Himachal’s main tourist resort, MANALI, stands at the head of the Kullu Valley, 108km north of Mandi. Despite lying at the heart of the region’s highest mountain range, it remains easily accessible by road from the plains; after one hour on a plane and a short hop by road, or sixteen hours on a bus from Delhi, you could be staring from your hotel veranda across apple orchards and thick pine forests to the snowfields of Solang Nala, which shine a tantalizing stone’s throw away to the north. Manali has become increasingly popular with domestic tourists (five million annually), giving rise to an eclectic mix of honeymooners, holiday-makers, hippies, trekkers and traders.
The Manali that lured travellers in the 1970s has certainly changed, although the majestic mountain scenery, thermal springs and quality charas can still be enjoyed. Old Manali retains some of its atmosphere, and the village of Vashisht across the valley, with its increasing choice of guesthouses and cafés, has become a popular place to chill out. For those preferring to venture into the mountains, Manali makes an ideal trekking base for short hikes and serious expeditions, and countless agencies can help put a package together for you. The relaxing hotels in Manali’s cleaner, greener outskirts, and dozens of sociable cafés and restaurants ranged around a well-stocked bazaar, provide a welcome relief from the rigours of the mountain trails.
Manali’s main street, the Mall, quite unlike its namesake in Shimla, is a noisy scene of constant activity, fronted by the bus stand, several shopping markets, travel agents, and a line of hotels and restaurants. It’s a great place to watch the world go by – locals in traditional caps, Tibetan women in immaculate rainbow-striped pinafores, Nepali porters, Buddhist monks, the odd party of Zanskaris swathed in fusty woollen gonchas, souvenir-hunting Indian tourists and a curious mix of Westerners.
Manali’s days as an authentic pahari bazaar ended when the mule trains were superseded by Tata trucks, but it’s still great for souvenir shopping. Woollen goods are the town’s real forte, particularly the brilliantly patterned shawls for which Kullu Valley is famous. Genuine pure-wool handloom shawls with embroidered borders start at around Rs500, but those made from finest pashmina cost several thousand rupees. Shop around and check out the fixed-price factory shops to get an idea of what’s available: the government-sponsored Bhutico on the Mall opposite the tourist office, the Bodh Shawl factory shop just off the Mall south of the bus stand and The Great Hadimba Shop & Factory next to the Manu Temple in Old Manali are recommended; the NSC (New Shopping Centre) market near the bus stand also has a good selection.
Elsewhere around the bazaar, innumerable stalls are stacked with handwoven goods and pillbox Kullu topis. Those with gaudy multicoloured up-turned flaps and gold piping are indigenous to the valley, but you can also pick up the plain-green velvet-fronted variety favoured by Kinnauris. Manali’s other specialities are Tibetan curios such as prayer wheels, amulets, dorjees (thunderbolts), masks, antiques are genuine, but it takes an expert eye to spot a fake. The same applies to silver jewellery inlaid with turquoise and coral, which can nonetheless be attractive and
Famous for its sweeping valley views and sulphurous hot-water springs, the ever-expanding village of VASHISHT, 3km north of Manali, is an amorphous jumble of traditional timber houses and modern concrete cubes, divided by paved courtyards and narrow muddy lanes. It is the epicentre of the local budget travellers’ scene, with a good choice of guesthouses and cafés. The tranquil and traditional atmosphere is only interrupted by the occasional rave that takes place in the woods, or if the weather is poor, in one or two obliging hotels.
Until the HPTDC hot baths complex opens again, the only place for a hot soak is in the bathing pools of Vashisht’s ancient temple (free), which is far more atmospheric anyway. Divided into separate sections for men and women, they attract a decidedly mixed crowd of Hindu pilgrims, Western hippies, semi-naked sadhus and groups of local kids.