Trip to India- Part 1 Visit to the Himalayan Foot Hills: Shimla and Manali

26th November through 2nd December 2017. 6 nights, 7 Days.

 Travelling to India is an experience of a lifetime. The country offers a world of difference in its culture, heritage, food, places, landscaping, people and hospitality. Moreover, tourism in India is extremely affordable. For everyone living outside of this country, I highly recommend visiting India at least once to witness a part of the globe that is so unusual, diverse and memorable. Hopefully this post will make it easier for you to design and implement on it.

Shimla  and Manali  are two of prime hill country towns (known as hill stations in India) of North India, located in the mountains of the state of Himachal Pradesh. The State Capital, Shimla, is located about 338 miles northeast of the federal Capital of India, New Delhi. Manali is located in the Kullu District about 168 miles north of Shimla. Both destinations feature spectacular landscapes, valleys, farms, temples and monasteries as well as local shopping.

BEST TIME TO VISIT: The peak season to visit Himachal Pradesh is between April and October or during the thick of the winter between December and February if skiing is a priority. We visited at the end of November and it was still completely worth it. In fact, travelling during off-peak times allows you to take advantage of the best and most affordable deals. Crowds are much smaller during this time making your journey a lot more convenient and enjoyable. The weather was extremely pleasant during the day with sunny skies and high 50’s and the nights becoming colder with sun setting between 5 and 530pm and temperatures lowering to early 40’s. One downside, however, in traveling to north India during the winter is that it gets polluted; diminishing the stunning beauty a little bit and having you to take care of your health as allergies can be a concern for some.

WAY TO GET THERE: Travelling to India can be a long journey depending on what part of the world you live in. For US residents, total time to travel to an international hub in India such as New Delhi, Mumbai (Bombay), Calcutta, Chennai or Bengaluru can take anywhere from 16-36 hours depending on the itinerary. Therefore, selecting the fastest itinerary becomes a priority, most of the time. Having said that, the fastest itineraries are usually more expensive, but if you book 6-8 months ahead of your travel time, you can find good deals. In addition, travelling off-peak season also helps in cutting down costs. Tickets are most expensive in the summer between June and August and in the winter during the Christmas break. Tickets are also significantly cheaper when flying from bigger cities closest to you. Examples of these are Houston and Dallas, Texas, Washington DC, New York City, NY, Newark, NJ, Los Angeles, CA. Travelling from Middle Eastern countries; Asia, Europe, Japan or Australia will be from 3-12 hours.

            We flew to Mumbai International airport and despite high population density, the airport is clean and the post-flight protocol is quite systematic in terms of immigration, baggage claim and customs. Uber, Ola Cabs and pre-paid taxis are readily available for your transport to your place of stay.

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            To go to Himachal Pradesh, the closest international airport in India is New Delhi. However, you should be able to find domestic flights from all of the other International hubs as well. Because the journey to the country itself is long, my advice would be to spend a couple days to relax and adjust to the time change, in the hub city before moving on to your next destination.

From Delhi, we flew to Chandigarh, which is a union territory in India serving as a capital for the states of Haryana and Punjab. It is located 143 miles north of Delhi and therefore can also to be driven to it for approximately 5 hours. Plenty of chauffeur-driven taxis are available from Delhi airport if you choose to do so. Keep in mind that some are city-collaborated and therefore are insured and safer. These are therefore more expensive than private companies who will try to get your business by give you a good bargain but you will have to beware for dishonest and unsafe teams.

            After flying into Chandigarh, we took a pre-hired 12 seater mini bus (we were a total of 7 people, the chauffeur and the luggage) from Dev Travels. The company gave us a good deal in price and the vehicle was clean and maintained. More Importantly the driver (Saudagarji) was soft-spoken, polite, experienced and confident in his driving through the narrow and steep curves of the mountain roads even during the night. In India, the drivers usually are also your partial-tourist guides and are quite knowledgeable about the major tourist attractions of the places they drive you to. It is recommended that you book rental cars either through knowing a local in the country who can get you a good price or search for the cheapest deal after you get to the airport instead of booking online. We paid Rs 4000 per day (62.5 USD) including gas, tolls and unlimited miles. Our journey was on the road from thereon. Following was our on-road itinerary:

Day 1: From Chandigarh, drive to Shimla-kufri (4hours drive time)

Day 2: Sight-seeing Shimla/Kufri.

