I should tell you that of all the places The Treasurer and I have visited on this epic journey, I was really taken with Sarahan. Not being a proficient city-dweller, I have found the Indian cities quite difficult (as we expected) but Sarahan was a very small and beautiful village. Sarah didn’t see it quite as I did but we both enjoyed the break and quiet for a few days. This is an image-heavy post. You have been warned.
On the way to Sarahan from Shimla, we came through Narkanda for one night. Narkanda is a small village in the hills at just under 3000m above sea level. While it doesn’t sound particularly high, you can really feel the air being thinner at anything more than a brisk walk or up an incline.
The hotel was amusing. We had to walk through what was essentially a building site to get to reception, while the brickies - two women lugging them up and a man laying them marching up a ‘Heath Robinson-style’ ladder directly overhead - were at work.
We dropped off our bags in the sparse, cold and damp room and headed into the village, a little fearful of the oncoming darkness summoning us back to the hotel for a cold night’s sleep. While exploring, we discovered a vast number of friendly people who were only to willing to be photographed. Many really enjoyed it and we were, on the whole, made to feel welcome.
We had an excellent thali here, in a small, unassuming restaurant, from the front - that stretched back a long way, once inside - and was capable of seating well over 50 people. The entire meal was less than £5 and incredibly tasty.
That evening, we ate in the almost empty dining room at the hotel with the exception of a couple from Newcastle wit another Sikh Indian chap. He was Indian and she was a English. They were on their regular visit to India to see his brother, who still lives in India. They have been coming here for many years and were extremely helpful and friendly, explaining many of the Indian desserts to us - something we had been a little wary of until this point! We were also encouraged (with very little resistance from us) to share a large quantity of whisky for me and brandy for Sarah with them in a effort to battle the cold as the heating at this hotel was woefully inadequate. It was an extremely fun evening, ending in the manner we were now adopting on occasions like this with a group selfie as both a memory-jog and a record of a delightful evening.
Portraits in Sarahan
Once in Sarahan, following a harrowing journey along windy cliff-sided roads, many of which have been repeatedly destroyed by landslides, we checked into the hotel as quickly as the Indian check-in process will allow and headed into town.
I think that wherever you are in the world, the size of the town/city or village is directly linked to the friendliness of the locals. Saharan was very small, with only two real roads and the rest being narrow passageways made up of a maze of beautifully coloured houses. Anywhere we walked, we’d turn a corner to be confronted by a friendly face and some real characters.
One thing that I have experienced on this trip is many people, when asked for a photo will ask for money or try and coax you in their shop. In one village, (later in the trip, so fresh in my mind) I was wandering about at sunrise and an old lady just walked up to me as I was taking a picture of a goat and quite literally just shouted ‘MONEY!’ about 18 inches from my face!
In Sarahan, most locals were only too happy to be part of some photos. Some would pose, others would agree and then return to what they were doing but the whole experience for me was a delight. On a few occasions, they’d grab a friend from down the street to have a photo with, laughing to one another once I had shown them the image in the back of the camera! I think this place was one of the friendliest places I have ever been and I feel the following portraits show it.
Candid photography in public is something that requires confidence and subtlety. As one of the only white people, at comfortably 6 inches taller than almost everyone and at currently about 16 stone, ‘invisibility’ is tricky when trying to get genuinely candid images.
Wit many of the images below, I would show them after and in every case, then were friendly and allowed me to keep them. It was surprising what a big grin and a ‘thank you’ from me would let me get away with.
The temple which in all honesty, looks pretty out of place in such a small village is one of the last places to have engaged in human sacrifice in India. There ceremonies were held every decade until the 19th Century, when the sacrificial man was replaced by goats - which is now under scrutiny from animal rights groups. It may have already stopped - we couldn’t get a clear answer from anyone.
Looking fairly Chinese in its architecture, it houses a temple and a residence for one of the royal families. The doors’ coverings and impressions are solid silver and depict various Hindu gods.
Saharan was incredibly colourful. The houses were all different colours with many painted stairs and doorways. and the variation was huge, from advertising slogans to the often-cracked and worn but beautiful looking homes.
On our first evening, the sunset was beautiful, casting shadows over the hills on the opposite side of the mountain showing lines in the haze from the mountain’s peaks as the darkness crept up the hillside away from us.
An equally delightful sunrise greeted us in the morning. Well… It greeted the one of us who could be bothered to get up!
Below Sarahan was a town called Rampur, at the end of a less than comfortable 3 hour bus ride. At least we had a seat - that is until we decided to walk once stuck in traffic 2km from the destination. The reason for which was a hairpin bend that every bus had to navigate, normally in a number of manoeuvres, while as many cars and motorbikes tried to sneak past while honking incessantly. There was no other route in so every time a bus came or went, this would cause a blockage and erupt into shouting from passers by and drivers alike coupled with car horns and a largely useless traffic officer waving his arms about as if having a private rave to the rhythmless sounds around him.
Once in the market, it was just as busy as the roads with people cramming themselves into any availably gaps with stalls selling anything from popadoms to engine parts. The people were incredibly friendly and given there were so few westerners about, we did attract a lot of attention, from people just keen to practice their English, to others requiring a photo with Sarah or one taken by me.
The Wall of Death
There was something here we didn’t expect and it was the ‘Wall of Death’. a jerry-built frame, overloaded with hundreds of people waiting to watch a couple of daredevils ‘peg-it’ around the vertical walls performing a number of stunts for the adoring fans. To be honest, the wobbly frame and gaps in the floor, suspended 25 feet above the ground worried me more!
Again, many of the stall holders were happy to be photographed. It would precede a conversation that would go something like this: “Where are you from?” “England” “Ah… England. London or Manchester?” “Bristol. Near London” “I have friends in Manchester”. And that would be it. We found it hard to know if this was a practiced conversation just to fill an awkward silence or if it was all genuine. So, it may well be that there are a vast number of people in Manchester who are great friends with most of the population of Rampur and any other other towns we visited really!
The bus journey down was OK and in the end, the walk was great but the journey back was insane. Do you remember the game ‘sardines’ as a child? The bus had seating for 52 (we counted) and the normal aisle in the centre, but this was different. It was rammed and we were late to get on. Standing at the back, I had my bum about 2 inches from an ancient-looking man’s face and an armpit on either the back of a teenager’s head or in his friends face. To top all this off, by this time I had screwed my back lugging my case about between hotels. As the bus hammered it up the rocky cliff-flanked roads (think of the The Italian Job’s final scene), my arms became increasingly weak and on two occasions I had to decide between sitting on the old man or on a 10 year-old girls lap in the bench seat next to me.
Eventually, one stop from the end (with just over an hour to go), enough people piled off and only an ancient pregnant cripple could have persuaded me out of the seat once I was in there and to be honest, getting our once we had stopped was enough of a challenge anyway with my back!
All in all, Sarahan and Rampur were fantastic and we both have differing but fond memories of the place. If you ever have time and are travelling in Northern India, it’s well worth it for a day or so. Just avoid the bus.