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Yoga retreat and hiking in Mansari, Himachal Pradesh

June 8, 2019

View from Naggar Castle over the Kullu-Manali valley

Warm air enveloped us we stepped out from the airport in Chandigarh, India. A total surprise as it was hotter than Dubai that we’d left a few hours ago. Entry at the e-visa desk had been a trial – by the time we had all battled with the haphazard fingerprint machine we were the last people to pick up our heavily laden backpacks from the baggage carousel. It was with relief and excitement that we settled into the Toyota Inovas (requested with seat belts). Herds of buffalo grazing on the grassy verge, green and yellow tuk-tuks rattling over the tarmac, horse-drawn carts laden with straw, sacred cows plodding nonchalantly through a cacophony of vehicles jostling for position as they circled roundabouts – my nose was pressed to the window to take in all in. I’ll admit that the novelty had worn a bit thin as we arrived at our destination, in the dark, nine and a half hours later.

Getting to Mansari

There is one road from Chandigarh to Manali which winds along the Beas river. Trucks laden with rocks (from the major road excavations further on) passed us by, one after another; all intricately painted, trailing beaded hangings, flags and other decorations, and all with ‘Blow Horn’ emblazoned on the back – which they did at volume.

We stopped for a simple but tasty lunch of dhal and bread at The Hill Top in Swarghat, at a road side soda drink stand with a magnificent view at sunset, and a ladies’ loo that was primitive in the extreme, but otherwise we let our skillful driver Himraj take the strain while we dozed or took in the many villages ranged along each side of the meandering, fume-belching highway.  The river was little more than a stream in places but as the snows melt and in heavy rainfall it can become a raging torrent with catastrophic effects.

A new and extraordinarily long tunnel carved out of towering sheer rock, and a road that was little more than a bumpy, dusty track on the edge of a ravine brought us to our final destination in the village of Mansari – the Manali Iyengar Yoga Retreat.

At daylight the view of the surrounding snow-capped Himalayan mountain ranges, bird song and barking dogs greeted us and all memories of the lengthy journey faded. We met Sonu who made tea and coffee with fresh milk from her family’s cow.

(Note: there’s a flight from Chandigarh to Kullu Manali airport – see below.)

 

view of the Beas river from the road to Manali

One of the views of the Beas river on the 9 hour road journey from Chandigargh to Manali

Discovering Iyengar yoga

Then it was time for yoga. The studio was welcoming with wood floors and wide windows but also a little terrifying, the walls draped with ropes secured by metal rings. Our teacher Rushad, a practitioner of Iyengar yoga for over twenty years, led us in a chant and a prayer to focus our minds before we started our first session which we mumbled along with. I stifled a fit of the giggles as one word sounded like ‘Choithrams’ (a Dubai supermarket). Booking as a group of seven friends meant that we had the place to ourselves; our own yoga experience ranged from doing a few sessions in preparation, to a couple of years (of Hatha yoga), and, with one exception, we were all in our 50s.

There were pictures of Bellur Krishnamachar Sundararaja Iyengar on the wall – the founder of the modern style of yoga named after him which is said to have made the practice popular in India and beyond. Violinist Yehudi Menuhin was a catalyst for his world-wide recognition and he went on to tutor many famous people and publish best-selling books on yoga. He developed a type of Hatha yoga focusing on the correct alignment of the body, making use of straps, wooden blocks, and other objects as aids in achieving the correct postures which are held for long periods of time. His personal teaching style was said to be harsh and unforgiving at times. Our teacher Rushad, who trained under BKS Iyengar, told us the tale of someone who was forced to hold a pose until his hamstring snapped, “you have to do, what you have to do” he said – towards the end of our week of tuition thank goodness.

Over the next six days we did an hour and half of yoga before breakfast and an hour in the evening before supper. It pushed us all out of our comfort zones; we were encouraged to hold poses in exactly the right way, supported by ropes, straps and blocks, with every limb and muscle positioned in perfect alignment while we envisaged our breath in parts of the body; “breathe into your armpit chest, breathe out through your tail-bone”, “close your eyes and turn them to look at the back of your head”.

A particularly challenging movement for me was an inversion on the ropes which meant hanging upside down – an alternative to the traditional headstand. I trembled with fear and shed a few tears on the first day. By the end of the week I could do it confidently, without the padding of a blanket, and rather enjoyed relaxing with my head dangling down and my arms folded on the floor.

Rushad changed what we did every day, a mixture of physical practice and visualisation through guided meditation. He was direct and quite firm in his teaching but guided us taking into account our different physical challenges. On the last day he advised me on some really helpful positions to practice at home to improve my poor posture, stiff shoulders and demonstrated that I had a stiff hip which I was compensating for by doing a common Hatha asana in the wrong way. The different approach to breathing has also helped with my 50 years of bad posture caused by asthma. We could all see improvements to our flexibility and confidence by the end.

