Generally, Gerard makes an itinerary long before we leave for India. This year, the leg of the journey into the mountains would be determined by the weather, and since there are so few trains in this area, no need to book in advance. As the time drew closer to leave Rishikesh, we realized getting to the Kullu Valley was not straightforward. It doesn’t happen often, but there are times when your plans just don’t work out and you have to try to explore the remaining options with an open mind and “stay calm.” Gerard had read somewhere online that the easiest route from Rishikesh was to take a train to Ambala and then a state bus to Mandi at the beginning of the Valley. We hustled down to a travel agent hoping there would still be a vacancy on a train – and we were in luck. That afternoon, we looked for state buses from Ambala to Mandi; there were none. Ok, well, private buses. Yes, there are ones going from Delhi to Manali, that passes through Ambala around 11pm. The train arrives around 9pm if it’s on time…so maybe that could work. We phoned a few travel agents in Ambala to try and purchase the private bus tickets, and nobody would take a US credit card. The other aggravating factor, you couldn’t buy for distance travel; you could only buy the whole route from Delhi to Manali. The entire afternoon was spent staring at the computer screen going around in circles. “I’ve had enough, let’s go and eat dinner.” On the way out of the hotel, one of the friendly staff suggested we go to Chandigarh by train instead of Ambala and then take a state bus to Mandi. So we grabbed our railway tickets and went back to the travel agent. The agent said, “ Yes, there is availability for a chair car train to Chandigarh tomorrow getting in at night.” “We’ll take it.” A very small refund on the old ticket because the departure was less than 24 hours away.
The next hurdle was to find accommodation in Chandigarh. Since it’s not a tourist destination, the usual type of guesthouse we stayed in didn’t exist. Searching the net, it was all business type hotels. Then we ran into payment problems again; the hotels would not take a US credit card. Finally, I found a candidate who would take PayPal – we booked it. Chandigarh is a relatively new city built post-Independence, laid out on a grid and divided into orderly sectors. This seemed boring and it had never previously appealed to us. But as soon as we decided to go there, everything fell into place.
The next morning, we said goodbye to our friendly hotel staff and, in the heat of the day, schlepped our bags across the narrow and very crowded Laxman Jhula bridge. Almost immediately, a taxi drew up and asked where we going. He said, “I’m going to the bus station too. I’ll only charge you 100Rs.” (a third of the regular price) .Wiping his sweaty brow, Gerard thought the price of the air conditioning alone was worth the 100 Rs. We made good time and arrived at the bus station JUST as a bus was leaving for Haridwar. With plenty of traffic, rail crossing stop, not to mention the usual cows sitting in the road, the bus driver kept the journey within the estimated hour and got us to the train station in plenty of time. But where was our train? There was no 12063 to Chandigarh listed on the board; the closest was 12053 to Amritsar. Eventually, we found a station master who informed us our train would be attached to 12053 shortly. Looking up and down the platform, Gerard muttered, “The train is supposed to leave in 10 minutes.” Sure enough, a little after the train’s scheduled departure two extra carriages did arrive that were 12063. The whole train was chair car class, meaning we sat in chairs instead of compartments as if on a bus, and with wall fans instead of AC. It was crowded but we found our reserved seats and then at every stop more people more crowded on. I sat by the open window and took pictures of a surprisingly fertile country landscape that was decidedly Sikh, passing numerous Gurudwaras.
Arriving in Chandigarh almost on time, we easily found our hotel, the city being as orderly as we expected. It was a typical city hotel – a room just acceptably clean, the bathroom without a full wall connecting it to the bathroom of the neighbouring bathroom. We heard our Indian neighbour get up before 6 am and spend what seemed like two hours performing loud nasal cleaning, involving lots of water. I would love to witness this procedure just once.
Right after breakfast, a helpful travel agent next door to the hotel told us a state bus was leaving for Mandi in just over an hour. We ran back and threw our things together, grabbed a rickshaw and reached the bus station in the nick of time to purchase perhaps the last two tickets in the back of the bus We boarded. Luggage is always a problem on state buses– there’s no room for bags and yet the conductor insists on your bringing them on the bus and either jamming under the seat or overhead. It’s not always possible. As I struggled with my bag, the ticket collector rather abruptly took and jammed it under the seat and then took Gerard’s and forced it into a space overhead. After a bone-shaking eight hours, we arrived in Mandi, and again just in time to catch the last bus up to Rewalsar. Two hours later, we settled into a very nice guesthouse near the top of the town (a 345 step climb – Gerard counted them) with a wonderful view of the surrounding hills, town, and valley below.