Day 3: Drive to Kullu. (6-7 hours drive time) Sight-see on the way.

Day 4: Drive to Manali (1 hour 30 mins drive time) Sight-see on the way

Day 5: Sight-see Manali

Day 6: Drive from Manali to Chandigarh (7 hours drive time)

Day 7: Fly out of Chandigarh.

Following are the websites you can use to book domestic flights in India:

It is suggested that domestic flights in India are booked 3-4 months in advance of your travel to get the desired itinerary. However, note that schedules of domestic flights in India can change anytime for several reasons and the airlines will not notify you prior to the change. They will offer you a full refund in such situations or will help you book other flights with them for no cost. Even then, this can cause a lot of frustration and inconvenience and also challenging if you have a tight schedule of your travel plans. Recommendation is to therefore keep some room to move things around in your travel if such instances arise.

            While booking domestic flights in India, keep in mind for the amount of luggage you maybe carrying. There are different options for flights with luggage allowance. For example, there are ‘Saver’ flights that does not let you check-in any luggage and if you book such a flight and decide to carry a big bag, you will have to pay a hefty fee last minute. Also, even if you book flights that let you check-in luggage, most airlines will only allow 15kgs of weight to be checked-in. However there are airlines (e.g Air India) that may let you take up to 23kgs. Please check these details while booking domestic flights to avoid unnecessary costs at the airport.

HOTEL STAY:

There are a lot of hotel options to stay in tourist places ranging from real cheap hotel rooms with minimum to no amenities to 4-star resorts with luxurious facilities. Hotel reservations can be made at any of the above listed websites or even hotels.com or booking.com. Some points to remember while booking rooms in India are:

  • Only expect one double or king bed or two twin beds. Two double beds are extremely rare.
  • Extra bed is charged anywhere from Rs 600-1000 per night.
  • Facial tissues are not the norm even in good hotels.
  • Hot water may be available for limited hours during the day or hotels may have boiler/geyser facilities in the bathroom which require preheating well in advance (at least 60 mins prior to use)
  • Room heating facilities can be insufficient and you may have to ask for a space heater.
  • Hair dryer may not be available in all hotel rooms.
  • You will find tea kettles instead of coffee makers.
  • Iron boxes and boards are a rarity in rooms.
  • Wi-fi connection if available, may not be very efficient.

Below are my experiences at the resorts/hotels we stayed in:

White Ridge Sterling Resort in Kufri : The resort is located about 45 mins from Shimla in the nearby town of Kufri. While its peaceful and at a height with a good view of the valley, getting to Shimla can be time consuming especially if you get stuck in traffic. Neat resort, clean and spacious rooms with sufficient facilities. Hot water available all day. One of our rooms didn’t heat well but the crew was helpful enough to give us a good size space heater. They have their own restaurant and the dinner was pretty good. The breakfast, although a good spread wasn’t extraordinary. The resort also conducts family activities, games and DJ partying. Wi-fi was only available in the lobby, which was a big downside.

JJ Resort in Kullu: Since Kullu is a very small town; options for good hotels/resort are very limited. We stayed at JJ Resorts and I would give it 3 stars. Good being spacious rooms, tasty food and friendly and cooperative customer service. The negatives of this resort were bare minimum toiletries, no heater and only provided a small space heater, dysfunctional Wi-fi connection, lack of tea or coffee machines in the room and presence of a water boiler in the bathroom, which took hours to heat up. They were also hesitant to heat leftover food from another restaurant. Overall, the resort was only feasible for a one-night layover.

White Mist Sterling Resort in Manali: This resort was by far the best place we stayed at, on our trip. It is located very close to the city and hence commute was very convenient. The resort campus was well-lit and clean. The rooms were unexpectedly good. We booked a one-bedroom apartment and they gave us a two-story duplex room with two bedrooms and one and half bath. The AC and heater worked perfectly. Hot water available all day, although wifi was only available in the lobby. Resort has a restaurant and food was quiet tasty and fresh. Like the Kufri Sterling resort, this resort also conducts family activities and games.

