Of Manali's Safe Haven

21st Dec 2018
Photo of Of Manali's Safe Haven by Sharangee Dutta

One of the major milestones in a relationship is going on your first vacation together. From facing challenges together to making many ‘first memories’ as a team, the experience only has good things in store.

Recently, my boyfriend and I celebrated this milestone in our relationship. After dating for more than a year, we thought…at least I knew I did that a trip is mandatory. We had several destinations in mind and it was a tough game to beat a myriad of choices. However, after almost being sure of going to McLeod Ganj, we randomly picked Manali and booked our bus tickets as well. It was as quick as the sentence reads!

Given we live in Delhi, it was easy to get good bus deals. We spent around Rs.6660 for our tickets from Delhi to Manali and vice-versa. Our friends had suggested to opt for hostels as they are not only cheaper but have fun activities to offer; hence we opted for a backpacker’s inn – Bro’s Hostel.

Thanks to my busy work schedules, we could manage to scoop out 3 days and 2 nights for our first trip together. However, it certainly didn’t ruin our excitement.

We started on 21st December 2018, which was a Friday. Our bus departed from Majnu Ka Tilla at 9.05 p.m. – and when I say 9.05, I mean sharp at 9.05 p.m. My boyfriend had given the idea of having a scrumptious dinner at one of the eateries in Majnu Ka Tilla. I was quite thrilled about gorging on good food but thanks to the mad traffic near Red Fort, I had to make do with some roadside chicken momos.

The inside of the bus was oh-so-comfortable and as soon as we sat on our respective seats, we couldn’t stop giggling at each other. My boyfriend, Abhijit, constantly checked the temperature in Manali and my heart literally pounced against its walls in excitement.

Photo of Majnu Ka Tilla, Nehru Vihar, Delhi by Sharangee Dutta
Day 1

Past midnight, the bus stopped in Kurukshetra for dinner. We devoured North-Indian delicacies, which quite frankly we are tired eating of and headed to our bus – all within 30 minutes. At this time, the bus helper handed all the passengers a plastic bag. Baffled, I asked him the reason and he replied, “In case you feel pukish.” Now, this was a sign that the rocky, mountain roads will commence soon. I had taken an anti-vomit pill when the bus left Delhi and decided that the best way to avoid any mess is to fall asleep.

Photo of Kurukshetra, Haryana, India by Sharangee Dutta
Day 2

Cut to the chase, the bus stopped at 7.00 a.m. again at Pandoh Dam in Himachal Pradesh. Yes, we finally reached the pristine state. The helper informed us that we have 20 minutes to finish our breakfast. I didn’t pay any attention to the time limit and was only busy breathing in the overwhelming beauty that lay before my eyes: Beas river.

Photo of Pandoh, Himachal Pradesh, India by Sharangee Dutta

It was a breathtaking sight to behold and the shivering cold only made it better. I ate cheese sandwich and Abhijit gulped down egg Maggi. We still had around 10 mins in hand and we spent that time discussing how many more clothes we should have worn. It was 3 degree Celsius.

The route after Pandoh took us more and more inside Himachal. We were getting more and better views of the snow-clad Himalayas in the far and the cold was only escalating. Two passengers got down in Kullu and it took us another 15-20 minutes from there to reach Manali river side where all the buses halt.

When I stepped my feet on the road, my shoe got covered in mud. I reckoned that it must have rained the previous night. The weather was pleasant and the cold still felt bearable. Soon, we were surrounded by screaming drivers who asked us the name of our hotel. We were unsure if they’d be aware of a hostel, so we told them about Manu Temple – the landmark.

As Indians and especially as two Bengalis from Kolkata, we couldn’t give up our awesome bargaining skills. Hence, we convinced a driver to drop us at our hostel in Rs.300. He had initially demanded Rs.400. Score!

The journey uphill was amazing in every sense of the word. The road adjoining to Beas river brought a certain sense of serenity in my mind. My eyes were locked at the sight of the river current flowing over the small rocks. The river bank was lined up with pine trees that created a picture straight out of a painter’s canvas.

