Foreigners on the luxury coach from Delhi to Manali outnumbered Indians 3:1. That, however, wasn’t the curious part. What was unusual was that all the foreigners appeared to know exactly where they were headed. The Indians, on the other hand, yours truly included, exchanged notes about hotels uncertainly.
The first one off the bus was a ponytailed blond with a working-class Manchester accent. Much to the fury of the Australians, Israelis and French who were our co-passengers, he’d speak pidgin English to them as if he expected them not to understand grammatical English. However, I figured out that he’d gotten so used to making himself understood by a nerve-grating mixture of Hindi and ungrammatical English that he couldn’t seem to rid himself of the habit. He got off the bus at a tiny village called Aut, and into a waiting taxi to go deep into the hills of Kulu district, where few tourists venture. His wild, unfocussed eyes and seemingly unquenchable thirst – he kept getting off the bus to buy bottles of mineral water – marked him as one of the couple of hundred foreigners who have made the Kulu Valley their home. No prizes for guessing why, either.
At Manali, the Australian lady went off to her ashram, the Israelis to Old Manali, the French to Johnson’s Café from where their trek to Leh would start the following morning, and the English to John Banon’s Resort for a day of R & R before their cycling trip into Baspa and Sangla the next day. The Indian contingent was nowhere near as energetic. They were all looking for hotels in or around The Mall.
Little did I know, that Himachal Pradesh Roadways coach was a microcosm of tourism in Manali. Dreadlocked Israelis visit Kathmandu-Goa-Manali during fixed periods each year. August-September is their Manali phase. Superbly fit Europeans on summer vacations visit Manali during these two months to trek, motorbike or bicycle to Leh. New Age visitors live permanently or for part of the year in ashrams or in village homes in obscure areas around Manali. And Indians visit during school holidays, Puja, Dussehra, New Year or for honeymoons.
At the start of this summer’s tourist season, there was a blast or three in Jammu and Kashmir. Immediately, the rumour mills ground into action. “The work,” it was whispered in Srinagar, “of the disgruntled tourism cartel in Himachal.” The implication was that if all went well in J & K, perceptibly fewer tourists would visit Manali. That’s certainly a cynical way of looking at militancy and bomb blasts, yet there’s no denying that Manali owes its pre-eminence first to Punjab’s and then Kashmir’s dwindling fortunes.
You can’t really call Manali a hill station, because it lacks the commanding view of Shimla, Naini Tal and Mussoorie for one thing. It nestles in a valley, 40 kms upstream from district headquarters, Kulu. For another, my definition of a hill-station is a place that the British discovered and left their stamp. There’s little of that in Manali, but there are temples, hot springs and walks galore. And at any point of the little town, there are pleasant, if not stunning, views of the hills, deodar forests and valley around.
The Beas River gushes noisily through Manali, separating it into the happening right bank and far quieter left bank. The Mall is, expectedly, on the right bank, with its plethora of shops, hotels and restaurants. For all that, however, there is no single prestigious area for hotels. You can’t argue that the approach road to Manali contains only downmarket hotels: Manali Resort is the obvious exception, situated as it is by the side of the river, absolutely the only hotel to have such a location. You can’t dismiss the Mall as containing only flea bags, because you’d do Johnson’s Café a singular disservice – the most popular garden café in town also has rooms. Not luxurious, it’s true, but the stone floors and cotton dhurries come like a breath of fresh air after the too-florid-to-be-true flourishes of most other hotels. You can’t write off the area known as Log Huts (named after HPTDC’s most famous concept) because amid the concrete jungle there’s Usha Snowcrest Manor. My personal favourite – Banon Resorts – stands in the midst of New Hope Orchards; it stands apart from its neighbours by being built of the local stone and wood, and its design ethic is such that well-travelled Indians would appreciate it as much as westerners would. The other properties – Ambassador Resort, Holiday Inn and Timber Trail – lie on a 6 kilometre axis on the left bank.
There are no horses in Manali, but I was surprised (and relieved) to note that there were three-wheeled scooters that whined steeply uphill like noisy mosquitoes. Taxis too are common, but are expensive: 8 hours and upto 100 kms costs you Rs 1000 plus fuel for the less expensive make of cars. There are Scorpios and Qualises too, but they’re at a premium. Manali is within easy motoring distance of cities in Punjab as well as Delhi, and a high proportion of visitors travel in their own vehicles.
Old-timers swear that in the 1970s, Manali was just a village in the Kulu district. It was composed of a cluster of traditional huts, mud-washed and shingle-roofed. A few kilometers away was the grain market that has now metamorphosed into the Mall. Old Manali is firmly on the tourist circuit: the brand new Manu Temple built on the traditional pattern is located here, and the tumble-down huts of the locals are the favoured lodges of choice for the hundreds of Israelis that visit Manali for months at a stretch.
