It is one of the hottest months of Delhi's summer (June), when i thought of taking a break from the national capital's blistering heat of June 2012 (the months of May and June regularly witness day temperature crossing 45 degrees Celsius or 113 degrees Fahrenheit) and seeking refuge in the cooler and salubrious environment of the nearby hills of Kullu and Manali in Himachal Pradesh.
The hill stations of Kullu and Manali are approximately 500-550 Kms from New Delhi and it takes about 8-9 hour drive to get there. Kullu comes first, about 500 Kms and Manali is further 40 odd Kms from Kullu.
Getting to Kullu-Manali from New Delhi
Driving yourself or taking a ride in one of the Deluxe / Volvo buses are the two top options of going to Kullu - Manali from Delhi. As i was going alone, i felt driving would not be the best decision especially as it involved driving in the hills. Which often have extremely narrow path and broken roads.
Fortunately, there are a number of bus operators running their Deluxe and Volvo Bus service from Delhi to Kullu-Manali and return. I remember running a Google search for bus operators to Manali a year or so earlier and getting hit by a swarm of operators, in the search result, plying their buses on the Delhi-Manali-Delhi route charging Rs 700 - Rs 1000 for one side travel. This time, however, the search result for deluxe buses did not show up the same swelling number of operators, instead it showed services offered primarily by MakeMyTrip and RedBus (MakeMyTrip is a leading travel company in India and RedBus is a recent player in the business of centralized bus ticketing across a large number of bus operators).
Convinced that the surfacing of MakeMyTrip and RedBus would only mean tickets getting more expensive, as MakeMyTrip and RedBus would also keep a margin on the ticket for themselves, i chose to purchase the ticket from one the operators directly, the Himachal Pradesh Tourism Development Corporation (http://www.hptdc.nic.in/welcome.html). I enquired on the phone and learned that there were a number of seats available on the Volvo Bus to Kullu and Manali from Delhi. Some non-Volvo deluxe buses are quite wonderful too (i remember taking a deluxe AC Bus from ISBT to Chandigarh when i travelled to Kasol, near Kullu, a year back and that bus was amazing. Attaching a picture of the Deluxe Bus), but i decided to not take any chances and opt for the best available bus - which was the Volvo. I also decided to not pay online and instead go to their office in Chanderlok Building in Connaught Place and pay them right there.
|The wonderful non-Volvo Deluxe AC Bus i had taken from ISBT - Delhi 2 years earlier while going to Kasol via Chandigarh|
Deciding on travelling to Tirthan Valley (popular for Trout Fishing) just before Kullu
All this while, i was also recollecting how much i enjoyed being in Kasol, which is a small and secluded town near the popular and touristy Kullu, when i was holidaying in 2009. I decided to visit another place, away from the rush and noise, near Kullu known as Tirthan Valley. This place is away from the hustle and bustle of a main city like Manali or Kullu yet offers the same picturesque view of the surroundings. For reaching Tirthan Valley, one has to take the same Kullu-Manali bus and take a diversion upon reaching Aut which comes 28 Kms before Kullu (Aut is approximately 470 Kms from Delhi). As the bus has its structured plan, one has to make his own travel arrangement after getting down at Aut. Tirthan Valley is 28 Kms from Aut. When my Volvo coach reached Aut, i got down and searched around for a cab or some other vehicle which would take me to Tirthan Valley. I finally found an Alto Taxi and paid Rs 700 (which i feel was steep but i suck at negotiation skills). Earlier, upon doing a little online research, i had decided i will stay at Raju Bharti's Guest House (http://www.indiamike.com/india/himachal-pradesh-f29/driving-time-from-ambala-to-gushaini-t161113/) in Tirthan Valley.
Purchasing the Volvo ticket from Himachal Pradesh Tourism Development Corporation
Now back to the part of the day, few hours earlier, when i reached Himachal Pradesh Tourism Development Corporation's counter in Chanderlok Building to purchase a ticket. I opted for the Volvo bus as i wanted to take the tried and tested option - to my surprise the ticket price here was Rs 1150, which was more than what was offered by MakeMyTrip and RedBus.Realizing that it was too late in the day to mull over it, i purchased the 1150 rupee ticket. I was given a receipt and a ticket along with a gentleman's number and asked to coordinate with him at the starting point of the bus journey which was 2-3 Kms from Chanderlok Building office where i was at that moment.
