I had read enough stories about backpacking in Himachal Pradesh. More than half of them endorsed the Himalayas, the weed, the solitude and how people ended up finding themselves in the mountains. The idea of backpacking in Himachal was sold to me.
So when a friend suggested that we backpack in the Parvati Valley in Himachal Pradesh, I said ‘Yes’ in a blink of an eye. On this epic 8 day trip, I stayed at both, commercial lodges and a family run homestay. Strolled markets, sat by the Parvati River and listened to its roar, played ludo and scrabble in remote villages hidden behind mountains, hopped cafes like nobody’s business, tried cannabis and even saw a friend pass out.
But more than that, I experienced slow travel for the first time. There were no rushed itineraries to meet or monuments to see. It was just me and the mountains – like I was having a relationship with them. I spoke and the mountains heard. And by the end of it, I walked home with a clear my mind, free from thoughts bogging me down.
This trip has converted me from a beach person to a mountain person. I would definitely recommend one to backpack in the Parvati Valley at least once. To help plan that trip, here’s a blueprint – a do-nothing guide…
Parvati Valley backpacking guide
The moment we entered Himachal Pradesh, the landscape had changed. We drove along narrow winding roads barely fit for two vehicles to pass at a time. The sky was azure with cotton clouds of several shapes and sizes. Tourquise waters of the River Beas gushed with force, prepared to take along whoever comes in its way. At one point, the River Beas joined with the Parvati River and it was a sign that we’re nearing our destination. From here, the Parvati River accompanied us right until we reached Kasol.
My first impression of Kasol was gorgeous, although the sight of stoners and freely available and sold cannabis made me uncomfortable. Cannabis grows here in the wild and I saw thousands of such plants along lanes and highways.
We spent a majority of our time in Kasol hopping cafes, sitting by the Parvati River, drinking chai and eating hot momos and Maggie – the quintessential food of the mountains.
(L) Shepherd and his flock; (R) Weed grows in the wild here
Free Kasol does not ban Indians
One of the cafes that I was very keen on visiting on this trip was the infamous Free Kasol café that was promoted on the internet as a place that bans Indians. We saw a couple of Israelis downing sandwiches, but we weren’t stopped from entering. When we asked a restaurant staff what they served, he said and I quote “We only serve sandwiches and nothing else. What you see on Facebook about us is all bullshit.” We didn’t react much and quietly grabbed a table.
Free Kasol did seem Israeli friendly. A stack of books in Hebrew lay at one side, the walls and tables had paintings symbolic of their culture, menu was written in English and Hebrew. I did notice some resentment of the staff towards Indians, quite possibly because the restaurant faced some insensitive behaviour from Indian guests in the past. However, once and for all, this restaurant does not ban Indians!
Free Kasol cafe
Important tips while travelling to Kasol:
- Kasol is your entry point into the Parvati Valley and also the biggest town in the region. So yes, it is a bit commercialised. There is only one ATM in Kasol and even that didn’t work during our trip. It is advised to keep plenty of cash handy for all your transactions.
- The electricity in Kasol is very unreliable and if you don’t act while there is power, you could end up with dead cell phones and camera batteries or take a shower in ice-cold water.
Where to stay in Kasol?
Alpine Guest House has a nice duplex for 5 or more people. This suited us just fine. The food was good and the view of the Parvati River from our room was to die for. Sony Cottage has a similar view and the property is huge but I didn’t like the food and the service. We also stayed at the Hotel Blue Diamond on the last day. The property was like any other city hotel and I wouldn’t recommend it if you want a more immersive experience. The stay was decent but there was no river view.
View from the Alpine Guest House
Most travelers in Kasol hike to Chalal – on the other side of the river. There are no vehicles, buses, cars or bikes to get you there and that I think is the best part about this place. We crossed a rickety metallic bridge; beneath us we could feel the powerful force of the Parvati River. It’s a light 45 min hike and the river led us from the front. Herds of mountain goats grazing away made for a quintessential country side view. Chalal is a really small village made up of barely a couple of hundreds of homes with self content villagers majority of whom make their livelihood by weaving shawls and carpets.
Crossing from Kasol to Chalal
There are plenty of secluded cafes here where people come to relax and do nothing (but get stoned). Enter a cafe, grab a table or a corner, and start making your rolls. It’s not like city hotels where you will be thrown out if you don’t order anything. The people of Himachal are shy but pretty chilled.
I have to mention, the hike to Chalal wasn’t a clean one. Understandably, mountainous regions have no proper drainage facility but some parts of the trail had smelly gutters.
We planned to stay in Tosh for a night and hiked high in the mountains in search of accommodation – the higher we hiked, the better the view. I’m talking snowcapped peaks, soaring birds, dense forest and fresh mountain air to breathe. Tosh is like an underground village, hidden deep in the valley and cut out from the world. Yet, it is a bit commercialized and we found some north Indians playing Sia’s ‘Cheap Thrills’ on loudspeaker.
Where to stay in Tosh?
There are a couple of good stay options but it depends on how early you reach. We hiked for 45 mins to get to the Tosh village and arrived late in the afternoon, so almost all the lodges were booked. Fortunately, we managed to find a room in an under construction lodge – Shiva mountain. We got a steal deal of Rs. 1000 for five of us with 24hour hot water via solar panels, a restaurant and a view from the room to die for.
