Manali: A place where the soul is set free
I was ravenous when I reached Manali around 10 in the morning. The horrible ordeal of retching behind me, I wanted a sumptuous breakfast. Anoop, my buddy took me to a small cafe along the Beas river and ordered breakfast for me. It consisted of a roti, hash brown potatoes and an omelette. I know that, food tastes better when you are hungry, but this tickled and played with my sense of taste. Delicious would be an understatement. The breakfast along with the honey ginger lemon tea washed away my fatigue of the previous day. I guess, you can always fall in love with food, and those hash brown potatoes were the best.
The first day was spent resting, eating and lazing along the banks of Beas, listening to the burbling stream. The first thing that surprised me was a tall Marijuana plant right in front of the hotel and an old lady rubbing her hands on it. Anoop explained that it was to make hashish. I was like “Isn’t that illegal?”. He told me that Weed was accepted around Manali. I guess even the police might smoke after all Malana was not that far away. Around 6 p.m. that day, we went for a stroll around Manali and Anoop showed me a shop where they sell Lugdi which is a potent arrack made from rice. I really wanted to try it out, but the cold together with the altitude made me sick to an extent that I couldn’t even eat anything. I spent the next couple of hours watching others drink and talk about which Hashish is the best and how much does it cost for a thola(around 11 grams). The first day concluded with me suffering from slight Acute Mountain Sickness(AMS). I hoped that the next day would be better.
AMS, the hidden danger among mountains. If one is not careful, it can strike without warning and leave you writhing and bleeding on the ground. I needed to get acclimatized to the higher altitudes, in order to get safely to Leh. I had not decided on my plans after reaching Manali, I thought I would spend a few days with Anoop and travel around Manali which would also help me get comfortable with the weather and altitude.
So, plans were discussed and debated. We planned a small trek to a nearby mountain, a trip to Kasol and so on. I wanted to visit the famed Rohtang Pass and Anoop wholeheartedly agreed. Anoop was mostly like this master of zen, calm and composed while I was trying to get him to agree to visit as much places as I could during my stay at Manali. I was rambling off the names of places when he finally got fed up and told me, “Dude, you are on a trip. Not an office project that has to be completed before a deadline”. This had a profound effect on me when I realized, I was trying to cram a lot of experiences into my short amount of time. Then and there, I decided that I would take it slow and to improve the quality of my experiences. I also made up my mind to visit Manali once more in the future just to experience the city and its surroundings better.
First trip, we started off towards Rohtang La. Even though we required a permit to go through the mountain pass (which I did not have), I was hopeful that we could reach up until Rohtang before security forced us to turn back. The road was filled with dusty trucks and tourists travelling in both directions. I saw a lot of Royal Enfields with jerry cans and prayer flags atop their handlebars. Everybody was tired but their faces mirrored the triumph of passing through one of the harshest terrains in India. We made slow progress with frequent stops for photography. Every view was picture perfect with the snow capped mountains as the backdrop. Anoop was getting impatient with me telling him to stop at every corner to take a photograph, so he said “Dude, this is a beautiful place and you will end up taking pictures every single minute, but you won’t enjoy the scenery”. Another pearl of wisdom from my friend. There was a check-post at Gulaba, a village around 30 km away from Rohtang. They did not allow us to proceed further :(. I was sad but there was no other alternative and we slowly returned. Then I saw people paragliding from the mountains of Manali. Their exuberant howls reaching us from across the valley. The whole image was simply surreal with the snow capped mountains, beautiful green forests and multi coloured parachutes in the sky.
The next day, after another delightful breakfast, we set off for a small trek to a near by mountain where Anoop said there was a really old Shiva Temple. It seemed like a pleasant trek with awesome views of the valley below us. Thirty minutes later, I was gasping for air, and the bottle of water over. The high altitude coupled with the absence of exercise pummeled my lungs. Ten minutes later, I told Anoop that I was ready to give up on the trek and a shower of expletives followed. He said that, he will not let a small trek like this get the best of him and proceeded uphill with renewed vigour. His sudden burst of energy spurred me on. We were getting parched as the water in the bottle was over. We crossed a small stream and filled up the water. Maybe it was the thirst but that water revitalized us.
