Himachal Pradesh (HP) sprawls across the far North East of India in an almost confining, and constricting manner. Except for a sliver Jammu/Kashmir to the West, HP is pretty much the last stop before heading to the farthest Northerly parts of the Sub Continent and the desolate land of Ladakh. The state is like the Scottish Highlands on steroids, think huge mountains thousands of metres high, cut by by waterfalls and plastered in lush greenery. Pristine glacial lakes collect amongst the valleys, reflecting the aggressive humongous mountainous terrain that surrounds it in a peaceful, almost distractingly false manner.
Put simply, HP is everything beautiful in the world injected with a course of sus and deca and then laid bare. The landscape is as aggressive as anywhere in the world, nothing is small, even the trees bulge at the seams and as I look out from my balcony I can see a waterfall several hundred feet tall, the crashing of the water makes it sound much nearer than it actually is. Yet beneath the intimidating nature, the rage and savageness of altitude is a state that is as far removed from India than anywhere I have known. It is exceptionally genteel, and though subtlety is not a word than can be even remotely related to HP, it offers such a warm welcome, and for many is the last slice of normality before springing off further north and to the limits of India.
Manali is the last major frontier in HP for anyone heading North. A jumping off point for Ladakh, hippies head here for charas and scenery, adventurers head here for acclimatisation and transport and families head here wondering what next. Isolated from the rest of India for around 7 months per year Manali is blanketed in 10 feet of snow and every road in and out is blocked, including the Manali to Leh highway.
Even in summer getting to Manali is an achievement in itself.
There are many buses from Dharmasala to Manali, most are public buses charging some 300INR and leaving during the day. This bus trundles along stopping every ten minutes to pick up and drop off and if you should find yourself lucky enough to get a seat – Keep it. The journey takes around 10 – 12 hours.
The alternative is the so called deluxe bus that leaves at 8.30pm and costs 550INR. Thats the bottom line price, everywhere in the whole of Mcleod Ganj and Dharamsala charges at least that and so it’s a wasted effort trying to find it cheaper. The only thing you can do is buy from a reputable place – I.e your hotel where they are unlikely to have shut up shop over the opportunity to scam a tourist for £6. As usual it’s price per seat, but there was flexibility afforded in that I could let the three of us occupy two seats, therefore paying for just two. I gratefully declined.
The bus was ridiculous, but the seats reclined, it was only half full and it was a through fare right to Manali.
At this point can I just thank those who sent me a massage through facebook checking on our safety. Sadly in a part of Himachal Pradesh, there has been an accident involving a coach which left the road and plummeted down the gorge killing at least 52 people and injuring many more. It’s a horrific death toll and our hearts go out to all those effected by the tragic loss of life on the roads of this inhospitable state.
Boarding the bus in the darkness, and with the knowledge of the accident I was weary. Roads in this part of India are not just in a terrible state, but the room for error is minuscule and a simple misjudgment can have the bus hurtling down the mountain with horrific consequences.
The mood on the bus was jovial, and for much of the journey I sat and chatted. A great side to travelling is the diversity of the people you meet. There was Adrian (female) from some tiny village in California on the coast between LA and San Francisco, an anthropologist travelling alone who had an “unexplainable” addiction to India. Or the physiotherapist from Switzerland meeting her friend in Manali for a months trekking. The Israeli couple who gave the kids Israeli chocolate and explained how even out of their homeland they must be careful to avoid Muslims – Ruling out the amazing state of Rajasthan completely.
Sleeping was impossible due to the driver, he was shocking and someone approached him and asked him to slow down. He took no notice whatsoever and was contemplating corners at such speed the rear end of the bus was skidding out. Once the lights were turned out on the bus the silhouette of his person was cut into the darkness with the occasional puff of smoke coming from him. He was smoking Marijuana and I manoeuvred my way down the bus to have a word. An argument ensued and he claimed it was a herbal cigarette, I told him of course it was but if he didn’t stop I would contact the police. He invited me into the cabin with him and asked me to sit down. In broken English he tried blagging me that it helped him stay awake and concentrate. He gestured I remain in the cabin and join him for a smoke as he tore across the mountains at breakneck speed. I refused and by this point an American guy was also complaining. In the end he agreed to wait until the bus stopped.
