Manali, India- Hiking the Himalayas
Manali is a small town located up in the north of India in the state of Himachal Pradesh. A popular tourist and adventure destination, Manali offers a wide variety of adrenaline-focused activities from hiking to white water rafting to paragliding. It is also known as a “party spot” in the summer months, as the notorious beach party spot Goa becomes almost inhabitable during the rainy monsoon months. Since it is located at 1800 meters above sea level in the Himalayas, Manali receives quite a bit of snow and can get very cold during the winter months. As such, many of the restaurants and guest houses are closed during the months of November-April. As I was there during the middle of April, a few of the popular restaurants were still closed. The nice thing about being ahead of the tourist rush though was that the town was pretty quiet, which offered ample time to enjoy the outdoors and relax. Manali ended up being one of my favorite cities in my India trip. I think I enjoyed it since it was so different to any of the other cities that I visited during my two months traversing through the wondrous subcontinent.
Coming from tourist-packed Rishikesh , Manali was a nice breath of fresh air (literally!) The hostel scene hasn’t yet reached Manali, but there are numerous guesthouses. It was very easy to negotiate a good rate for a private room and bathroom, only 300 rupees! That is slightly less than what I’ve been paying for a dorm bed in the larger cities. Instead of a fan in the room, the important extra were blankets to keep warm during the cold nights. Even though it would warm up to the 70s F during the day when the sun was out, the days would dip down to close to freezing. Coming from Rajasthan and Rishikesh, this was the first time I had to wear long sleeves!
While I was in Manali, I knew I wanted to do some overnight hiking in the Himalayas. I had already rafted in Rishikesh, and it was pretty tame compared to the Nile and the Zambezi. Paragliding was one of the few air-based adrenaline activities that I had yet to try, having already sky dived, bungee jumped, and parasailed. My first day in Manali, I was able to find a company that would agree to take me for a reasonable Indian price-albeit much cheaper than Western standards!
Paragliding would take place about an hour outside the town of Manali, in an area called Dobhi. To reach there, I caught a public bus for about 45 minutes until I was met by the pilot and a driver in a jeep. We would be paragliding off of the nearby mountain, but first we had to get to the top. The road to the summit was perhaps the bumpiest one I’ve ever ridden. The jeep wasn’t able to go more than 5 kilometers an hour, yet our bodies were still tossed all over the jeep. After about a half hour (but what seemed like an eternity), we reached the summit where a few others were already waiting for us. The pilot then went through the safety formalities, giving me instructions on what to expect for takeoff, the flight, and landing. It was then time to strap on the gear and parachute and start the flight! I pulled out my GoPro, thinking that I had charged it the night before, only to realize that the battery was dead. I will have to rely on my memory for reliving the experience.
“When I say go, start to run down the hill and don’t stop until you are lifted up,” the pilot instructed. Once the go ahead sign was given, I started to run downhill off the mountain. After about 10 meters, the force of the wind pulled the parachute and us up into the air and we were off! It was amazing how much we could see-the tiny houses below in the valley with the Himalayan mountains surrounding the valley almost completely. Since we weren’t free falling like in sky diving, I was able to appreciate the sights and really savor the experience. The pilot even let me control the parachute for a bit, pulling right or left to dip with the wind current.
After about 10 minutes or so, we began the descent. Similar to skydiving, the pilot had me stick my legs out as if I were going down a slide. This allowed him to focus on landing safely and correctly, which luckily we did. There were a few entrepreneurial guys taking photos from their smart phones. Since I did want a few photos to remember the experience, I was able to flex my bargaining skills and get them for an affordable price. Paragliding was truly a remarkable experience, especially in the presence of the beautiful Himalayas. It is an activity that any adventure seeker should give a try!
Hiking in the Himalayas
Since the hiking season was just beginning, there were many trails that were still inaccessible due to the large amount of snow still present on the mountains. After some research and a lot of effort walking around town talking to the different operators, I decided to go on a 3 day/2 night hike to the Hampta Pass/Jobri Valley area, which was considered to be the best option during this time. The company I chose to go with, Himalayan Extreme Center, had excellent reviews, and perhaps more importantly, had plenty of cold weather gear that I could borrow! I was able to get a pair of snow pants, winter jacket, hat, gloves, heavy duty boots, snow shoes, and a set of hiking poles. I used hiking poles back when I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro , so I knew how useful they can be when navigating uneven terrain.