The sights of the green Beas river far down below and gigantic trees like the Ents mesmerized me. Finally, after a couple of hours of arduous climb (mostly because I wasn’t in shape) we reached the top of a hill. And Anoop pointed out some plants that were growing there. They were Marijuana plants, growing out in the open. We had arrived smack in the middle of a vast marijuana field albeit one that was harvested. We plucked some leaves and it smelt of mangoes. Maybe they weren’t Marijuana plants but it did have that distinctive shape and also the scent of mangoes. (Maybe somebody was experimenting on the mountaintop.). We decided not to stay there for long since the owners of the plants might come back.Sadly, we decided not to proceed towards the Shiva temple and turned back to Manali.
While descending, we needed a break since my blood was pounding in my ears. We sat down on a rock, and after a while I heard someone singing. I inquired to Anoop and he said, that this trail was the only link to some village high up in the mountains. And then I saw a guy with a huge bag on his shoulders, singing without a worry and I was dumbstruck. I was whining about a small trek while this man had to carry everything for his home from the town to his village every week. As part of the rat race, most of us don’t appreciate the simple gifts and conveniences we have.
Next day, we left for Kasol and Manikaran on a motorcycle. Dhanush was supposed to arrive that day and he had also booked a room at Zostel. While enroute to Kasol we had to stop to allow some goats to pass and I happened to see a Duke 200 kitted out with off-road tires, and a rider in full dirt gear tearing along towards Manali. I was excited to see Dhanush a.k.a DJ (which he prefers :P) knowing that his ride preparations were complete and he would be competing at the Raid de Himalaya. We rode around Kasol where we saw Marijuana plants even near a police check post. Then it was lunch time, and Momos were the dish of the day. The Dhaba, that we had momos, made this awesome spicy chutney. We ended up eating a lot of momos, both fried and steamed. We did not spend much time around Kasol and made our way back towards Manali.
Later that day, DJ and me met up for drinks at a restaurant. That was the day, I had Old Monk Rum for the first time, and I have been a fan ever since. DJ was stoked to hear about the marijuana plants right in front our hotel and wanted to come over and see the place. DJ came over and saw Anoop rolling a joint, and this made him curious. He had smoked joints before but haven’t rolled one yet. So the next few hours were spent by Anoop educating DJ on the finer points of rolling joints and how to mix the hashish properly with tobacco. DJ left around midnight stoned and smiling, thanking Anoop for the valuable lesson.
The next day was spent ordering food to our room and I was planning my trip to Leh. I considered various options from hitchhiking on lorries going towards Leh to buying a ticket on a daily bus plying between Manali and Leh. I settled for the second option because it was safer and the travel time was around 16 hours Manali to Leh. After asking around, and haggling for the cheapest option, I booked a ticket for 2300 INR in a van and the best part was I got a seat right next to the driver with an uninterrupted view of the scenery all around.
Anoop told me about a shop called Delhi Chat Bandhar, and insisted that we go there. The dahi puri was luscious. Even though we tried many other dishes that day, only the taste of dahi puri lingers in my mind. It was a tiny shop but its walls were adorned with photographs of famous people who visited there, a testament to the quality of food. If you are visiting Manali, this is one of the must visit places.
Another wonderful cafe which I loved, was the summer orchard where they also served Israeli cuisine. It was located in a quiet area of Manali overlooking the Beas river. I could not find the exact restaurant on the Google maps but right next to this location.
After spending a few days in Manali acclimatizing, I was ready for the next part of the journey. Manali to Leh, a journey that scared the living daylights out of me at 3 a.m to a sunrise among the mountains that made me fall in love with emptiness of the desert.
To be continued.
Disclaimer: Whether you decide to smoke or drink is up to you and you only, I neither endorse nor condone. The only thing is to understand the risks entailed and to accept the consequences of your actions.