and sold under names like Shanti Baba and White Widow. Hashish has traditionally been treated with leniency by Indian police in places like Malana, though there are occasional crackdowns, and as is true anywhere, the drug trade is dangerous. In the past decade, more than a dozen foreigners trekking in parts of the Kullu notorious for charas consumption have either disappeared or been murdered in crimes that have remained unsolved—perils that, in Khem's view, were not mitigated at all by the addition of an Israeli ex-commando to our party.

Ah, yes, the commando.

Ido Neiger, 28, grew up on a kibbutz near the Sea of Galilee. He learned to snowboard at Mount Hermon, Israel's highest mountain, which has the distinction of housing the only ski resort in the world that's been shelled by Hezbollah. After high school, Ido (pronounced "Ee-doe") joined a special-operations demolitions unit in the Israeli army. Since leaving the military in 1997, he has divided his time between earning cash at de-mining projects in places like Bosnia; jetting off on snowboarding excursions to New Zealand, Serbia, and Breckenridge; and hopping from one full-moon backpacker rave to another across Nepal, India, and Thailand, where he dances to trance music and consumes prodigious amounts of hash.

I'd met Ido two weeks earlier, skiing in Kashmir. Upon running into him again outside Snowland's office, Teru and I realized he was just what our trip needed: a Jewish snowboarding Virgil who could shepherd us to the heart of Malana's charas inferno. We begged him to join us.

Ido accepted only after Khem reluctantly confirmed that, yes, the trip would enable him to inscribe his name in the annals of Himalayan adventure by nailing the first snowboard descent of Chandrakhani Pass. Stunned by our idiocy, but bowing to the fact that we were going anyway, Khem agreed to set up the trek.

KHEM ASSIGNED US A 26-YEAR OLD named Vinay Sharma, who sported a thin, carefully trimmed Zorro mustache and who said he'd been to Dharamsala three times to meet the Dalai Lama. Also on board was a porter named Khem Raja, whom we called Raja to avoid confusion with his boss at Snowland. Raja, 28, was bald and rotund, and his left hand bore the tattoo of a heart with an arrow through the middle. When I asked about it, he produced a doleful sigh suggesting that his boat had been severely buffeted by the turbulent emotional currents of unrequited love, but he would only say that it was "a long story—a very romantic, but also very sad, long story."

We launched the next morning, clambering onto the roof of a bus in Manali (Ido wanted some fresh air), and spent several hours alternately bewitched by the beauty of the early-spring landscape and terrified by several near decapitations involving low-hanging power lines. The bus wheezed up the road to the village of Naggar, where we disembarked, hoisted our packs, and started hoofing it.

In no time, the road morphed into a footpath that led us up through fields dotted with bleating sheep. We passed a chain of colorfully painted tea stalls, each of which had a radio blaring a love song from a different Bollywood movie. Lost in the bucolic tableau, we momentarily blocked out all worries.

That didn't last long. The first sign of the trouble to come was Raja, who started falling behind the moment we stepped off the bus. As we waited, Vinay divulged that, technically, Raja was not a porter. No, he usually drove for jeep safaris, chauffeuring tourists in Ladakh—a line of work that had rendered him scandalously out of shape and unable to carry a full load.

When we passed through the last village before entering the high forests, Vinay placed a call to Snowland, asking for reinforcements. By nightfall we were joined by Kamal Bahadur, 40, whom Khem had recruited from a group of Nepalese laborers who spend most of the day smoking cigarettes outside his office. Kamal's entire gear kit consisted of a pair of socks, some Chinese rubber shoes, a pair of pants, a wool shirt, and a frayed hat.

Later that evening, as we built a fire to warm our bolstered group, Ido brought Teru and me up to speed on the mysteries of Cannabis indica (a source of both marijuana—the dried flowers—and hashish, which is made by refining the plant's resins). As he explained, the southern foothills of the Himalayas specialize in "hand-rubbed" hashish, a method requiring laborers to walk through fields of ripe cannabis, massaging each flowering branch between their palms and fingers.

"When a layer of sticky resin builds up," Ido said while he rolled a joint using some inferior hash he'd purchased in Kashmir, "the collectors whisk their hands together until the resin clumps into small balls, which are then pressed flat with the palms."