As our car got deeper into Manali, the snow-capped mountains looked closer to us. Our hostel was in Old Manali, which required us to pass through the famous Mall Road. I asked the driver when exactly does it start snowing in Manali, and he said, “After New Year.” It did break my heart but what he said soon after cheered me up. “The nearby places are seeing heavy snowfall and this year it started snowing early,” he added.

I looked at Abhijit and flashed him a massive grin.

After crossing Mall Road, the road became steeper. We passed by many iconic cafes of the town, including Café 1947 and Drifter’s Inn & Café. Manu Temple wasn’t far from Drifter’s and the entire stretch was enclosed by the towering Himalayas.

Our car dropped us at a point near Manu Temple from where we walked for another 5 minutes to reach our hostel. The hostel was three-storied and had beautiful plants decorating its courtyard. From the walls to the reception desk, everything had cool posters and paintings. I stopped to look around and witnessed the mountains glimmering at me. The sun shone on the snowy peaks, making them even more beautiful.

“Hey, I am Apoorv,” a dark-skinned and deep brown-eyed boy said. I turned around to see a lean but fairly tall guy standing before me. He introduced himself as one of the owners of the hostel. “Now is the off-season so the owners who are all either travellers or artists are running the place,” Apoorv added.

We had paid him 50% of the amount for 2 days beforehand, which was Rs. 1343. The remaining was needed to be paid at the time of check-out. He showed us our personal room with the name ‘Kothi’. The room was quite cosy and in sync with my OCD-likes.

We spent less time to freshen up and headed for lunch. We walked down the hill and stopped by in many corners to take a snap of the Himalayas. The area around our hostel was filled with locals’ houses. These homes were made of wood and were built by the locals themselves.

Our first café pick was Café 1947. We entered to a somewhat warm atmosphere of the cafe, but with Beas flowing right beside it, I suggested that we sit outside. Although I enjoyed the view, the cold wave literally bit my bones. It didn’t matter how problematic it was for me to use my phone with the gloves on, there was no way I could take them off.

Photo of Cafe 1947, Manali, Himachal Pradesh, India by Sharangee Dutta

For lunch, we ordered a pan-fried pizza with chicken, ham and veggies as toppings. I opted for hot chocolate and Abhijit went for his unmissable lime-soda. We also ordered pan-flavoured hookah and it was oh-so-amazing. The gushing sounds of Beas along with the enormous mountains around simply created a mind-blowing environment, and ignited my appetite as well.

The food came fast and looked quite appealing. The hot chocolate wasn’t drool worthy and tasted more like Bournvita, but I am not complaining. Post-lunch, our bellies were heavy and it had got even colder. We started walking with the plan to go to the hostel and take rest for some time. However, Manali’s roads aren’t so friendly. The sharp steepness of the trails made us hanker for breath. In fact, my heartbeats raced up so much that I thought I will pass out any moment. After catching some breath, we force-walked up the hill with every energy of our bodies and finally reached our hostel.

For the next few hours, we slept like little babies. It wasn’t our plan to sleep for so long, but when we woke up it was around 6 p.m. Our plan to see Hadimba Temple was certainly ruined, so we headed to the Mall Road.

We looked like miniature hulks with uncountable layers of clothes on us. The walk from Manu temple to Mall road is 3km. We walked past a public park that with its tall trees had an eerie sense to it. Once we reached the Mall road, it seemed like another place in Hauz Khas in Delhi. The place was highly commercialised and even had food corners selling typical North-Indian dishes. We kept looking the various nooks of the market in search of some authenticity. Unfortunately, other than the handicrafts and souvenir shops, there was none.

Photo of Mall Road, Manali, Himachal Pradesh by Sharangee Dutta

We enjoyed softy and brought gifts for our friends and family back home. The thought of yet another breathless walk tired us; hence we paid Rs.80 for an auto from Mall road till Café 1947. We walked till Drifter’s Inn & Café and went in to have dinner.

The place had fresh and young vibes with an in-house DJ playing music while sipping on a beer. We ordered continental dishes and got busy playing “Guess the word.” The food arrived in no time and it was absolutely mouth-watering – every bit of it. The quantity was not overwhelming and the taste was unforgettable. It cost us Rs.950 that we thought was cheaper.

