Our little trip to the most scenic state – Himachal Pradesh

Old Manali
View from Old Manali

When I was in school, I would collect scenic postcards sent to my friends from their aunts, uncles, cousins holidaying or staying in distant countries, most of which came from Europe. The intention behind this was simple – to build a rich collection of sceneries  – seascapes, cityscapes, mountain-views – so I could paint them at leisure.

The scenes from the postcards somehow managed to turn into a pleasant memory deep in my mind, although, over the years of growing up and shifting homes, etc. I lost the postcards! But, our world has been blessed with Instagram now – every scenic picture (no matter what part of the globe) is just an insta click away!

Last December, me and the Mister happened to vacation at Himachal Pradesh, and the experience was uncannily similar to the postcard memories in my mind. Snow-capped mountains that reflected the colours of the sky – whites and blues during the day, pinks, yellows and vermilion hues at sunset. The deodar and pine trees helped add the earthy greens and browns to the picture-perfect views. No wonder then that the state of Himachal (Sanskrit name for snow-mountain) is also called as ‘Devbhumi‘ or ‘Abode of the Gods’.

Wherever we went, little homes and cottages dotted the hills, as the townsfolk went about lazily in their dreamy world, undeterred by the chilling weather, or bothered by travellers like us (especially me) starring at them in stark disbelief.

Here I was – chilled to the bone, praying to the Sun God and there they were – school kids with rose-blushed cheeks merrily dressed in their slick uniforms, men and women going about their everyday chores, with just a little in the name of warm clothing. The local fauna too – the dogs, goats, buffaloes, sheep and yaks roamed around like it was their business in the hills.

For a city-bred woman for whom adventure meant getting into a fast Mumbai local and being able to successfully alight (read: in one piece) at the desired destination, I knew I had a lot of learning (or rather unlearning) to do!

Solang Valley
On the way down Solang Valley

Our journey commenced from Old Manali – which we promptly reached in the early hours after a night’s travel in a bus from Delhi. (there are many state transport and private buses plying from Delhi to Manali from Kashmiri Gate).

Old Manali is the quaint hill town one would prefer to stay at, if the idea is to mingle around with the local folks or just observe their days and nights, and not to be confused with New Manali (only a few kms apart) marked with distinct tourist-y crowds – the loud, selfie-obsessed, littering-types. While Old Manali attracts the backpackers looking to connect with themselves, New Manali is for those Indian families looking to cross off their ‘Manali’ holiday from the list of 50 must-do Indian tourist spots.

Anyways, we stayed a few days in the guesthouses at Old Manali as we visited the must-see attractions during the day – Hadimba temple, Vashisht temple and hot water springs, Jogini waterfalls, and Mall Road. And, how can I forget Solang Valley – the most scenic place with adventure sports like paragliding, parachuting, skiing, etc.

The guesthouses in Old Manali offer a comfy stay with decent wi-fi, expect many foreigners, hippie joints, and cafes catering to all kinds of cuisine. A special mention needs to be made about The English Bakery that offers lovingly-baked cinnamon cakes, apple pies, carrot cakes, hot coffee and the likes.

Hadimba temple
Hadimba temple

I feel Manali has something to offer to all kinds of travellers – the seeker, the adventurous, and the shopaholic tourist. A 4000-year-old wooden temple still surviving, natural hot water springs (of which there are many in Himachal) all gel comfortably with the hundreds of shops selling everything from rainbow-coloured mittens and apple jam to dreamcatchers and woolen pokemon beanies. (There’s also hashish if one’s looking for earthly nirvana but the buying and selling of it is illegal!) Take your pick but don’t lose track of what you’re in Manali for!

Our days were slow. We watched local television channels or just wandered off the many trails in Old Manali, feeding our souls at the amazing line-up of cafes. From our guesthouse, I looked on at the surroundings. For every house built with a foundation of rocks and then strengthened up with the wood from the trees, there is a guesthouse beside.

A tea stall owner eagerly shared that nearly all families earn their living through tourism. Fact is – the whole of Himachal feeds off tourism. And, that has taken a toll on the valleys. The snowfall has delayed, adversely affecting the local farming, leading to a sad chain of events, those that are often marked by excessive tourism.

Still, it feels nice to watch life in its present form. Mornings started at around 10 with smoke bellowing out from every house, the wood-based boilers heated water for everybody in the family. Villagers gave their yaks and buffaloes a bath, while I mostly gave it a miss. All guesthouses have water heating and room heating devices but the moment you step away, you start chilling!

Old Manaki house
A house in Old Manali

Another memorable experience was at Vashisht temple with its natural hot water springs. There are separate bath wells for men and women, and wash basins too! (TIP: Carry a towel and a change of clothes in case you want to go skinny dipping in the hot water spring baths).

