Leaving Manali

Me and my Yak

Me and my Yak
Me and my Yak
Sunday 27th March 2011

Planning the next stage of the trip from Old Manali
Planning the next stage of the trip from Old Manali

Well there’s not a lot to report about yesterday (Sunday) except to say how sorry I am that I left the peace and calm of Old Manali to be writing this in the Ajay Cafe – a little haven from the heat and chaos of Paharganj in New Delhi.

I took the night bus to Chandigarh last night – leaving at 19:30 and arriving at 05:30.  At least it arrived in a bus station – apparently there are several and this is the Sector 43 bus station which roughly translated means in the middle of nowhere.  I had no choice but to take a rickshaw – there were no other means of transport at 5:30 this morning – and very glad I was to be leaving Chandigarh, which roughly translated means Milton Keynes, so soon after arriving.  But more of that later – on the Monday page!

After the routine late breakfast I wandered around town for a couple of hours in the afternoon, had lunch and a shave (oops – I just saw this stranger in a mirror in bad need of a tidy up so I treated him to a 40/- shave in Old Manali!) and then sat in the late afternoon sunshine at the Guest House before walking slowly back down to Manali for the last time, but not without going to say goodbye to my Yak. Im not sure how much it will cost to have it delivered to Newbury though so this could be a last farewell.

Stopped at Johnsons for a last chance of a hot spiced apple juice and a pizza, then took my place on the Semi-Delux A/C bus.  At least this meant getting a seat to myself, even if my neighbour kept encroaching on it.

This is the first night bus I have taken for a while and it was certainly a good idea to get out of the mountains overnight.  We retraced the route through to Mandi where we stopped at 11pm at a roadside restaurant who had laid of a special Bus Meal for 120 rupees.  Had I known, I wouldnt have eaten earlier, as this meal looked very good value – self service all freshly cooked specially for our arrival.  It is very notable that the 7 hour trip from Mandi to Manali in local buses took only 3.5 hours on the non stop version.

Its impossible to say how much sleep I got on this bumpiest of bumpy rides – but it can be measured in minutes, not hours.  Every now and then the bus stopped at an unlit bus station for a few minutes, and once we even pulled in to the roadside for 15 minutes.  The descent from Mandi was another stunning road and I can remember the final descent to the flat plains which was very unusal as suddenly the mountains had gone and we could see for miles.

I hate to think how busy this part of the road gets in daytime as through the night we were nose to tail all the way down and so it confirmed what I good idea to do this at night had been.

The rest of the trip was uneventful – the driver who drove us all the way for over ten hours was actually one of the best I’ve had so far and the final 40 km or so was over very quickly on what amounts to a toll motorway – at least in part – quite unusual for India.

So back to Delhi – right now I wish I was back up in the lovely peaceful Kullu Valley!

Old and New Manali

Friday 25th March 2011

Today I decided to stay in one place – well almost.  Superb breakfast in the early morning sunshine set me up for some walking but first caught up with some photo uploading, which I have been unable to do all week.  The guys at the hotel are now getting a bit suspicious that I am using their internet a bit above their normal expecations, but it is the first fast connection all week.

[singlepic id=59 w=320 h=240 float=left]It was a lovely hot morning with a gentle breeze – perfect for trekking, so I took the steep track down the hillside from the hotel, expecting to be able to cross the Beas valley to the village on the other side of the valley, Vashisht.  The walk along the left bank was lovely, but the promised bridge never materialised and so reluctantly I turned round after a mile or so, to head back to the bridge at Old Manali.

[singlepic id=57 w=320 h=240 float=left]Across the valley must be the hospital and I was both alarmed and assured by the appearance of an air ambulance helicopter who made an expert manoeuvre, obviously very well practiced, as it approached at high speed down the valley and turned to land within seconds – a very efficient way of being rescued.  It is still serious snowy conditions only five miles up this valley, and the Rhotang Pass carrying the fabled Manali to Leh road will remain closed until June, which seems quite incredible here in this 30 degree heat.

So although I never got to Vashisht to see the hot springs, it was still a very pleasant few hours walking.  At the bridge I climbed further up the hill and followed the road to the Hadamba Temple which turned out to be very popular.  As it is a major tourist attraction old ladies clutching photos of gods latched onto any Indian tourists, and many were also holding  huge Angora Rabbits which were available for photo opportunities, and seemed overall to be in very good condition with their incredible fluiffy white fur.

[singlepic id=64 w=320 h=240 float=left]But todays star performers were the Yaks – two of them available for photos in the saddle and very popular with the local honeymooners.  I had heard that Manali is Indias number one honeymoon destination and had this confirmed when I got involved in being photographed with the groom of one party.  Indians just love to have their picture taken with a white person, so today I came in joint second place with the rabbits, but the Yaks are just so peaceful and beautiful that they must remain todays number one photographic subject.  I want one!

[singlepic id=65 w=320 h=240 float=left]The Rough Guide recommended a nearby restaurant, Il Forno, for their italian quality pizzas but when I got there it was still closed for the winter – as are so many of the places around here.  I would definitely return for the view alone though.  Further down in town Manali was still uninteresting and with pizza on the brain I went back to Johnsons and had an amazingly good wood fired pizza and another hot spiced apple juice.  This place is exceptional by anyone’s standards!

[singlepic id=70 w=320 h=240 float=left]In the heat of the afternoon sun I imagined the 2 km walk back to Old Manali, especially after all the walking I had already done today, would be hard work but in fact it seemed quite a breeze.  So much so that when I got up the hill to the hotel I kept going and headed right out of town on the trekking route to the next village spurred on by the amazing views in the late afternoon.

The village was even more interesting without the distraction of carrying my bag and as expected the locals simply ignore the intrusion, which they are obviously so accustomed to – the season hasnt really started yet but it must have a huge impact on their lives when the summer invasion of western tourist with their music and Enfields roaring all night.  Even now there are a few bikes roaring around but there are sheds full of Enfields ready to unleash any week now.

[singlepic id=69 w=320 h=240 float=left]I returned to watch the sunset over the mountains from the hotel, took advantage of the good broadband to skype home and then sat down in the hotel restaurant, where I still am, for a very good and exceptionally filling meal.

The end of another lovely day and the start of my last week, although it has dawned on me that I am not compelled to return on the flight which I have booked, such is the benefit of travelling with a scheduled airline!  Having said that, I probably will but if anything comes up in the next few days which requires a little flexibitily, then I may take advantage!

Good night for now though.

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Naggar to Manali (Old Manali)

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.