At night, we sat on a wooden sofa outside our room and basked in the beauty of the mountains around. You don’t get to witness such views in cities and at that moment, the calmness of the sight offered me a much-needed relief.

Abhijit reminded me that we had plans to play poker with Apoorv and other guys that the latter had informed us when we checked-in in the morning. However, when we went upstairs to the cafeteria, we saw Apoorv and another friend of his warming up before a tandoor. Initially we were sceptical about joining them but at Apoorv’s request, we gave it a try.

I have to say that it was worth a try!

Apoorv made us two great pegs of Old Monk and kept us hooked on to his wild travel stories. His friend who quit his Civil Engineering job to travel, added more spice to the session. We added our shares as well – my hostel stories from Bangalore, travel stories from childhood and what not. Evidently, how it was 2 a.m. we didn’t understand. Sadly, we came back to our rooms as we had a big day planned the next day.

23rd December – Escape to the enthralling Solang Valley

We woke up at office time on a Sunday in Manali and got ready to head out to see snow. Our driver who was sent by the one who drove us from Manali river side to our hostel the day before, arrived on time. We packed our leather gloves and an extra jacket to not get frozen.

“Let’s have breakfast in a different café today,” I suggested to Abhijit. He nodded in approval and informed the same to our driver. We stopped by Rendez-vous Bar & Café that had a lovely setting with an open-seating arrangement.

Day 3

Being an avid fan of English breakfast, my boyfriend ordered one and I went for my comfort food – grilled chicken sandwich, and not to forget coffee because what are mornings without this magic drink? We had very little time in our hands as our driver, Baldev, had already warned us of bad traffic en route to Solang. Thankfully, the food came fast. They looked tempting and made me salivate instantly. Once again, I was overjoyed at their spot-on assumption of the right amount of food I can devour. Abhijit, however, found his favourite breakfast a little too much, and couldn’t manage to finish one piece of chicken sausage. The entire breakfast cost us both Rs.600.

Photo of Rendez-Vous, Old Manali, Manali, Himachal Pradesh, India by Sharangee Dutta

Post-breakfast, we spent the next 1 hour stuck in annoying traffic that moved in a tortoise’s speed till Mall Road. The road from there was a classic mountain-cut one and it definitely surmounted me. The gorgeous Himalayas and the pulsating Beas accompanied us as we got closer and closer to Solang. In fact, this is one great thing about Manali that Beas will follow you in an eccentric way no matter where you go till the point you get used to its hum.

When Solang was only a few km away, our driver recommended that we hire jackets and special snow shoes from a shop around. We got down to a string of shops, offering full-body jackets, snow socks, shoes and skiing – all in one package for 2 people in Rs.2000. The idea of skiing thrilled us and we bought the package, but of course with a catch. We bargained even there and got it for Rs.1800.

The path leading to Solang was filled with even more traffic. After one point, our driver asked us to get down and walk to the snow point with our ski-guide. A cute Himachali man smiled at us and we began walking with him. After another point, a different and younger guy introduced himself as our ski-guide and took us down to a massive snow-filled plain, also known as Solang Snow Point.

The place was overcrowded and slippery as well. However, the view that enclosed us was magnificent. Anywhere I laid my eyes, I could see snow. The place had several activities going on at the same time - skiing, snow-gliding, paragliding and even zip-lining. We stuck to skiing and I was the first one to go. The guide held me from the back and ran along with me as I skied down, but that was just it. Our skiing experience was nothing like the Instagram videos of Nick Jonas and Joe Jonas, and we were ski-playing like a kid. When Abhijit’s turn came, he kicked off his skiing session by tumbling over. Both the guide and I couldn’t stop laughing. The guide was quite intrigued with our language, and asked us what language we were talking in When we said, “Bengali,” he looked even more intrigued.

We had booked the entire day solely for Solang Valley; hence we decided to explore the surrounding areas as well. We began our expedition by crossing heaps of snow and watching people snow-glide and zip-line. Then, we moved to the other side and came before Beas again. “It’s even here!” Abhijit exclaimed.