One of the days was dedicated to Solang valley, we took a local bus from Manali depot and reached in the early morning. It hadn’t begun snowing hence the winter sports had not been up. So ,we took the automatic ropeway right up the summit, to be welcomed by snow-capped peaks and revel in the bliss of nature’s beauty. The mighty Himalayan peaks stood yonder, while I looked on and on and on…

Returning down the ropeway, we saw that the valley was now jampacked with tourists – moms, dads, kids all dressed as paragliders. The paragliding activities did not start until late afternoon as the wind conditions weren’t right. By the time it did by 3 pm, there was a long queue of super excited tourists waiting to buy their tickets, and that included us too.

But, when the counter guy asked us to pay 6K in cash, the Mister was livid. We were already saving our cash for other travel expenses and it just wasn’t right, especially post Modi’s de-monetization call when most ATM’s in the country offered limited cash withdrawals. The Mister requested them to take card payment but they refused. Left with a tough choice, we let go our paragliding dreams:(

But, our journey down was a breathtaking one – we were blessed with heavenly views. We trekked down for an hour and then found a local bus to Manali.

The next day it was goodbye to Old Manali, we headed to the Jana falls, a scenic waterfall in Jana village near Naggar, a few kms from Old Manali. It is a popular picnic spot with great local food and some adventure activities. We stayed for a night in a tent with nothing but a bonfire and some 115 sheep for company!

(Travel is very convenient through local Himachal Transport buses from the depot at Mall Road market in Manali. The buses have specific timings so if you happen to miss one, there are private taxis available anytime.)

We were told that Jana waterfalls is lined with apple orchards and offers a breathtaking panoramic view of the mountains, but unfortunately it wasn’t even close. It was not apple season and nor had it begun snowing – only dried branches jutted out from everywhere one could lay their eyes upon. In the name of a waterfall, there was just a trickle, perhaps we needed to trek up some more.

A giant hoarding with the picture of a majestic waterfall amidst lush greens and browns was the only testimony to the majestic beauty that it was… once upon a time! Our host later informed us over Whatsapp that the falls were transformed the next day when it began to snow heavily, and also sent the Mister some pictures as proof!

On our return to Naggar, we visited the Naggar castle, famous for its ‘Jab We Met’ song shoot starring Kareena Kapoor and Shahid Kapoor. The architecture is a mix of Indian and European influences combining stone and wood for the king of Kullu, who had some really good taste in artifacts. Now owned by the Himachal Tourism Board, one can check out the heritage site for a mere 20 rupees for the entry ticket.

Naggar castle
Naggar castle

We took a local bus to Kullu and stayed for the night. The city is a bustling tourist spot and everywhere I looked, there were lights twinkling from the many hotels and guesthouses amidst the darkness of the night.

We did no sight-seeing at Kullu but left our hotel early morning to travel to Bhuntar and from there to Kasol. All around this journey, one has the blissful company of the majestic Parvati River. Here is a watercolor painting of the valley by Yours Truly, it isn’t a match to the real thing but it is my sincere ode to nature’s beauty:

Parvati Valley
An artistic ode to Parvati Valley

It was the 31st of December and Kasol was already teeming with lunatics – the New Year celebrations had to be grand. The hotels were expensive and the roads were jammed, causing state traffic cops to take matters into their hands. Also, we had to eat at a dhaba as other desired restaurants weren’t ready to accept card payment.

By afternoon, we decided to leave Kasol and instead head off to Manikaran, the pilgrimage site of both Hindus and Sikhs. Yes, the Mister and me are slightly pilgrim material too! But, the truth of the matter was our collective curiosity in the natural hot water springs at the Manikaran Sahib Gurudwara.

Manikaran gurudwara
Manikaran gurudwara

Fortunately, we found a helpful fellow traveller who was already staying at the gurudwara on our bus trip from Kasol to Manikaran. With his help, we found a decent guesthouse right adjacent to the gurudwara, and the best part was its private hot water pool.  One could lay there bare naked undisturbed for a maximum of 20 minutes, I must confess Yours Truly made the most of this facility:)

There are many stories to the origin of these hot water springs, one is about Goddess Parvati losing her jewels (mani) while taking a walk with Shiva, and Shesh nag, a serpent taking it away with him. Lord Shiva then does the tandav dance, compelling Sheshnag to retrieve the earrings from the belly of the earth, thus causing heat from the earth’s core to spring out in fury!

But, I liked another story – the story of Guru Nanak and his disciples who only eat food that is donated. Once they had visited Manikaran and were given loads of rice and flour, but alas, they could not cook it as there was no heat. One of them prayed to the almighty who then created these hot water springs. The temperature in the springs is said to be anywhere from 86 to 94 degrees, it helps cook the rice at the langar. One just places rice in a cloth bag and leaves it in the hot bubbling spring, and voila, its cooked!

We stayed for a few days at the gurudwara, sometimes eating at the langar, sometimes finding local eating joints outside serving Maggi. aloo & cauliflower parathas, veg pulao, etc. And, we did shopping for knickknacks, the place has a vibrant line of shops selling everything from Tibetan wooden plates and sandals to local woolen wear and toys.

