It has been a few weeks since I returned from Manali, but the memories of the trip are still fresh and will remain deeply etched in my mind for my entire life. It was a short trip, but a very effective one. From exploring beautiful places traveling along the hilly roads, to meeting new people and trying local food, it was an experience to remember.

Kullu and Manali are two very stunning places in the snow-clad ranges of the majestic Himalayas in the state of Himachal Pradesh. While the serene Kullu valley is home to scores of magnificent temples and castles, Manali, located to the northern end of the Kullu Valley, at an altitude of 2,050 meters in the Beas River Valley, is a stunning hilltop with wading water streams, rivers and lofty mountains.

As you enter the breathtaking Kullu valley, the first sight that greets you is the umpteen number of apple orchards laden with ripe fruits on both sides of the road. It is often said that the apple trees along with trout (which were not native to the place, were introduced by the British), and the fruits would be so plentiful that the branches, unable to bear their weight of the apples, would often collapse. To this day, the region remains one of the major producers of apples in the country, besides plums and pears.

If the scrumptious, juicy apples hanging from the trees are not alluring enough, the beauty of Kullu and Manali, nestled between the imposing peaks of the Pir Panjal and Dhauladhar ranges, is sure to astound you.

Manali, which literally means “The Home of Manu”, gets its name after a saint named Manu. Local lore has it that after a massive flood that deluged the world, sage Manu stepped off his ark in Manali to safeguard human lives from dying in the flood. The small town of old Manali has an old temple dedicated to sage Manu. Another interesting mythological anecdote that is often heard among the locals is about Hidimba Devi who lived in the jungles of Manal, and whose temple is now a popular destination for pilgrims and tourists alike. The tale of Hidimba Devi is discussed at great lengths in the Mahabharata as well.

Manali is well connected by roads. Moreover, if you want to go around the city and explore, various car-hire agencies offer tour packages to visitors at competitive rates. Alternatively, you can opt for public buses too—they are cheap yet infrequent—but you need to get familiar with the bus networksand their timetable. Auto rickshaws and other forms of public transport charge exorbitant rates from tourists.

However, if you want to explore Manali at your own leisure—unraveling the beauty of the ever winding roads, soaking in the natural beauty amidst the rocky greenery, inhaling the freshness of pure air, trying out local cuisine (noodles or spicy maggi or thukpa) from a less known stall by the road, interacting with locals and clicking pictures of life around them, sitting by the River Beas and enjoying the soothing sound of the splashing water—you must be on your own, on a bike (Enfield Bullets and other variants are easily available on rent), riding along the unknown alleys of the city, exploring the place which offers undiluted warmth and love to its guests.

Interestingly, there are quite a few popular places to explore in the interiors of the city. Hidimba Devi Temple, Manu Temple and Godhan Thekchokling Gompa are close to each other and can be covered in a very short time.

Constructed in the 16th century, with exquisite wooden carving and dedicated to Goddesses Hidimba, wife to Pandav prince Bhim, Hidimba Devi Temple welcomes hundreds of tourists every day. The Manu temple on the other hand is in old Manali and is dedicated to sage Manu who is believed to have lived in the 2nd century BC. Next, you can visit the GodhanThek Chokling Gompa, a popular monastery, built in 1969, withyellow pagoda roof and lively frescoes on the walls. The place is maintained bythe lamas who collect money by selling carpets, which they weave within the temple workshop.

In addition to the above, you can also explore the Solang Valley, Vashisht Kund and Naggar Castle. Solang valley, located 14 kms from Manali, is a popular adventure sports destination and offers a picturesque view of the snow-covered peaks and pine forests.

On the way to the Solang Valley, just 3 kms from Manali, at the banks of the River Beas, is another nature’s true wonder: the 4,000 years old historic Vashisht Temple, dedicated to the great sage Vashisht. It is also famous for its hot spring. There is a public bathing facility inside the temple with separate spaces for men and women.

The Naggar Castle, 35 kms from Manali and situated in Naggar, is the former capital of Kullu. Though the castle is now converted into a heritage hotel, it still bears the flavor of true western Himalayan architecture. Raja Sidh Singh of Kullu built this medieval Castle around 1460 A.D. Moreover, if you walk a few steps from this beautiful castle, you will come across the Nicholas Roerich Art Gallery. Nicholas Roerich was a popular Russian writer and artist who came to India in 1929 and settled in Naggar. You can visit his magnificent house that overlooks the Kullu valley; it is now an art gallery and displays many rare paintings.

Manali also serves as the perfect place to set out for mountaineering and trekking adventures into the Solang Valley or into the Lahaul-Spiti region over the Rohtang Pass. It is also the initial point for the epic journey to the cold desert region of Ladakh via Leh-Manali highway. A trained and skilled local trek guide makes the adventure even more exciting and memorable. Harishji (that is what I call him) is a trained guide with extensive knowledge of Himachal Pradesh and the Himalayas. He lives in Rumsu (a small village town between Manali and Kullu).

The Manali market, which is opposite to the main bus stand of the city, is full of life and always buzzing with energy. It is an ideal place to eat, drink and hang out. Right from snacks to Indian (nonveg/veg) to international cuisines like Chinese and Italian are available in plenty at stalls, dhabas and fancy restaurants. If you venture into the interiors of the town, you will find authentic local eateries offering Tibetan food and even pure Vaishnavi meals.

However, if you want a quieter place, visit Old Manali in the evening. The area has an array of options in terms of restaurants and bars. The majority of the crowd consists of foreigners. The eateries here serve Yak’s cheese; try it if you are adventurous. The Bob Dylan Café and Lazy Dog are two very popular eateries in Old Manali. While Lazy Dog offers assortment of options from Korean, Thai, Japanese, Vietnamese, Italian, Continental and Indian Cuisines with excellent food and ambience, Bob Dylan Café serves the most delicious sandwiches and cookies.

If you want to try the local alcoholic beverage (Lugdi or Chang), you have to visit a local home. Chang and Lugdi are types of beverages made from fermented rice and barley.

Manali, because of its popularity among the travelers, offers many options to stay. There are many hotels both in the luxury and budget category. However, if you want to stay at a quiet place, away from the hustle and bustle of the city, then you can opt for Hotel Chetna in Old Manali. The hotel, with its excellent food, clean rooms, friendly staff and nominal tariff rate, is just a few meters away from the Hidimba Devi temple and overlooks the scenic pine forest.

If Manali has been on your list of need-to-visit places for some time now, then you must pack your bags and set out to experience the picturesque settings of this small town in Himachal. It is unfair to keep a holiday waiting!

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