Have you read Alice in Wonderland? It has deep nuances and the essence is to believe that magic touches everybody in some way. Hence, my reason to settle for a title like the one above. I’ve been inspired by the writer Lewis Carroll himself: “Everyone wants some magical solution to their problem and everyone refuses to believe in magic.”
The pandemic in our lives came about like intermittent fasting, impossible to master at in the beginning but desperately seeking results nevertheless. A nomad like me had to settle for travel within India. I believe in travelling every month of the year. Our living room is always full of friends who think the same way. A constant bombardment of videos of snow got to us. I love the mountains and the mighty Himalayas in particular. So, we finally settled on Manali and, after three reschedules, were on the way there while it was still covered in snow.
The 11-hour drive from Chandigarh to Manali was becoming an issue, so we opted for the 30-minute flight to Kullu instead. At Chandigarh airport in the wee hours of a freezing cold morning, we were received by the airline staff and treated like we owned the place and plane. Well, it was not the Air Force One, but it felt no less. Soon, the mountains appeared on all sides, snowy tops, glistening in the early morning sun. It was a sight to behold, stare at shamelessly without a blink lest we miss the view even for a moment. It was a breathtaking, mind-filling, tugging-at-the-heartstrings kind of beautiful.
We landed at this quaint airport and got into cars to head to our hotel in Manali right at the top of this snow-covered town and settled in quietly like an understated actor in an Himalayan-star cast film.
On the way from Kullu we decided to stop for tea by a mountain stream, listening to its music and even dipping our feet in it (only to be attempted by the brave) with the temperature hovering around 7°C. A hot air balloon hissed behind us, invitingly, at the eatery, promising a ride and opportunities to shoot short videos or ‘story-photos’. Too cold to try either, we gorged on some hot aloo parathas. Then, just to deal with the weather and tell ourselves that we were on a vacay, out came a long white bottle of Belvedere.
(Left) Euphoria on the first day of snowfall experienced in Manali; (Right) The River Beas as seen from the frozen highway and there’s snow on the river bed too
On the way to the hotel there were piles of snow everywhere, that looked like scoops of ice cream. Even at the hotel it covered the terraces, was right outside our room, in the roof gardens, walkways and even around the helipad. Oh yes! Our hotel had a helipad and a real helicopter. That evening we discovered Manali’s Mall Road market, replete with stores, many run by Kashmiri youth. It also had Tibetan food stops, quaint cafes, restaurants and a temple. We knew we were in Himachal Pradesh.
The diabetic me after delivering a lot of didactic sermons and pejorative opinions on the consumption of sweets, gloriously succumbed to the charm of hot jalebis dipped in hot badam milk. Vacay worked as a great excuse to the self. As it got dark, the cold hit us hard and we eagerly headed back to our rooms for some cognac, a trick I learnt in Germany.
Next day, the sun shone bright. By now we had become used to the cold and I ventured to step out in a pair of shorts. It felt like I was almost a local, a nomad syndrome. We decided to go visit the rather touristy Solang Valley. Movie shoot locations dotted the area, but as we made our way along the winding roads there was no art director to intervene with the universe. Each turn was a new sight, with the river below almost frozen. It was as if someone had left their vanilla ice creams with sunlight playing on them. I pinched myself to be sure that the setting was real. Oddly, I felt numbed and fatuously alive at the same time as I took in the sights. Sufi music was the only sound inside the car. No one was talking. The spectacle had awed everyone!
At Solang Valley, touristy things greeted us everywhere — ATVs, yak rides, skis, zip lines, tyre-sledges. The snow was thick on the ground and that meant we needed snow boots to avoid falls. Some of us had carried them from Calcutta, but others simply hired them from the women running open stalls welcoming customers with gracious warmth. They told us to first dig our heels and then land the toes for better grip. Thus, we clomped our way through the snow to catch a ride on the famous Solang Valley ropeway.
(Left) An off-road stretch en route to Hampta Pass. (Right) A view from the terrace garden, near the helipad completely snowed-in like a winter wonderland.
From the ‘gondolas’, we slowly devoured every sight of undulating whites or snow slopes around us. At the top of the ride, the cold intensified — it was still early February. Nonetheless, some of us announced ‘I can do it’ and went about clicking pictures by the dozen.
In this whole charade of slipping and falling, chattering teeth and clinched fists, we spotted a cafe that said ‘cappuccino’. Never have I wanted it so bad in my life. We tried climbing up to it and miserably kept slipping down, till we gave up and returned to the base of the ride. Laughing and ribbing each other, we made it to a food table set beside the highway to dig into hot Maggi, chai and toast. Two dogs made a guest appearance. We became friends and exchanged food looks and doggy smiles.
That evening, the hotel had arranged a bonfire and we stuck to it like new-found lovers on a date night. A snug-fit we made as a singer belted out Bollywood numbers like a pro. The poison flowed, I remained true to my bottle of cognac. Then the overcoat was lost first, before some mad out-of-step dancing followed. Meanwhile, the weather was changing quickly.
Next morning, phone calls in the room woke me, even as I was bleary-eyed and ready to go back to sleep. No luck, friends were beating down doors calling to me to come out and behold a sight.
So I stepped out in my pyjamas and froze at the sight before the cold hit me hard and I ran back into the room, sat down to stomach what I had just seen, and then did a jig on my bed like my dog-friends when they are truly happy.
