Old Manali

Old Manali: Firs, rushing rivers and mountain peaks

The next stop I had earmarked was due east to a hill station situated in the verdant Kullu Valley called Manali. I very nearly missed my evening bus; the person who had sold me the ticket had relayed to me that the bus would stop “along the road”, and when I clarified if she meant the main square, she said yes. In India it does you well to avoid asking leading questions, as often you’ll get an affirmative from the person you’re asking out of the politeness of giving an answer – regardless of whether it’s right or not! With ten minutes til the departure and no buses to Manali having materialised in the square, I hurriedly asked a few locals where the buses stopped, and they pointed to a building situated at the bottom of a winding lane. I jogged my way down there in time to board and calm my thumping heart – it was the altitude, honest, and not because I’m utterly unfit – before we took off for another evening of being violently thrown around corners whilst trying to sleep upright.

The bus traced its way along the Himalayas and pulled into Manali before dawn; it was noticably colder than Mcleod Ganj. I didn’t have a map, but the bus station was situated on a main road and so I had two directions to choose from. I chose Right, which ultimately turned out to be, er, Wrong, but the detour was worthwhile; as the time went on and the hulking, silent masses of the overhead peaks started to lighten, I found myself walking down towards a mountain river rushing over a riverbed of large, flat stones. It was the first river that I had seen in India that wasn’t green and filled with stinking piles of rubbish. Towering evergreens lined the riverbank as the peaks loomed overhead. India, the land of constant surprises, had suddenly morphed into Switzerland.

Retracing my steps, I walked back to the bus stop and beyond into the main strip of Manali that I had completely missed in the dark. The town centre was nothing to write home about, but I wasn’t planning on lingering. I got my bearings and hit the winding Circuit House Road which I knew led to the old, more picturesque part of town.

On the way I discovered yet more surprises. I passed a trout restaurant; when the British had settled Manali they had introduced trout into the local rivers, as well as apples in the sweeping meadows I now saw stretching up the hillsides in the early morning light. A good thing, too, as these days apples are the keystone of the town’s economy. Further on I saw delightful mountain cabins situated in spacious green meadows. The guesthouse in which I’d planned to stay was a similar building made of logs and had its own flower-packed meadow facing out over a view of the Himalayas, but I was disappointed to find on arrival that it was full, so I retreated to the plastic garden furniture of a local ramshackle cafe to drink sweet, spicy Indian tea from a tiny glass and wolf down a masala omlette for brekkie. Round the corner from the caff was what seemed to be an old war memorial carved into a small cliff in English and Latin featuring some brightly painted deities.

I decided to head down into Old Manali to look for a place, and quickly found a cheap guesthouse run by an incredibly friendly local chap. He invited me to sit with him to drink more chai, which was slightly Machiavellian as he used it as a chance to see if he could sell me an onward ticket into the Himalayas and any other services he could think of. I was polite but firm about my plans to travel by local bus, and he didn’t press the issue. The chap was the most laid back Indian I had met so far, and you could see why: Manali was a lazy little gem of a town, an oasis tucked away in this northern valley.

I spent much of the day sleeping, compensation for the heavy sleep deprivation caused by last night’s bus journey, but rose to check out the rest of Old Manali. Fresh apple juice was on sale everywhere for a pittance, so I loaded myself up. Manali was firmly on the backpacker route, so I made the most of it by swinging by an impressively stylish backpacker cafe to soak up their free wifi and to order my first beer in weeks, an enjoyable India Pale Ale. I finished my evening of flashpacker exuberance with a meal of homemade pasta in blue cheese sauce in a classy Italian restaurant overlooking the river rushing noisily through Old Manali, prepping myself for an early morning trip down to the bus station to continue my journey deeper into the Himalayas.

Himalayan foothills
My route into the Himalayas, with stops at Mussoorie (A), Chandigarh (B), Mcleod Ganj (C) and Manali (D)