Travel during COVID19 is a leap of faith. During our recent road trip to Manali during coronavirus, we learnt this like never before. How is Manali during a lockdown? What are the coronavirus regulations in Himachal Pradesh, our go-to travel option? What are the safe modes of travel during COVID19? We wanted to explore these questions hands-on and the answers are in our last and the instant posts.
Manali during lockdown
Lockdown in Himachal Pradesh was strict and consequently effective. Manali, a hotspot of tourism in Himachal, reported very sparse incidents of coronavirus cases. Coronavirus regulations in Himachal Pradesh initially led to the closure of the state to outsiders. Visitors were allowed since July 2020, but after complying with a host of regulations. They had to get COVID 19 tests within 72 hours before the journey and carry negative reports. They also had to carry E-Pass and register themselves online. The regulations were gradually relaxed and have been completely waived since end September 2020. Manali was formally opened for tourists since 1st October 2020.
Tourism in Manali now
It was like a refreshing fountain for parched travellers! 1st October was a long weekend in India and we wanted to revive our old habit of travelling during such breaks. To recapitulate, we were on a road trip to Manali during coronavirus phase. The first part of our journey had been pleasant and we spent the night at Dera Bassi Homestay. We started early the next morning and reached Manali late afternoon, 4.30 ish. We were among the first visitors to Manali after the corona breakout. Incidentally, although we carried COVID negative reports, there was no checking for such documentation.
Our accommodation was booked at a homestay in Old Manali. We rested out the driving fatigue that evening. But we were in a bit of a quandary the next day!
We were unaware that Atal Tunnel inauguration by PM Modi was happening around the same time. As a result, there was a lot of VIP movement and security restrictions in Manali. We could not drive out the next 2 days and covered whatever we could of Manali on foot. This was unlike our prior Manali trip, and we were excited.
But Manali was still waking up from its corona induced slumber. While some tourists had started coming in, the roads were still very empty. There were not too many cars and taxis and we could walk around peacefully. Unfortunately, half of the cafes had shut down and many shops were closed. While Manali is one of the most naturally beautiful spots in the country, it was the colourful tourist-scape that was Manali’s pulse. The honeymooners, trekkers, families on holidays, travel groups and revelers were missing and this town seemed somewhat out of spirit.
Things to do in Manali
Manali gives everyone ample choices to be themselves. There are treks and adventure-tourism. There are nature walks. There are history and art. Mall Road is a great hangout zone for youngsters and families. And there is the fantastic option of doing nothing just staring at the mountains. Except for the last choice, all the other activities have been affected in varying degrees because of COVID19.
Hidimba Temple post corona lockdown
Hidimba or Hadimba Temple is one of the most visited tourist spots in Manali. It’s a cave temple dedicated to Hidimba, a demoness and wife of Second Pandav Bhima from Mahabharat. The cave temple is surrounded by an intricately carved wooden structure with a pointed dome on the top. The temple is designed in a typical Naggar style of architecture and has gods, animals and nature carved in wood and stone. Skulls of animals hanging on the outside wall are reminiscent of animal sacrifices here that have been stopped since some years now.
The main shrine has a rock jutting out of the ground and is worshipped by locals and tourists alike. When we visited last year, there was a long serpentine queue to enter the shrine. We had entered the sanctum sanctorum and circumambulated this rock.
Given the corona situation, there were very few people this time. Also, people were not being allowed inside the shrine though they could do the darshan and pray from the door that was kept open. The usual fanfare around the temple and yak rides were also missing.
We also visited another open shrine in the vicinity. This place of worship was more of tree temple dedicated to Ghatotkach, the son of Bhima and Hidimba. This braveheart fell in the Battle of Kurukshetra only after trouncing thousands of Kaurava soldiers. We were the only visitors at this temple. The tree, with a black piece of stone that was worshipped with very unconventional items like metal cutouts of animals, tin houses and mustard oil somewhat resembled the spartan life of the unsung hero Ghatotkacha.
We had a different experience of Manali this time. Since most of Manali was cordoned off due to the Prime Minister’s visit, we decided to go for a jungle hike.
We started at about 8:30 in the morning and went to the Vashisht area of Manali. Our destination was Bara Patthar up the hill. The trek was long but easy. We followed a gradient path stopping to appreciate the beautiful foliage on this hill. Alongside the staid pine and spruce trees, we also came across rajma or kidney beans and pumpkin creepers. Energetic mountain springs crossed our path.