The secret behind Malana's superlative hashish lies partly in the village's heavy rainfall and good soil (cannabis plants there can grow to 12 feet) and partly in the village's unique harvesting technique. In most cases, hand-rubbing produces somewhat low-quality charas, but in Malana, workers wait until the plants are at peak ripeness before making a single pass through a crop, rubbing each leaf for about 20 seconds.

"Each worker is only able to collect between five and ten grams a day," Ido noted, "but the resin is really pure and potent. After it has been kneaded, it is buried in a cool, dry place and allowed to cure."

This hash, known as Malana Cream, is prized for the allegedly rapturous, cerebral clarity of its high. Before coming back to India, I'd done some Web surfing and stumbled across a review by an expert who sampled the hash sold in Dutch coffee shops for the Smokers Guide to Amsterdam and who goes by the alias "the BushDoctor." According to the doctor, Malana Cream boasts "an unusually soft and smooth inhale, with flavors like a chocolate biscuit" that yield "an excellent body high, without dopey feelings," leaving "a bit of a numb feeling on the back of the throat that has you reaching for a cool bevie from the juice bar."

Northern India's finest year for hash was probably 1995, when the weather was wet in the summer but dry during the fall harvest. Later that winter, a batch of Malana Cream made its way to Amsterdam, where it was entered in the Cannabis Cup Contest—a prestigious annual event sponsored by High Times magazine—and won distinction as one of the two finest hashish smokes in the world.

Ido passed his joint, and everyone inhaled except for me. (I was, I suppose, saving myself for later.) Then we all leaned back and stared into the Himalayan night. Beyond the glow of our fire stretched a dark canopy of forest; above that, framed by the branches of the fir trees, arched the silvery bow of the Milky Way.

It was the last moment in our journey that could be described as even remotely pleasant.

EVERY AUGUST, HUNDREDS OF HINDU PILGRIMS converge on the village of Naggar to ascend Chandrakhani Pass and pay their respects at an elaborately carved temple in Malana dedicated to a local god named Jamlu. The trip usually takes seven hours, one way. A few foreigners have managed to sprint to Malana and back in a single afternoon, because the distance is only eight miles. Getting there took us four days.

On day two, we found ourselves slogging through snow that came almost up to our knees. As the temperature dropped, we thrashed and cursed. We spent that night huddled in tents beneath the top of the pass, and by the next afternoon, despite the heavy going, we were nearing the top.

As we crested the pass, however, there were no high fives. The sad truth was that the descent would be even more difficult than our climb: The way down was slightly steeper than a black-diamond ski slope, leading through a streambed that doubled as an avalanche chute. The final slopes stretching down to Malana consisted mostly of bare rock glued together with mud. Aside from the obvious aesthetic disappointment, this meant that, after hauling his enormous Sims Project snowboard to the top of the pass, Ido would be denied the chance to rooster-tail down to the best hash in the world.

There was no time to moan, though. Dense black clouds were already obscuring the 15,000-foot peaks that loomed around us. We had to hustle before darkness came on.

Fortunately, it wasn't raining—unless you count the scree showers that our descent touched off, triggering mad dances as those of us below scrambled to avoid getting konked. In several places we each went sprawling, clawing at tufts of dead grass to stop from cartwheeling down the mountain.

Then it started to rain.

After two hours of dodge-and-pray, we fetched up beneath a rocky overhang and collapsed. Teru crept into his bivy sack while Ido, Vinay, and the porters crawled into their tents. I was too tired to do anything, so I simply burritoed myself in a tent fly and stared up into the sky as the rain turned to frozen slush.

Before drifting off, I detected an odor emanating from the vestibule of Ido's tent. "Thank God we get to Malana tomorrow," Ido moaned softly. "This is the last of my hash."

WE REACHED MALANA'S OUTSKIRTS in pouring rain at 11 the next morning. While Vinay dashed off to seek permission for us to enter the village, Raja delivered a brief lecture on guest protocol.

