17.03.2012 - 21.03.2012 15 °C
Our bus ride from Dharamsala to Manali was going to be the longest of our whole trip: an estimated 11 hours in total. We arrived at a chilly Dharamsala bus stop early for the 6am bus and, for the first 6 hours, headed South East and, broadly speaking, downhill to the market town of Mandi. Some of the roads were normal, tarmacked roads whilst others were little more than a gravel path carved out of the side of a mountain that didn’t seem suitable for anything bigger than a quad bike. Despite the bumpy ride we managed to enjoy the magnificent mountain scenery again. From Mandi we went North and mostly uphill through the Kullu Valley. In 2004 Ffion spent almost 3 months in the valley volunteering in schools and orphanages through an organisation called The Kullu Project. Our main reason for returning to the valley on this trip – other than the cool weather and the beautiful scenery – was to revisit some of the people and places Ffion knew back then. She was pleased yet unsurprised to see that very little had changed in the valley until we reached Manali which has transformed its busy main street into a pleasant pedestrian precinct and added a new temple to the market place. When we arrived in Manali we took an auto to Tourist Hotel where Ffion had stayed at when working here and went out for tea where Patrick sampled the Tibetan noodle and meat soup dish called Thentuk. That evening we met and had a brief catch up with Dev Raj, the hotel’s manager who couldn’t believe it was 7 years since Ffion was last in Manali.
Manali is a popular spot for Indian tourists the whole year around but it’s only really busy when Westerners visit during the trekking season. It’s too early for much trekking at the moment as there’s too much snow on the mountains and it was strange to be in a town that was obviously in low season. Several times we tried to order something off a café menu which we were told was not available and even more times we ordered and then saw a young boy being sent to the nearest shop to buy the ingredients. We therefore seemed to spend a lot of our time in Manali sitting in cafes waiting for food to arrive and appreciating the mountain and forest scenery.
We did manage some sightseeing though. On day 1 we walked up to the Hadimba temple above the new town. Most Hindu temples we’ve seen have been stone structures with painted carvings around the outside and inside the shrine. Hinduism is a faith with many origins which has subsumed animistic beliefs from remote areas like the Kullu valley where every village has its own temple to its own god which often has no relationship with the Hindu trinity of Shiva, Vishnu and Bramha. It’s therefore not surprising that temples in Kullu look very different from those in other parts of India. The Hadimba temple is made mostly from wood adorned with beautiful small carvings that wouldn’t look out of place on a Scandinavian church. It’s a square structure with a large, pyramid shaped roof. The temple was busy but we did poke out heads inside and saw the two temple caretakers offering sweets to devotees and stoking a small fire in a pit next to the deity (a small, doll shaped creation with a metal face). We enjoyed looking at the temple and smelling the sweet aroma of the deodar trees all around it and we were amused at the number of people with angora rabbits and yaks hanging around waiting for tourists to pay for their photo with a ‘native’ animal.
On our second day we went up to Vashist, a small village a few kilometers North of Manali itself. We visited another two old, wooden temples and saw the thermal baths that were part of one of them. We noticed that the wall surrounding the women’s bath had been extended higher at least twice and, later, when we went for lunch at a café slightly further up the hill we could tell why – before the latest extension you would have been treated to a view into the bath to accompany your chai and samosa! We walked around the village a little and Ffion was pleased to find a waltnut tree that she had been shown 7 years ago by the children from the Vashist orphanage. They told her that the tree played a large role in village life as it was where children were taken on their first birthday for a naming ceremony which involved cutting their hair and eating a sweet paste made from the tree’s walnuts. Later the same day we went to visit the Tibetan part of Manali where there was a monastery and two temples. One housed a huge seated Buddha; downstairs you could only see his body and upstairs you could only see his head which was sticking up through a hole in the floor.
On our final day of sightseeing we walked to Old Manali a few kilometers North on the other side of the river from Vashist. We visited yet another temple which, although the building was fairly modern, housed ancient stones which marked the spot as having been the site of a very old temple several centuries ago. In high season Old Manali is a hippy / druggy / Israeli hang out and it was strange to see so many closed shops and restaurants. For lunch we found a café that had only reopened that week and the waiter was busy repainting some walls when he wasn’t serving us or the handful of other customers. We’d had OK weather most of our time in Manali but that day a storm started at lunchtime and lingered for the rest of the day. We spent several hours in the café drinking tea and playing backgammon before running back to the hotel in a short break in the rain.
The following day it was time to pack up and head off on a remarkably short journey to Kullu, the capital of the Kullu Valley.