Manali is in Himchal Pradesh, north of Dharamshala, south of the state Jammu and Kashmir, and neighbour to China. It is a honeymooners paradise, couples flock here after their arranged weddings and cling to each other for warmth, sipping chai by the fire and posing for pictures in the snow. Going in February meant that temperatures plummeted to an icy 8 degrees and carrying backpacks filled to the brim with beach wear and cotton trousers meant in no way, shape or form, were we prepared for this weather. Our only option was to layer our numerous vest tops and cardigans on top of each other and pray it would take some effect. Wearing running shoes, our feet were immediately soaked through, which meant our cold feet influenced the entirety of our body heat. I even swayed at one point to wearing flip flops, although a laughable offence, it meant that my feet could dry much quicker.
Our hotel room was as if sitting in a freezer, our breath escaped our warm mouths and hung in the air as if cigarette smoke and we huddled under 3 blankets, as if penguins under thick skin, burrowing and searching for warmth. Even wearing many layers, 3 blankets and paying an additional charge for a heater, we could not warm up. India is not prepared for freezing temperatures. No heating meant that changing clothes was an odious task, so I can’t imagine if the honeymooners actually did get up to what most honeymooners do on their honeymoon, as it was far too cold to do any such activity.
We spent the first day wandering around the town and the nearby areas. Old Manali, the main backpacker hub, was closed due to the lack of visitors in February, which meant we saw many Indian families and couples wander the streets buying numerous gifts for their families back home. Managing to find a tour desk that rented out Wellington Boots was a highlight, so if you do decide to venture here in February, bring suitable footwear! We walked past (or squelched past) dogs shivering in the snow, circles of locals sipping chai around stalls as if the Macbeth witches around a bubbling cauldron, and Buddhist temples sprinkled with snow. There are many lakes and temples that surround the area, although the weather and inappropriate clothing put us off venturing any further.
The main tourist attraction we did was rent a jeep to Solang Valley. We passed sights that looked familiar in New Zealand or Switzerland: lofty alpine trees shooting up to the sky dusted in snow, Himalayan mountains sharp and jagged on the horizon and strong meandering rivers rushing past rocks and banks. The landscape is incredibly beautiful and well worth sacrificing your body warmth for. Getting to the valley itself was an entirely different thing all together. It being India, cars that are not suitable for snowy roads but holding persistent passengers and greedy ignorant taxi drivers, meant that many cars got stuck in the snow, blocking roads to and from the valley. In England, there would be no such problem. Rather, an orderly queue would have been formed and the police would have been called. But, although this a negative trait of India, a positive trait of India shone through in this situation. Locals who lived or worked close by, spent the entire day directing and redirecting traffic, dealing with ignorant drivers and pushy customers, which is a beautiful and giving thing in itself. This would never have happened in England, as many people would have adopted the attitude of: this is not my problem.
Deciding to dump the Jeep and abandon it on the side of the road, we walked the last bit of the journey up to the valley. The valley, we were told, is the best ski resort in India. However, unlike Europe and the USA, here there are no posh and expensive chalet cum restaurants that border the ski lift, but rather food stands with plastic chairs and plastic covers. The valley was a hive of expensive tourist activity: zorbing, ski lessons, snowmobile rides, sledging and yak rides, were just a few things on offer. Watching people’s expressions change whilst they frolic in the snow was an entertainment in itself.
I decided to snowboard here, as the thought of snowboarding in India entertained and baffled me at the same time. However, the last time I had boarded was 10 years ago, and so our guide/driver Raul suggested I try the baby slope before I ascend the mountains on the ski lift. With high expectations I gathered the board upon my shoulder and ploughed through snow. The snow on the slope was not the smooth, thin, nicely run slopes I was used to, but rather snow that was thick and fluffy. A disaster to board on. At first, I tried to practice my turning skills, building on my past experience. However, after every right turn, I landed in a pile of snow. Repeating the action of flipping the board and standing up time and time again meant that I had begun to attract an audience whilst trying to descend this small section of the mountain. After landing once again, ass in snow, my frustrations were quite obvious. A nearby Indian man rescued me and my board from the thick snow that trapped me in, enabling me to turn once again.
After a number of attempts and failures, I decided to ignore the thoughts of breaking a limb and cutting my trip short, and I bombed down the mountain. With the wind in my hair and the position held right, I felt triumphant and aglow with my achievement. I turned to dodge a nearby snowmobile, (another example of Indian slopes- traffic is free for all), and with this sharp turn I fell, hands narrowly missing Yak poo on the snow. A really close call and a classic Bridget Jones moment.
Leaving the valley behind us, it began to snow. Blankets of it smothered fields, the only pathways small cutaways from the snow. The scene was picturesque and I immediately thought of Frank Sinatra and other Christmas classics. Never being in the UK for Christmas means I’ve never had a white Christmas and the walk back to our warm vehicle, gave me a snapshot of what this would be like and I envy those that do experience it.