Many Indian cities have a street called ‘Mall Road’ and Manali is no exception. I cannot be sure, but my assumption is that it’s a generic term referring to a pedestrian street with only very limited vehicular access. The most famous of the Mall Roads is in Shimla and has long been a place for promenading back and forth, looking in the shop windows, looking at other people and wearing your best clothes because other people will equally be looking at you. In Manali there is also a Mall Road but it’s rather more down to earth than Shimla’s namesake. For a start it lacks the ‘Little England’ rows of shops and civic buildings which echo the builders’ memories of life back home in the Home Counties of genteel England. Manali was never the sophisticated and scandalous summer bolt hole of the British and their government in India so it picked up fewer pretensions and fewer ‘Englishisms’.
We walked the length of Mall Road Manali as part of our day’s sightseeing. More precisely, we walked it twice – once up, once back – in search of a place to eat and a bit of people watching. We found a bustling street filled with people of all colours and types of regional dress, strolling around. The locals in their traditional brightly coloured clothing, and Indian tourists from across the country all mingled with their different outfits. Nobody seemed to be in a hurry and most were wandering, drifting from shop to shop, stopping to look in the windows, buy a few souvenirs of find somewhere for a hot drink and something to eat.
Mall Road is not very long – my guess would be that the pedestrian area is no more than about a quarter of a mile long – and it’s actually just a small section of route 21, the Leh Manali highway. At the southern end of Mall Road, the highway (I use the term loosely, this is India, it’s not Route 66!) is diverted through a dog-leg that bypasses the pedestrian area and rejoins route 21 close to the bridge which crosses the Beas River.
The Taxi Stand (the place where, not surprisingly the taxis all gather to wait for business) is at the southern end of Mall Road. The Bus Stand, is across the road from the taxi stand. Heading up the road – by which I mean heading north or against the flow of the River Beas – you find a small wooden temple on the left hand side. This is one of those Indian temples that looks brand new but could – for all I know – have been there forever. We didn’t go in because it looked like they were still building it but of course they may have been doing repairs. The road is quite wide and nobody needs to jostle for space. We looked in the windows of the souvenir shops, tried to find a place to eat and then, once we’d eaten we wandered back down the road.
Our hotel had no wi-fi (despite claiming that it did) so we found an internet cafe where my husband deposited me for half an hour (about 10 rupees) and went shopping whilst I was tapping away. Freed from the constraints of me watching over him, he buzzed about Mall Road and the surrounding back streets and bought a glow in the dark Ganesh covered in small crystals which he swore he would put on the dashboard of his car and a pair of adhesive printed eyes to put on the bonnet of his car. We have the most ‘desi’ Peugeot in England and probably the only one driven by a white guy who isn’t a Hindu.
After I’d done my mail, we wandered a little more. I spotted one of the ‘Pimp my bunny’ ladies in traditional dress taking a rest with her angora rabbit friend. We popped down the side streets to look at the beautiful vegetable displays and to try to track down a book store which turned out to be closed for no apparent reason. We photographed the small vehicles lined up for delivering goods and then eventually, when we could take no more, we stopped for cold coffees in a cheap street-side cafe. Eventually we headed back to the car park to find Mr Singh, waiting for us and ready to take us to our next temple.