DESOLATE MOUNTAIN MAGNIFICENCE
The finest snowy scenes are reserved for Manali. A treacherous mountain drive leaves me disorientated &delirious, but to be graced by spectacular rugged peaks &snowy ridges. Snowfall is so heavy that many roads are deemed unsafe and more are closed, such as the infamous ‘Rohtang Pass’. Literally translated from Hindi, it means ‘pile of corpses’ signifying those who’ve died attempting to cross the treacherous Himalayan mountain pass.
The snow-capped dizzying summits attract wealthy savvy Indians as a summer retreat. It’s appeal is clear: acres of fresh virgin snow, ice-topped rugged peaks offering revered adventure sports, from skiing& paragliding to four-by-fouring; and with luxe properties.
But it’s not a simple drive up. On many an occasion I wonder if we’ll make it. The Himalayan mountains rise desolately, ascending above a bubbling mattress of clouds. At the top of each peak are sheer walls of ice and blinding white snow, not to mention jaw-dropping views over Manali, through breaks in the layers of cloud. It’s a startling and inhospitable environment, but one which thousands call home. Fringed by sparkling glacier cones clinging precipitously to the towering forested rows of pine trees, we ascend and descend jagged weather-worn mountain ranges. The Himalayan mountains nurture upto six distinct climates. A drive up one mountain takes us through four seasons. At it’s foot, cultivated farmlands make way to the root-ridden pathways of the temperate lush zone along the River Beas, in which isolated families have farm the land for generations. But the towering trees soon begin to shrink as patches ascend into scarcity. Here, colours fade, temperatures plummet and the other-worldliness of the extreme scenes is unnerving yet mesmerising. A scarcity of water, lower Oxygen levels and the infuriating bitter ice see many routes closed off.
On arrival in Manali, however, life appears.
Passing the central market, shopkeepers, shoppers and animals share the road alike. Upon the ski slopes of Solang Valley, thousands of Indians precariously throw each other about, roaring with laughter and thoroughly maximising holiday time. The biggest surprise for me is seeing young Indian couples frolicking freely in the snow, relishing outdoor activities.
COSY SNOW LODGE
My lodge room is idyllic; cosy with marvellous bay-window views across icy summits. I arise at the crack of dawn to watch a fireball Sun shimmer from behind the mountains, until the instant it radiates through the peaks and above, blinding everything as the rays reflect off miles of virgin snow.
I watch as a helicopter airlifts guests at a hotel in the distance, from it’s helipad, transferring them directly onto the mountain tops for skiing. This is naturally comparable to Europe’s Swiss Alps.
DANCING ON A ROOFTOP; THE LITTLE GIRL WITHIN
At sunset, I steal the most idyllic spot in town. Moments like this become my cherished holiday treasures that stand out on later reflection. At the top of the hotel, a door onto the rooftop has been left unbolted. Cup of Masala tea in hand, wrapped in Pashmina and wool coat; I sneak out. As the Sun sinks into Manali’s landscape, astonishing colours are cast across the snow and streak the skies. Chilli reds and rose petal pinks are accented by a marshmallow palette of pastels. And, as if by magic, I enter my very own musical, as it starts to snow on me. Cotton wool flurries land first on my head, then my hands which I raise upto the skies. Before long, I’m ensconced within the blanketed powder-soft embrace of the white stuff. Looking out, up and down, it’s snow as far as the eye can see. In this moment, I am truly blessed and whisper a little prayer, before breaking into childlike skips, twirls and giggles, alone on the rooftop.
Needless to say, the second I’m back indoors, I’m gripped by an involuntary string of sneezes. I have come down with a cold. Now that’s not something I expected in India.
SNOWY TEMPLES & HOT SPRINGS
Sightseeing in Manali requires good walking shoes and a certain carelessness about dirt; not something many Indian women will embrace. First stop is the Vashishti temple and hot springs. Traditonally, as a mark of respect, shoes must be removed before entering any Indian temple. This poses an uncomfortable situation treading sludgy ice and snow down slippery steps to get to the temple. But it’s rather intimate and beautiful inside. Putting shoes back onto wet feet also gives me shivers down my neck as I cringe with the ‘Yuk’ factor. But that’s quickly forgotten as I spot hot springs, next door, of steaming natural hot water. This appears a lifeline to local women, who wash their clothes and selves in the water. Inside the baths, women bathe completely naked and carefree, as do the men in the gentleman’s quarter. Not brave enough to strip off in freezing conditions, I make my way to the next sight, Hadimba Devi temple. The Heritage property is stunning in architecture and well-maintained.
During a brief amble through the main market town, I do notice a higher than usual helping of quirky characters. Like this man, who sells shawls on his market stall.
I’m also approached by some oddly behaved personalities, which is a little unnerving. Luckily, I’m not alone.
I’m happiest reclining in my suite just watching the evolving picture. It’s an all-weather postcard featuring changing colours. And with freshly-brewed Masala tea in hand, under the duvet with hot water bottle, I can’t think of a better place to watch it.
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