Monday, January 3, 2011

Mind-bending Manali

The bus ride from Shimla to Manali, is a perfect example of passing through hell in order to get to heaven. I've been on some terrible bus journeys in my life (Bangkok to Siem Reap anyone?), but this ranks high among them - perhaps #1! The seats are cramped, air flow is minimum and this stretch of forever winding road has an insatiable appetite for motion sickness. It happens quickly. A passenger will stick their head out the window, as if looking for something, before vomiting heavily. The splashback factor often results in spray and splutter reaching even the last window on the bus. Nobody is spared the carnage and through specks of spew, the mountainous scenery is somewhat spoiled :P

With low speed monotony (260km = 11hrs), and a lack of any suspension whatsoever, time becomes nothing but a concept, passing which is impossible. At around 2.30am after four hours of silence and darkness on board, the driver having returned from a triumphant restroom stop, decides to blast Hare Krishna music. The recording sounds as if it's 50 years old, yet the elderly singer screeching at the top of her lungs is anything but feeble. Nobody on board dares to say anything, but simply toss and turn with impatience. There's a sense of silent frustration all round, but as I can never sleep on buses anyway, my sympathy is non-existent (welcome to my world). After forty minutes of what feels like the same song on repeat, the surrounding madness engulfs me and I'm no longer able to stifle uproarious laughter. I get a few frazzled looks, but it's clear to me that everyone else missed the joke. Where else but India?!

A budding local crop =D
While the journey may be exhausting, rest assured - it's worth it. Once you step off the bus you'll lose all negativity, as well as any prior sense of significance, when you first look at the surrounding scenery. Instead of nearby towns like Shimla, where the town is built in to and on top of the mountain, Manali is situated between the mountains, making the frosty foothills of the Himalayas stand out even further. Right off the bat - Manali does the unthinkable :)

Famous for more than just great hash, Manali is famed for being an adventure sport capital. On any given day (weather permitting) the offerings include; paragliding, trekking, mountain biking and white water rafting. If you find yourself staring at the impressive mountain scenery for long enough, you might just spot some of the many 'gliders' who frequent these parts. Paragliding is a remarkably affordable activity in nearby Solang Valley, with prices determined by the flight's duration ($10 - $50 USD).

Anyone can paraglide, it's done as a double act, with a tandem pilot operating the controls.You can just switch your thoughts off, and hope for the best! We set off at a running pace, stumbling frequently on both large rocks and small boulders underfoot.
"Run! No stop, no matter what!" yells Raju, my 'co-pilot.' Running on thin air is a tough act, but something you'll have to master when paragliding. The surrounding landscape is stunning, looking like a mix of Lord of the Rings and the National Geographic channel. There are snow-capped Himalayan mountains, with the foreground comprised of tall pine trees.

It happens in an instant, one which I thought would land me face first in a heap on the ground. There's an overwhelming feeling of bliss the moment your ascent begins, perhaps due to the stress and tension felt only moments earlier. Soaring like a bird through a picturesque mountain valley, my head is at long last empty of thoughts. I am at peace with the world.

Closer to the ground, but still terrifying in its own way is white water rafting. In a taxi on my way to the nearby town of Kullu, I spot a sign by the side of the road offering rafting trips. I notice a couple more so I ask my driver how easy it would be to do, he stops the car immediately in an excited manner, and before we even negotiate a price, he happily appoints himself as my official photographer.

The captain of my raft, or 'pilot' as he liked to be called, is definitely of the Kamikaze variety. He chooses to plummet over waterfalls for the hell of it. We nearly flip the raft several times, and as such, collective gasps and sighs of relief were common among crew members. We manage to avoid falling out of the boat, but walk away drenched as if we'd swam the 7km journey, rather than paddled through it.

The key to enjoying Manali is to escape the new and embrace the old - quite literally. Old Manali is only 2kms from Manali's bus stand, but a world away in every respect. Come at the right time of year (October) and you'll find you almost have the place to yourself, save for a few other like minded westerners. Even the locals seem to pack up and leave around this time of the year, but there exists a small window of opportunity for Manali perfection. You can still find all the adventure sports, as well as local horticultural products - just at heavily discounted rates!

* An edited version of this article was published on TouristAttitude, click here to check it out.

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