Manali…1

As is fast becoming the norm rather than the exception with us, it was almost a last minute decision… to spend the Dussehra break in Manali.

There was a frantic search on the net for suitable lodgings and there were quite a few that were offering good deals. But we were yet to zero in on any one. A chance visit to Mintu’s erstwhile website (bharathomestay) decided it for us. He called up the contact person of Manali Cottages and booked a room for two nights. From the pictures provided on the site, it seemed a pretty nice place. We just hoped that we wouldn’t be disappointed when we actually saw it – as is sometimes the case.

Mintu decided that we should do the journey in two phases. Leave in the afternoon of 8th October and stay either at Chandigarh or on the highway somewhere and then proceed to Manali the next morning.

He, however, made the mistake of looking up the route on mapmyindia.com. According to which, we had to take NH 21 A past Pinjore towards Baddi, Swarghat, etc.

Since we both had office to attend on Oct 8, we packed our stuff and loaded the bags in the car on 7th night itself. Mintu was on a different kind of high and had bought some music CDs for the journey to  which he danced with his two left feet. Thanks to his dancing fits, our packing got delayed…

We decided to meet at ITO at around 2 p.m. but true to his self, Mintu decided to walk further ahead from the pre-designated spot that I was to pick him up from and thus ensued a quarrel. We had a little scene right there near the Police Headquarters at ITO and I thought to myself, “Okay, so this trip begins on a bad note, so God help us!”

I was so furious that my mood didn’t improve till we reached Pandoh the next afternoon! But the good thing about Mints is that he can’t be angry for long. Anyhow, we headed towards Baddi on the Chandigarh highway which is always a pleasure to drive on except the stretch near Kundli and of course, just outside Chandigarh.

By the time we reached the flyover that refuses to get completed, it was dark and there was an excruciatingly long jam. One has to overshoot the cut towards Panchkula and then take a U-turn and inch ones way forward. The stretch leading to Panchkula is a mess and a railway crossing does nothing to improve one’s temper. Somehow we managed to reach Pinjore Garden where we stopped to confirm the route to take. The autorickshaw driver seemed amazed that we wanted to take the Baddi road. He advised us to turn back and take NH 21 via Ropar. But the very thought of going back to the messy situation gave us the jitters. Plus we already had bookings for a room at the Gianz at Baddi.

What followed was something we deserved several times over for not heeding the good man’s advice.

We turned left from the fork ahead on NH 21A—the right one of course the familiar road going to Kalka and Shimla. Almost immediately we ran into a jam on a road that was highly reminiscent of the Rampur stretch on way to Bhimtal. All potholes, no road! Add to that the fact that it was nice and dark by then. Trucks of all sizes, shapes and ages had been let loose on the road it seemed. It was only later that we got to know that this road is frequented by vehicles to avoid paying the toll tax and that the entire area is an industrial one. Well, in for a penny, in for a pound. Someone at mapmyindia.com should try traversing on that route before suggesting it as an alternative.

The saving grace came at the end of the journey at Baddi when we pulled in at the parking lot of Hotel Gianz. It almost made it worth the while.

Although it has nothing much to offer by way of a view, the interiors and the quality of its rooms more than make up for it. The staff is very courteous and their restaurant is pretty good. The lounge and rooms are tastefully done up. After a relaxing hot water bath in the tub followed by dinner, it was time to hit the sack for we had to start early for Manali.

Woke up on Dussehra and decided to give breakfast a miss. Thought we’d pick up a bite somewhere on the road. We left Baddi at around 8 a.m. and the road turned slightly better, but we didn’t really see too many vehicles like ours on the way. Only the local types. We could see hills up ahead and the landscape around us was beautiful. Then we came to a spot where the road suddenly disappeared into thin air and there was an empty space where a bridge should have been!

We saw a dusty rough track leading down to our left and then straight across the river bed which thankfully didn’t have too much water flowing through. As we hesitated for a few seconds, we saw a bus and a car or two making their way through the shallow water from the opposite bank. We followed suit.

Soon we started the climb towards Swarghat on a lonely road which turned into a nightmare some half an hour later. It must’ve set us back by at least an hour, if not more. Repair work was going on and one could see that there’d been massive landslides during the rains. Someone told us on the way that the road would improve after Swarghat.

Finally at around 9.30 we saw the welcoming signage and turned right on the road uphill leading to Manali. Had we listened to the autorickshaw driver at Pinjore, we would have saved ourselves a lot of time and pain had we taken the Ropar highway which meets NH 21A from Baddi at Swarghat.

We stopped for breakfast at the HPTDC restaurant there which was fairly decent but could do with a bit of sprucing up as there’s no other option available.

The road improved considerably but there were still some rough patches badly in need of repair. It was then that we got our first glimpse of the stunningly green waters of the river Beas which kept us company all the way to Manali.

That area is full of hydro-electric projects and dams from what we could see. We passed through several small villages and crossed Bilaspur a little after 11, then Kol dam, Sundernagar.

Just short of Mandi, we got caught in a jam—this time thanks to a crane that was trying to move a stranded truck stuck in a ditch on the roadside. We were there for almost 30-40 mins. But it was nice to see a Raid de Himalaya rally vehicle stranded along with us.