I slipped on my snow-boots, threw a thick waterproof jacket over me and headed out. I was standing in winter wonderland. The whole hanging terrace garden with swings was now covered in thick soft snow. Keeping my balance was a thing initially, but as the boots ploughed into the powder, I stomped around more than walked. Never before have I gulped down cognac shots standing in deep-freezing snowfall at 7.30am. Trust me, the alcohol was a necessity. After a few gorgeous videos and pictures of dancing around in the snow, we decided to attempt to visit the Hampta Pass, which, unlike quite a few roads around, had still not been forced closed by snowfall.
Now, before I left home, a friend who is a commander in an elite Indian commando, sent me photographs from his latest off-roading vacay in the Himalayas. Our exchanges about it only fuelled my desire to go on such an adventurous ride. Lucky me. The only vehicles that could attempt the journey were 4x4 ones. So our hotel provided us Gypsys — old, dilapidated ones with unkempt and equally perilous interiors. We four women piled into one, our men in another.
The terrible 4x4 vehicles began their ascent to the famous pass. It was still snowing like crazy and the snowflakes were now as big as the Himachal apples, almost. The Gypsy was definitely in deft hands at the wheel because the wheels kept skidding, often going treacherously close to the edge of the road. The weather had cleared up but with no bright sun. Our surroundings were a vision in white.
The Pawan Hans copter that flies the Chandigarh to Kullu route.
If it was hell inside the vehicle, it was live-streaming heaven around us. Wails, cries and, yes, anger torpedoed from inside the vehicle and justifiably so as not everyone likes death-defying-adventure runs. It is almost impossible to sit still as we were thrown to all sides as the car slipped at sharp bends. Yet we went on. Turning back was not an option for lack of space to do so.
Eventually, we reached the pass. Some of us, unable to bear the chill (there was no heating in the vehicle) and being constantly thrown about, even banging their heads sometimes against the vehicle, had just had enough and decided to stay put at the only dhaba in sight. Not one to give up, along with another couple, a few of us made it to the top of the pass.
What a sight it was! It was a valley blanketed in heavy snow wherever we looked. The beautiful mountains were all around kissing the blue sky. And the trees stood their ground. This was heaven-like scenery. There was hardly anyone there. Only a few women stood in knee-deep snow serving motley visitors hot Maggi, chai and anda-bread. A lone photographer, zip line operators and ski tutors all tried enticing us with their offers. But the sight was so breathtaking that we dispersed, each standing alone, taking in the sights, lost in our deepest thoughts, me thanking the universe for bringing me to a place which largely goes unvisited during these times.
I just simply could not get enough of it. If gluttony was ever a word for sights, I pounded my heart and mind with it all, unflinchingly rolling, diving and posing in the snow like no one was watching. Finally, the locals came screaming that we must leave as it was beginning to snow and the road would invariably close and we would be stranded in the cold with no rescue possible. But like an errant child I refused to budge, when the driver pointed out that I was then standing on a dhaba, buried under the snow! Only then did I notice the chair tops peeking out below me at some places and, like an obedient pandemic-child new-to-school, agreed to return.
The snowfall got heavier as we drove down, slipping and screeching putting the gears to good use to finally make it back to the warmth of our rooms. Once there, asthmatic and diabetic me realised that I had gone through it all like a song. Even now, my partner is close to tears when he describes the off-roading trip.
Not ones to settle anywhere for long, we went out in the snow to the Mall to shop. Balancing ourselves like trapeze artistes and complete pros, we aced it; shopped like we live in snow and totally lost sight of the fact that we live in Calcutta.
It was eventually time to return but things became uncertain. Some decided to drive to Chandigarh. Others waited in Kullu for the flight. We stayed put. Lazy is our middle name. We jumped around in the snow, polished off some more food and our stock of wine. On the insistence of our friend, we booked a charter helicopter ride back to Chandigarh from Kullu, but a little bit of adventure remained for us.
The constant snowfall had wrecked havoc and our designated ride could not make it to the hotel. So we were given a 4x4 to be dropped off to the car, waiting 10km away from Manali. Good we took it as the vehicle slipped, steadied, slipped again and we realised that a bright sunny morning could be more dangerous to drivers than a snowed-out one. As we were leaving, tourists were arriving by the busload — the news of the snowfall had travelled.
As the chopper flew out of Kullu, there was a tug at my heartstrings. No, not because we were exiting the winter wonderland, but because the helicopter brought back a rush of childhood memories. As kids, we would often hop into helicopters meant for our dads, for joy rides chasing cattle, bewildered farmers, rhinos, rivers and, at times, inadvertently teasing the border patrols at Bangladesh. Having lost both my parents, those memories did its own gig in my mind. This chopper was less noisy than the ones of my childhood and floated across mountains and valleys to descend at Shimla, a table-top airstrip where no planes land. It was time for some quick breakfast and coffee. Soon, we were on the way to Chandigarh like royalty.
Pictures courtesy the author.
The author is a comunications professional
The heavily snowed-in valley at Hampta Pass.
Things to pack & prep
1. Snow boots.
2. Body warmers which are actually meant for sub-zero temperatures.
3. Money. Everything gets easier to find but expensive if snowfall continues and roads close.
4. A weather app on your mobile to plan well. Especially exits.
5. Jackets with waterproofing for sub-zero temperatures to roll on snow and survive the chill.
6. Hand gloves and warm socks.
7. Procure from stores stocking mountaineering gear or shop at the destination itself.
8. Vitamin C intake must begin before you head out to such a place.
9. Pack only essentials. Baggage allowance is an issue. So pack smart and few.
10. Google information to know where you can go, and where your mind might want to go but your body cannot.
11. Great friends as ideal company.
12. A good phone with a great camera.