It is a dream start to the day – the changing hues of the snow clad mountains as the sun sweeps across in an arc and the soothing symphony of the River Beas as it flows to wish the people who live along its banks. Add to it a slight biting chill and the moment becomes magical; it charges you; it renews you. All the aches and pains of the previous day vanish aided by the conjurer called Nature.
I was to report for the sightseeing trip at quarter to ten. I thought of reaching there well in time to see how the bustle begins in The Mall. When I reached there were teams of workers cleaning half opened shops and putting things in place, municipal workers going about their chore of clearing the garbage, auto drivers neatly lining up their vehicles, buses in the stand and people visiting temples in the vicinity. Some people were gathered in groups suggesting an informal labor market. A few shops near the bus stand had already started doing brisk business with passengers who were booked on the buses already in the stand. I arranged with the auto driver who gave me a ‘paid lift’ for local sightseeing depending on when the trip to Manikaran would take place. I had an oily omelet from a vendor in the bus stand and bought a few things for the day trip, including water and chocolates.
Stocked up thus I reported to the tourism office where I was told to await the ‘guide’ who would come with those who had booked for the trip. The wait was a fairly long one for a family turned up an hour after the reporting time had lapsed. And when they boarded there was not even a whisper of an apology for keeping all of us waiting. Finally the five families and two singletons were on our way. The not so articulate guide mentioned that we would be taken to five places. The first place we were headed to is known as the Snow Point. It is about 20 kms from Manali on the Rohtang Pass route. Along the way there were numerous shops renting ski equipment, boots, gloves and snow clothes. Except for the two singletons all the others rented various types of equipment depending on what they thought they would be doing at the Snow Point. Winding roads took us to some point near the Snow Point. Further progress was not possible due the most terrible traffic jam caused by senseless drivers and absent supervision. The snow was sparse around the place, which was melting fast and certainly not enough to ski. Those who had rented ski equipment quickly repented and had the added discomfort of having to carry it around. Those who had rented snow clothes, boots and gloves walked in the available snow and sat on it for a while and some even tried to slide on slopes to put to use their investment.
The actual name of Snow Point is ‘Gulaba’. The point was named after Raja Gulab Singh who had camped at the point while invading China (circa 1840). The Gulaba is at 9400 feet and is the last point open at this time of the year. Snow forces closure of the Rohtang Pass between November and May every year. From the Gulaba one gets fantastic views of the Pir Panjal range and the outline of roads on that altitude can also be clearly made out. The Border Roads Organisation is engaged in clearing the roads and repairing them so that they can be opened for trade and tourism at the earliest. The arrival of tourists is greeted by a battery of locals who vend a variety of services. The youngsters on their mountain bikes and the old folks on horses promise tourists a handsome ride for a ‘special rate’. Old women dress up couples in local dress for romantic photo shoots and some even sell sticks for the tourists to steady themselves while walking in the snow! There was even a man with a furry rabbit who offered it for a photo session at Rs. 20 a session!! All along the road there are vendors with corn, biscuits and wafers, Maggie noodles, rice and rajma, bread and omelet, etc. However, one sad fact is that there was not a single waste bin in sight for people to discard the leftovers. Hence, the place is littered. Another attraction there is the tribals who sell herbs and forest produce – the most common are Shilajit and Saffron. They claim various remedies for numerous ailments and produce as evidence letters from influential people from all over the country who seemingly got relief from the concoctions bought from the tribals. Some even produce courier receipts of Rs. 30,000 and above.
The next stop was for lunch (at 3 PM) at the scenic Kothi. The mountain views are a good backdrop for a peaceful repast. From there we left for Solang Valley. I had conserved all my energy for a ‘blast’ at the Solang Valley. I looked forward to a round of paragliding. So it was natural that I bounded out of the bus as soon as Solang Valley was announced. Paragliders could be seen landing at the designated landing places – some even crashed; but with no injuries. All the gliders are assisted – there is a trained glider who does the manipulation of the numerous strings that ‘guide’ the chute. All my enthusiasm was doused by the operators who took a look at my girth and declared that there were insufficient winds to keep me afloat for any point of time. They asked me to return the next day. My enthusiasm, engulfed in a sea of quiet gloom, next turned to all the activities on offer for the tourists. When the slopes of the Solang Valley are enveloped in snow skiing is the most popular activity here. Skiing is replaced by Zorbing – the adventure activity where two individuals are strapped inside a giant ball and rolled down a hill - when the snow recedes. I could not do this either since I had no companion! Thus, I was reduced to the state of a ‘masala chana’ chewing spectator vicariously enjoying the paragliding and the Zorbing. There is a ropeway cum ski lift which can take you up for panoramic sights of the Valley. There is also a small artificial ‘Rock Climbing’ wall, which did not seem to have been commissioned.
Both Gulaba and Solang Valley clearly demonstrate how the entrepreneurship of locals get a boost with tourism. However, it is sad to say that State provided infrastructure is absent in any form – be it proper roads, parking facilities, toilet facilities, waste disposal, comfort stations, et al. tourism is the mainstay in this region and it has now become year around. Why is the government negligent in regard to the provision of basic facilities? The tunneling works for the second Rohtang access is on in full swing. It is understood that 6 kms of the 9 kms of the tunnel is almost over.
The last stop for the day was at the Nehru Kund, named after Pt. Jawahar lal Nehru, who used to drink water from this natural spring during his sojourns in Manali. The cold water spring is believed to originate from the Bhrigu lake on top of the mountains. It is located just five kms from Manali town on the Leh highway. The present condition of the spring and its neighborhood will force even the stouthearted to rethink many times before a sip of the cold water.
The condition of the bus provided by the Himachal Tourism was most unsatisfactory. The route to Gulaba and back involved steep winding roads and the brake pads of the bus were almost totally worn out as evidenced by the sounds that emanated when the driver applied the brakes. In a sorry incident one of the tourists almost fell through a portion of the floor of the bus that caved in. Fortunately, it did not turn out to be serious. Lastly, the ‘guide’ was not a guide in the proper sense. He only announced where we would be going and the time we had at our disposal at that place. That could have been competently handled by the driver of the bus too.