We were halfway through in our backpacking trip to Himachal Pradesh. The plan was to spend 1.5 days in Manali before heading to Bir Billing for Paragliding. But who knew what tomorrow had in store for us. We grossly underestimated the time. Little did I know about the timings of the buses and the insane traffic that Himachal attracts in the summer months. It was pretty late by the time we started from Kasol.
The initial plan was to reach Manali by afternoon. However, owing to our late start, a slow and shaky ride from Kasol to Bhunter, the heavy traffic on the Kullu-Manali highway, we reached Manali only by 10:30 PM. And boy we were exhausted by then. The 18 km trek back to Barshaini took its toll already and that grueling bus journey to Manali during which we stood for most of the time sucked the leftover patience and strength.
Reaching Manali From Kasol
So, the local buses from Kasol will drop you at Kullu. From Kullu, there are buses plying all the way to Manali which is 40 km away. Owing to the large traffic influx to Manali, it took forever to reach Manali.
If the people around the bus stand were to be believed, the buses to Manali won’t be available post 8 PM. Luckily for us, it was only 7:30 PM. That was also a bad thing coz, last buses usually get really crowded. But with no
inexpensive choice left, we had to settle for the last bus.
Soon after the bus arrived at the platform we rushed and blocked seats for ourselves. A few minutes later, the conductor asked me to give my seat to a few aunties who came late. I was so freaking tired already so I told him in a polite tone, show me an alternative seat and I will give up this one. He clearly dodged my question and asked me to give the seat again. I didn’t budge and sat like a stone. Impatience can be a bitch but hey, coming late isn’t a noble thing either 😛
Desperate times, desperate measures, you see 😉
I was looking out of the window and boy it felt like afternoon. It was freaking 7:50 PM for god’s sake and the sky was still so bright. But why do we even travel if not for such weird unique experiences? 😉
Summer Dusk In The Himalayas
The bus left the bus stand, the driver switched on the radio and it played Bollywood songs. The chatters of the locals followed and there I was looking out of the window. Observing the shades of the beautiful sunset. Just when I was getting into the groove of the journey, the bus stopped. I thought it was some guy who was late, but to my surprise, at least 5 people boarded. The bus started again, the songs continued along with chatter and after a while, the bus stopped again. I thought there might be an industry that requested the bus to stop to pick up their employees.
I sat back, looked out the window, the bus started moving again, songs continued playing, aunties continued their chatter and the bus stopped again. Now I was really curious as to what was happening. You can’t obviously go to the driver and ask in that crowded bus, so I opened the “arguably” trustworthy google maps. I realized that the driver took an internal route and not the highway. What it meant really was I had to get used to frequent stops.
I drowned myself in the sunset hues over the mountains. As we moved towards Manali, it started getting dark slowly. The lights from the houses on the mountains started to come up and it felt as if the mountains were wearing a necklace of sorts. I slowly dozed off and woke up when we were just about to reach Manali. I was utterly shocked looking at my watch when we reached Manali.
The Welcome Crowd At Manali
The bus dropped us at the bus stand which was crowded already. We navigated our way to the Mall road and were stuck in horrible traffic. One that was WORSE than Bangalore traffic. It was as if some kid was playing with a truckload of humans and car figures and scattered them randomly in a tiny space.
We were exhausted but instead of getting an auto and spending hours in the line. We decided to walk all the way to the Crazy Indian Pad where we booked the stay for the night. The walk wasn’t pleasant either. The diesel fumes made it even more irritating. Somehow we slogged and reached the Old Manali area, where we met our friend Hithesh.
Hithesh actually reached Manali by afternoon because we told him we’ll reach by evening owing to our blind trust in Google Maps. The hostel was another kilometer away from the Old Manali bridge. We were so exhausted by then that we didn’t want to move from there.
Just then, like an angel, a man approached us.
“Sir, Dinner?”, he asked in a polite tone.
Those words were like honey to my ears.
I jumped up with excitement like a kid and said,
He lifted his hand, extended his index finger towards a low-lit place on the first floor in the building beside us. My eyes followed his fingers like kids see a flight take off from the runway at a distance. He then said we are having a 50% discount. I was like, mama you charge double, even that’s fine. Just get us the food. After all these years, I really understood the meaning of the Snickers ad “You’re Not You When You’re Hungry” 😛
We climbed up the stairs like some 60-year-olds, one leg after the other, grunting with every step we climbed. We sat comfortably on the mattresses laid down around the dining tables. The ambiance was good and there were also few foreigners in the restaurant. But soon they left, so we had the place pretty much to us, apart from one grumpy cat.
Night Walks At Manali
After finishing dinner, we started walking along the Manalsu river. It was dark and dangerous. The loud roar of the river made us take every step with caution. There was loud music playing in the restaurants on the other side of the river, but boy we were in no mood to dance that night.