There are about 500 people in Malana, Raja explained, and they claim to be descended from war-weary soldiers who deserted the army of Alexander the Great around 327 b.c. Which helps explain why the village has spent the last 2,332 years giving a cold shoulder to the rest of the world. Malanans see themselves as alpine aristocracy. They forbid their children to marry beyond the handful of clans in the village. They run their own legislature, court, and system of law enforcement. And, most important for us, they treat all visitors, Hindu and non-Hindu alike, as pariahs.

"The local people do not like outsiders, whom they consider unclean, and therefore we must not be touching anyone like this," said Raja, brushing his hand on my shoulder. "If you touch any person, he will have to wash himself to be OK. If you touch the wall of his house, then you will also touch everything inside—the plates, the pans, the furniture—and we will have to pay a fine for the appeasing of Jamlu.

"However," he cheerfully added, "they will be happy to sell you some charas, if you are interested."

And with that, our little band of untouchables began sloshing through the filthiest place any of us had ever seen.

The yard of each house was host to a waterlogged mound of rags, candy wrappers, cardboard, plastic bags, and rotting vegetables. Armadas of litter sluiced through the narrow, muddy lanes. While women poured pots containing dark, moist unmentionables from the balconies of two-story wood-and-stone houses, frightened children scuttled out of our way, averting their eyes and hissing, "No touch! No touch!" Every few yards, some severe-looking young man with black, slicked-back hair stuck his head out a window to inquire, "Cream? Cream?"

Peppered throughout the village were signs meant for us: WARNING: TOUCHING THE SACRED OBJECTS WILL COST YOU FINE OF RUPEES 1,000! While studying one of these, I realized I'd fallen behind our entourage. I snapped my notebook shut and, in the process of scrambling down the lane, stumbled into the path of a small boy.

"Waaauugh!" he squealed, motioning for me to step off the lane. I did, but that put me too close to a house whose wall was emblazoned with yet another do not touch sign, prompting me to windmill my arms and hop to the opposite side of the path. There I nearly collided with a yellow-eyed ram that eyed me with disgust, and the horror of the situation hit home. I was about to pollute somebody's goat.

I spun around and raced to join my companions, who had succeeded in reaching our guesthouse—the only one open to outsiders. It was a two-story structure with bare concrete floors. After the elderly woman who ran the place showed us to our rooms, we stripped off our soaked gear and gathered at one of the windows, where we watched the rain stream down like it would never stop.

"The villagers here think they are the most superior people on earth," Raja said, shaking his head. "It is their belief that no one is equal to them."

He stared at the rain a few minutes. "I think perhaps it is their loneliness that has given them this idea."

WE WERE SHARING THE GUESTHOUSE with the sole foreign visitor in Malana besides us, a middle-aged European woman who works as a roving environmental activist and who asked not to be named. Dressed fashionably in black hiking boots and black raingear, she was campaigning to prevent the Indian government from constructing a hydroelectric dam in the drainage several miles below the village. The dam would require a road, and the road would destroy the out-of-touch quality that makes Malana unique.

"If they succeed," she lamented, "it will change this village forever. Visitors will start coming in droves. The people will stop being the people they are. And because of all that, the vibrations of this place will change, too."

While Vinay, Kamal, Raja, and Teru stood in the hallway digesting this, Ido went off to score some Cream. He came back with 15 black disks, each about the size of a communion wafer. The wafers were sealed inside plastic bags and bore the whorls of the fingers that had pressed them. Each one emitted a powerful, earthy pungency you could smell through the plastic.

As Ido described it, the purchase had been a very Malana-like experience. Two guys in the street sold him the hash, but instead of handing him the bags directly, they insisted on dropping them in the mud. When he tried to give them the roughly $30 they wanted, they made him drop the money in the mud, too. To mark a successful transaction, one of the Malanans tried to light a cigarette, but his lighter wasn't working. So Ido struck a match and held it out.

The seller pointedly refused—not even a flame could be permitted to pass between them.

"They obviously don't want outsiders here, but they want to make money off of us anyhow," Ido groused. "This custom of not touching makes them very afraid—afraid of even small things. Which makes me afraid. I'm afraid to walk somewhere I'm not supposed to. I'm afraid to touch something I'm not allowed to. It's enough to make you crazy."