Photo of Of Manali's Safe Haven by Sharangee Dutta

Time flew by in a blink of an eye, and we realised that we should head back lest it gets too cold and dark. After sipping on hot coffee, we called our driver and were en route to Old Manali again.

In the evening, we decided to café-hop. We started with Café Kathmandu where we ate chicken spring rolls and Tibetan chicken momos. The food was average and had no novelty from the steamed momos we get in Delhi.

Our next stop was Café Melange. We ordered lemon and coriander soup and Nutella pancakes there. Similar to Drifter’s Inn & Café, this place also had many indoor games’ options. We played Ludo and listened to a guy sing his renditions of Bollywood classic hits. He played the guitar and sang while his brother handled the drums.

Our next stop was People Art Café. This place stole my heart. Managed by North-east Indians, the ambience was magical. One guy played the mouth organ, the guitar and sang simultaneously. This was undoubtedly the best live music I have experienced in a pub till date. People sat circling a tandoor in the middle of the café and it appeared as if they were a part of a round table conference. The table decorations were romantic, elegant and intimate. We decided to end our café hopping with the local favourite – Trout fish and chips. As Bengalis, we couldn’t resist trying a fish dish. However, for starters we tried chicken soup that simply prepared our hungry stomachs for the grand Trout fish.

Photo of People ART Cafe, Old Manali, Manali, Himachal Pradesh, India by Sharangee Dutta
Photo of People ART Cafe, Old Manali, Manali, Himachal Pradesh, India by Sharangee Dutta

The fish as we didn’t expect, tasted delicious. Everything about the dish – from the crispy texture of the batter to the dip, tasted amazing. I remember closing my eyes and letting the taste take me to a whole new world.

As darkness cast down, people flocked the café more. Everyone was fascinated by the musician who sang his heart out. I recorded a video of him in my mobile. When the clock struck 10 p.m. we left for our hostel. It was freezing cold when we stepped out and we had to move our fingers and lips to save them from getting frostbites. The temperature had dropped down to -5 degree Celsius.

We rushed back to the hostel, combating racing heartbeats and numb legs. Once inside our room, we planned to play Monopoly cards and open the wine bottle we had brought the day before. The window in our room gave us a nice sneak-peek of the mountains and I wondered what it would like to be at those points right now.

Photo of Of Manali's Safe Haven by Sharangee Dutta

24th December – End of a fairy tale

I don’t remember when we fell asleep, but I remember wake up shivering in cold. It was our last day in Manali and we had to get ready to finish our last sightseeing adventures. Our driver had arrived at 9.30 a.m. We packed our bags and summoned Apoorv to pay him the remaining of the staying costs. We paid him Rs.1350 more, which means that for each day the hostel fee was Rs. 1347. Given the alluring view of the Himalayas and his crazy travel stories and not to forget, the great peg he made for us, we were pretty satisfied.

We hopped on our car and asked Baldev to stop by a café like yesterday for breakfast. However, he insisted that we eat something en route as traffic is bad all around Manali due to road constructions. Reluctant, we agreed anyway.

Day 4

When we reached Naggar district, Baldev halted outside a café namely Fat Plate Café that serves Indian and continental dishes. “Zyada mat khana, thoda thoda hein khana. Local dish khana hain na?” (Don’t eat much, eat lesser amounts only. You do want to eat local dish, right?) Baldev smiled at us. “Sure! We will keep our appetite intact,” Abhijit and I replied, nodding.

Photo of Fat Plate, Naggar Road, Shuru, Manali, Himachal Pradesh, India by Sharangee Dutta

The café looked like a set of a 70s Bollywood movie. The décor was chic and had vibrant prints as well. The arrangement of the sofas and chairs both inside and outside in the garden was apt to render a young vibe to the place. Overlooking the Himalayas, the place resembled one in Switzerland. I ate aloo parantha and Abhijit got his favourite, English breakfast.

Following our breakfast, we embarked upon a gorgeous journey. The path leading to our destination – Jana Waterfalls, was deadly but equally bewitching. As we got higher and higher the mountains, the untouched beauty of Himachal unfolded before our eyes. We could sense the purity of the town in the air that we breathed in – free of any pollution.

