The overnight bus ride to Manali was torture. It’s to the continuous puzzlement of every traveler I have talked to on the road why exactly it always seems like the ‘right’ option. Sure you save a few pennies plus you don’t have to pay for accommodation but the pain that is involved barely makes it worth it.
Taking my seat on the ‘ordinary’ government bus compounded these thoughts. The seats had next to no padding leaving pretty much a metal bar to sit on. Directly in front of the seat was another metal bar to help you hang on when the bus takes the corners at reckless speed. It also provided a target for my head to plummet towards every time that the bus broke sharply. There was no head rest leaving a fragile window as the only place to rest. Behind me sat a Tibetan woman, who under the influence of something, went through a familiar routine. Fall asleep, wake up, open the window into my shoulder and head, fall asleep, get woken up because her head is out of the window, close the window and so on for 10 hours.
After no sleep I joked with the other Western inmate on the bus, who had reached his destination at the time of 2:30am. He turned and said ‘this is not good’. One hour later I was uttering the same words. As I stumbled off of the bus, three touts approached. The tone in my voice must have informed them that it was too early in the morning for this and they hobbled back towards the shadows.
As I wondered down the main street in a sleepless daze there was not another person around. There were dogs though. Packs ten strong controlled the streets at this hour. It was not a pleasant place to be as rival packs fought for territory and I happened to find myself in the middle of it.
Fortunately I had been told to stay around 3km outside of Manali at either Vashisht or Old Manali. I liked the sound of the name of the first place and so started the climb out of Manali and away from the essentially wild dogs. As soon as I crossed the bridge and away from the lights, the entire area was pitch black. Looking up the whole sky was filled with every star imaginable. Shooting stars lit up the sky. I could just about make out the outlines of the mountains, it was spectacular. I sat for maybe an hour in awe at the sight before me. Finally the cold started to bite and I carried on up the road. Whilst the packs of dogs stayed in Manali all sorts of other animals passed me on the way up as I staggered aimlessly hoping not to fall into the river that I could hear, just not see, beside me. On two occasions I found myself no more than one meter away from a wandering donkey. Due to the dark, it was always the donkey that reacted first letting out a tremendous noise, followed by the stamping of its hooves that sent me jumping ten feet into the air in shock. Luckily shining my ipod on full brightness into their eyes seemed to send them galloping away.
On my arrival in Vashisht I was greeted by a man in his boxer shorts and tooth brush in mouth. He said “milk tea?” I had never had a better offer at 5am in the morning. And what a kind man he was. Not only did he open the cafe four hours early for me, he even woke his wife up to make me breakfast. It was not a problem he assured me.
When the sun rose, ‘Manali’ was as beautiful as I had imagined. With a river flowing through the middle and mountains in abundance it was a great place to sit and wither away a few days. The first day I largely spent sleeping and enjoying the grand views. On the second I went back to the center of Manali taking in its limited sights. On the third day I planned another of those improvised walks into the mountains. Then just at the point that I was scaling an exposed but rewarding path the thunder came, then the lightening and finally the rain. It was torrential. I was drenched. After two hours in the rain I made it back to bus station and promptly booked my early morning ticket out. Manali was no fun in the rain.
After a few hours of warming myself up I heard that the rain had stopped. Peering out of the windows though it had been replaced by a terrific snow storm. This just wasn’t India. However saying that it was beautiful watching the peaks and indeed Vashisht get covered in a blanket of snow.
The following morning I awoke to find that not only had most of the snow gone but so had the bus! I now had another reason why night buses seem a better idea than morning ones. It was a blessing in disguise though. Admiring the snowy peaks were a great way to spend a morning whilst chatting to fellow travelers and drying clothes in a roof top cafe.
In the afternoon I nearly managed to miss my bus again this time getting lost when trying to find my way back from the ‘must see’ waterfall that I had been advised to see by a local. I should probably have known better not to have spent so much time admiring the stunning light show as the sun went down. Further over the previous couple of breakfasts I had been devouring a cartoon book by one of the writers of Sesame Street. He documented every day of his year long travel in 1990 with a drawing and some explanation. One such sketch was of the woods around Manali and how easy it is to get lost. I should have paid more attention. As seems to be the way so far I got a lucky break and found my way out after an hour or so of searching through what had taken me five minutes to walk through on the way up. I quickly ran back picked up my backpack and got to the bus just in time. Perfect preparation for another night bus, this time to Shimla.