The three day weekend followed by another leave for Parsi New year meant that we had to pack our bags and take off for yet another unexplored location for a break. This time we opted for Manali in Himachal Pradesh. Reasons? –
• Due to the monsoons- it was ‘off season’ for Manali which meant that hopefully it would not be crawling with tourists,
• also we had never been to HP & hence wanted to experience the beauty of the terrain
• and the final clincher, our discovery of quaint cottages featured in Traveller - Strawberry Garden Cottages run by a foreigner some 15 kms from Manali guaranteeing a peaceful, cosy stay.
We decided to take a direct flight from Mumbai to Chandigarh to save on travel time and maximize the 5 day holiday. The flight timings are not very friendly since it reaches Chandigarh by the evening- which in effect means that your entire day gets wasted. Though we took the flight to save time, however, fate had something completely different in mind for us. We landed in Chandigarh at 5.15 PM on the 15th of August. The plan was to drive till Bilaspur around 150 kms from Chandigarh and then continue onwards to Manali through Swarghat the next morning. However, on reaching Kiratpur Sahib, at the beginning of the Himalayan foothills, we were told by the policeman on duty that there has been a landslide ahead and we’ll have to travel to Manali through Una (which is double the distance – around 120 kms extra). The revised route would now be Anandpur- Una- Bhota- Mandi- onwards to Manali.
Since it was already 8.30 PM we decided to stop for a bite at a Dhaba in Kiratpur and look for a hotel nearby to spend the night. We found Hotel City Palace at Anandpur Sahib- 10 Kms from Kiratpur and checked in around 9.45 pm- completely exhausted with the travel and a little disappointed to see our planned trip hijacked by the landslide. We spent some hours looking at possible destination option in the Outlook Traveler but eventually decided to take the next day as it comes and follow the revised route to Manali.
Anandpur Sahib is second only to Amritsar, the city of Golden Temple. The ninth Guru, Sri Guru Teg Bahadur ji, near the ruins of an ancient place, Makhowal, founded Anandpur Sahib in the year 1664. It is also known as the "the holy City of Bliss." Takhat (a seat of authority, one of five in Sikhism) Kesgarh Sahib is the centerpiece of Anandpur Sahib. Our hotel was very close to Kesgarh Sahib Gurudwara- an impressive structure in white, hence we decided to pay our respects and pray before starting our journey. The gurudwara is a very respected and holy place for the Sikh and there was a constant inflow of devotees. The commanding sturcture in white surrounded by green hills is a truly awe inspiring sight. The soothing tones of the Gurbani and the peaceful surroundings of the gurudwara had a calming effect on us as we restarted our journey. Our driver informed us that devotees travel from far & wide to pay respects at this holy site.
We continued our journey (in a rented Indica from Chandigarh) onwards to Una – Bhota- Mandi (a detour of 150 kms) on pot-holed winding roads with state transport buses hurtling down the slope at high speeds. Despite the tiring drive, you cannot help but marvel and the beauty of the Indian hinterlands. Fertile fields, lush green mountains; glimpses of Beas and the Govind Sagar Lake, picturesque villages and colorfully dressed Himachali villagers. We finally rejoined NH 21 at Nek Chowk Mandi and continued onwards to Manali with a stop at the famous Hangoni Mata temple. Legend has it, that travelers on the road to Manali need blessings of the goddess to continue the journey without mishap. We also crossed the Kullu Dwar Tunnel- a 3kms long winding tunnel cut through the mountain…simply an amazing engineering feat.
Manali is located at a distance of around 320 Kms from Chandigarh and the winding route hould normally take about 6-7 hours but since the usual route was blocked due to landslides. We had to take a detour which cost us 12 hours.
Tip: would recommend avoiding Manali in the monsoons since landslides are a recurrent feature and circuitous route in the mountains can mean hours of extra time, distance and money.
Finally, at 9.30 PM on the 16th we reached Strawberry Garden cottages- after a 15 minute struggle to locate the place. All I could make out in the darkness were apple trees simply loaded with tons of apples. The route to the cottages is through a winding lane- from in the midst of Sirsai Villageon one side and up a narrow bridge from the usual Kullu- Manali highway. Since there is no signage at either end of the road, would recommend that travellers make this journey once in daytime before attempting it in the dark (like we did!) Rupert & Bholi Devi were awake to receive us and were kind enough to serve dinner at the late hour. Rupert Eugster is a British National who came to India in 1988 and decided to stay. His wife is Himachali and they have opened the cottages for tourists as recently as 3-4 months back. There is no additional staff in this place since its a home run establishment.They showed us to our cottage, a charming place with a sitting room/fireplace/dining room on the ground floor and a bedroom with a washroom and verandah on the first floor. The cottages are made of pine wood and colorfully decorated with bright curtains and bedspreads. After a sumptuous meal of home cooked paneer, dal & roti we crashed for the night.
17th morning dawned bright and sunny and we woke up to a brilliant view of misty mountains, apple laden trees and smiling sunflowers. As far as hill stations go, Manali is one of the greenest and prettiest spots that I’ve seen- with due credit to the bouncy Beas river which adds character to the landscape. After a leisurely breakfast (cooked as per specifications :)) we took the road to Solang Valley with a short detour to Hadimba temple in Manali. The idea was to minimize the time in Manali town and maximize our exploration of the surrounding locales. Hadimba temple was built in the year 1553 by Raja Bahadur Singh and is dedicated to Hadimba, wife of Bhima. Manali has some other places of interest as well like Vashisht Hot water springs and enjoys close proximity to Rohtang Pass. Since we had limited time and had spent enough time in the car for one trip, we decided to skip visiting Rohtang Pass and opted for Solang Valley instead.
Solang Valley is at a distance of 25 kms from Manali en route the Manali- Leh highway. It was recommended by Rupert for its adventure activities and relative lack of crowds. It is basically an open valley with green meadows and enough clearance for promoting adventure activities. we could see signs of rapid development with Ski Lifts, Cabin cars etc being constructed- no doubt to woo tourists in winter for skiing and snow sports. We were lucky to visit there on a sunny day and made the most of it by trying our hand at Paragliding (an amazing experience!) and Mountain Biking (a little over hyped and thus, avoidable). The prices of Paragliding vary according to the season and fluctuate daily on the basis of tourist inflow on that day. I managed the experience for Rs. 500 (don’t forget to bargain). They also had mountain balls- a kind of huge infated ball with a smaller ball inside where one can sit and be pushed down the mountain slope. The air between the two balls provides the requisite cushioning for the body. However, we did not opt for this. A little down the slope there are some basic shacks which provide some refreshments. we also saw the Welcome Heritage Resort in Solang Valley which looks like a 4 star property in an amazing location. We decided to make do with a simple lunch of ubiquitous Maggi we headed back into Manali town for some inevitable ‘shopping’. The banks of the Beas make for a perfect picnic spot- we stopped and sat by the river for a quiet contemplation of life, universe and everything…
Dinner was again a special request meal prepared by the Eugsters- red Sauce Pasta and garlic bread for me (the vegetarian) and Sticky Chicky (Honey coated Chicken) for my husband. This was served to us in our cottage and we truly enjoyed our candlelit, romantic dinner over a completely non romantic movie- Speed!
Most of 18th was spent in our return journey to Chandigarh (again through the longer route) with a meal stop at (yet another) Sher-e-Punjab Dhaba.
Though our trip was short (thanks to the landslide) yet it was truly memorable! Manali is a picture postcard destination where pictures definitely speak a thousand words…