Sheroo looks distinctly unhappy as he flicks his grey mane and shifts his feet in the crusty snow. He stands at the edge of a sliver of road, swishing his tail at the inert Qualises and Sumos, snorting at the holidaymakers who are negotiating with his owner—a young man with rosy cheeks and a rosier nose—for a ride up the mountains. “No, no, you will not fall,” the youth tells coated, booted mothers and fathers, demonstrating his sincerity by slipping and nearly tumbling down the steep slope. Sheroo flares his nostrils at this bit of clumsiness even as his master gets up with a sheepish grin, straightens his cap and pulls down his jacket, eager to persist with his spiel.
Every summer, the road from Manali to Rohtang is packed with tourists, many willing to wait out seemingly endless traffic jams on the snaking path, others riding Sheroo and his four-legged friends for a quicker ascent to that living, breathing, moving entity: the Snow Point. This is a stretch of uninterrupted snow, found on the 51km-long climb to Rohtang Pass, something of a natural theme park where everyone gets to live out their favourite Bollywood-ish, Hollywood-ish fantasies.
The christening of a stretch of snow as the Point depends on resourceful vendors selling coffee and chickpeas, bleary-eyed taxi drivers and pink-cheeked horse owners. They usually zero in on a spot where there’s enough snow for wannabe skiers and impish children itching for a no-bars-held snowball fight. It’s a fitting tribute to its liveliness that the Point is never at one place for too long. When the snow melts and muddies under a swirl of eager feet, the quest for another Point begins. Inevitably, every Snow Point manages to look the same as its many predecessors in no time. Perhaps it helps that the purveyors of noodles, tea and corn on the cob are the same, sometimes year after year. Or that all boys, flashily bargaining with self-professed skiing experts for ‘better’ rates, swagger like James Bond as soon as they try out skiing equipment.
The bustling Snow Point belies the region’s past as a windy, desolate trading route connecting Spiti and beyond to the rest of India. Once, people were warned not to travel after morning hours, when powerful winds were sure to blow across, translating into certain death for many. In fact, the word ‘Rohtang’ means piles of corpses in Tibetan. Such stories, however, have no place in the tourist itinerary of today, where merrymaking reaches such heights that even truck owners feel bound to carry signs on lorries warning ‘Drinking is not aloud’.
For all that hype, the summer snow is usually not quite white, streaked with mud as it is; yet clearly, it is what everyone is looking for in Manali. On a June night, the road to the town is full of honking jeeps and cars, with many pieces of baggage wrapped in blue or yellow plastic sheets tied to the roof carriers, the incessant sputtering of engines indicating a purposefulness to get to the nearest hotel hopefully sometime soon. The Mall is a burst of colours, packed with people hugging themselves in the chilly air, sitting on road dividers and chatting, giving in to the exhortations of vendors selling golden brown paani-puri, pink, fluffy candy, heart-shaped white and red balloons, purple and green umbrellas, and even disconcerting puppies made of a brown, velvety cloth that continually nod their heads for no apparent reason.
In the mornings, long lines of vehicles head to Rohtang, their number plates indicating the near and faraway realms from where the snow pilgrims have embarked on their journey: Punjab, Chandigarh, Delhi, Haryana, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh. They speak in many languages, but all share the festive spirit. At shops renting out warm clothes, families stand around, boisterously trying out coats and snow boots. The results are sometimes rather unfashionable: old men emerge in sultry animal-print coats while women in glittering salwar kameez appear swathed in grubby dark-blue jackets. Such mismatched attire, however, is ignored with an equanimity that extends to signs with suggestive prose warning against speeding: ‘Be Mild On My Curves’ says one, and no one even bothers to snigger.
