A bridge over gushing Manalsu River is a gateway to another world known as the Old Manali. The village has an exotic charm; not foreign, not entirely Indian. It is as if you have crossed into another country. Just as the Beas River stopped the invincible force of Alexander’s armies from marching further east, Old Manali has somehow chiseled out a world of its own guarded by Manalsu River. The village is as idle as a fairy tale but at the same time it is exposed to the comfort of today’s world. Two sides of the same coin exist side by side in the village. We have the idyllic village and the locals on one side and the fast growing tourist population and guest houses on the other side. Both are unique in their own way and each has their own distinct space.
I arrived at Manali around 10 am and followed the road along the wooded Park just as I had seen on the map. At the edge of Nature Park a small road bifurcates towards the Manalsu River. The bridge is unmistakable. It is the only bridge connecting Old Manali to Manali. It is not distance that divides Old Manali from Manali. It is much more than that!
I stopped at Blue Elephant which is the first cafe by the bridge. Except for few foreigners paying their bills at the counter the place was empty. I thought I was late. I was still deciding whether I should have breakfast or just go ahead and order lunch. A chubby guy came and took my order. He said he was making French toast so I went ahead and ordered breakfast. I took a seat looking out to the river. More people came in and soon there was a good crowd at the cafe. At 10 in the morning the village was still waking up to the day. There was certain idleness about the place even at the first glance. It was understandable because tourists and outsiders made up half of the population. And they have come here on a serious mission to enjoy as much as they could.
The Guests Houses with cafes are important facets of Old Manali. There’s only one main road (Shops on both sides) so there’s a high chance of bumping each other now and then. Most cafes are located on this slanting road that leads deeper to the village. Cafes are cozy and exhibit hippie’s exuberance. This is a small place where all nationalities met. Everyone seemed to own this place; not any lesser than the locals. There are cafes catering to different nationalities. Sitting on the cafes listening to unconventional music and talking about irrelevant things made up bulk of the day. You know everyone and everyone knows you, just like the way you felt in your dream.
Life in Old Manali is slow. Everything seemed timeless, even the locals who run those Guest houses. Once you go deeper from the main road through narrow footpaths you’ll find countless guest houses with odd names. The road leads you through apple and pear orchards, and then you finally arrived upon the most homely guest house you had seen. You could hear the sloshing sound of the river from distance. You could hear babul singing on apple trees. And from the porch you could see snow capped mountains surrounding Manali. You’ve arrived at the most idyllic village. You get everything once you stepped out to the main road but here you felt like you are in the middle of nowhere with no cares about time. Tourists came to stay for a week and ended up staying 3 months. Then they came back next year and the next like migratory birds with biological clock inside them. The place made you feel like you belong there.
There’s a fine balance between the globalized World and the unadulterated local population. Though the street is lined with cafes with sophisticated names such as German Bakery, Dylan Toasted and Roasted, Riverside Cafe etc. the locals still preferred living in traditional houses made of mud and woods with their cows. The uncompromising lifestyle of the villagers is what attracts tourists. The only threat to the idyllic village is the outside businessmen who came to tap from the tourists. They don’t care about the place as much as they do about their trade.