Old Manali – a charm of its own
The bus takes a sharp turn and I jolt awake to see a thick layer of vapor enveloping the window. I had taken the suggestion on Wikitravel seriously and booked a window seat on the right hand side of the bus on my way from Delhi to Manali to make sure I didn’t miss the view I had been promised. Groggily I wipe the glass clear. A soft drizzle has taken over the early morning and the Beas River catches up with the moving bus, swiftly pushing rocks from its way. The green mountain is partially visible through the thick layer of mist that wraps it and the tall trees appear dwarfed by it.
I anticipate that I am going to reach any minute now, but the misty view remains with me for another hour and a half until the bus enters a small town and pulls to a halt in the bus station. Two days of continuous traveling later, I am finally in Manali. I pull out the address of my hotel and get into an auto. Lucky for me, I notice that I am driving away from the packed and commercialised area towards what looks like a greener, more pristine side of it. Across a bridge, I reach its other half called Old Manali.
The auto drops me at the bottom of a set of rock stairs that lead to Red House Café and Inn, my abode for the day. The apple laden trees across the garden are such a refreshing site as I enter the gate with my heavy rucksacks. I meet the kind owner, Mr. Raj and the chef Yogi, who show me to my room on the second floor. I must say, visiting a hill station after so many years has me overjoyed. The loud gurgle of the river and sight of the mountains, both almost a part of my room, have this freshness that the city life keeps me gasping for.
I take a quick nap to shake away the tiredness but as soon as I am up, instinctively walk to the window to remind myself where I am. I watch a scattered group of locals at work, plucking red apples from the trees and filling their huge baskets with them. I wonder how the same collect will probably be put on a truck and sold miles away in my hometown in a few days, and somehow, the idea is comforting. It’s not raining anymore but the temperatures have certainly dropped and it’s fairly cold. I pull on my jacket and head downstairs to enjoy my brunch nestled amidst the apple trees. These trees are probably my favorite part about this place.
A quick meal later, I walk out to explore the rest of Old Manali. With just one day here and 9 days of traveling ahead, I decide to calm my adventurous self and hesitatingly cross Hidima Temple and Vashisht off my itinerary. Some other day, I console myself.
The shops and cafes immediately come into view, lining the narrow street that slightly slopes upwards. Snake charmers sit gossiping in one corner while a lady walks past me with a huge fluffy white Angora rabbit. I walk into a few shops to have a look at the vast collection of jackets, harem pants, bags and printed T-shirts. Brief conversation with shopkeepers tells me that a large number of them are from Nepal and Kashmir who are looking forward to returning home for a break after the long season. Uninterested in buying anything, I walk on further and reach a village, commonly known as Old Manali Village, that is a pleasant change with shops finally disappearing and local houses now lining one side of the street. Some two- storeyed, partially- wooden houses give me glimpses of little kids playing around and women running their daily errands. I also notice a few shambled huts that add a tint of mystery to the otherwise serene locality.
A little later, a sign board leads me to Manu Temple, standing serene and wonderful against the backdrop of white clouds. It’s empty except for an old man offering long prayers so I take my time to look around the temple and read the long notice informing tourists of the origins and history of the temple, maintaining to be the only one dedicated to the creator of human race.
On my way back, I cross a very pretty looking restaurant called Hangout Café and am hungry enough to go in for a quick bite. I sit outside in the flowery courtyard enjoying a delicious pancake when I read a pamphlet announcing a live music performance the same night. I am intrigued by the idea of being able to listen to some local talent, and after wandering for two more hours, cannot help but walk back to the café again. Dim lights and candles adorn the place now and it is already lively with music and conversations. Young travelers sit draping themselves in shawls and sip on to their drinks for warmth. I sit down by myself at the bar only to be joined by an interesting couple from Punjab a few minutes later who I go on to spend the rest of the evening with. We sit exchanging stories about our lives and travels as the young artists play cover of favorites like Wonderwall and Yellow. The wife, Swati, even lets me in on secret destinations around Himacahal and Kashmir that she thinks I should write about someday. And write I must.
Before I realise, it’s past 11 pm and I decide to make my way back to my room. As I walk back down the slope, music flowing from a few open restaurants, the rest of the town has already drifted to sleep.
I did not have any extraordinary experience here, not that I expected to, but Old Manali did charm me in some way. It is that place you go to for a day or so, for an assured great start to the journey that lies further down the road. Take a good pit stop here while you can!
|Want to pack your bags and leave? Read on.
Fly to Indira Gandhi International Airport Delhi from all Indian cities or alternatively book a berth in Rajdhani Express to get there. Book the A/C Volvo semi-sleeper Royal Travels bus (www.redbus.in) that leaves every evening and drops you in Manali bus station the next morning in a duration of 13 hours. Check in at Red House Cafe and Inn in Old Manali (Contact Mr. Raj +91 98160 28740, to check for availability). Old Manali can be explored by foot, while you also have the option of taking an auto to go around. Remember to bargain! Eat/drink either at Hangout Cafe or at Drifters’ Cafe.