You don’t go to Manali by accident; you have to really want to go there and make quite a lot of effort to do so. By car, it’s a full two days driving from Delhi assuming you only drive during the daytime when the light is good. You really wouldn’t want to take your chances on India’s Himalayan roads after dark. Actually if I’m honest, you don’t want to drive on any of India’s roads after dark. On the first day of our trip we drove (or rather I should say ‘were driven’) from Delhi to Shimla and then a couple of days later we took the road from Shimla to Delhi.
If time is tight and money no problem, you could take a flight. There is a small airport nearby which has connections with Indian Airways to many of the biggest Indian cities but they are quite expensive. You cannot take the train as the lines stop where the hills start – with the exception of the Toy Train to Shimla.
I first became aware of this city after meeting two Americans in a campsite in Ladakh. They had trekked for something like 40 days to get from Manali up to Ladakh and I was seriously impressed. A hundred years ago, I believe Manali was pretty much the end of the line for civilisation and transport, with the really big mountains starting just beyond the town and the roads not going much further. It was the southern end of an ancient trade route up through the Himalayas to Ladakh and beyond.
These days Manali is a tourist hub for adventure sports fans with skiing in the mountains and white water rafting in the Beas River Valley. You can also find inexpensive places for paragliding, pony trekking and other such pursuits. Although Manali and Shimla are both at very similar altitudes of just over 2000 meters, they feel like different worlds. Shimla clings to the side of the mountains whilst Manali nestles in the river valley. Shimla has a population pushing 200,000 whilst Manali’s is a more modest 30,000. The influence of the British in Manali is much less marked than in Shimla with only the hardy few, mostly military men, making it so much further north. There are some similarities though. Both have main streets called ‘The Mall’, both have several interesting temples, and both are favourites with Indians looking to escape the heat of the plains and head for some potentially seriously cold weather.
The main attraction in Manali is the scenery and the most popular attraction is a drive up to the Rohtang Pass, at almost 4000m altitude. The road to Rohtang is lined with stalls renting ski-gear and warm clothes, rubber boots and ski equipment so nobody needs to take their own. I would advise to check if there is actually enough ski to snow before paying money for such things as we saw some seriously funny instances of people attempting to snow on an inch or two of snow-covered rocks. Paragliding places are available on the way up and once you reach the top, you can walk or take ponies further up the mountainside.
In Manali itself you will find a rather small town centre with a maze of shops and restaurants laid out around the central pedestrian street called The Mall. Attractions in the centre include a Tibetan Temple Complex, a small wooden temple on the Mall itself, a shady woodland park called Van Vihar and of course lots of places to just wander around. Slightly out of the centre you fan find the Hadimba Temple. This temple is hundreds of years old and built of wood with a fascinating roof structure. It’s also surrounded by ancient tall deodar cedar trees. Watch out for the ‘bunny ladies’ who pounce on unwary tourists and force their fluffy white angora rabbits onto them for photographs (and money). Near to the temple is a small museum of Himachal Pradesh Culture.
The lamest attraction in town must surely be The Club House which offers a third-rate set of what appeared to be poorly maintained rides and attractions as well as quite an interesting old building. I’m not sure which ‘Club’ it was ‘House’ to but its attractions are unlikely to impress most visitors.
The Vashishta Temple a couple of miles outside the town and well worth a visit offers several small temples as well as natural hot springs for bathing. If neither of those things appeal, it’s worth a visit just to look at the views. It seems to be an area popular with backpackers and was one of the busiest places we visited in Manali. If you are willing to travel a little further, the white water rafting centres are about 40-50 minutes drive south of the town and you will also find a weaving centre and angora rabbit farms.
Manali is a strange little place that’s quite unlike most towns we’ve visited in India. We visited for three nights which meant one day for going to Rohtang and another to see all the local sights. If you want to raft or ski, book longer – but be aware that when it’s cold enough for skiing, you won’t want to raft so you’ll probably choose one or other activity depending on the weather. Since we were content to just wander and observe, two full days was just about perfect for us.