As soon as the bus left the plains at Kiritpur and started the mountainous climb whatever semblance of sleep I had managed, in an almost complex yogic pose, vanished. The bus started rocking from side to side and the driver seemed intent on overtaking every vehicle in his track. Despite the obvious physical discomfort, I felt mentally relaxed thinking that we were on schedule to reach Manali at 10 am, as promised at the time of booking. However, when the bus stopped at the Bilaspur depot of the Himachal Road Transport Corporation for fuelling at 6 AM the driver informed that it would take 5 hours from there to Manali. There were a few buses ahead of ours in queue for fuelling. The slow rate of fuelling ensured a delay of one hour at the depot. Thus, we were in line to be late by about three hours for Manali. The saving grace was that I would be able to appreciate the countryside better. I did just that as the bus, with many more stoppages for breakfast, dropping passengers and reporting at depots, wound its way through Sunder Nagar, Mandi, Pandoh and Kullu to Manali. The apple orchards nearer Kullu were a sea of white flowers. There were hordes of tourists doing white water rafting on the Beas River.
I had been to Manali in October 2007, on my way back from a superb tour of J&K that included nearly two weeks in the Ladakh region. Therefore, I had a rough idea of the bus stand and The Mall in Manali. As the bus drove into Manali by 1 PM - the journey of about 530 kms had taken about 17 hours - I realized that little had changed – maybe, it looked dustier at this time of the year. The majestic ‘Van Vihar’ looked a bit forlorn having just braved the winter – I remembered the lovely walks I had in the forest during my previous visit. I was dejected to find that my back pack was completely covered in dust and looked ruined when I retrieved it from the luggage rack of the bus. However, hunger pangs struck me almost immediately as my nostrils picked up the scent of cooked food in the vicinity of the bus stand. While waiting for the meal to be served I got into damage control mode with the back pack. The meal of chappati, palak and dal was Spartan, but considering the circumstances very tasty.
I took an auto to the railway Officers Rest House. The drive up a steep road for two kilometers cost me an equally steep eighty bucks. The ORH is superbly located atop the Beas River and in a ‘bowl’ surrounded by the Pir Panjal mountain range. The weather was slightly cold, but not insufferably so. After a wash and some rest I went to the Himachal Pradesh tourism office and booked for a trip to the snow point and Solang valley tomorrow. While sauntering around in The Mall I bought a kg of Figs from a tribal vendor. It tasted yummy.
Manali is on the NH21 that links Leh. It is situated at an altitude of 1,950 m and is one of the most important hill stations in Himachal Pradesh. Manali is a small town with sparse population and was part of the ancient trade route to the Ladakh region, which linked the old silk route. Manali and the surrounding areas are of great significance to Indian culture and heritage as it is said to be the home of the Saptarishi or Seven Sages. The legend has it that Manali is named after Manu, the great Indian lawgiver; "Manu-Alaya" which means "the abode of Manu” is said to have been reduced to Manali with the passage of time. It is said that the sage Manu stepped off his ark in Manali to recreate human life after a great flood had deluged the world (a la Noah’s ark). Therefore, Manali is often referred to also as the "Valley of the Gods".
The British are reputed to have introduced apple trees and trout fishing, both of which were not native to Manali. When they were first planted the fruits were so plentiful that the branches of the apple trees used to often collapse unable to bear the weight of the fruits. Even today, apple, plum and pear remain the most common source of livelihood for the majority of the residents of this area. Tourism is the other major income earner. This received a boost in the 1980’s with J&K going out of bounds with militancy. Thus, the once quiet village got transformed into a bustling town with many hotels and restaurants.