There are many places in India that we have been to more than once, usually because there is more to do than can be done in one go or the beauty of the place pulls us back. Mighty Manali, surrounded by high peaks in the green valley of the Beas River, is one such place.
This settlement in Himachal Pradesh has been on the backpacker’s circuit for many years and it’s easy to see why. There is a lot to see and do around this small town. You can go hiking in the hills or you can just kick back and soak up the vibe in the many cafes and restaurants.
After a very long journey from Kaza in a cramped land rover, we arrived late in the evening into New Manali. This is the modern, commercial area, The Mall full of swanky new shops, bars and restaurants.
We had booked to stay at Rocky’s Guesthouse, the very last lodging at the top of Old Manali. It was quite a slog to get up to every day but the beautiful view was worth it. The old part of town is the original and still has its unique mellow vibe, as opposed to the frenetic scenes that are now a daily occurrence in the modern area.
Worth seeking out in Old Manali is the towered Manu Maharishi Temple, which, according to legend, is where the ark of the Noah-like Manu – the creator of civilization – landed after the great flood.
We spent a good few days in Manali, doing some day hikes as well as a bit of relaxing and exploring in the immediate area. We had visited once before but many years ago, so it was interesting to see how much had changed.
Not far from Rocky’s, we found a few simple restaurants serving Indian and Western food. The real gem though was a very simple non-descript shack on the side of the street, run by a friendly older man, who served simple dishes of dal and rice or noodles, as well as the real draw card – his chai! It was simple and authentic but the best we had tasted in a long time! Moreover, it was also kept at the original price of 10 rupees as opposed to the inflated prices elsewhere in town! Needless to say we went there a lot for our chai fix!
Our first excursion was to Goshal, trekking there along a forest path. Although only a couple of kilometers from Old Manali, it took us a while to reach the village as we got lost at certain points and the terrain wasn’t exactly easy. However, once we arrived it was a welcome sight to see such a nice traditional village with people still living a very simple life without much modern intervention, apart from better built homes and the odd solar panel here and there!
From Goshal we continued on to Vashisht, on the slopes above the Beas River, which is home to the ancient stone Vashisht Mandir and its sulfur-laden hot springs. It is a slightly quieter and more compact version of Old Manali, though it also has the same kind of traveller cafes and guesthouses, along with cheap food and drink. The pretty Jogini Waterfall is a major attraction near Vashisht and is worth the short hike for a few photo ops and to see Indian tourists playing in the water.
We paid a visit to new Manali in the daylight for a look around and to see the two Buddhist monasteries, which are part of the small Tibetan community south of the town centre. The Himalayan Nyinmapa Buddhist Temple holds a two-storey statue of Sakyamuni, the historical Buddha, whilst the more traditional Von Ngari Monastery has an atmospheric prayer room filled with statues of bodhisattvas and revered lamas.
Walking back up to Old Manali, we also stopped by the wood-and-stone Hadimba Temple, which stands in a clearing in the cedar forest between the two parts of town. Pilgrims come from across the country to honour Hadimba, the demon wife of Bhima from the Mahabharata; Gatothkachm, the warrior son of Hadimba and Bhima, is worshipped in the form of a sacred tree near the temple.
Having been in Manali for a few days, it was time to slim down our luggage and go further afield. We left the burden of our big bags in the safe hands of Rocky and arranged a second stay for a week’s time. With our light bags making trekking and bus hopping a lot easier, we made for the Parvati Valley, well known for its wild and cultivated crops of charas and hippie hangouts along the river.
The Parvati Valley
Our first stop was Manikaran, a pilgrimage town sacred to both Sikhs and Hindus and famous for its hot springs. The large multi-storey Sri Guru Nanak Ji Gurdwara, on the north bank of the Parvati River, is constantly buzzing, teeming with pilgrims and those visiting the hot springs. We had a quick look around but the claustrophobic chaos was too much, so we made a swift exit!
Nearby, we saw the Shiva temple, where the rice for the gurdwara is cooked in boiling hot-spring water, followed by the wooden Naina Bhagwati Temple on the traffic-free north side of town.
After a spot of lunch, we found onward transport to Barsheni, from where we hiked up to Pulga, which came as a welcome relief after crazy Manikaran. From where the bus dropped us, it was quite a trek to reach the village – across a bridge and along a narrow path. We finally arrived as the sun was setting.
Pulga is a very quiet and peaceful place with some houses and guesthouses, along with a few simple cafes for travellers to relax in. Finding a nice clean guesthouse and feasting on a much needed thali, we began to unwind after a rather long and busy day.
Hiking to Khir Ganga
The reason for staying in Pulga was the proximity of the village to Khir Ganga, a beautiful alpine meadow, which we intended to visit as a day hike. This is also the first stage, or the final one depending on your direction, of the strenuous Pin-Parvati Trek. To reach it, we had to hike for around three hours up the Parvati Valley, gaining around 800m in altitude.
We set off at 7am and, on the recommendation of a friend, trekked up on one side of the river and back on the other. As we progressed up the valley, we passed through small settlements and there were a few shacks serving drinks and refreshments. The hike wasn’t too much of a challenge, there being only one trail to follow, and the beautiful scenery made it a pleasant experience.
As we walked, we saw local people coming in the opposite direction with incredibly large loads on their backs; some were carrying cooking equipment and one man was even transporting a wardrobe! No easy task alone, especially when moving across narrow rough terrain! I admired their strength and stamina.
