For a decade or more, Himachal Pradesh has attracted thousands of westerners in search of Shangri-la and cheap hash. Some never return – either murdered or their names added to the growing list of the disappeared. Those who go in search of their loved ones face a hostile reception. So what is the dangerous secret of this beguiling region of north India? Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark go on a quest to find out.
Shepherds found the body, beached on the banks of the holy Beas River that thunders through northern India from the glaciers of the 3,541m-high Chandrakhani pass. A police photograph taken last August, before the human remains were transferred to a ramshackle mortuary, shows what resembles a bald mannequin, of unidentifiable gender, its legs snapped off below the knee, possibly by the force of the river. The lips are contorted into a swollen kiss and a small slit parts the skin on the crown of the head.
The police chief of the small mountain state of Himachal Pradesh, through which the river flows, told the Divya Himachal newspaper that this was not one of the dozens of fatal accidents that occur every year: farmers who slip off icy goat-tracks or become disorientated in violent snowstorms. Launching criminal inquiry number 302, Superintendent Venu Gopal confirmed that the body was that of a western traveller who had almost certainly been murdered.
News of the killing sent a shudder through the isolated community. The region’s legendary name is Kulanthapitha, meaning “the end of the habitable world”; a spiritual land that drew pilgrims reassured by the fact that its crime rate was among the lowest in Asia. Guide books described its inhabitants as a ‘joyful and gentle people’, some of whom claim to be descendants of Alexander the Great. It was said that Lord Shiva, the Hindu god with the power to destroy and restore worlds, meditated here for 1,100 years, drawn by the majesty of the region.
In the past 20 years, western travellers have turned Himachal Pradesh into their Shangri-la. Psychedelic Israelis freed from the draft, Italian eco-warriors, British hikers, yogic flyers and Euro-stoners are couriered in toy-town buses to the valleys of Kullu, Parvati and Malana. Beyond lies a rough-hewn landscape of escarpments and alpine forests where the marijuana bushes grow 9ft high and life had barely changed in 2,000 years.
Indian sadhus, dreadlocked living saints, mingle with travellers from the West and refugees from Tibet. Nepali porters tout for business alongside traders from Kashmir. The only hard decision facing foreign visitors is whether to climb a mountain or roll a spliff at the riverside Ish Cafe. News that a body had been fished from the river threatened to change all that. It was not the first suspicious death in what locals call the Valley of the Gods. Himachal Pradesh was being stalked by a series of brutal assaults and killings: there was a trail of bodies, stolen passports and traveller’s cheques that locals had tried their best to conceal.
Last weekend there were reports that a 25-year old Briton, Joel Kitchen, had gone missing on a paragliding trip in the state. Bad weather has been cited, is likely he was forced to make an unplanned landing. Other cases have more sinister implications.
In July 2000, two German walkers were shot as they slept in their tent – Jorge Weihrauch, 26, was killed, while his friend Adrian Mayer-Tasch, 28, escaped with four shotgun wounds to the leg. No eyewitnesses came forward. One month later, British engineer Martin Young, 32, his 34-year-old Spanish girlfriend, Maria Girones, and her 14-yearold son, Cristobal, were set upon and beaten while sleeping in their tent: Young survived, the other two died. Their killers were never found. Last December, a skeleton, still wrapped in its sleeping bag, was identified as a missing Israeli military pilot, Nadav Mintzer, whose passport had quietly been offered for sale in the markets of Manali.
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