Even before I can get my bearings after the overnight 16 hour road journey from Delhi, the taxi driver gives me all the lowdown on Manali.“ Nobody comes to Manali on their own money. This time of the year you will see the honeymooners but they have the dowry money ‘’, he says.
I turn his attention to the snow outside. It has been snowing since early morning and I had to abandon my bus few kilometers short of Manali and hop on to his four wheeler. “ Its been snowing crazy this year in Himachal. But its good for us as this is the time we make our money. In this snow our jeeps will take you where no bus can’’, he says.
Winter is an off season in Manali except for the honeymooners and tourists who travel here to see snow. Most of the taxi drivers including the one driving me to my hotel and tour operators work here seasonally. At this time of the year they usually shift to warmer tourist haunts like Goa.
I am neither a honeymooner nor here for the snow. I am one of the other sort of tourist in Manali that maybe my taxi driver has not yet taken stock of. The snow game aficionados. And I’m here for the winter adventures offered at the Solang Valley. Winter games are a regular feature at this beautiful valley some 13 kms from Manali town but it has never been so big an affair to keep the tourists industry in Manali fully occupied and happy. But over the years it has promised to only grown bigger with the plethora of snow adventures introduced every year.
The hotels in Manali are all booked in the winter not by the snow-crazy tourists but skiers and snowboarders who come from different parts of the country to partake in the winter sports. Ski Himalayas, a division of Adventure Himalayas , which initiated the games, with the government and who provide logistical support expects the event to grow in popularity with each year.
Skiing and snowboarding are the two main draws and wants to try their hand at them. That skiing and snowboarding is hardly a pan- Indian sport is evidenced in that most of the participants are from hill towns and villages – people who have grown up with snow.
But Solang Valley has many other distractions and most of them were added in 2012. The most visible and important addition is the Gondola ride. The ropeway that climbs 500meters up a hillside taking one up to Mount Fatru( 3000 meter) not only facilitates the skiers and snowboarders to take multiple turns but is a favorite among the tourists who just come here for the scenery .
The gondola can take upto 8 passengers at a time and gives a bird’s eye view of the Solang Valley and the snowcapped mountains skirting it. But when you reach the top there is a small restaurant that greets you with the smell of not Himachali food but Pizza.
Besides the skiing and the snowboarding ,Ski Himalayas has a host of minor sports to keep everyone happy. Tube slide is one of them. Its particularly popular with the children and women but you can also see grown men enjoy its ride. One sits on a tyre tube in pairs or singly and are pushed down a vertical snowslope. Some people experience the same exhilaration in this trye –tube slide as they get in paragliding.
Paragliding is popular even though one jump costs you 1000 rupees. They also take photographs and videos of you and charge you for it. Paragliding however can happen when there is the right sort of wind to give you a lift. For the first timers, you go tandem with an expert who hangs behind your seat . You get a feeling that you are driving this wind-beast while the guide behind you does all the wind maneuvering. There are two elevations and if you are an experienced paraglider you can choose a higher one.
Apart from the adventure sports, Solang Valley has introduced many touristy acitivites to draw the crowds. For example the snowmobile rides. The snowmobiles can carry upto three people at a time and are powerful enough to climb up a steep snow slope. The locals throng here and you can see a whole Himachali family going up a slope for a spin.
They also have their unique `four-wheel’ mountain bikes. The bikes look like miniature convertible cars and ride as smoothly on snow as on terrain.
The Alpine Premium League held here each year draws a large local population. Almost everyone in Manali has a family member who knows either skiing or snowboarding. The sports event has the semblance of another big hill fair where you see colourfully dressed Himachali women who are here to cheer for their men.
With everyone heading for Solang Valley, Manali town itself wears a deserted look. And for good reason too. Manali is another Himachali Hill station which has all the problems of a big city – the traffic jams, the water-shortages, the congestion but none of its perks. Over the years it has been patronized by adventurers who choose it as a stopover in their onward journey to Rohtang and further on to Leh or Spiti. Here the bikers and jeep safairs stock up on food and fuel and plan their summer trips to Ladakh . Manali also continues to be patronized by the `grass’ seekers. Infamous for being a den for soft drugs like marijuana scores of foreign nationals particularly Israelis stay here for months on end chiefly for this reason. At one time there where villagers here who had large swaths of their land growing just weed. It has become a lot strict now but those in the know know where to get their stock.
It however remains to be seen now the new spurt of sport activities at Solang Valley may change all that in Manali.