Rushad is usually based in Mumbai and travels especially for the yoga retreats. The rooms are light and airy with twin beds, clean bathrooms and hot showers. The wood burner was lit at night as the temperatures dropped. It felt like being welcomed into someone’s home and was very relaxed. It’s not as cut off from the outside world as you might think as a road runs past the garden wall so the beeping of horns, the barking of the many street dogs and the chatter of school children float in throughout the day (especially the dog chorus early morning) but it’s in the middle of a lovely little village which we enjoyed exploring over the six days we were there.

Local food in Mansari

Each morning after yoga, we took over the kitchen to make breakfast. Sonu helped chop ingredients, make toast and brew tea and coffee, while some of our group stirred up Parsi eggs (laid by local hens) and porridge on gas rings in the kitchen that overlooked the pretty garden.

Dhansak is a Parsi speciality and Rushad insisted that he cook it for us one lunchtime (assisted by Sonu). We hiked off to work up and appetite and returned to witness the final touches including the frying of chips which he deemed essential for eating with dhansak (no argument from me). We ate a type of red rice for every meal. Sonu brought a bag of dhansak masala for S to take home with her.

There are a few places to eat in Mansari ranging from a pani puri stall by the side of the road, smarter looking cafes to a kind of kitchen in a tent. Most places (in the whole of this region) seem to offer Maggi noodles (the power of big brands like Nestle reaching their tentacles far and wide). We had vegetable momos – Nepalese-style dumplings – from a little place in Haripur which were filled with cabbage. Tasty and cost about £2.60 to feed seven of us.

While our bodies are temples they still need gin and tonics. There’s an ‘English wine and beer’ shop in most villages and the nearest was a walk towards Naggar to the village of Haripur. Imported spirits and wine are very expensive (we should have raided the duty free shop on arrival in Chandigarh) so the local gin – complete with dire health warnings – was our choice of liquor. Tonics weren’t available but a local, lemon and lime soda called Limca mixed with soda water did the job.

There are a few chicken butchers in the village consisting of a cage of hens crammed into a small space and a man behind a counter wielding a large hatchet over a blood soaked board. I suppose the lack of refrigeration is because they are slaughtered to order. We didn’t test this out.

Bus trip to Manali

One day we boarded the bus that bumped over the winding roads and narrow bridges to Manali – the nearest large town. Shoe shine stands surrounded the bus station with men eager to transform your footwear – even trainers.  Manali a backpackers’ haven and we took refuge, from the rain and wind that whipped up, in Cafe 1947 serving excellent pizza which oozed cheese, cooked in a wood-fired oven. Their outside terrace overlooked the raging river below where people were dangling over it on dodgy-looking wires.

We bought funny, woollen hats for the whole gang (which we were very glad of later, up the mountain). We popped into from Himalayan Trails to meet Jogi and discuss our up and coming trek with him (more to follow on this).

There are quite a few shops selling outdoor gear and we invested in some back pack covers and rain proof ponchos as the heavens opened. We ran for the bus and squeezed onto it just before the doors closed. We were cheek by jowl with local villagers, while the bus conductor managed to negotiate his way through the centimetres between us, there were little shrines surrounded by flashing lights obscuring part of the windscreen (to bless and protect the driver), Indian music played at volume drowning the creaks and clatters as we bumped over the road. The conductor blew his whistle for the driver to stop or go and passengers had a couple of seconds to leap on or off before we accelerated again.

Exploring Naggar

On another day we took the bus in the other direction to Naggar which dropped us down on the main highway with a steep long, zig-zagging hill up to the main attractions. The sun was beating down so we hailed two tuk-tuks to take the strain.

Roerichs Memorial house

Roerich’s Memorial house

Roerich’s Estate

One ticket gained entry to the Roerich’s Estate including the Urusvati Himalayan Research Institute and Roerichs’ Memorial House. If we thought a long drive in a comfortable car was a bit wearisome it was humbling to get an insight into what pioneering adventurers went through to explore remote areas of the world.

Russian-born Nicholas (Nikolai) and his wife Helena embarked on the five-year-long Roerich Asian Expedition took them through wild terrain including Punjab, Kashmir, the Altai Mountains, Mongolia, the Central Gobi with a detour through Siberia to Moscow. They were not able to send communications for a whole year and were attacked in Tibet then detained by the government for five months, camping out in sub-zero temperatures with very little food (five of the expedition died).

The couple and their sons appear not to have been motivated by personal glory but an urge to record, preserve and unite. “There is no future without past”. Nicolas was a talented painter (as was Helena) leaving a huge collection of works (some displayed on the Estate) which are now extremely valuable. His wealth of other achievements ranged from archaeology to philosophy and he was a notable figure of the day, connected to a wide range of influential people from Ghandi, to HG Wells, to Charlie Chaplin.