We reached a small meadow at the top and the sunlight there looked heavenly. The fresh breeze was a panacea for our city lungs. Apparently, this zone of the forest was home to wild bear but they came out post sundown so we weren’t intruding. We rested for a while here, came across mushrooms and wood roses. On the way down, we crossed apple orchards. The bunches of red and green apples looked very tempting. In fact, we came across a hut where the apples from these orchards were being sorted for the market. The bright colour of the fruits was a photographer’s delight. We had some fresh apples here straight out of the orchard. It was already noon and we had parathas as brunch. After this trekking, we had finally earned every bite of the meal.
Visit to any popular hill station in India is incomplete without pottering on the Mall Road. To fulfil this ritual we took a longish walk to the Mall Road in Manali. It was the first weekend after corona lockdown that Manali had opened for tourists. Therefore, there were some people on the Mall Road but that was just a small fraction of the regular Mall Road frenzy. Given the sparse turnout, physical distancing was not a concern and, in fact, every person was masked. About half of the shops were open but there were very few customers. Cafes and food stalls were doing a little better. Softy ice-cream ironically was the hottest item here and given the beautiful colours these came in, we couldn’t stop clicking one.
Looking around, to be honest, made us sad and we were missing the buzz in this area. On the Mall Road, we could feel the pre-corona and the corona world like nowhere else. But we bought a few souvenirs to remind us that we were travelling again, albeit safely, and that deserved to be celebrated.
Shopping in Manali
Himachal Pradesh is a hot tourist destination for the gorgeous hill stations in the Himalayas. But if you are a culture enthusiast, you may know Himachal is a hub for fantastic handloom and handicrafts as well. The Kullu region is a hot-spot for traditional arts. The stately Himachali caps are popular among fashionistas. But the yak and sheep wool hand-woven shawls, with bright geometric borders, are a speciality here. These are called Pattus and are part of the local daily garb. Given the demand created by heavy tourist influx, many of these products come to the markets in Manali. Shawl shops are scattered in the various lanes and by-lanes of Manali but we realised that the Mall Road was an exhaustive zone with a host of stores selling Pattus and colourful Himachal caps. We bought some Himachal woven borders from Bhuttico, a state-run cooperative society of weavers and a cap from our ever favourite Khadi.
During this recent trip, we also came across a new item – dry grass slippers with colourful embroidery. These are locally called Poolan. The footwear looked so quirky that we wanted some pairs for our friends who like kitsch. The one shop everybody recommended for this item was “Moju ki Dukaan” in Manu Market on Mall Road. Given the current lull, the seller MrMoju was probably not expecting customers and had disappeared leaving his shop open! After we enquired, his neighboring shopkeepers started calling him. He pottered down in a while, switched on the shop lights and showed us his ware. What is inspiring is that he left his small but overflowing shop absolutely unattended and anyone could have walked in and walked out with stuff unnoticed. Perhaps such is the ethos in this area that nobody is expected to steal from a shop? Who knows?
The other grand craft from this area is brass repousse God faces that are used to represent the deities during ceremonial processions. Although of religious origin, these items have a contemporary appeal and are sought after for drawing room decor. We could not find the item in Manali and were told, we could find this in Kullu. Finally, we found this in the Himachal Pradesh Tourism outlet in Rajiv Gandhi Handicrafts Bhawan, on Baba Kharag Singh Marg, Delhi.
Things to do in Kullu, Naggar
Naggar is in Kullu, approximately 30 km from Manali. It is the erstwhile capital of the Kullu kingdom. We took Manali Kullu Highway and saw the most scenic beauty en route our destination. It took us approximately 45 minutes to reach Naggar from Manali. We have been to Naggar before and you can read details about this zone in our earlier post linked above. The chief difference was that given the coronavirus spell, we were the only visitors at Naggar Castle, Roerich Museum, Tripura Sundari Temple and the German Bakery.
That worked beautifully for us since we had all these gorgeous spaces to ourselves. We absorbed as much as we could and clicked to our heart’s content. The bakery, we learnt from the lone shop-attendant, had opened just that day and we were among the first customers here.
We go again!
In fact, being the first in Manali gave us mixed feelings. We saw a pristine Manali, calm and serene and perhaps a bit ominous. We missed the joie-di-vivre that this place stood for. Manali is designed for tourists and an empty Manali did not augur well for local livelihood starting from hotel-owners to their staff to the shopkeepers who have survived generations based on business generated through tourism. After all, tourism and hospitality sectors have taken the worst blow from the corona. But we were happy to travel and see some others travel, not recklessly, but with protection in place.
Our road trip to Manali was to make this point and we are happy we returned home safe and sound.