Now Although HP tourism in Connaught Place is not the friendliest of places I managed a ticket to Manali for a cool 695/- (non AC) .now to reach Manali via road you have to pass through the states of Haryana & Punjab, if you are not the one for a 14 hr urban scenery from the window I suggest you take the night bus, which is what I did, and in case u have a travel companion (like I did) u can have a little fun on the way (the usual-‘are we there yet routine’ works quite well)
By mid night the bus crosses Punjab and that is when the magic begins. The moment you see the first light in the sky (not the celestial kind), a house on a hill, or as u feel the chill set in, in the air, welcome yourself to the hills .By the first light of the day we had reached Mandi, a small town famous for its 81 stone temples. The next major town on the way is Kullu, which with its developed tourist oriented economy is easily the economic backbone of HP. Early morning at 6 you will find tiny, and by tiny I mean really small kids on their way to school, often walking in one serpentine line. And no, if you wave not many will wave back, because let’s face it that no one likes to wake up at 6 and go to school.
By 9.30 we had reached the desired destination-Manali. This was first time in Manali, I was taking everything in like a windshield wiper. If you close your eyes and then open them Manali won’t appear any different from any other hill station, the same shops selling shawls and ice-cream cones, the same hunched back and small eyed people who have a fantastic warm smell about them, but move your head around and you’ll see snowcapped mountains of Dhauladhar and Pir Panjal ranges and a sky so so blue that for a minute you won’t move because a minute is enough to make your eyes hurt. There is a reason why they wear those dark glasses in the James Bond movies in the snow.
Soon after we arrived at the place we had made arrangements to live in a quite army guesthouse outside Manali, Bhang (4kms from Manali, where the army has its snow and avalanche research center. A 485 kms long road goes from Manali to Leh. But in this season the road is not open yet and the farthest that I can make is till Stingri, a cool 118.5 kms from Manali. To reach Stingri was the aim. After much loafing around in the Manali market, we made our first trip to Rohtang on board an army jeep making its way to Stingri. Stingri is the highest one can reach in the Lahaul Valley before the roads open in May end or June. I had 3 days and 120 to do. The first stop over is Gulaba, lately quite a Bollywood favorite. Several scenes in the recent blockbuster Krissh was shot here.
Next major stop reroute is Madhi which is 16 kms from the Rohtang pass and twice the distance down from Manali is a pit stop for people trying to make it till the pass for food and shelter in case of hail storms and snow storms and the occasional cloud bursts. Madhi in Punjabi literally means a ‘graveyard’.
The Rohtang Pass at a height of 13050 around 10 kms attracts a whole lot of tourists every year. The Traffic jam caused by the tourist vehicles starts from Madhi itself and goes on till the pass. On the other side literally is Koksar (roughly 18kms downhill), a small town (in news during the Kargil war) that serves as a base for BRO (border roads organization). Manali and areas above it have an annual snowfall of 1200 meters. BRO keeps things moving in these hills where you can be easily cut off from life.
The wild Chandrabhaga follows one from Koksar onwards till Stingri and beyond. Several small villages (like Sissu, Tandi, Gondla and finally Keylong) with not more than 12 houses are on the way. The deeper you go the more you find Tibetan and Buddhist culture influence life.
After a very bumpy ride we reached Stingri in the promised 3 hrs, escaping death at several snow covered bends of the great mountains. The roads are covered with ice /sleet and death lurks at every bend, when you can’t tell if its snow or road at the edges.
The Stingri is also the last PCO you’ll find for the next 370 kms. The army spends 4 months cut off from the world in Stingri, which is their district head quarter. That night in Stingri, half dying from the cold, I saw the most amazing star-studded sky in ages. The movement of air was limited and not a sound could be heard. The oxygen levels here are so low that climbing a few steps can leave you panting. Thousands of miles away from home in Bombay; I was finally at peace in an unknown land, amongst dangerous mountains.