Finally we got through, and soon hit the Mandi bypass. There’s a Devi temple on the bank of the river on the left when one takes a right turn towards the highway. But we didn’t stop as we weren’t sure how long it would take us to reach Manali. It was from somewhere here that my sulky spirits began to lift off because there was a perceptible change in the scenery. The highway meanders along the river sometimes on the right and sometimes on the left.
The biggest advantage of driving in your own car is that you can stop at will –and that’s what we did, clicking pictures and enjoying the surroundings.

Soon we reached Pandoh dam which quite took our breath away with its picturesque environs. Since photography isn’t allowed around the bridge, we took some from the road above at a safe distance.

The journey on that stretch of the highway right up to Manali is simply awesome. There’s this particular stretch with a waterfall cascading down from a great height across from the highway which is particularly beautiful. The waterfall itself is not too big or at least it wasn’t then (probably swells during the rains). Somehow, that place has a very Jurassic Parkish feel about it. On our way back we stopped here and went down to the river to collect stones and click pictures (to be placed in the next post).

On a positive high now, we raced along the highway reveling in the thought that the road ahead was unknown and God knows what lay in store. And then coming up ahead we saw the entrance to a tunnel. I quickly took out the camera and just had time to read the name of the place: Aut. And then everything grew dark…sort of. There were lights, of course, and a steady stream of vehicles both ways. It went on and on and on… The last time I’d crossed such a long tunnel was way back in the 80s when we’d crossed the Jawahar tunnel – at Banihal Pass, many times—through which one emerges into the Kashmir valley. The tunnel at Aut (2809 m) has overtaken the Jawahar tunnel (1500 m /2,200 m) at being the longest tunnel in India. It was opened to traffic in Aug 2006.

You drive straight into the little town of Aut as soon as you emerge from the tunnel. The roadside shops have dry fruit and spices on display which really do look tempting. We bought some on our way back.

The air was distinctly cooler now as we raced through the Kullu valley with the gurgling river to our right bordered by tall mountains on either side. Gosh, I still get goosebumps when I recall those moments!

We made the happy mistake of going through the town of Kullu instead of taking the bypass, otherwise we would have missed the absolutely amazing sight of the deities of the valley being taken in a procession to the fair grounds in the town. The 8-day long festival starts on the day that it ends in the rest of the country. The deities of the valley are taken in all their resplendent glory in processions to the fair ground in Kullu town. They’re kept there for eight days amidst colourful traditional festivities — a riot of dance, song and merry-making. The crowds gathered there was unbelievable. So were the number of policemen present there.

Only pictures can relate the awesome sight:

Soon we were at Bhuntar—where the airport is. From here, Manali’s about an hour’s drive away. We hadn’t had lunch and it was past three. We stopped outside an interesting-looking place called “Chillies” and ordered lunch. It was a cool place.

Some interesting jokes and one-liners kept us busy for a while. Till the time the amiable waiter got our order ready, we decided to check out the airport from a balcony behind the building. It really is a small airport nestling in the foothills amidst picturesque surroundings.

Having satisfied our hunger we took to the road again. We stopped several times on the way to walk down to the singing river which flows pretty close to the highway.delhi-to-manali126

We could now see snow-covered peaks in the distance—they looked as if a giant hand had sprinkled some talcum powder on them.

It was time to call up our contact person at Manali Cottages and ask him for directions. We paid up at the toll gate just outside Manali and then less than a kilometer ahead we took the road going uphill to the left. Up and up we drove on the meandering curves till we stopped in front of Manali Cottages where the proprietor was waiting for us. He told us to follow his car further up to the new complex. We pulled up outside the modest new building at ground level.

The courteous staff ushered us down a flight of wooden stairs from the outside, to the lower level. We immediately fell in love with the place. The door from the verandah led into a common sitting area beyond which was an open kitchen and dining area. On either side was a room quite tastefully done up with the windows offering a beautiful view of the mountains across the narrow valley. Peeping from behind were peaks with a sprinkling of snow on them.
Going up from the dining area was a flight of stairs leading to a similar layout at the upper level. Our simple, amiable host Roshanji kept us company over a hot cup of tea. He gave us a lot of information about Manali and filled us in on the local legends and customs.
He then left us to settle into our room promising to be back later.

The evening passed quickly and Roshanji made arrangements for us to drive up to Rohtang Pass the following morning. Mintu wanted to drive up in our car but was advised not to. Local drivers are familiar with the rough and sometimes treacherous route, he said.

It was wonderful to wake up the next morning to a picture postcard view of the mountains through the large windows. Aah bliss!

An early breakfast of made-to-order piping hot parathas with dollops of butter melting on them put us in the right mood for the long day ahead. Kanshi Ram, the cheerful cook at Manali Cottages was only too happy to introduce us to his flavours. He promised to serve us his special mutton and dal for dinner.

Our perfect host – Roshanji—was there to greet us with his ready smile. And so was Joginder, the cab driver who was to take us up to Rohtang Pass. So far all the locals we had met were all very friendly and helpful.

Off we went with great expectation and enthusiasm in our hearts and some amount of thrill at the thought of what lay in store for us up there in the lonely mountains…