He halted. "The vibes of this place? They totally suck."

Later that night, our group sought refuge from misery by demolishing a hand-rolled doobie the size of a Cuban cigar, wadded end to end with Malana Cream. We all inhaled furiously and then retreated deep into our own personal landscapes of stuporous introspection.

True to the BushDoctor's promise, Malana's storied charas was exceptionally smooth—but, truth be told, the monumental hallucinations I'd anticipated for two decades never really materialized. Instead, I underwent an initially pleasant buzz, comparable to being mildly drunk, that slowly but surely sent me cartwheeling into a despair as dense and dark as the hash itself. An hour or so later, I found myself staring saucer-eyed through the rain-streaked windows, awash in an oceanic sadness over the realization that I had traveled far, endured much, anticipated keenly... only to arrive at a soaking-wet garbage dump whose residents greet weary travelers with nothing but suspicion and contempt.

Drowning in melancholy, self-pity, and rejection, I hung my head and bowed to the incontestable conclusion that the problem, surely, was not the fabled hash, but me. Was I so uptight that I failed to merit even a single flash of profound insight? Apparently. Either that or the BushDoctor had seriously overrated Malana Cream. Either way, I desperately wanted to go home.

But then, somewhere amid my funk, a tiny pebble of an idea seemed to tumble from out of the ether and drop at my feet. In keeping with my black mood, this idea wasn't all that pleasant. In fact, as psychotropic epiphanies go, it was really rather ugly and harsh. But here, for what it's worth, is the insight that presented itself:

Over the years, I've read an awful lot of travel literature extolling the virtues of destinations that have remained untouched by the outside world, places that, by dint of such isolation, are thought to embody elusive truths that the rest of us seem to covet or need. Until reaching Malana, though, I'd never considered that a twisted version of the reverse might also be true. To wit: that when a place regards itself as sacrosanct simply because its residents are too afraid to touch something new and strange, or be touched by it, they may possess neither wisdom nor spiritual richness. Instead, they just become more impoverished than they already are.

That night, I decided I agreed with our dam-fighting acquaintance—albeit for reasons she might find blasphemous. If a hydroelectric dam eventually succeeds in opening this village up, I thought, surely it would be a momentous thing for the people of Malana, who may be forced, finally, to rid themselves of some squalid prejudices that have made them petty and mean. For the rest of us, this will probably qualify as something of a loss, if only because this nasty, wicked little place will no longer be able to offer up an instructional lesson in the costs of self-induced isolation.

A lesson, as it turned out, that did not fully reveal itself until the next morning, when we stumbled to our feet, packed our gear, and got the hell out of Malana.

IT WAS STILL POURING AS WE DESCENDED the steep, narrow trail through the drainage where the Indian government wants to construct its dam. A few hours down this track, the deluge abated briefly just as we were passing through a grove of immense fir trees whose dripping trunks were wreathed in scarlet rhododendron blossoms. Beams of light shot through the wet branches, making the canopy look like the clerestory of a Gothic cathedral.

Standing beside the trail were three children—a boy of about six and his younger sister, who was carrying a baby on her back. As we passed, they smiled sweetly and asked if we had some candy to spare, a request Vinay obliged by taking off his heavy pack and producing several pieces of chocolate. As he extended a handful, the children's demeanor abruptly changed.

Glaring, the boy and the girl sternly informed Vinay that he needed to put his offering on the ground before they would condescend to touch it. Then the gurgling toddler, taking a cue from his siblings, flung a pointed finger at the forest floor.

Given what we'd already seen, no one should have been surprised; it was a shabby moment that seemed to rob Vinay's gesture of its kindness and decency. But it was a generous moment, too, because it unwrapped the gift that Malana ultimately offers to each of its visitors—the gift of realizing that you cannot truly appreciate the central importance of human touch until you see what happens when it has been rendered taboo.

Filthy, hostile, terrified of its own shadow, Malana is the sort of place you should never, ever visit, because when you get there, you may wind up deciding that you'd rather be dead. Which, of course, is precisely why Malana is such a rewarding destination. A place that, like the object of all worthwhile journeys, gives back more than it takes away.

In the end, is that not the reason we travel?

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