May 25th, 2018 by Pooja Akula

With nostalgia in her voice, my mother narrated endless tales from her journey to places like Khajiar, Dalhousie, Dharamshala, Shimla, Kullu, Manali, Rohtang; and I grew 21 dreaming of them. The lush green fields, the mountains, the endless sky, the stars kissing snow-capped hills were all very mesmerizing in my imagination, and I had avoided seeing pictures of them because I wanted to experience the Himalayas in reality. I wonder why a trip to any of these places never happened in all these years. A family or college trip, with cousins or friends…nothing at all! But now, alas! The wait was going to have a full stop!

Out of all the places mom had been to, I decided to pick Kullu and Manali. Two of her favourite destinations. The trip had more to it. It was a compilation of mom’s list of places with my bucket list. My bucket list that consisted of Kasol and a few nearby villages like Tosh, Kalga, Katagla and Pulga. So now, I was going to Delhi-Kasol-Manikaran-Katagla-Tosh-Pulga-Kullu and Manali.

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The trip had begun, and I was having the best time of my life. I enjoyed the sight of Parvati valley in Kasol, camped in Katagla, visited Pinky Didi’s Cafe in Tosh and stayed at a homestay called Mountain view; an accommodation for INR 100 per night in Pulga. *Haha! So cheap right?!” Kullu was random site seeing on the way until it was time to head to Manali. I already had pictures framed in my mind based on mom’s stories and was too excited to be there.

Here’s a flashback narration from Mom’s trip…

“We lived in a castle that was converted into a rest house in Naggar village, about 20 kilometres from the town of Manali. The heritage hotel was formed out of wooden logs, and we were fortunate to live in the room that belonged to the king himself. The location was superb. Green mountains everywhere and a small bridge I crossed unnecessarily several times.”

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(I did my study and figured the Castle was built by Raja Sidh Singh of Kullu around 1460 A.D and preserves the flavour of authentic western Himalayan architecture even today.)

“We left for Manali early in the morning, and all we could see were distant snow-capped mountains and the flowing river. Our guide took us to the famous bazaar where hawkers sold fancy stuff. Few shops but great options to eat at…”

Cut to my experience at Manali…

I reached Mall Road, a famous street in New Manali. Yeah, now the town is divided into two parts; old and new. I started walking on the street only to see heaps of crowd, uncountable eatery shops and hawkers blocking the narrow paths. It was perhaps the busiest street I had been to in the past ten days. And honestly, it was unpleasant and highly disappointing. The sight was nowhere close to mom’s description of Manali. I even asked around to make sure if I was at the right place and unfortunately, yes, I was!

Dealing with the horror, I spent a couple of hours strolling around the market area and then took a rickshaw to my hostel where I was going to stay for the next two days. The union of rickshaw wallas disagreed to accept nothing less than INR 150. So, on having no choice, I agreed to that amount. I had pre-booked my stay at hostel bonfire for INR 450 per night, a shared female dormitory for a reasonable rate. I realised I could have spontaneously found a private room for that cost even otherwise. Anyway, at this point, I had greater concerns…I was only hoping to see a better version of Manali. Coming from hilltops like Pulga, new Manali seemed just like any other metropolitan city. The presence of so many people was not what I was prepared for!

On board the rickshaw ride of ten minutes or even lesser, I noticed how the roads started to become narrower. As one steep road led to another, I could now see river Parvati flowing on one side and distant mountains in the background. Mom’s narration was gradually becoming a reality. There were many shops selling leather products and other souvenirs; cafes beautifully lit. I soon started counting cafes I would hog on the following day, but there were so many that I legit lost my count. Most of these cafes had a board outside that read “LIVE PERFORMANCE TONIGHT.”  It was 12:30 am, but the roads were still shining brightly. Suddenly, the rickshaw walla stopped and mentioned your hotel is on your left. Exactly like the GPS aunty who says “your destination is to your left” or “you have arrived at your destination.” HAHAHA! Within the next few seconds, I realised where I had arrived…Old Manali it was!

I checked in the hostel happily with a hungry stomach. Expecting to get some food from the hostel’s kitchen, I went to the cafeteria. There, the hostel owners with some other guests were having a chill time. One of them was playing the guitar while the rest sang to his tune. I requested for some food, and the chef was kind enough to cook biryani at 2 am for me. I hogged, socialised for a while and went to the room to get some rest. I guess the transition from busy mall road to narrow slopes had made me happy. The start to Manali was good!

The fact that anybody who has visited Old Manali will agree to is that this little place is filled with foreigners who appreciate and enjoy Indian culture, beauty and food. Foreign travellers stay here for months long, adapt to the lifestyle and become friends with each other and of course, the localities. You often see them dressed up in traditional Indian clothes, wearing a bindi and other conventional jewellery. It is a great feeling to watch people across the globe love and enjoy our customs just as much as we do. On the other hand, residents of Manali majorly make their living through tourism. Some of them own a restaurant, some provide accommodation facilities, while others own souvenir stores. Their life seems joyous but busy.

There were too many things to do but unfortunately with just two days in hand. So I had to sort of squeeze my plans…urgh! According to what I had thought for myself, the next day demanded a visit to Solang valley. However, I analysed I would end up spending more time travelling than being at Solang, so I decided to revise the schedule and instead spend my time on the streets of old Manali; getting hold of the local life here. I hopped from one cafe to another enjoying a variety of cuisines that the cafes had to offer. I shortlisted cafe “The lazy dog” for the night where a live singing performance was to happen. The next day passed by similarly making new friends, getting my hair braided, shopping and chilling (literally) at the banks of the flowing river. The change in plan was worth it!

The trip came to an end, and it was a perfect addition to my mom’s “to be continued story….”

Oh, and looking at mom in the above picture, you must have guessed…she visited these mountains around the same age as I am now. So I think I know why this trip never happened before…

Because maybe, just maybe, it was destined to happen at a time I could rejoice it the most, precisely like mom.

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About Pooja Akula

A fulltime traveller and content curator. She's the kind who finds it difficult to bide at a place for long. You may want to ask her "where you at?" every now and then. She also works for NGOs in areas of sustainability and education.