Thursday 24th March 2011
[singlepic id=9 w=320 h=240 float=left]Looking forward to breakfast this morning I was greeted by the host and shown to a table on the balcony where the menu was already in place. He put on an apron and returned with the order book. Cheese omelette – no cheese. OK plain omelette. Sorry not possible. Pancake? This will take much time. OK toast. Toast with honey?
30 minutes later four slices of dry toast arrived and the tiniest scraping of honey you could imagine, just enough to cover the bottom of a little dish. It’s not like cheese, eggs and honey are unavailable – there are shops here! Nevertheless I thanked him and worked out a way to cover four slices with approximately 1 gram of honey per slice.
The Rough Guide describes this as an excellent restaurant – but of course I’m probably the first guest all year, so I forgive them on this occasion.
Suitably refreshed (hmmm) I took a walk up the hill and discovered the Roerisch Museum – a new name to me in art, but apparently Nicholas Roerisch was quite a well known explorer, author, peace campaigner and artist from the 1920s when his travel journals cover an exploration of India, right through the North West frontier into Tibet and Mongolia. I read some snippets from his log, describing how they had to draw in the as yet unknown mountain ranges on their map as they discovered them. All very humbling as my trip is quite the opposite – simply a tourist on the tourist trail.
The Museum in his old house was a delight. “Maximum 20 persons danger of building collapse”, said the signs on the staircase. Outside an ancient car stood in its garage – what a wonderful life he must have had here with a view from his garden over the valley to the mountains on the other side and the excitement of travelling to undiscovered very foreign lands. His paintings were very interesting too, but disappointingly small – I guess he did them on the road during his travels and so kept them portable. I didn’t have time to get to grips with the other members of his family – poet and philosopher. So shallow I am.
So I parted with 300 rupees for a dvd showing his works of art with soothing background music – a bit of a steep price but it’s the first souvenir I’ve bought for ages and I felt I may get in the mood for more, plus the fact that it is likely to be unobtainable anywhere else.
Back down the hill again I checked out and made the 10 minute walk back to Naggar Chowk and the bus stop where a little green bus was getting ready to depart. I jumped on and it crawled along picking up random people every few seconds. Obviously everyone knew it wasn’t due to leave yet and calmly carried on what they were doing until it got close enough for them to get on.
The road ahead was of course very twisty through tiny villages – much more interesting than the more main road on the left bank yesterday, and true to form the driver suddenly changed from a careful and considerate one into a monster almost running down a pack of mules which were taking the full width of the road.
Thanks to the last minute burst of speed we were soon entering Manali – surprised to pass the Holiday Inn – but this was an indication of the type of town Manali has become. I’m afraid to say after much planning and excitement, Manali turned out to be a bit of a let down. The mountains are the star of the show, but from the town they can’t be seen in their full glory. The bus station leads directly onto the main street – The Mall – which is traffic free and relatively clean by Indian standards – full of holiday makers passing the time of day. It is lined with restaurants and hotels of all types, with ice cream and popcorn, scary clowns and a Charlie Chaplin who hadn’t quite got his act together yet – but to all intents this is just a miniature Blackpool in the mountains.
I was starving so had a pretty good breakfast and a quick email check torn between going up to Old Manali or Vashisht on opposite sides of the valley.
[singlepic id=10 w=320 h=240 float=left]I took a rickshaw to Old Manali as it seemed to be a long way – 50 rupees – but this only carried me as far as the bridge over the river. I was beginning to think I had failed the rickshaw test again, but this seems to be about the going rate – roughly half the official taxi charge for the same trip. I began to walk up the hill looking for landmarks from the Rough Guide and it got steeper and steeper. I seemed to be coping better than yesterday, although it got steeper and steeper and rather concerningly it appeared to be a non-descript concrete dump on a steep hill – evidence of travellers shops with stripy trousers and embroidered hats but nothing of any great interest.
[singlepic id=11 w=320 h=240 float=left]I had chosen three places from the book which sounded like possible places to stay but as always after locating the first I decided to continue in case there was a better one. To cut a long story short I couldn’t find it, and ended up on a path out of town. Well out of town – and very steep indeed as it followed the valley side. With the bag on my shoulder I was almost out into trecking territory before I realised I was not going to find it and suddenly I realised what an incredibly beautiful part of the world I was in again. The scenery is magnificent and the buildings in the upper and centre parts of Old Manali are scenes from medieval times. Locals in their distinctive costumes tending to their cattle, weaving, washing, spinning wool – all totally ignoring the white guy with a bag on his shoulder and a book in his hand. I’m sure they are quite accustomed to it now. I had probably walked about 2 km from the bridge by now and was getting quite ready to get rid of the luggage again.
I checked in to the Dragon guest house – and got a lovely room for 600 rupees (I bartered it down from 700 very easily so could probably have got it for a good deal less).
The rest of the afternoon I spent walking back to Manali and trying to find something nice to say about it – but I can’t. The so called Model Town behind the Mall is such a dump that words fail me – filthy hotels and dhabas galore, but so dirty even by Indian standards. So the only thing of any interest is the Mall, as far as I can see. I treated myself to an Ice Cream Float in a very interesting and clean shop in which all the food and drinks were based on honey. Mine was a fizzy mint drink with a pool of honey in the bottom of the glass, an ice cube and a straw. Where is the ice cream? I was handed the straw which had been on my plate. Where is the ice cream please? Yes. The manager came running over. Did you want it with ice cream – I explained that when it said an ice cream float with honey ice cream, I had kind of expected it, so my drink was taken away and returned with the necessary additional ball of ice cream. Very odd. The papers were full of doom and gloom so I didn’t read too much detail, and the cricket semi finals were on the television – I still can’t remember who is playing today! But the honey idea is actually rather good – they even have chips with a honey dip and a whole range of take away honey too – a new brand in the making perhaps?
Finally to end the day I gave in to temptation and went into Johnsons, the rather swishy and quite attractive timber built hotel which seems to be the place to be seen. I ordered a hot home made apple juice with spices and mint and it was superb – a huge steaming glass of deliciously spiced juice. So nice that I decided to eat dinner there despite the higher prices than I would normally pay but treated myself to an wood oven baked trout, fresh from the river, with almond sauce which again was totally beyond my expectations although on reflection I think for five pounds it should have been good when this would pay for a dozen cheap meals down in the Model Town.
By now it was dark as I overheard a very stressed German businessman phoning his colleagues and complaining how hard he was having to work to get his company organised, and casually mentioned that two of his workers had died in an avalanche yesterday. It sure is a hard country.
In darkness I walked back up the road to Old Manali – its not such a bad walk at all, and finished the night in our local restaurant in the hotel with banana and chocolate crepes with a glass of ginger honey and lemon tea. It has a great atmosphere and lovely people running it – I think I quite like Manali after all, but only the Old town.