Mini Hotel Premia In Chandigarh : The last night of our trip was spent in this hotel. Its located about 20 min from Chandigarh Airport. While the hotel is small, the rooms were spacious and clean. Wifi worked well. We ordered room service for dinner and they didn’t have most items on the menu available, although the food was good. The crew even obliged us to make us a customized breakfast since we had an early flight to catch.  Overall, was pretty happy with the hotel.

ATTRACTIONS:

  • We started our first day of sight-seeing in Kufri with visiting the Kufri Fun World. Its an amusement park offering a lot of indoor and outdoor adventure sports such as zip lining, bungee ejection, bamboo bridge, valley crossing and skiing to name a few. There was no crowd whatsoever during the time of our visit, which was nice. The park is at a height allowing you to enjoy the beautiful landscape and views while experiencing the thrilling rush on the rides.
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Bungee Election at the Kufri Fun World
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Views from Kufri Fun World

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  • We then proceeded to drive to a viewpoint that was also the beginning of the horse riding trail to the Highest point in Kufri; the Mahasu Peak.  It is known to offer breathtaking views of the Badrinath and Kedarnath Ranges. We chose not to ride the horse upto the peak as the path was dirty and stinky from all the horse poop. Unfortunately, horse riding is the only way to get to the peak because of the muddy and unpaved trail.
  • We then drove to Shimla, which is about 40 min to an hour drive from Kufri and visited the Jakhoo Temple. The temple is dedicated to the Hindu Deity; Lord Hanuman. It is a very serene, well-maintained temple located at a height of 8000 feet above sea level; the highest point in Shimla. You can hike the 2.5km steep road or hire a horse/pony or even a taxi to get you up to the temple. The temple has a magnificent 108-foot tall idol of the lord standing just outside the temple, overlooking the entire city. Beware of the all monkeys in the area as they tend to be aggressive in their actions of grabbing things from you.
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    Jakhoo Temple, Shimla
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    108 feet Tall Hanuman Statue

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  •  In the evening, we stopped at Mall Road , which is the most famous shopping area in Shimla. No vehicles are allowed in this area and you need to climb about 100 steps to get to it after parking your vehicle. Numerous stores and street shops of various types are put together on this long street for you to browse on local art collections, jewelry, bags, pottery items, Himachali clothing, and food. The Mall Road is connected to the Ridge leading you to Scandal Point. Structured during the British colonial rule, the region has historic architectures of the buildings including the gaiety theatre and the Christ Church. The area is well-lit in the evenings is a great place for group hangouts and photography.

 

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Shops at Mall Road, Shimla
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Scandal Point Ridge, Mall Road
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Scandal point Ridge, Mall Road
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Christ Church, Mall Road, Shimla
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View from Scandal Point Ridge, Shimla

 

  • The following day we continued our journey to Kullu. On the way we  quickly stopped at Pandoh Dam. The route from Shimla to Kullu is a long 6 hour   drive, hence most of the day was spent on the road until we stopped in Kullu for the night.

 

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Beas River near Pandoh Dam
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Pandoh Dam
  • Kullu is known for its shawls around the world and therefore, the following day, we first stopped at the Kullu Shawl Factory for some shawl, scarves and quilt shopping before we continued onto Manali.  There are four to five factory shops in a line that offer a variety of products at a reasonable price. However, we learnt that shawls are even cheaper further north in Manali.

 

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KullU Shawl Factory
  • Our next stop was at the popular Vaishno Devi Temple. It is located on the banks of the Beas river with a peaceful and calming view of the river flowing through the mountains.  Take your time to visit this divine multi-story temple as it offers multiple shrines, handicraft center, detailed architecture and sculptures as well as Langar (Free meal served to all visitors).
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Vaishno Devi Temple

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Area of temple where a free meal (Langar) is served
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Langar served to all visitors
  • We also took the opportunity to do some white water river rafting in the Beas River even though the water was very cold.
  • • We then stopped at the Naggar Castle  situated on the left bank of Beas River overlooking the Kullu valley with extensive views of snow-covered peaks, waterfalls and spectacular sunset.  Once a castle, built by Raja Sidh Singh in 1460, is now converted into a resthouse/hotel. The castle offers an essence of the Himalayan culture, made of medieval stone and woodcarvings.