Photo of Of Manali's Safe Haven by Sharangee Dutta

We passed by local neighbourhoods and got a glance of the daily lives of Himachali people. Baldev showed us the school of Prini village that we passed through and said that every village has only one school. We saw kids getting off school buses and climbing up mountains to reach their homes. Old men and women with baskets at their back caught our sight. They were returning from the mountains after collecting hay for their cows. “They are storing basic requirements. From January till March, these roads get blocked and they stay at home for 3 months,” Baldev said. “Why?” I asked. “Snowfall hota hain madam ji,” (It snows madam) he answered.

Photo of Of Manali's Safe Haven by Sharangee Dutta

I looked at my boyfriend in astonishment. “3 months staying at home and not going anywhere!” I thought to myself. “What if there is an emergency? What if someone gets sick?” I asked, inquisitive. “Then we carry them on our backs and climb down the mountains. Only we, the locals can do that,” Baldev smiled. I looked at him, aghast.

After fighting extremely steeper roads, we finally reached Jana waterfalls. It was not a breathtaking site but again, the mountains around bowled us over. I looked around and saw cars moving way down the roads, looking like toy cars. Many food corners lined up the trail beside the falls. Baldev said that this is where we could get authentic Himachali thali. I got supremely thrilled and ordered a thali. It had brown rice, rajma, makkhi ki roti, sarso ka saag, siddhu (a local dish), dal and kheer. This platter was better than any of the high-profile dishes we had had in the cafes the previous night. Also, the quantity was perfect for two people. Believe it or not, it cost us only Rs.150.

Photo of Of Manali's Safe Haven by Sharangee Dutta

Our next destination was Nicholas Roerich’s Art Gallery in Kullu. While going down, we had become used to the roads and focused on enjoying the views even more. The gallery wasn’t far and we reached the place in another 20-25 minutes.

The location of the gallery was stunning and the paintings by Nicholas Roerich and his two sons enhanced our experience. He was a Russian artist who had later settled in Kullu with his wife and two sons. The Himalayas looked different from various corners of the gallery, but beautiful in all forms.

Photo of Nicholas Roerich Art Gallery, Kullu, Himachal Pradesh, India by Sharangee Dutta

For our last stop, we went to Naggar Castle that belonged to the King of Kullu. It’s a wooden castle and is strategically located right in the middle of Kullu with all the houses around. The balconies and the garden of the castle offers a fantastic view of the Himalayas. A part of the castle has been turned into a restaurant cum hotel; hence you aren’t allowed to enter the area that belongs to the guests. However, you are more than welcome to dine at the restaurant.

Following our last adventure, we got us some coffee and was on our way to the river side again. It was our time to catch the bus back to Delhi. Baldev took a shortcut to reach the river side faster and it was yet again deadly. However, by then we had built our trust on his driving skills.

Photo of Naggar Castle & Hotel Naggar Castle, Himachal Pradesh, Naggar Castle Road, Naggar, Himachal Pradesh, India by Sharangee Dutta

Once we reached the site and found our bus, we paid him Rs.2200 for the sightseeing and wished him good luck. “Wapas aayenge toh call karna sir,” (When you visit again, do give me a call) he said. “Of course, we will,” Abhijit and I smiled in sync.

We submitted our suitcase to the bus helper and went to a nearby hotel to use the washroom. While walking back to the bus, we could feel the temperature drop vigorously. “Check what’s the temperature now,” I said. Abhijit replied, “-3 degree Celsius." “No wonder, I am quivering,” I said.

We hopped on the bus just in time for it to depart. As the engine started and the helper asked if everyone has boarded, I looked at the Beas river. Although it was dark, the whizzing sound of its currents justified its mighty presence. I closed my eyes and reminisced this wonderful trip we had. My heart was laden with grief and I wanted to stay more, but isn’t all good things meant to come to an end?

Photo of Manali Bus Depot, Manali, Himachal Pradesh, India by Sharangee Dutta

I guess they are!

Manali turned our milestone into a memorable asset. Some day we will get married, and go on many more trips together and make many more memories but our ‘first will always be our first.’

Till next time, Manali! Adios

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