I flagged down an auto-rickshaw and it took us barely 5-10 minutes to reach the journey's starting point. Upon reaching the point, i saw a number of other travellers (Domestic and Internationalboth) waiting for the bus. I enquired for the Himachal Tourism's contact person and when told he was not around began to wait with the other travellers on the road. This contact person showed up a few minutes later and his behaviour clearly leaned towards the goon types and he acted as if i was travelling on the bus not because i paid for it (and paid handsomely) but because he decided to have mercy on me and allowed me a free ride on 'his' bus. With minimum conversation, i exchanged the necessary information and intimated him that i had a ticket for the Kullu bus. He checked my ticket details and told me that the bus will come in some time.
Volvo Bus shock and disappointment
I decided to wait with other travellers. I had another half an hour to go before as per the indicated departure time for the bus. I walked around a little and tried reading my book. After about 20 minutes, an old, not pleasant looking Volvo Bus pulled up and entered the inner lane where we all were waiting. The bus easily looked 20 years old with its paint coming off, dirty windows, ripped window blinds and seat covers. There were dirty marks all over in the inside of the bus and it looked like that the bus had not been cleaned in ages forget having a paint job. I was chuckling inside at the thought that some schmuck paid for a namesake Volvo and will now get to travel in this disgrace of a 'bus' (i am not using the word Volvo here). To my dismay, we were told that this is the 'Volvo bus' for Kullu-Manali and that passengers should board. At this moment, i felt like turning around and going back home without even getting into the trouble of asking for a refund from the goon agent. Having born and brought up in India, i knew there is nothing i could do - and i guess so did everyone else as none of the other passengers even batted an eyelid and started boarding. I did hear one girl, overseas traveller - probably American, complain that she would like to go in a good bus, to which, the helper assisting her replied, "This is also good bus."
I would have any day preferred travelling in a roadways bus operated by Haryana government than this so called Volvo, the fair difference alone would have been worth it. However, reminding myself of the destiny of being a middle-class Indian - of living with this day to day compromise and corruption, i picked a seat towards the middle of the bus careful not to touch anything as the very sight of the bus interiors was nauseating. Kudos to some operators who are able to extract money from people by adopting such means. As i was looking for a seat in the bus, i saw a fairly new, clean and well maintained Volvo bus pull up next to ours which further aggravated my injury of realizing that of the 2 available options i had to get the worst one. I learned that the other well kept Volvo was headed for Dharamshala and upon closer look i realized that since there were majority international travellers for Dharamshala (possibly a religious trip) in that bus, perhaps the operator was careful and ensured a clean and well maintained bus - but not for his own countrymen as we know each other well enough to provide a decent treatment. (Sigh, the Middle class Indian life!).
Anyway, we started our journey and after making 3-4 unscheduled stops to pick up people, headed for Kullu-Manali, from the road, who would ofcourse not foot the entire tab that me and most others who purchased the ticket legally did, and this revenue ofcourse would stay with the bus helpers and driver only and not reach the management, we were outside Delhi in 40 odd minutes and cruising towards our hilly destination.
The rest of the journey went on with minor inconveniences and niggles, and very soon i could see my drop point Aut coming in sight. I made my way up to the front of the bus and stayed there for the last couple kilometers before we finally reached Aut, the driver and helper were quite helpful and helped me with my luggage when i alighted from the bus.
