As Manali materialized from the foliage of trees towards the end of a beautiful drive from Kullu, I wondered at the size of this little town. Amid the traffic, tourist bus parking and endless spree of shops and restaurants, there is a Himalayan culture that continues to charm travelers like me. Yeah.. a traveler .. That's who I am. Never been the typical tourist who crushes a place's worth down to sightseeing...Determined, I put on my explorer hat and here’s what I experienced...
I still remember my wet cold feet felt as I hiked up an unknown trail in Manali around 6.30 that lovely morning. I had to bend several times to make my way through a thick cover of apple trees. The houses were sleeping. So I had the luxury of sneak-peeking into their verandas or windows and have a glimpse of the local life. The soil was moist with last night’s rain. The dew from the leaves kept tickling me throughout the way.
Breaking the musical silence were euphonies of several birds and I realized I wasn’t alone. There were these black insects, thick, fat and about the size of my first finger, hiding in the grass.
I was touching, feeling, listening and seeing. Then I smelled something familiar. It was chapatti. I followed the aroma and set my eyes on a kaccha house where a Himachal woman was baking fresh rotis on an Indian tawa outside. I would sell my house to buy her dwelling whose windows opened into the valley and overlooked the Snow Mountains.
A meadow that I crossed during my trekking trail in Manali
I stopped at a meadow and laid down on a blanket of wet grass. The tiny rays of light made their way between the foliage of trees and made the snow-capped peak visible. You are always homesick for a place you have never been, my thoughts remembered what I'd read somewhere. And I felt it...like the dawn of realisation...for the first time in Manali.
Penning down my Manali journey amid the Apple Trees
Everyone coming to Manali skis and we did too. What we hadn’t signed up for was a little real-time adventure. Despite that we started off at 6 am, we were stuck in a huge traffic jam just 3 km away from Manali Snow Point. Rohtang Pass was already closed that day. So our only chance of adventure was the Skiing. That’s when our guide had an idea. He asked my brother and me to hike with him. For the first time, we realized what it meant to hike wearing the heavy snow-dresses. We didn’t take the main NH 21 road but made our way climbing up the slippery and steep side paths. The air was freezing yet we couldn’t resist touching the snow dripping from the stones. We finally reached the Snow Point, skied or to be honest, tried to ski for almost half a day.
Snow Point Manali, near Rohtang Pass
I thought that the day’s fun was over. We began the descent from the peak. The traffic jam was getting worse so we had to take the winding, slippery path again. Voila! This was trickier than the ascent. There were several short snow-filled patches. Our guide then showed us how to slide by sitting down, keeping our butts between the two stream-like gaps built by other hikers and pushing ourselves forth. I refused to do this the moment I saw how we would land right on the road. He showed us how to ‘apply brakes’ while sliding. We laughed and ventured onto our craziest adventure. It was way more fun than the skiing. So when the next snow patch arrived, we took the lead and started sliding down. Guess where we both landed – between the two legs of a mule standing on the road. We burst out laughing while the mule turned around and just then someone warned ‘Run! The mule will hit you!’
Since my trip to Nepal last year, I have developed a strange fascination for monasteries. There are three in Manali. While most people visit the Gadhan Thekchoking Gompa situated in the Manali Tibetan market, I went a little further to find the Himalayan Nyingamapa Gompa Monastery. The moment I stepped in, I was smitten by the serenity of the place.The senior monks didn’t mind me peeking inside the dimly-lit classrooms. I shot a smile at a crimson-robe clad boy who looked every bit a tiny monk-in-the-making, carrying his books upstairs. He smiled back and disappeared in his room. The whole atmosphere was hypnotic, to say the least. I was touched by the humility of their lifestyle, the sacrificial choices they probably make every single day of their lives. It made the comforts back home feel like luxury.
The Himalayan Nyingamapa Gompa Monastery, Manali
I had heard of a Christian chapel too. It wasn’t a Sunday so I wasn’t expecting any service at the church. Ask any taxi driver in Manali, and he would most likely dismiss the existence of a church. But there is one a few yards away from the Mall Road, Manali. As I stepped inside the Lady Wilingdon Hospital campus, I spotted a cute little chapel built in British style. The pastor’s wife generously let me in and showed me inside the chapel. She invited us over for a little Prayer that was to happen at 6 pm. During the gathering, we ended up making friends with a bunch of young and old Christ enthusiasts.
The Masihi Mandli, Church of North India Chapel in Manali
Throughout the road trip from Shimla to Manali on National Highway 21, River Beas or Vyas kept leading us. We consider ourselves fortunate to have seen the source of River Beas about 2,500 meters above sea level at Snow Point. Once we reached Manali, we saw white water streams beside almost every main road. The streams at the Club House or Van Vihaar are usually crowded. So we decided to go about 3 km away from Manali towards Kullu to find our own personal bliss of a stream. I remember sitting on a white stone for about an hour just listening to the flow of white water. My brother then began splashing water and the spree lasted for another half an hour. We came back with almost wet clothes. All we needed was something warm to drink. That came in the form of a heavenly chai at a nearby dhaba.
River Beas at Snow Point Manali, this is where it originates
Another Gypsy Shack team member had been to Manali only a week before. And much to our surprise and the unexpected turns of Manali - we both had done something that the other hadn’t. Such is the charm of this little town nestled between the snow-capped mountains!