At 8am the following morning, I met the guide, Baloo, at the office, along with three others who would be joining me in the trek. Fabian and Ronin were brothers in their early 30’s and Emily was Fabian’s girlfriend. Ronin had been working in the south of India for several months and now the 3 of them were travelling the north of India for a couple of weeks before heading home.
The weather was beautiful, with blue sunny skies that perfectly complemented the green trees and snowcapped mountains. It took us a couple of hours before we finally reached the outskirts of the town and began our ascent. Weaving in and out of the path, we made frequent breaks to admire the beautiful nature. This would be the first hike of the season for Baloo, so he wasn’t positive just how much snow would be present at the top of the mountain. The summit stood just shy of 4200 meters, and due to the immense size of the mountain, we could not see the peak from the base where we started our hike. It would be an ambitious 3 days, but it offered a great chance to spend some time outdoors.
As it was very warm outside, we were able to hike in t-shirts and shorts. A jeep would be able to take our bulky cold weather gear to the cabin, located at an altitude of 2700 meters. At around 2pm, we reached a small teahouse run by a Nepalese man and his aging dog. We stopped for a chai break, admiring the views, basking in the warm sunlight, and playing with the friendly dog. This is what I envision hiking in Nepal to be like, as I have been told that there are numerous teahouses that offer food and shelter on the multi day treks.
At around 3pm, we reached the cabin that would be our home for the next 2 nights. There were a couple other houses nearby, but otherwise we were alone on the mountains. While simple, the cabin contained all necessities, including warm blankets and a fireplace! We spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing and then Baloo cooked up a delicious dinner. After relaxing by the fire and playing a few rounds of cards, we retired to bed a bit early, since we were tired from the day’s exertions. Tomorrow would be a very long day, as we would attempt to hike to the summit and then return back to the cabin in the evening.
We awoke early, around 6:30 am, to a hot breakfast cooked up by Baloo. It was still very cold outside, and it definitely helped to warm us up a bit. During breakfast, we were visited by two small puppies. They waited outside our door expectantly, which was funny, since we were the first people to stay in the cabin that year. We fed them some of our scraps which they eagerly gobbled up and packed our daypacks with all of our winter gear, including the snowshoes, since we would soon encounter snow on our trek.
The brisk mountain air felt especially fresh as we started the day’s hike. As we continued our ascent, we were subject to increasingly picturesque and stunning views of the surrounding mountains. We also happened across a few bones belonging to cows and yaks that did not survive the previous season. Baloo explained that soon the farmers and shepherds would begin leading their herds up into the mountains to feast on the fresh grass as the snows began to thaw.
Around 10 am we had our first sight of snow ahead of us, and we reached the snowline at around 11. It was here that we bundled up, putting on our winter gear including our snow boots. The snow deepened quickly, going from a few inches to a few feet almost instantaneously! We strapped on our snowshoes, that suffice to say, weren’t the best. All of us had several problems with a snowshoe coming astray as we scaled the mountain and our progress began to slow down. There was no way to be sure, but Baloo estimated that we were around 3500 meters high, with still several hundred left to go. It was starting to become extremely difficult to hike upwards with the snowshoes and all of the gear on. Baloo wasn’t sure if we’d be able to reach the summit and return back to the cabin safely before nightfall, so around 1pm, it was decided that we would turn around and head back.
None of us were too disappointed at this decision, as we knew that he Baloo knew best. Plus, trekking uphill through the deep snow was tiring! As we began to make our way down, sighs of relief echoed among us all when we reached the snowline and were able to remove our boots and snowshoes and don our hiking shoes. Back among the green paths, we made our way to the cabin, arriving at around 4pm. Surprisingly, the two puppies were waiting on the porch for us, tails wagging expectantly! Once again, we were worn out from the long day of hiking and lazed around the rest of the day before another early bedtime.
Today would be a slightly easier day, as we would be mainly going downhill. We would be going a different way than we came up, one that was longer, but promised more scenic views. Highlights of this day include coming across a herd of sheep and goats and their shepherds and having a chai tea break with them. We also had great views of the town of Manali, as we weaved around the mountainside.
We arrived back in town around midday, and I said goodbye to the Parisians and Baloo. Having a few hours to kill until my night bus to Dharamshala, I headed to my favorite café, Drifters, and treated myself to a pizza and slice of chocolate cake. Well-earned after the intense but enjoyable three days!