Everybody loves Manali
The voices were unanimous. “Go to Manali!” all said, then half added “And bring us back some hash!” But I was less interested in the sticky brown stuff than I was in the green. The trees, that is. Normal trees, I mean. Did they have any of those?
“Oh absolutely! Manali is much greener and quieter than Shimla. People go there for their honeymoons. It’s small, like a village.” So told, so sold. Eyes craving green, ears a break in the horns, and skin thirsting for the absence of sweat. That too? “Definitely. Manali is much cooler, cuz it’s in a valley, but it’s, like, way up in the Himalaya so it’s still suuuper hiiigh” one fellow said, as I enjoyed both his advice and performance-art pun.
When I stepped out of the bus after ten hours of bouncing and dust, it didn’t feel high, it felt perfect. Cool air with mist, color on the walls and movement in the streets, I was happy from the get-go. A rickshaw rumbled me right out of town and up a wet clay road so pitted and streaked with monsoon runoff it felt like riding a rockslide more than a tuktuk. Worth every rupee.
My hotel home looked out over the valley, and the quiet guy who brought parantha in the morning pointed out a path to town. Down among the trees it led, over rocks and between mossy stones where monsoon droplets lingered on pine needles. I was already glowing even before one of the neighborhood dogs went with me and made it a love story.
Manali itself was larger than I expected, with winding alleys, rusting sheet metal, and the eager motorcycles I sighed to see. But in the warren I found mainly more of the friendly folks from the trail, smiling and going about their lives in colorful fabrics and rapid conversation. I felt welcome.
Winding lanes led me uphill to Hadimba Temple, rust and carved wood, bell tolling into the trees, orbited by women rubbing angora rabbits on tourists and men kicking yaks in the face. My Delhi advisors had agreed “You should stay in Old Manali” but I hadn’t known where that was. On one of my walks I found it. Passerby went from locals to tourists, raw rebar to smoothie cafes, and the rhythm of Hindi or Pahari giving way to covers of Brazilian pop songs. But also an empty restaurant where I sat with a large lady blasting Bollywood from her phone while her husband cooked up a fresh batch of dal makhani.
Back on my mountain, I talked to the manager. He spoke of heritage and change in the valley. I asked if he’d grown up in the area. “Me? No, I’m from Delhi. I’ve been here three years.” Change indeed. And the hotel? “When it was built, three years ago, it was the only one in this area. In the last year they’ve built twelve new ones on this street alone.”
We sat in silence, enjoying the view, sipping the chai, and I let that seep into me. Twelve new concrete hotels stacked on the green hillside. Lights twinkled all down the valley, then went out. He sighed. “We never used to have power outages. This area produces electricity, the hydroelectric dam over there,” he pointed. “We used to sell it to other areas, now with so many people, we get this.”
In the dark, as candles were found, I could see patches of stars through the clouds, mirrored by those buildings big and rich enough to have generators. A low breeze went through the trees and the sky lurked with almost-ready rain. It was peaceful, beautiful, and calm, but I couldn’t help but wonder: for how much longer? How long until Manali is just another Shimla, slopes squished by cinder blocks, buses pausing before pushing further into the mountains to drop people off at someplace still green.
But then I remembered a core element of the traveler’s creed. Don’t expect perfection. Don’t wait for the ideal, demand the unblemished, hold your breath for the pure. Love whatever you find, and acknowledge that people are living their lives, everywhere. Not living to please your preconceptions. Trying to make a living, feeding their families, wanting to live in peace and laughter.
And they’re doing it in Manali. And I felt blessed to share it for a few days. Next up, quieter in myself, I took an overnight bus to Dharamsala. Maybe I’d have tea with His Holiness…