 

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Naggar Castle

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  • Our last stop for that day was the Dhapko Shedrupling Tibetian Monastery. Located near the Beas River, the monastery is dedicated to the Holiness Dalai Lama as he thanked the Indian Government for facilitating and helping the Tibetians preserve their culture and religion.  Being here among the picturesque valley, a huge statue of Lord Buddha and the little monks playing outside their quarters, provided a spiritual flavor of the Tibetian culture that was worth the experience.
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Dhapko Shedrupling Tibetian Monastery

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  • The last day before our drive back to Chandigarh was spent around the nature of Manali. We first drove to Gulaba point, also known as the snow point. Located about 20mk north of Manali, the drive is very scenic and the view point is striking, quaint, pleasing and picturesque with snow covered mountains, greenery and the beas river. However, other than the view point and playing a little in the snow there isn’t much to do here. You could aimlessly hike up the mountains but there are no defined trails for it. A word of caution: Much before you drive up this point, there are shops (and even your driver) that will try to convince you to rent out snow-wear. Do not believe them. Even in the month of December, there wasn’t enough snow for you to need any special gear to hike through it.

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Scenic Drive to Gulaba Point

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  • We then stopped at Solang Valley. This place was quite active with lots of food and drink stalls. There are temples at the top of the mountains that you could hike to, although the trails are not paved, are steep and are not easy to navigate your way through.  From what I understand, Solang Valley is mainly known for snow-sports during peak winter season.
  • We then drove back to Manali and visited the Hidimba Devi Temple dedicated to the wife of lord Bhima, a figure in he epic Mahabharata. The temple is  24 meters tall wooden tower located around numerous cedar trees making it a very pleasing and spiritual environment. A short walk from the temple is a shrine dedicated to her her son Gatotkacha.

 

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Hidimba Devi Temple

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  • We then quickly stopped at another Tibetan monastery called Gadhan Thekchhokling Gompa Monastery, located within the heart of Manali, before we shopped for souvenirs at the Mall road of Manali.

 

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Mall Road, Manali
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Tibetian Monastery, Manali

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OTHER ATTRACTIONS:

Annandale, Shimla

Viscergal Lodge, Shimla (Closed on Mondays)

Rohtang Pass, Manali (Typically closed after November)

Vashist Hot water springs

Jogini Falls, Manali

USEFUL TIPS:

  • Lot of the International flights from the Middle East land at Mumbai International airport after midnight. I suggest booking your flights with itineraries that get to hub cities before midnight for a smoother exit.
  • You will need to clear security at every connection while flying domestic flights.
  • Remove any coins in your carry-on bags before clearing security to avoid separate bag inspection at domestic airports.
  • Some Domestic flights provide complimentary meals. E.g Jet airways and Air India. Research well before booking your domestic flights.
  • Anticipate Delays in your trip.
  • Bargaining is common in India especially while street shopping
  • If travelling in a group, investing in a pocket Wifi maybe worth it. The device generally costs around Rs 1000 (approx 16 USD) and the plans can range from Rs.400-1000. It can also let you make phone calls all around India.
  • Language: People in the north speak Hindi. In my experience, surprisingly enough, most people understood English; however knowing basic Hindi will always be helpful.

FOOD:

There is shortage of adjectives to describe Indian food. All I can say is that it is diverse, flavorful, spicy and addictive. Because of cultural variances between states in India, there are umpteen options of varied kinds of Indian dishes. Sadly, only a handful of dishes are available in Indian restaurants in the United States. Examples of Northern Indian Specialties include Lachcha Paratha, Parathas stuffed with potato or Paneer, Sepu Vadi (Treat from Himachal Pradesh), Pakoras and Variety of Chaat Dishes. Special mention of hotel Droov in Shimla whose North Indian meal was the best I had on the trip. Enjoy the pics of some of the dishes we tried along the trip that were filled with flavor, taste and satisfaction!

 

 

 


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