“Saara paisa toh Shimla chala jaata hai ji… Manali ke liye kuch nahi aata. Development kaise hogi yahan pe! (All the money goes to Shimla and there’s nothing left for Manali in the end. How will this place get developed?),” rued my driver as the car moved at a snail’s pace up the way to Rohtang Pass. A meagre stretch of 51 kilometres from Manali – even by mountain roads’ standards- would be a journey of 2.5-3 hours at the most.
Now figure sometime in the first week of June 2013. We leave from the hotel, sharp at 6 AM. Ideally, we should have been rolling around in the pristine (okay, dirty – thanks to innumerable tourists) snow by 8-9 AM. Right?
Wrong. Turned out that the road from Manali to Rohtang is prey to another crucial flaw these days – a man-made one – called traffic jam. I kept striving hard to dig out from memory similar snippets of traffic jams from my last Manali visit –in 2004 – and was left with blankness. As far as I could remember – and mind you, I am the proud possessor of a decent-enough memory – there was nothing that came back. The last trip that had been undertaken sometime in mid-March, had been smooth and extremely happy one. Anyway, coming back to now, Manali is a mess – and I’m being really gentle in calling it that.
Ironically, during the time of the year that is supposed to be the ‘season’ for tourists, visitors to the place are left drained of all of their energy and some more. This one was a very recklessly, whimsically decided trip, involving just two of us women and some really nasty fights back home (which eventually culminated into calm acceptance, though), and fraught with difficulties right from step one. There was the mistake of availing of a local travel agent’s services and putting up with his hospitality that would have put even Fuzzy Lumpkins (Powerpuff Girls’ fame, remember?) to shame.
However, once our Volvo meandered upwards through the sun-washed mountainous streets, we jumped awake. With the pure, golden rays of the early morning sun streaming through the glass on to our faces, staying asleep seemed a veritable sin. We swallowed every bit of the unadulterated beauty of the surroundings – be it the incessant music of the Beas flowing on the left or the cacophony of birds chirping away to glory above. And somewhere ahead of us, Manali glistened in the half light of the morning sun.
Once in town, the sheer magnitude of the phrase ‘season-time’ struck us. The private bus stand, where our vehicle had skidded to a halt, was teeming with tourists – all kinds imaginable. And for the first time in a span of five days since my fateful first call to the travel agent, did we feel thankful for getting one. There were hardly any rooms in the town for tourists who had made the mistake of not booking their hotels in advance. Horrid tales of how people had to spend entire nights inside their cars made for early morning welcome-gossip, thanks to our driver.
After a quick shower and breakfast at the hotel, we left for Manikaran. Halfway through on the way, we first came across the perils of visiting Manali during the peak season – the unending line of cars waiting to make their ascent up the hills to Manikaran. Road repairs and bits of monsoon made sure that only a handful of vehicles could cross the damaged stretch of the road at once, while numerous others waited for their turn. After a tedious journey (actually, waiting in the jam) of about five hours, we reached our destination. A similar horror story awaited us on the way back, too. Another five hours, and we finally stepped out of our car and entered into the sea of humans – The Manali Mall.
The next day too, on our way to Rohtang, our fate was no better. After more than a six-hour journey, one way, we were robbed of all human strength or enthusiasm to enjoy the beauty of Rohtang. On asking our driver the reason for such inconvenience, he told us about how all the tax that is collected in Manali, makes its way to the development and beautification of Shimla, the capital, while his city struggles to breathe under the burden of such atrocity. The Border Roads Organisation is responsible for the misery caused to tourists, blamed my driver. He also added how on Tuesdays, no commercial vehicles were allowed to go to Rohtang and the day was meant for the BRO to take care of the road repairing work. However, the one day bracket is neither adhered to nor cared for. And hence, compelling visitors to curse themselves for embarking on a trip to the Rohtang, in particular, and Manali, in general.
For people who have been to the beautiful hill town earlier, Manali is reduced to a mere shadow of what it used to be even a decade ago. The Mall has been dug up with some sort of repairs or the other taking place every single day, and the roads to and from Manali are choked with vehicles to the point of suffocation. One can do nothing but sigh at the sorry state of the place... or maybe hope for the best!