Sometime in May, my husband Prabhjot Singh and I decided to take a much-deserved break from work and head out into the hills. Prabhjot loves to drive and a road trip from New Delhi to Manali had been on the cards for a long time now. So the moment we got our leaves sanctioned, we headed out. As with all journeys, this one also taught me several new things!

1. Grand Trunk Road lives every bit up to its reputation

Grand Trunk Road

Photograph (used here for representational purposes only) courtesy: Nagesh Kumar/Creative Commons

Prabhjot happens to be a history buff. And it was he who told me about the importance and history of the Grand Trunk Road. Known as India’s first highway, the Grand Trunk Road is one of Asia’s oldest and longest roads that has for over 2,000 years connected South Asia and Central Asia. To think that we were on the same road that was used as far back as the Mauryan Era! Kipling famously called the Grand Trunk Road as ‘a river of life as nowhere else exists in the world’ and driving down this road, I realized just how true his words were even today.

Day 1: Delhi – Chandigarh

We left Vikram Vihar around 9.30 am. By 11 am we were at Murthal along the Grand Trunk Road.

Pahalwan Dhaba (0130 210 2484) at Murthal was the perfect place to have breakfast. It serves only vegetarian fare and its parathas, served with white ghee, are to die for. The dhaba is open 24×7.

The drive along the Grand Trunk Road, now known as National Highway 1, is incredibly pleasant. The road is well-paved and infinitely better than any of the highways I’ve traveled on in Maharashtra. Since it was summer, the trees were in full bloom. Had it not been for the high temperatures, I would have had no trouble imagining we were in Europe!

We reached Chandigarh in about five hours and spent the night in the city.

ALSO READ Places to visit in Chandigarh

2. Don’t expect very large rooms in Chandigarh

Chandigarh

Photograph: Pamila Sharma

Most budget and even mid-range hotels in Chandigarh offer rooms that are the size of a walk-in closet. Ginger Hotel (Rs 3500 per night, Plot No. 15, Next to Hind Motors Ltd, Industrial Area Phase I, Chandigarh Phone: 0172 667 3333) is no exception. On our way back we stayed at an OYO Room — Hotel Chandigarh Grand (Rs 1400, Kishangarh Chowk, IT Park, Chandigarh) — and that was no different.

In Chandigarh

We spent the rest of the day relaxing because we knew we had a long day ahead. The evening was spent shopping for ethnic wear for me in Sector 17D. Sector 22 is home to some of the more expensive brands.

Dinner at Pal’s Dhaba (Sector 21, Chandigarh +91 8872666656/+91 7696795589) was divine. Pal’s dhaba serves both veg and non-veg but they have a far wider variety in chicken and mutton dishes.

3. The drive from Chandigarh to Kullu can be pretty drab

NH 21 is a well-paved road but the landscape around it isn’t very inspiring. I was as bored as I was excited during my drive along the Grand Trunk Road. Barring rare sights like this one (pictured below) the landscape can be quite ordinary.

River Beas near Aut

Photograph: Pamila Sharma

Day 2: Chandigarh to Manali

We had breakfast at the hotel and then left Chandigarh around 6.30 am so that we could reach Manali before nightfall.

The relatively uneventful drive saw us drive past Kiratpur, the last town and home to the famous Kiratpur Sahib Gurudwara before the mountainous terrain begins. From Kiratpur, the roads get narrower and the truck drivers get unrulier.

A word of caution while driving along these roads: Don’t give in to your temptation to go over the speed limit and look out for the trucks that have a tendency to overtake at the most inopportune moment.

Kiratpur to Sundernagar took us about four hours.

Sundernagar is a good place to take a pit stop. It has some decent dhabas and petrol stations.

Even though Sundernagar to Mandi is just about 24 km and the road is pretty straightforward but thanks to the maintenance work going on at the time it took us a good couple of hours to reach Mandi.

4. I finally realized what it means to ‘see the light at the end of the tunnel’

The Aut Tunnel after Mandi is one of the longest I’ve been in. It is about three km long and it never seems to end! There are no exhaust fans and the traffic is slow-moving. It took us some 8-10 minutes to get out of the tunnel. I don’t enjoy closed spaces a lot and the tunnel doesn’t have any lights. After what seemed like an eternity, the tunnel finally ended and I heaved a sigh of relief. I’ve always read the phrase, ‘the light at the end of the tunnel’ but I don’t think I really appreciated its true meaning till that day when I was actually in one!

5. Your GPS isn’t always right

Kullu Stopover

Photograph: Pamila Sharma

GPS may well have been the best thing to happen to drivers but as we discovered, GPS isn’t always very reliable. We reached the outskirts of Kullu around 2.30 pm and followed the GPS that took us right through the narrow lanes and over even narrower bridges of Kullu. It took us a good hour to get out of Kullu city when we could have avoided it altogether.

What is not mentioned in the GPS is that there is a bypass that would have saved us that one hour! Look for a sign that directs you towards Manikaran Gurudwara and take that road. You won’t have to enter Kullu city and its chaos.

6. The drive gets a lot more scenic after Kullu

Photograph (used here for representational purposes only): Shutterstock

Photograph (used here for representational purposes only): Shutterstock

All the way till Kullu, you see barren mountains, lots of trucks, tourist buses and uninspiring hamlets passing by. But the magic really begins the moment you cross Kullu. River Beas that so far was nothing but muddy suddenly gets a life of its own. The water gets clearer and it makes this a great place for river rafting. You don’t have to go too far from Kullu to watch several shacks that offer river rafting opportunities. In fact all these operators have marked their areas in the river.