He left an amazing legacy – but even if this doesn’t interest you one jot, it was blissful to stroll around the elegant wooden buildings that summed up a certain age, sit on the upstairs balcony in the family home, imagining, as he would while taking a break from his prolific pursuits, looking out over the valley, while he sipped a pink gin or a stengah.

Naggar Castle

Naggar Castle is a bit of a strange place as it’s a tourist attraction plus a hotel. As ornate wood and stone building with a small temple, it’s worth visiting if only for the open courtyard and incredible views. We strolled around and drank in the rays from the lowering sun. Everything in India seems to be labelled and each room had a sign over the door, including ‘Economy room’ – sorting guests into a kind of caste system.

view of Manali valley

View of the Himalayas and Manali valley from Naggar castle

German Bakery

The German Bakery was recommended by Rushad and he roared up on his motorbike as we were about to go in. The tables are on a balcony so you can watch the world go by and we sat with cups of tea, baked cheesecake and biscuits doing just that. There are all sorts of different teas and we ordered three, but had to finish one first as they only had two teapots. The homemade biscuits were really good and I bought some of the peanut cookies to take on the trek.

Short hikes in and around Mansari and Haripur

In the afternoons we explored the surrounding countryside and villages on foot and by local bus. We hiked our way to a couple of local waterfalls and down by the river. They were led by N, “shall we go for a yomp?”, who went out for an early morning run each day and explored a new direction. The whole area was like stepping into the past, brightly painted buildings, overlapping rustic slate tiles on the roofs, dry stone walls, orchards, fields of grasses grown as cattle feed and rose bushes in bloom dotted about everywhere.

a small canal by a river

The path up to the waterfall

Waterfall walk – we took the main road out of Mansari towards Manali and followed the road round when it met pine forests. A little further along on the right there’s a large painted sign saying ‘waterfall’. We took the path upwards, past a carved, wooden temple, a little school, and alongside a concrete trench to channel water. We met an old lady, wearing a traditional woven kullu, bent double with a huge sack of straw on her back (a common sight in Mansari) and a seated woman who lived with her husband under a tarpaulin in the trees – both dressed in bright saris. Eventually we came to a place with dark rocks that reached upwards and a cascade of water splashed down in a white torrent to the river below. A little makeshift kitchen with plastic tables and chairs was perched by the waterfall (one actually set in the water) and we had a cup of chai while we watched tiny birds dart through the spray.

Waterfall walk 2 – we gathered beautiful pine cones while walking up the zig zag road that started by the side of the main petrol station in Manali. At the top there’s a flat sort of car park with a shelter and mural and the path leads from the back, past wooden houses and orchards where people (mainly women) were working. A couple of cafes are signposted (painted on boulders) but the Jungle Junction, by the side of a narrow, open bridge across the fast flowing river, was closed as out of season. A man herding a jittery cow appeared. My friend ran but instinctively dropped to the ground to stop being knocked off the edge into the raging water below. The herder – and my friend – thought this was hysterical.

It began to rain heavily so we sheltered under a tarpaulin by a narrower bit of the river, decorated with flowers, at the River Forest Cafe. Hot chai kept us going until there was a break in the rain. If we had walked on I think we would have reached another waterfall. After playing a jolly game called Head’s Up (which involved putting our mobiles on our foreheads), we went back the way we came.

Riverside walk – going in the direction of Haripur and taking the first right hand path led us down past a couple of government schools and the huge Jawahal Lal Nehru college that appeared deserted. A dog came out of the grounds and adopted us along the walk – this was a common occurrence. We took the path left; it’s fringed by trees to the right with a steep drop down to the river Beas with views across to the colourful buildings and green and red roofs on the opposite bank. (There’s a path that goes right in the circular walk back to the main road but it was blocked by a landslide.)

river at the bottom of valley

River Beas far below in the valley

traditional house

We looked across green fields and the distant snow-capped mountains to the left and met many women doing farm work or washing clothes in pumps with water from the Himalayas.  We stopped to joke with an old lady who was very happy to have her photo taken with us as long as her cow was in the picture. The friendliness of the villagers was a constant throughout our trip and while I took photos of them (with their permission) I spotted some with their phones surreptitiously capturing the odd sight of seven women in hiking gear (travelling without their husbands).

The path comes to an end and leads upwards, past some traditional wooden buildings. These usually have a cow or two underneath them, the living quarters above with the upper storey stacked with hay. We happened upon another ornately carved wooden temple (the Neelasuri Devi Temple) and eventually emerged back out onto the main road by the Haripur sub-post office. I nipped inside and met two men who were happy to chat and show me the stacks of paper, mail bags and wooden pigeon holes that harked back to a bygone age.