After about 20 mins of careful baby steps, we reached Crazy Indian Pad. Checked into our rooms and freshened up. The system at the hostel was messy and for some reason, the manager over there thought it’s okay to split us and put in different corners of the hostel.
Did we fight back?
Nope, Not a word. We’ll live to fight another day 😛
I went wished goodnight to my friends and went straight to the bed assigned for me to crash. And somehow my eyes looked up at the sky and boy, It was a sky full of stars. I failed to take the long exposure shots of the stars at Kheerganga, so I decided to give it a try at that very moment. Strangely enough, I was very excited to take those shots while a few minutes ago I was down to nothing but sleep.
A Starry Night At Manali
So, I quickly pulled out the small tripod, put the tripod’s legs across the tubular railing, adjusted the settings, and boom. I held the legs of the tripod with my hands and the cold breeze made it even more effortful.
After multiple attempts with trial and error, finally, I could get a shot I was so proud of. And all that effort actually paid off. 😀 My first ever shot of the beautiful stars. From singing that rhyme at school to capturing them with a little device in my hand, sure I came a long way. 😉
The universe always has a way to cheer you up, doesn’t it? 😀
Unplanned Exploration At Manali
The plan was to start early and explore Manali. Visiting Vashisht Temple and a trek up to the Jogini falls were in the plan. Yes, you read that right, thanks to my ruthless affection for treks, another trek was on the cards. So we got ready, wanted to check out restaurants in Old Manali for breakfast/brunch. We thought of taking a cab to the Vashist temple so we could quickly get back as we had a bus to catch in the evening. We started the hike by the Manalsu River.
What seemed to be a dangerous hike last night was a breeze this morning. See what light does to your life :P. Accept all the light you can get in life. 😉 Anyway, we settled down at the riverside view cafe. There was a sort of bungee and sort of a ziplining activity being organized right by the Old Manali bridge. Not sure what the locals called it but sure seemed adventurous enough, especially considering the aggressive flow of the water beneath.
I tried crepes for the first time at that restaurant. I am not really a fan of English breakfast options anyway but here’s how I will describe crepes.
“Basically a Dosa, with some proteins in the batter just to prove it’s balanced. Usually taken with honey or Jam or something sweet coz westerners can’t deal with south Indian spice da! and at least 6 times costlier coz, why I’m a foreigner yo?”
Hidimba Devi Temple
We headed to Hadimba temple after breakfast. It was just a few minutes’ walk from the cafe. The weather was sunny and bright. The Hidimba Devi temple was on a small hill within Manali, so as we gradually climbed up the hill, we saw the snow-clad mountains in the distance. The backdrop of mountains on the bright blue canvas which was dotted with puffy white clouds was a sight to behold.
Set amidst tall cedar trees, Hidimba Devi temple is built completely out of wood in the year 1553 A.D. There are three tiers of the canopy, I believe to let the snow slide off during peak winter season. At the top is the Gopuram, a full metallic conical-shaped Gopuram. The doors have Hindu-style carvings of various deities. I had a faint recall that Hidimba Devi was a demon-princess. However, I was wondering why a temple was built for her. But, After talking to a local vendor over there, I learned that the temple is built as Hidimba Devi performed meditation and was eventually blessed with supernatural powers, thereby becoming a goddess.
Pro-Tip: You should visit this place in the closing hours. The crowd apparently reduces significantly.
Owing to the popularity of Manali as a summer holiday destination, you can see a lot of ‘picnicy’. After spending some time there, we started walking towards the mall road exploring the streets of Manali. I’ll let the pictures be the judge of how serene that walk was.
Also, these streets were narrow, which meant cars couldn’t enter which in turn meant, no toxic fumes :D. I felt like I was finally close to nature again. Away from the honks, the fumes, the long traffic lines, breathing fresh air and just letting the views sink in.
Lost In The Crowd
The plan like I mentioned before was to explore Vashisht temple and Jogini waterfalls. So, when we reached the mall road, we asked around for a taxi to the temple. The falls were only a small hike away from there. However, to our utter surprise, the taxi drivers suggested we walk till the temple as that way it would be quicker.
He mentioned that the entire road was jam-packed with vehicle lining all the way to Rohtang Pass. We were not in a position to walk all the way and back. So, we had to settle down to explore Manali instead.
We explored the food on the mall road, did some shopping, and headed back to the hostel. We packed our bags bid a final goodbye to Manali and boarded the bus to Bir Billing.
Touch Down At Bir Billing
After a partial night journey, we reached Bir at around 3:30 AM.
We had booked an all-inclusive package for Paragliding at Bir Billing. The stay for until morning, Paragliding, and the videos shot during the flight all costed us about INR 3000. So, the adventure activity operator picked us up from the bus stand, took us straight to the homestay. We rested there for 4 about hours, freshened up, and started the formalities.
Soon after we got ready the operator handed over the indemnity bond asking us to sign them. It’s a formality most adventure activity operators mandate to remove the liability on them should anything happen to you during the due course of the adventure. So the take off site is in Billing and landing site is in Bir. The homestay we stayed in was in Bir so a pickup was arranged to take us to Billing.