Kullu Manali

Photograph (used here for representational purposes only): Shutterstock

It is amazing how quickly the landscape changes after Kullu. The pine trees get taller and denser, and all along the river there are several picnic spots, which inspire you to take out your picnic basket and just sit by the banks of the river. (ALSO READ Places to visit in Kullu)

Manali

Photograph: Pamila Sharma

 

 7. Don’t bother taking your car out in Manali

Manali

Photograph: Shutterstock

Much like Kullu and most other hill towns, the roads of Manali are narrow and it can be quite painful to navigate around them. If you’ve driven to Manali, it might be advisable to simply leave your car at the hotel or better still take it to a nearby service station because you would have driven a considerable distance till now. You will be better off renting out a Royal Enfield (about Rs 1000 per day) or an Activa (about Rs 800 per day) to get around. It makes getting around the small town a lot quicker and for the most part easier. The only problem is when you have to ride uphill. Most bikes have speed controls installed, which means you cannot ride beyond 40 kph. This is fine until you have to go up a hill!

8. Manali can be warmer than Mumbai (yes!)

We reached Manali at 6 pm on Day 2 of our journey. The moment we stepped out of the car, we discovered that it was particularly warm. When we checked later, we were shocked to learn that Manali was, in fact, warmer than Mumbai! Can you imagine our disappointment?!? (ALSO READ 9 Hill stations that are hotter than Mumbai)

Day 3: In and around Manali

We had checked into Whispering Inn (Rs 6,500, Club House Road, Manali Phone: 01902253253) a beautiful property with large rooms, clean washrooms, a well-stocked bar and an owner-manager who personally attends to your requests. The booze here was cheaper than elsewhere, which works wonderfully for those of us who like to enjoy a glass of wine in the comfort of one’s room. The tariff was inclusive of breakfast and dinner.

Solang Valley

Photograph: Shutterstock

Soon after breakfast, we set out to do all the touristy things in and around Manali. Our first stop was Solang Valley (pictured above), where I was surprised to see no zorbing or even paragliding operators. The cable car that took us all the way to a point from where we could see the snow cost Rs 600 which we passed up.

Solang Valley

Photograph: Pamila Sharma

On our way back we couldn’t help noticing a line of shacks that rented out warm clothes for some reason even though it was more than 30 degrees Celsius! There are no major eateries here except shacks that serve tomato omelets and Maggi.

Back in Manali, we spent the rest of the day strolling along Mall Road and before long it was dinner time.

9. Believe it or not, Manali does have a nightlife!

For the most part, Manali shuts down by 8.30 pm. Shops on Mall Road are open up to about 10 pm but business stops long before that. But life on Mall Road goes on with several people descending upon the road for a post-dinner walk or just to hang out.

The real fun, though, unfolds along Manu Temple Road. This is the area where all the foreigners have set up their businesses. The entire stretch of Manu Temple Road has several cafes, pubs, clubs and lounges and shacks selling cute quirky stuff — from clothes to jootis to all kinds of knick-knacks. Manu Temple Road is the kind of place that instantly transports you into a hippie era. The vibe spells Goa and it is glorious! There’s live music, international cuisine, hookahs and all stuff organic and hipster.

German Bakery seems like a shop like any other but it serves some amazing variety of yak-cheese sandwiches and fresh juices. For the most part, it caters to foreigners though don’t expect any seating here; this is a good moderately-priced takeaway joint.

Know that most joints along the Manu Temple Road are expensive. We walked into Lazy Dog (01902 254 277), one of the lounges along Manu Temple Road and walked out Rs 1500 poorer after just a couple of glasses of alcohol and a side dish.

Also worth checking out along Manu Temple Road is Cafe 1947 (+91 94184 61969), a laidback restaurant, named after the year India won its independence but serving Italian food.

Day 4: In and around Manali

Mata Hidimba Temple, Manali

Photograph: Shutterstock

We decided to take it easy today. We’d been driving around a lot over the last three days and we deserved a break. So we spent most of the day in the hotel and taking long walks in the nature park right next to our hotel. We also paid our respects at the Hidimba Temple and decided to call it a night.

10. A road trip is totally worth all the pain

Road Trip

Photograph: Shutterstock

Day 5: Manali – Chandigarh

We left Manali around 10.30 am, got our brake lining changed at the very efficient Hyundai service center just outside Manali and we were back on the road. Since we were against the traffic — most inbound tourist buses from Delhi arrive in Manali in the morning and leave in the evening — we got out of the city rather quickly. It was on our way back that we discovered the Kullu bypass that would have saved an hour on the way to Manali.

Our first halt was at a place called Chawlas just before Sunder Nagar along NH 21. It serves good non-vegetarian fare but its veg dishes are just passable. This was also where we refueled.

By the time we reached Chandigarh, it was 10.30 pm. We checked into Hotel Chandigarh Grand (via OYO Rooms) for the final night of sleep in a hotel room.

Thanks to our busy schedules most of us prefer to fly in and fly out. Sure it is comfortable and sure it is faster but there’s nothing quite like a road trip.

The feeling of being humbled by the mountains and awestruck by the sights and sounds of the roads is incomparable. How else could I have enjoyed the summer bloom? How else could I have experienced the joy of driving along a road that was used by emperors and commoners alike for two millennia? How else could I have experienced the joy of seeing the light at the end of the tunnel?

Forget flying; give me a road trip any day!