To check for stay options at Shiva Mountain, contact: 9816762611 / 8894867061
(L) View from our room at Shiva Mountain; (R) Guest lodges high up in the valley
Our taxi dropped us at Barshani, from where we hiked to the Kalga village. I wouldn’t say that the hike was difficult but I will in all honesty admit that I just couldn’t climb. I kept halting and panting but it was all worth the effort after catching a glimpse of our homestay and the view it offered. We had a front yard to ourselves that was used to relax on the hammock, play bluff, drink chai, practice reiki, read books or simply soak in the view. We displayed childlike enthusiasm on spotting a rainbow against the backdrop of the mountains. I genuinely developed an attachment for Kalga, and when we left, I left my heart behind.
Where to stay in Kalga?
We coordinated with Raju for accommodation at the Snow Line Homestay. Raju is a simple local running the show with his wife who lends her hand in the kitchen. I loved the stay here and recommend it if you plan to stop in Kalga for a day or two. The rooms are basic and they have a restaurant too. Keep your hygiene issues at bay though. Bathroom and toilet is common. Our humble abode cost us only Rs. 150 per night per head, but it was one of the best stays I’ve had.
You can contact Raju: 9882827990, if you’re planning a stay here.
Pulga was prettier than Kalga, I thought – a lot more remote. I saw more foreigners here and wondered how they end up finding such hidden gems.
It took us two and a half hours to hike from Kalga to Pulga but the walk was scenic. Our fairytale landscape included mountain streams, apple gardens, load-carrying donkeys and over 100 year old wooden village homes. We made friends with two mountains dogs who guided us along the route. And I caught a glimpse of how daily groceries are transported to these remote villages without any motorable roads. Sacks of onions, potatoes and tomatoes swing from one mountain to another using a ropeway. How cool is that!
Where to stay in Pulga?
We didn’t stay in Pulga but if you plan to stay here, Forest View is an excellent bet. We had lunch here and checked out the rooms out of sheer curiosity. They were pretty good and in case any of us plan to go back to the Parvati Valley, we are definitely stopping here for a night
Hiking in Pulga
An alternate trip
You can also make a quick stop at the famous pilgrimage site for the Sikhs – Manikaran Sahib, and take a dip in the healing hot springs. We skipped this place as we didn’t want to be around large crowds. For a similar reason, we skipped Kheerganga that required us to undertake a strenuous hike and then end up finding more population at the base camp – both of which we were not prepared for. So we wisely chose to stay back in Kalga for two nights and did what we enjoyed doing the most – Nothing!
How to reach Parvati Valley?
Getting to Parvati Valley wasn’t as easy as it seemed. No wonder, many consider it a parallel universe. I travelled from Mumbai to Delhi by flight, then to Chandigarh by train and on the next day to Kasol by car – even battled motion sickness. But it was worth it!
In Bhunter, 30km from Kasol, we stopped at a fuel station and were surprised to find the Kullu-Manali airport in its backyard. There was no security or high railings and it looked like a toy airport. If the local kids were wicked enough, they could use the area to play cricket. I think an Air India flies into Kullu-Manali once a week and the tickets are very expensive.
Toy-like Kullu-Manali airport
A breakdown on my travel from one village to another:
Kasol to Tosh – You can take a direct car to Tosh or a bus to Barshani – the next big town in the area. From Barshani, one has to take a cab to Tosh.
Tosh to Kalga – Kalga is located between Tosh and Kasol. We took a cab that dropped us in Barshani and from there we hiked to the Kalga village.
Kalga to Pulga – We hiked from Kalga for two and a half hours to get here. It was a day trip and by evening we were back.
Kalga to Kasol – This time we took a bus from Barshani that reached us to Kasol in an hour and a half. The bus stuffed passengers like we were chickens and the journey was bumpy. Those suffering from motion sickness, take a pill please!
Food in the Parvati Valley
Food was never an issue in the Parvati Valley. For the variety of travelers this place attracts, there’s food that caters to Indians, Israelis, Germans and many others – and it all tastes delicious. Our food ranged from Nutella pan cakes, waffles and croissants to Maggie, steaks and schnitzels, chicken kadai with rotis, wheat halwa, sizzlers, British and Mexican breakfast, eggplant sandwiches and shapshuka.
List of cafes in the Parvati Valley we tried and recommend:
Kasol – The German café serves excellent breakfast. Food at the Bhoj café is great too (try the Shapshuka). Evergreen café served some awesome breakfast and I recommend the Chicken Schnitzel sandwich here.
Chalal – We checked out Freedom cafe but weren’t impressed with the place. So we visited the Nirvana café. The food wasn’t great but it’s the view you come here for. The upper level has a nice verandah where we rested and played scrabble.
Tosh – Hilltop View serves some good food like waffles, chicken kadai, rotis and even schnitzel. Post lunch, we played Ludo in the cafe after a long time – funny how some of us had even forgotten the rules of the game.
Pink Flyod café has decent food but it’s too crowded as a lot of tourists in Tosh want to stay or eat here.
Kalga – We stayed at the Snow Line Homestay and ate there too. The food is decent and the restaurant is a great place to relax and read a book on a cold wintry day.
Pulga – Forest View surprised us. We ate some crazy good food you wouldn’t expect to find in a remote corner of a village in Himachal Pradesh. Try the Chicken Sizzler and Chilly Chicken here.
Nirvana cafe, Chalal
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