The Alto cab took me to Raju Bhartia's Guest House, while i had not made prior bookings, i did store their telephone numbers and address on my mobile phone from their website. After about 45 minutes of driving in the beautiful valley and passing some sensitive government project sites, we finally reached Raju Bhartia's Guest House. Looking at the narrow roads and the pot holes adorning them, i felt it was the right move to not get my car - however, someone having a tough Indian manufactured automobile like a Scorpio, or even some Maruti car like the Swift or SX4 would not have much trouble. People driving cars with low ground clearance could avoid these roads.
|View of the beautiful Tirthan Valley|
Upon reaching Raju Bhartia's Guest House, i learned that their guest house had no free rooms available. I felt quite disappointed with myself as i had read interesting things about this Guest House. I tried to probe if they had anything for 1 person - to which their answer was the same. The cab driver suggested another place down the road which he said he had heard was good too. This other place's name is The Himalayan Trout House (http://www.mountainhighs.com/). The place is managed by an anglo-Indian Mr Christopher Mitra (firstname.lastname@example.org) and his wife. As it was holidays, their son was also seen playing with the wide paraphernalia put up there. While they seemed well-heeled, it appeared they had decided to make Tirthan Valley their permanent stay. As i spent more time there, i learned that they actually stayed in this valley throughout the year. Christopher has an uncle (Irish) who stays further up in Manali and has been in India for decades. The uncle had come to India with his father who was in the service of the British Government back in the days when India used to be a British colony. The uncle keeps coming to Tirthan Valley to meet Christopher and his family and we had the opportunity to meet him too. They all have a strong liking for India, having spent their entire life here, and despite India's challenges they seemed happy living here.
The Himalayan Trout House is very well made and maintained. I would rate it a 3.5 to 4 on 5. The rooms are well kept from inside and the rest room is neat and tidy too. The food served is good and fresh. Christopher's wife makes wonderful Trout Fish which i, being a vegetarian, was unfortunate to have not been able to try.
|My room at The Himalayan Trout House|
As i did not have elaborate plans, i was happy to kick back and chill around. I took directions from the owner Christopher on places to see around and he suggested that i visit a nearby waterfall in the mountains. It was a little bit of a trek but he said it was well worth it. I followed his instructions and trekked up and down the valley through paved and unpaved tracks and finally reached the waterfall.
|Stretch just before the waterfall|
The short trek was both fun and scary too, as i was alone and the thought of having to fend for myself should anything happen, was a little unsettling. Given that this was actually a jungle with wild animals. I checked on the possibility of running into wild animals and was told that they generally stay higher in the mountains and come down only when there is scarcity of food in the higher altitudes, which happens during the winters as everything is frozen at the top.
After returning from the trek, i was quite exhausted and chose to relax a little. I was there for 1 more day and the next day i decided to walk around and just enjoy the surrounding. It was so amazing to see trees and plants laden with ripe vegetables and fruits. I saw a number of apple and tomato plantations with ripe apples and tomatoes. It was quite a wonderful sight.
The valley offers quite a spectacular view of nature at its untamed best. With tall mountains and rivers carrying strong current, and green vegetation all around - the valley offers a splendid view.
|View of Tirthan Valley from a small bridge|
I spent 2 nights there and was ready to head back on the evening of the 3rd day. Fortunately, some friends of the owner at The Himalayan Trout House were also from Delhi and were heading back the same day. I requested if i could hitch a ride with them till the main road outside the valley from where i could catch a bus to Delhi. They mentioned that they were going there too and had a Volvo to catch, i mentioned that i would like to go on the same Volvo - they very kindly checked with their friend and told me that there was enough room on the bus for me and they will be glad to take me along.
I left in the evening with the friends of the owner and boarded a Volvo from Aut for Rs 1000. Thankfully, this was a far superior Volvo than the one in which i had come. It was very clean and looked not very old. Happy to pay 1000 rupees. There are some operators who do provide decent service - and i would like to add that while a good bus, this was not a top of the line luxury bus, but a decent comfortable coach. And frankly, i did not seek much more than that. (Sadly, their advertisements carry tall claims of ultra luxury coaches when what you get in reality some times is something which is just one notch better than the roadways bus).
We reached New Delhi the next morning, and i parted ways with the friends of the Hotel owners and flagged down an auto-rickshaw for rest of the journey home.
Total Expenditure = Rs 8000 to Rs 9000 approximately for 2 nights (including everything).