The Hellish Ride To Billing
We signed the bond and got into the van. The van ride needs a special mention here. Imagine you just signed a paper that explicitly states that we’re responsible for anything that happens during the flight. The least the driver could do was, give us some breathing room to mentally prepare ourselves for the flight ahead.
But who the hell has time to think about you teeny tiny people yo! I am made for road rash and I live by that forever!– A Crazy Driver!
The road to the take off-site is a winding road with more potholes per 100m than Bangalore. One side of the road is a solid rock-cut and the other side is a deep valley. And this maniac drives like this is his last day. First, the twists came, he “swiftly rotated” the steering wheel, we held whatever support we could find, then came the dust on the road, giving us a gentle makeover.
That makeover made me look like the Chote Pandit from Bhool Bhulayya for the rest of the flight and more importantly in the video that I am gonna watch multiple times over the due course of my life. Thank you crazy maniac. Thank you very much.
The Paragliding Take Off At Billing
We got down, the pilots were preparing the wings and the harnesses. A sudden moment of silence consumed me as I looked at that scene. Standing on the edge of a cliff, diving into the valley with nothing but a blind trust in few pieces of nylon strings and piece of nylon cloth that the strings were tied to. Last but not least, for a brief moment an unwavering trust in a stranger you just met a few seconds ago.
It’s not every day that you run blind into a valley hope to come out flying among the clouds. It was one of those decisive moments in life that would’ve totally changed me as a person had anything gone wrong. So, I mustered enough courage and approached the pilot who at this point was calling us. I wanted to bite the bullet as soon as possible to get rid of the anxiety. So I volunteered to be the first one to go.
I paid very close attention to every word and sound that came out of the pilot’s mouth.
3 Very simple rules so to speak:
1. Start running as if a lion is chasing you, don’t stop even if you crossed the edge of the cliff and are now pretty much running parallel to the ground.
2. “IF” We successfully take off, hold the harness imagining it to be your girlfriend and it’s the last hug ever.
3. And boy, “IF” the flight is successful then just before the landing, I’ll kick your bum and you gotta stretch your legs parallel to the ground as if you’re the world’s greatest yoga master.
Into The Clouds Of Bir Billing
So as I instructed, I took a deep breath, closed my eyes for a brief moment, and started the run. We ran until the edge of the cliff where I briefly slowed down thinking it was over at which point the pilot shouted, run faster. Now we were almost running down the cliff and after about 2 seconds we took off. I took another deep breath thanking the heavens for a successful takeoff.
We flew over the dense jungle beside the cliff, after a brief moment, the houses started to appear. Looking at those tiny roads, houses, and more importantly, the tiny people who otherwise feel that they’re in fact the greatest species on the earth and the huge snow-capped mountains in the distance, just one thought ran through my head.
Indeed, what a tiny place we occupy in this world.
Paragliding Landing At Bir
We were soon approaching the landing area and the pilot instructed me to lift my legs and keep them parallel to the ground. I followed the instructions word by word and it was a safe landing. I felt as if I won over myself for a brief moment but it was indeed very safe to do. Bir Billing is one of the best destinations to do Paragliding in the world. However, the challenge remains in the selection of the right paragliding partner and how safe they are.
We had breakfast once everyone landed, collected the pictures and videos, and left for the homestay. We quickly packed our bags, thanked the agent for the safe adventure, and left Bir.
Dhauladhar, Here We Come!
Next up was Mcleodganj. We asked the agent about reaching Dharamshala. He said that there are buses every 30-40 mins to Baijnath. From Baijnath one can find buses to Dharamshala and the frequency is 20-30 Minutes.
We left BIR at around 1:30 PM. A journey in a crammed up bus followed by another journey in another crammed up bus followed by another ride in another crammed up bus, we reached Mcleodganj at around 6 PM.
If you are planning to take the local bus option for your Himachal Backpacking or Bir Billing Paragliding trip, I suggest you keep some movies at hand, or a book and loads of music coz it’s gonna be one a ride of a lifetime.
We went straight to La Vaca hostel where we booked our stay. We were so exhausted from the 4-hour long journey that the last 1.5 Kms walk took forever to cover. Nevertheless, the energy was restored after a warm shower. We explored the streets of Mcleodganj and felt there seemed to me more Israelis and foreigners than Indians.
We had some good Tibetan food as suggested by my friend Akanksha. The hostel had a cozy common area that had games. We played board games for a while and hit the bed early. And with that ends the journey from Parvati valley to the Dhauladhar Ranges of the Himalayas.
Three of us hiked up to the Triund Hill while others explored Dharamshala the next day. Check out the Triund Trek blog post here.
And that was my journey from the wilderness of Parvati Valley to the outer Himalayas of McleodGanj. Indeed a journey from the crowd to the clouds before we head back into the crowd again.
A Short Parting Note…..
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