Once we reached the meadow, we found the reason for all the movement was because the government had ordered a temporary shut-down of all the tent stays, shack guesthouses and restaurants, who were running businesses on land they did not own or rent. It looked like the aftermath of a huge festival, so many were the camps.
Glad that we hadn’t planned to stay, we enjoyed the surroundings and mountain views and took a look at the hot springs, which are part of a temple. With separate bathing areas for men and women, we declined taking a dip. Luckily for us, a few cafes were still operating so we stopped for a simple lunch and then made our way back to Pulga.
The return journey, downhill, was very pleasant and easy going so we could focus more on the nature that was all around us. As we were nearing the end of our hike at around 4pm, we were stopped by a group of Indian guys coming in the opposite direction. They didn’t look at all well-equipped for a hike with their jeans and trainers and said they were planning to stay at Khir Ganga.
They asked us how much further it was, to which we stated that it was still a good couple of hours away and that certain parts of the path might prove a challenge. They thanked us and carried on. We didn’t envy them starting the climb at that late hour of the day! We reached Pulga just as the sun was setting; it had been a long and tiring but equally enjoyable day hike and we felt very accomplished!
We left early the following morning and picked up local transport to Kasol, which offers mountain views and a riverside setting. This small village in the Parvati Valley has become known among travelers as Little Israel due to the number of Israeli nationals that come to stay here. The Israeli influence is imminently apparent by the array of such dishes on offer in the restaurants, as well as the fact that some signs and menus are also in Hebrew!
The whole area has a very chilled out, hippie vibe with elephant-trouser clad, long haired dudes strumming on guitars in traveller cafes. It is possible to move away from the main centre of Kasol and seek out a quieter refuge in one of the surrounding villages of Chalal or Katagla, both of which we visited as they are only about 3 kilometers downstream, beside the river.
A little further afield, you can also hike up to the village of Rashol, which was originally an even quieter settlement set amidst the forest. However, since it’s discovery by long-term travellers, it has reportedly morphed into a commercialised area of wall-to-wall guesthouses and cafes. We, therefore, decided to skip it.
Hiking to Grahan
We stayed two nights in Kasol and planned an epic day hike for our one whole day, this time to Grahan. A little known place a few years ago, the village is now slowly opening up and welcoming many travellers, some of whom choose to stay for extended periods of time.
Again, we set off early but unlike the valley hike to Khir Ganga, this one was a little trickier. As before, there was beautiful nature every step of the way and some parts of the route were easy to follow. At some points, however, it was a bit of a scramble; we took a few wrong turns now and again but thankfully, after a final steep hill climb, we made it!
We covered the 8 kilometer distance in very good time, having left Kasol at 7am and arrived at around 10am. Some people were still asleep! This, however, gave us an advantage in that we could appreciate the quiet stillness of the village in relative solitude. It was a delight to explore the quaint rustic settlement, viewing its temples and traditional ways of life that, despite the tourist boom and the multiple guesthouses that have been created because of it, continue to thrive.
We stopped for an early lunch and enjoyed the view, chatting to a friendly guesthouse owner who offered us a room. He was very surprised that we were planning to return to Kasol that day, with minimal respite and having only just arrived. “Oh! You are very fit!” he said! Fueled and having seen the small village, we headed back to the trail and began the descent to Kasol; it was slightly easier going downhill, the route now familiar.
Along the way, we were met by a large group of Indians with their guide, who were on a three-day two-night trek to a village further way. We exchanged pleasantries as we passed and many of them asked, “Your trek is finished?” We simply smiled and replied in the affirmative, carrying on our way. We arrived back in Kasol at around 2pm. Feeling rather accomplished, we chilled out and recovered from what had been two very long but enjoyable days of hiking.
Our journey through the Parvati Valley came to an end but we had one final stop to make on the way back to Manali and that was to the small village of Naggar, which was once part of the Kullu kingdom. At an elevation of 1800m above sea level, it is a very quiet place. Almost unknown to foreign travellers and with only a few sights in the area, Naggar is the perfect place to relax for a while, before heading back into the craziness of Manali.
We stayed at a small peaceful guesthouse above the main road, which was well-kept and run by very kind owners, who offered us chai when we arrived. The next day was spent leisurely strolling around, visiting sights such as the International Roerich Memorial Trust and Naggar Castle, which was constructed in 1460 and converted into a heritage hotel in 1978. Inside, the Jagti Patt Temple houses a sacred stone slab, said to have been carried to its present location by a swarm of deities in the form of honey bees.
There are also several beautiful temples scattered around the village, including the 11th Century sikhara-style Vishnu Mandir, lovely little Gauri Shankar Temple, pagoda-style Tripura Sundari Temple and Murlidhar Krishna Temple, which was built on the site of the ancient town of Thawa.
From Naggar it is possible to trek over the 3650m Chandrakani Pass to Malana village, infamous for its charas, otherwise known as ‘Malana Cream.’ From Malana it is also feasible to continue on to Kasol over the 3620m Rashol Pass, staying at a homestay in Rashol on route. Unfortunately, with time against us, we weren’t able to do the whole trek this time round but we did manage the first couple of kilometers to traditional Rumsu village with its ornate wooden temple.
Returning to Manali was worthwhile to see how it had changed and for us to explore a lot more than we had previously. Surrounded by hiking opportunities and some beautiful mountains and forests, it’s a trekkers dream. It is certainly a place we’ll remember for many good reasons, as part of our extensive travels in beloved and most incredible India!
Whilst you’re in Himachal Pradesh why not check out The Epic Kinnaur Spiti Loop! It can be started from either Shimla or Manali, season dependent.