The Detour Diaries.

Shifting Landscapes: The Story of Soil (or Soyal) Village, Then and Now.

It is not about the places always. It is more about a way of life. It is all about slowness and mindfulness while on your travels. To be very honest, the term “Slow and Mindful Travel” were words that were new to me when I moved to the Himalaya some 15 years years back. The journey that started out as a restless and hurried check-list ticks sort of way, fortunately began to melt into a slow and gradual flow of explorations and identifications. It was the beginning of a way of life and thought and it is still in that suspended animation.

If you ask me to name a place or places that led to this transformation, my first few choices would be the erstwhile secluded and hidden village of Soyal or Soil Village near Manali in the valley of Kullu. I will subsequently elaborate on the usage of the word “erstwhile”.

On a drive up to Manali, after you cross the town of Kullu, you have the option of heading to Manali either on the “Left bank road” or the “Right bank road”. Now, this can be deceiving as many get obviously confused on “Left” and “Right” of what? So, it is the banks of the River Beas. Again, the confusion doesn’t cease there. What is “Right” for one traveller is a “Left” for the other. And, curiously that is the balance you will notice in the mountains, if you look.

So, to set the record straight, it all depends on the flow of the river. If you stand and the river is flowing down the valley in front of you, that decides the “Left” and “Right” of the chaos. Coming back to our travels, you head down the “Left bank” or the “Right bank”, whichever tickles your fancy. That is another thing about these young and formidable mountains. Somehow, all roads lead to each other, in a mazelike way. You reach the beautiful village of Naggar. From here, drive for another 7 km and you can reach Soil village, which is at an altitude of about 1,800 mts above the sea level.

Allow me to share my first sighting of Soil Village. I will take you back about 14 years, as that was the time when I permanently shifted my residence from Delhi to Manali. I had been a frequent traveller to the mountains, but it was then that we took a lovely place in a picturesque village of Haripur, about 14 km before Manali town and on the left bank. We chanced upon this fortune of migrating to the mountains because of my beautiful fur baby, Ckocka. She had littered and we moved here with the whole battalion to give the puppies a better life. And then, life happened and we ventured into the then very new world of “Experiential and Transformational Travel”.

couple doing meditation by a stream at vanvaas in Soil Village, Manali

Couple doing meditation by a stream at ‘VanVaas’ in Soil Village, Manali

Our travels and explorations took us to such off-the-radar spots in the Himalaya, that we simply had to share these experiences with the world. That was the birth and germination of our vision to explore and evolve with the community of like-minded and mindful travellers. I first started frequenting the hidden jungle trails and village trails of the Soil village when there were no mettled roads leading to it. Those were the times of serious off-roading of 2 km from the main road up to the last motorable spot of the village, which coincidently was just where the short hike across the village began in those days. Today, there is a petrol pump from where a smooth mettled road to Soil begins. It is that easy now.

It was the first sighting and the formidable age-old Oak and Pine trees that struck me. It seemed like this was a gateway to many mysteries of the Himalaya. We decided to go meet up with some friends up in Soil. We packed some goodies for a BBQ and something to feel lightheaded. With Pineapple and Troy leading the entourage, 5 of us climbed into a car from our home. The drive which now takes 4 min nowadays, safely stretched to over half of an hour, then. Of course, a Gypsy with sturdy tires and extremely uncomfortable seating was our carriage of the day. After a turbulent and skeleton-rattling ride, we all de-boarded with audibly loud sighs of relief and achievement. It was a Kodak moment when Troy and Pineapple, visibly relieved and not believing that they were now on solid ground, cautiously tried to balance on all fours as up until now they were suspended mid air throughout the drive. 

Anyone who has not visited Soil during those days will not be able to relate to my ramble. Believe me, those were the days!

Our friends, an English-Austrian couple, lived up in Soil in a beautiful cottage right out of the “Lord of the Rings” setting. The trail up to their home started from near an ancient temple of Jamdagni Rishi, the residing deity of Soil. Some even say that the holy Rishi was as powerful as lord Shiva, as he worshipped Mahadev with ferocity that was unparalleled. The narrow trail cutting through the village was shadowed by the massive and ancient trees and running along a small man-made stream. To one side is the massive face of the mountain and to the other the vast expanse of the valley of Kullu with River Beas meandering through it. As we hiked up, a gentle breeze swept across the sun-kissed village carrying with it the sweet scent of pine and smoke from the tandoors lit up in the old village homes. Most homes during those days, were sparsely spread across and were made of wood and mud. As we walked along with a flippant stride along the path, Troy and Pineapple were rather meticulous in their duties of scanning the route and ushering us along.

The village prides itself for being home to Pucknozz glacial stream, which originates in the glaciers at the top above Parkuni meadows. It finally meets the River Beas to flow further down the valley. If you are an Angling enthusiast, this is the place for you. With Rainbow, brown and other trout galore in the stream, it is an experience for the mindful who enjoy the sport of patience – Angling.

That is exactly what we did when we reached there. After a few failed attempts, we managed to get some trout for a buttered Trout BBQ. The excitement of the doggos spiralled out of control when they saw what was going to be served. They assumed the BBQ was laid out for them and they seemed to approve of the menu, as well.

This called for a toast! It was beer for a few and black coffee for others. With the choice of poison in our hands, we toasted to life and life in the mountains. This was to become a ritual in days and years to come.

A path that had to be navigated with care in those days, now boasts of a road that is coming up in some time. Men at Work with safety helmets and JCBs now are synonymous to this once hidden hamlet. I am not trying to be cynical or condemning progress….just saying how it was and how it is.

Soil was one of the few villages that did not have any hydro project. But, that is now fast becoming a reality with the Hydro project approved and the construction of the road into the inner recesses of the mountain coming up fast. Like they say, there are always two sides of a coin. While this is the face of progress and enterprise and electricity and easy road access, it will take away the old-school charm of the hamlet settings and adventure that was. 

After a few years, we settled into a remote lodge in Soil. It was located in Koot. That is a local term for the end of any village and the beginning of forests. We host mindful travellers there who add their stories and experiences that are forever etched at Vanvaas, Soil. It was the jungle setting and a truly cut-off feel of the lodge that inspired the name. I will share more about the thought that we fondly call Vanvaas in my subsequent narratives.

For now, I am signing off with fond nostalgia of the erstwhile village of Soil!

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