As we drive along the precipitous road, dreamy, snow-covered slopes spread around us, and yellow flowers frame the mountains in a perfect picture-postcard kind of way. The photo-ops, though, seem to be reserved for a few unlikely spots where spirited locals have decided to invoke Cupid—two hearts, complete with arrows, carved into glacial ice; a waterfall where couples can get themselves clicked under a wooden bow decorated with plastic flowers for Rs 10; yet another waterfall where one can rent the traditional ‘Himachal dress’ to coyly pose for the camera. These mushily quixotic spots are all along the road, one as crowded as the other, and there’s no dearth of boys and girls giggling, sitting inside hearts around which are pasted not very original legends such as ‘Hum Saath Saath Hain’ and ‘Kaho Na Pyaar Hai’.
The romance endures even as vehicles stop one behind the other, the beginning of one of the many, several-hour-long traffic jams we are to encounter on the narrow mountain road. Steel glasses and knives are immediately fished out of portly travel bags to scoop out ice from the glaciers on the roadside. Some of it goes towards cooling bottles that contain suspiciously liquor-like liquids, gulped down with much merriment in the middle of the road. Loud music booms from almost every vehicle, ‘Dhoom Machale’ and some bhangra beats together making for a not-so-pleasant remix.
Near the tumultuous Beas river, we find a smaller version of the Snow Point. Vendors pour dark soya sauce and vinegar over noodles, and corn is roasted over charcoal and brushed with a dash of lime. Those not interested in culinary pursuits are busy sliding down the slope, some of them in rubber tyres, while others laughingly trip despite their walking sticks to plummet a few feet below.
Up the mountains, the snow spreads like a white satin sheet, just a bit creased along the dark ridges, and its allure is irresistible. So we join everyone else in the quest for cleaner, whiter snow, slowly moving behind cars piled with plastic bottles and packets of chips, past ‘World Highest Italian Pizza Hut’ and shops selling everything from mittens to fresh fruit juice. A funnel- shaped billow of cloud rises above the mountains, even as bright pink, yellow and red paragliders soar above the slopes.
The Snow Point near the Rohtang Pass is undoubtedly the real thing. There are very many snow scooters here, innumerable skis and skiing experts to hold one’s hand down the slopes, stalls selling tea and chowmein, even two melancholic yaks unmoved by all those ecstatic about being photographed touching their curving horns. Snow sledges called ‘Bablu Express’ and ‘Raja Hindustani’ take tourists up the slope to a temple and back, while photographers flaunt dog-eared albums to compel much-in-love couples and families to pose for a small fee.
A constant stream of questions and appeals waylay the cautious tourist avoiding snow scooters swerving dangerously close and inexpert skiers thudding down: Do you want coffee? Will you buy some very good kesar? Why don’t you try the Himachal dress? Many succumb to such enticements, spreading kesar on their palms and inhaling the fragrance, dressing in traditional garments and tilting their heads just so for the camera. Others learn to ski, sometimes laboriously, always excitedly, even as a very important person walks around with an armed bodyguard.
The revelry is not without its pitfalls. Heaps of plastic bottles and wrappers are to be found behind stalls, and the damage that the black smoke-spewing vehicles are causing to the Himalaya can only be guessed at. Yet, the snow is Manali’s prized souvenir, one you are always glad to take back home, even if only as a tingling memory.
Getting there: Manali is a 14hr-long drive from Delhi. If you’re driving, take NH1 up to Ambala, then NH21 via Bilaspur, Aut and Kullu. There’s also a Himachal Pradesh Tourism bus that leaves at 7pm from the Janpath office, which reaches Manali at 9.30am. The Snow Point is to be found on the road to Rohtang Pass (3,980m above sea level) from Manali—you can get there by merely following the queue of vehicles.
Where to stay: Sadly for many tourists, there’s no place to stay at ‘Snow Point’. But Manali has many hotels to suit all budgets. A high-end option is Snow Crest Manor (01902-253351-4). Another option is Johnson’s Lodge (253764). Old Manali has a few delightful guesthouses. The Dragon Guest House (252290/ 252790), the rooms are clean, with excellent views of the mountains, and there’s an attached restaurant.