Where there is a tourist, there is infrastructure, and so, all around the village (but not, fortunately, in it) restaurants, cafes and shops have sprung up, including too-grotty-to-be- true barber shops cum massage parlours. At Riverside Café, I asked the young Tibetan waiter for a plate of falafel that was on the menu. He replied that because it took so long to make, it was no longer being offered, which is as novel an approach to the food and beverage service as any! Instead, what was offered was the roar of the Manalsu tributary below, a tiny garden, lighting in drug-induced colours and blaring trance music. The shops – okay, stalls – that lined the road to old Manali offered everything from aging chocolate croissants to Hare Ram kurtas and silver jewellery.
One difference struck me immediately. Elsewhere in India, you see westerners clutching well-thumbed copies of Lonely Planet. Here, most overseas visitors know much more than the Lonely Planet does, but are unwilling to share their information with anyone else. These long-stayers who visit Manali town periodically to stock up on supplies from Himalayan Stores, the best stocked shop hereabouts, remain permanently hidden in remote villages for months at a stretch. The most visible of them is Angelone Roberta of Il Forno ristorante. Hailing as she does from the city of Naples, the birthplace of pizzas, it’s not surprising that the restaurant, housed in a handsome Kulu structure, has become a mecca for pizza lovers. “People tell me that they come from Kolkata just to eat my pizza.” Certainly, it’s more expeditious to reach Manali than Naples to eat the thinnest crust pizza, redolent with the smoky flavour of wood, that you’ll ever find in India. None of the other places in India, some run by Italians, even come close.
Or perhaps it’s the benevolent gaze of Hadimba Mata whose temple is barely 200 metres up the hill from Il Forno. Temples and festivals in the Kulu Valley bristle with a panoply of gods and deities, but the most important is Hadimba Mata, without whose presence the famous Dussehra celebrations cannot be held. Her temple is in the midst of a dense forest of deodar, and works as much as a pilgrimage as a family picnic. You can walk up the two kilometer stretch of road to the temple; you can drive up and wander around in the forest; you can have your picture taken on a yak, holding an angora rabbit or wearing the traditional shawl-like garment that all elderly women wear with apparent comfort.
A hotelier told me about the powers of Hadimba Mata: she’s granted a child to a family member of his, yet her anger knows no bounds. Locals whisper about the storms that have uprooted gigantic deodars in the forest around her temple because it is feared that the less than savoury practices of a section of foreign tourists have displeased the goddess. And when a chowkidar’s hut near the temple caught fire last year, a frisson of fear passed through the town: of the family of five, four of those who perished in the inferno were female. This year, there’s a sigh of relief though. There has been a bumper apple crop, which means the Mata must be happy.
Look out of any window, and before you spy the river, hills or fir trees, you’ll see apple trees. A modest sized garden accommodates between 20 to 50 trees, and that in turn means anywhere between Rs 50,000 to Rs 2,00,000 annual income for the owners. That’s the reason that you’ll hardly ever see locals employed in the tourist trade: most of them are too busy with their orchards.
The other temple in Manali is at Vashisht, and is more famous for its hot sulphur springs rather than for its stone and carved wood new buildings. I found the eggy smell of the sulphur rather overpowering, but seemed to be in the minority: queues of devotees and westerners clutching Body Shop shampoo waited in line for five minutes under the hot water spouts.
Within the first fifteen minutes of my arrival in Manali, the sheer number of locals who enquired politely whether I’d be going to Rohtang Pass to see the snow took me aback. The receptionist of the hotel, the room boy who made my bed, the taxi driver and the newspaper vendor all asked the same thing. It was then that I realized that most of our countrymen journey to Manali on a one-point agenda – to see snow. I <I>did<I> want to do the drive to Rohtang Pass, not, I hasten to add, to see snow, but for a glimpse of the Lahaul Valley that is supposed to be spectacular. However, the weather gods were not on my side, so I went to Naggar instead, and saw the Roerich Art Gallery, high up enough on the crest of a hill for an enjoyable view of the surroundings.
Just as you can, if so determined, rush around Manali in one afternoon, you can whiz in and out of Naggar in an hour. Of course, you won’t have time to do more than squint into the glass panes at the living spaces of Nicholas Roerich and Devika Rani, and torpedo in and out of the charming old Naggar Castle, now an HPTDC hotel. You certainly won’t be able to walk along village paths and admire valley-floor views, or go to one of the loveliest shops in the area: Aditya Selection Point, crammed with Kulu and Kinnaur shawls. Don’t ask me the difference – both have brightly coloured borders based on square motifs, and both usually make use of bright reds and screaming pinks. Aditya Selection Point, operates like an NGO – it provides employment to dozens of women, two of whom are at work on looms in the shop itself. I found the widest variety of colours and quality of wools. You could get a drab grey shawl made from coarse wool with a shocking pink border for less than Rs 1,000, or a soft pashmina shawl in earth tones, with a coordinated border for six times that much.
Manali is emphatically not only about going to see snow. It is the base for rafting, paragliding, entry-level skiing and ballooning. You can trek into the surrounding valleys, rough it out in a 4-wheel drive to Leh, spend a whole day with a book amidst pine trees, shop for Kulu shawls and silver jewellery, or take an all-day sedate sight-seeing trip. And if none of the above appeal, you can even squeal in the snow.