We passed two looms set up on verandas where women were weaving the local Kullu shawls; made of fine wool, checked in black and pink with a red border. We saw them worn, with a belt to hold them in place by many older women. At the other end of the scale, teenage boys sported some extreme haircuts – shaved at the sides and extravagantly bouffant on top.

temple

Countryside walk – this path took us off the main thoroughfare to wind upwards past rustic small-holdings, orchards and along the little streams coming down from the mountain.  Walking along the main road until you get to Haripur you go downhill to reach a pretty little temple in pink and green before the bridge across the river. We retraced our steps opposite the Trout Farm, to a small path to the left leading upwards. It threads higher and higher past beautiful gardens and farms, streams and meadows and a couple of temples – the Madho Rai Krishna temple and the Lord Lakshmi Narayan Hindu Temple.

As always we got some interested gazes from the people working on the land and friendliness, smiles and return of our ‘namaste’. Stopping to catch breath due to the steep incline, we saw preparations for wedding celebrations – an area surrounded by looping swathes of pink and white silk. Further on there’s the government village primary school and we could hear the chatter of the children.

The path eventually meets the car park area mentioned in Waterfall Walk 2, and we walked back down the hill to the Mansari petrol station but you could take the right hand path and continue on up the river.

traditional building

Forest walk – When you get to Haripur, in the corner between the General Store and the Himachal Gramin Bank, there’s a path that leads downwards into the forest alongside a tributary of the River Beas. It seems to be a popular area for picnics and short walks. We spotted where the dirt track (suitable for vehicles) continued downhill and found the Tall Trees Resort at the bottom. Wooden buildings surround a really pretty garden with neat stone paths, ornamental bridges and flower beds, overlooking the Beas river down below. We could have been in Hampshire.  As we were between breakfast and lunch the menu was very inflexible (we wanted something small to go with our chai), so we settled for drinks and using their very clean loo.

Tall Trees looks like a lovely place to stay especially if you want to be in a very peaceful location off the beaten track – it’s really secluded and hard to reach by car. Looking at Google maps I think it might be possible to turn left along the river to the 15 mile bridge and loop back round on the other side of the tributary but haven’t tested this. We retraced our steps upwards, back to Haripur and Mansari.

Kullu-Manali Valley, Himachal Pradesh

This rural area was the perfect foil for the hectic city life of Dubai. The area is famed for its outdoor pursuits like mountain biking, paragliding, canoeing and hiking. It’s also famous for its weed which was growing wild by the side of the road and in the forests.

This was part one, the yoga bit, of our 12 day trip in Himachal Pradesh. Details of hiking the Hamta Circle to follow soon.

Some of the images are not great quality, taken with old Iphone in a state of disconnecting from the world 🙂

barbers shop

The barber’s in Haripur

Useful contacts and info – Mansari, Haripur and Manali

view of Beas river

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Do you know this region of India? Where else should we visit in Himachal Pradesh?  Is this your kind of holiday or is it too far away from things?

9 Comments leave one →
  1. crasterkipper permalink
    June 9, 2019 12:10 pm

    I enjoyed this post very much. I almost felt I was there, especially the waterfall walks.
    Choithram’s 😂…
    My body is a temple… let’s have a g&t 🤣
    Beautiful photographs & descriptions. Would not have known you were using the iPhone unless you mentioned it 😉
    The Peak District with me as guide may seem a little tame after this 😉
    So glad you enjoyed it so much & it went so well x

    • June 9, 2019 12:38 pm

      This is the best feedback possible. Thank you. Himalayas or Peak District – any hiking is bliss to me.

  2. June 9, 2019 5:58 pm

    Gosh, what a lot you packed in to your trip! It sounds absolutely fabulous. I love HP, my dad was born not far from Shimla and I’ve explored the west side from there up as far as Dharamshala. So incredibly beautiful. A lovely read and gorgeous photos, as ever!

    • June 10, 2019 10:20 am

      Thank you Christie. It’s definitely a state I’d revisit – it felt far away from the modern world. This was only part of our trip!

  3. June 11, 2019 6:30 am

    What an amazing trip! Love this line …”While our bodies are temples they still need gin and tonics.” 😆

  4. June 16, 2019 6:52 pm

    I’ve been elsewhere in Himachal Pradesh about 7 years ago and those spots were definitely way more touristy. The retreat sounds amazing and something that’s totally out of my comfort zone- I have zero confidence in my body’s ability to do any of the things you describe!

  5. June 24, 2019 1:01 am

    I think your pictures are wonderful, despite having been taken on an old iphone. What a fantastic experience, it really does sound and look incredible to be doing something so calm and spiritual in such a gorgeous place!

  6. Heidi Roberts permalink
    June 24, 2019 1:18 am

    What an awesome experience. I felt like I was there experiencing it with you!

  7. Emma @ Adventures of a London Kiwi permalink
    June 24, 2019 1:42 am

    This sounds wonderful and challenging and good for the soul!

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