Swarghat comes under the jurisdiction of Himachal Pradesh and there is a noticeable change in the road condition from here onwards. And it gets better by the kilometer.
After Swarghat, the road descends all the way to Barmana and then gradually starts the climb again. To the environmentalists, Barmana would stand out like a sore thumb because of the ACC cement factory that, while providing employment for the locals, is also gradually destroying the environment. Limestone mining is playing havoc with the hills and the thousands of trucks that ferry the cement are really fouling up the clear mountain air. There are many who will say that it is doing more harm than good.
A few kilometers out of Barmana, the road forks out and the right fork leads to the beautiful hill station Shimla, but we carried on straight to Bilaspur. As you keep riding, the placid water of the Govindsagar lake comes into view. There are submerged temples in the lake that can be seen when the water level comes down.
For most of the way, we rode leisurely and our finely tuned Bullet 350 just purred along the mountain road. There was no point in riding too fast as we were in no great hurry. But this is not to say that the Bullet does not travel fast. The curves were very inviting and I am yet to come across a rider who doesn’t like to hug the curves. If you are in a Bullet, embracing the curves is all the more enjoyable, what with the bike’s inherent good balance and handling.
We wanted to get to Manali at the earliest and so we rode almost non-stop from Sundarnagar till Kullu. Although it had snowed at the upper reaches, it wasn’t uncomfortably cold and riding didn’t pose too much of a problem. As we reached Thalot after crossing Mandi and Pandoh, we could see a lot of development activities. There are two huge tunnels still under construction and riding through them produces wierd sound effects. A few kilometers out of Thalot, we reached Bajaura, a small town that is well known for the 11th century Shiv temple. Not many people are aware that Bhuntar, which is situated a few kilometers out of Bajaura, has the second highest airfield in Asia. I didn’t know either until a govt official told me over a cup of hot tea.
We entered Kulu late in the afternoon and stopped by a roadside dhaba to warm ourselves by the fire even as we gulped down a couple of cups of hot tea. Kulu is the Valley of Gods and it is during Dussera that the true essence of the valley can be seen. It becomes a sea of colours as the inhabitants of the villages carry their tribal Gods on highly decorated palanquins.
By the time we reached Manali, it was almost dark and we headed straight for the hotel. Since it was off-season at Manali and we were able to get a very decent double room at an equally attractive rate. If you like snow, visit Manali between December and February. The low hotel rates at this time make the snow all the more enjoyable.
Manali wore a relatively deserted look and the usually bustling Mall Road didn’t have the usual crowd of tourists, but that was relief. Generally the Mall is so crowded during the season that I feel claustrophobic and the numerous taxies and buses clogging the roads don’t make matters any easier. This time around, we were able to ride through the Mall without anybody honking like crazy from behind.