As I tried to get at least some sleep the occasional whiff of Marijuana passed my nose, but I attributed it the marijuana plants that grow wild here, and in real abundance. Every other plant is a ganja plant.
The kids fell asleep around 1am and I pretty much all nighted it unable to find that comfort required for slumber.
To give a perfect example of how crazy the driver was, it was scheduled to arrive into Manali at 6.30am. It parked up at 4.45am. Almost 2 hours ahead of schedule, and that is including a half hour stop for a landslide.
The private bus stand is around 1km south of Manali, which is around 3km south of old Manali – Where we wanted to be.
Now, generally if you turn up at a hotel in India or indeed Asia at around 5am you will be able to find a room, and you will be allowed to check in on the basis that you will stay a night until the next day – Essentially an early check in at the same rate as the nightly rate assuming the room is free. Which I have to say is common. Overwhelmingly, supply outstrips demand and even if you was unlucky enough to turn up and find no where, someone would let you crash on the reception floor or open the cafe for you to grab a coffee and asses your options.
As an Indicator, we book hotel rooms probably for around 5% of the trip. Usually in the large cities such as Dubai. We have never, in four years of travel been unable to find a room.
It was a beautifully fresh morning and for the first time in ages we saw stars in the sky, and so between us we decided to walk the 4km to old Manali. Of course it was all uphill, but it was so peaceful, the darkness, the stars, the crisp morning mountain air. We played X Factor as we walked in the deserted country lanes.
Once at old Manali we bumped into the Israeli couple from the bus and they were knocking people up trying to secure a room but getting ridiculous prices. I say ridiculous, they was looking at around 800 INR per night, when the rooms were worth around 400 – 500INR. I suggested we visit a few places together and ask how much for two rooms. I knew we were staying for a minimum of 2 nights and they were staying for at least the same, meaning we had good bargaining value. We mooched about a bit and tried a few places who were offering good prices, but awful rooms. By now it was around 6am and the sun had risen over the mountain. We realised now just what a beautiful place we were in.
In the end we found a place that had stunning views over the snow capped mountains and the guy settled on 300INR for a basic room (bed & hot water) or 400INR (£4.20) for a room with cable TV, free wifi and hot water on the premise that we ate breakfast at the hotel cafe at least once. It was a done deal and as I sat on the balcony looking out over the mountains I was absolutely mesmerised by the beauty.
We all play different roles when travelling and these are completely flexible. But we work like a really well oiled machine. Charlie has specific things he does, Abi has things she does and I of course have things to do. Well, when we get to a hotel I sort the admin side of things and they sort the room. Charlie will make the bed and get the cushions and water out. Abi gets the dirty washing bag out and sorts the dirty clothes and makes sure the boots and bags are tidied away. Then she’ll get the clean underwear out and put it on a table along with the wash bag in the bathroom and toilet roll by the toilet.
Since were now at high altitude and hydration is of vital importance, Charlie will also put the electrolytes into the water and sort the TV/fan out.
The climate has cooled and we are now drinking minimum 2 litres of water per day, one with electrolytes and one just plain. They are above anything else we drink during the day which averages around 3 – 4 litres per day.
Point being we work together and I am immensely proud of not just the absolute efficiency at which we work, but of the resilience of both kids. There are no complaints, no issues, just an understanding that we are family. And as family we work together, we help each other and we work as one, efficient, slick unit.
And we do. I am very proud of what we accomplish and how well we work together. Actually, its a funny thing, as we walked from Manali to Old Manali a few dogs thought they’s come and try it on. Charlie raised his arm with a brick in his hand. I had completely forgotten I had told him that in future when walking the streets in darkness he could be ‘stone man’ and make sure we had a brick handy.
At around 6.30am, with the village still in silence it was cool and so we snuggled up together under the yak wool duvet.
At midday we awoke, still snuggled up, and as I rubbed the tiredness from my eyes I realised that now, in Manali, the adventure had started 🙂