January 1, 2017, we headed to Tosh, a remote hill town that isn’t so touristy (as yet)  leaving our luggage behind at the gurudwara, thanks to a facility where you can leave your luggage for a 100 rs a day. Travel is easy, we took a local bus to Barsheni from Manikaran and then trekked up the simple trail for an hour.

The most magical experience of my life happened on the way up to Tosh. As little droplets of rain fell from the sky, we were busy walking up, greedily relishing in the divine weather. Little did we know that these water drops will then convert to snowflakes by the time we were half way up!

It was amazing. The first day of the year. Soft flakes of snow falling gently all over us.

By the time we entered Tosh, it began snowing heavily and the whole place got a ghostly makeover. Guesthouses and cafes were made of wood and one of them happily let us in. After a hot, soul-warming cup of coffee around a fireplace, the Mister headed out in search of a decent guesthouse for the night. I stayed behind, delighting in the snowfall outside the door, and the fire inside.

Tosh
Tosh

The Mister returned with bad news. The loud crowds we’d avoided at Kasol had also made their way to Tosh to ring in the New Year as loudly as they possibly could. Most guesthouses had increased their prices and there was hashish in the air everywhere. We didn’t feel it safe to stay overnight with stoned gangs, and decided to return to Manikaran.

Destiny had other plans, though!

We made it downhill and were about to take the bus to Manikaran, when the Mister’s prying eyes fell upon a board that read ‘Pulga‘. He had just heard about this remote village that could be reached after an interesting trek. So, we thought it was a good idea to deviate and follow the road to Pulga in the dead of the evening. I say evening as it was equivalent to night with no power.

By this time, both my knees were frozen and had started aching, the left more than the right. Still, we made our way slowly along the only road we could see with our mobile flashlights on. When the path ended, we were lost and looking for someone to guide us. But, sundown is end of day for the villagers who all cosy up together in their warm homes.

We knocked at one of the doors, and were greeted with a helpful set of directions. “Just follow the yellow arrows,” they said. And so, we did. It was just that the way forward was uphill, narrow and paved with wet rocks and at times slippery snow. After a scary two hour journey, we reached the village at the top, where we found a very basic guesthouse. We sat by the fireplace as I tried to thaw my body, more so my left knee. By then, I was wobbling my way ahead.

The night spent at Pulga was supposed to be a quiet one, but alas, the New Year lunatics had managed to infiltrate this remote village too. The gangs of boys and girls screamed till the wee hours of the morning of January 2, egged on by all the chillum they were smoking. The mercury was at negative, it snowed the whole night as we lay awake shivering.

The sun is also lazy in this part of the world. It takes a lot of time (read 11 am) to finally shine through and the ice starts to melt. We make our way back to Manikaran or let’s just say we dragged ourselves, and this time, we returned in under 40 minutes. a trip that had taken us nearly 2 hours to climb in the wet darkness!

We spend a lazy day at the gurudwara, and still have another day to go before it is time to board a bus to Delhi. So, we decide to visit Malana, a remote village along Parvati valley. A shared cab to Jari that takes one to Malana entry point, is just the beginning of the narrow trek to the isolated village. It is a fairly easy climb but at the fag end of our two-week journey, one nearly broken knee and a wobbly walk, I had quickly lost my zeal to trek uphill.

Still, we went ahead, as I did not want to give up after having made it so far. The other leg was compensating for the one with the injured knee. In a few hours, that leg too gave up. We were only 20 minutes away from the village but Yours Truly was supremely in pain, and gasping for dear life, I decided to give up 🙁

We trekked down quietly, again with the painful knee and a sense of dejection. We took the same way back to return to Manikaran where I made full use of the 20 minutes in the hot water pool in our guesthouse. I watched the movie ‘Mask’ on TV, where the antics of Jim Carrey kept me at bay. The Mister brought us some specially cooked chicken dish with steaming hot rice and the day was made.

The next day was a lazy one strolling around the gurudwara, getting our hot water fix (that magically healed my knee pain) and indulging in some last-minute shopping, before we took the noon bus to Delhi. The bus trip is amazing in the day but by night, you are a little fatigued. We finally reached Delhi and then made our way back to Pune, laden with sweet memories, extra shopping bags and one broken knee:)

TIPS / NOTES:

  • Most images are courtesy the Mister, you can check out his Instagram for more. The rest are by Yours Truly.
  • The initial itinerary was designed by a dear friend of the Mister, that helped a lot in planning and tweaking our journey for the best. So, do plan carefully as Himachal is full of tempting places.
  • Take a torch, extra batteries, first aid and don’t forget to wear good boots to protect your feet from the snow.
  • Plan your itinerary based on what you want from the trip – ‘adventure’, ‘soul-seeking’, ‘just to chill out’ or ‘plain pilgrimage’. Don’t attempt all of it, like we did, and end up with heavy baggage and broken knees.
  • Look at the season. April to September is the best time to visit Himachal in my opinion, but me and the Mister do not have this luxury. Our holiday is restricted to December, and December it is that our hearts and minds can get away from the hustle and bustle of everyday routine.
  • Talk to the locals, they are friendly folks and who knows if someone might let you stay with them too!

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