Yes, it's set amid dense pine forests and shadowed by snowy peaks, but Manali's reputation as a spectacular Himalayan resort is much exaggerated. The primary reason to be here is to set off for Leh in Ladakh, a 2-day drive away, or to participate in the many treks or adventure sports, including heli-skiing.
Manali comprises several neighborhoods, each with a distinct personality. North of the Manalsu Nala River is Old Manali, with its historic stone buildings; to the west is the pleasant village of Dhungri; while messy Model Town is a motley collection of concrete buildings tucked behind the main bazaar area, concentrated around The Mall. East of the Beas River, a few kilometers north of Manali is Vashisht, a village known for its hot springs and laid-back atmosphere. Unfortunately, Vashisht has lost much of its charm, thanks to an influx of long-stay budget tourists; a dunk in the communal hot-water bath of the local temple is hardly reason enough to visit.
The most peaceful area is Dhungri Village (around 2km/1 1/4 miles from the bazaar), where you can stroll through deodar forests or visit a 450-year-old temple where animal sacrifice is still practiced. On the outskirts of the neighborhood, the multitiered wooden pagoda-style Hadimba Devi Temple ★, built in 1553, is Manali's oldest and most interesting shrine, dedicated to the demon goddess Hadimba (an incarnation of Kali). Look around for the sheltered sacrificial stone used for blood rituals during important ceremonies; the central hollow is where the blood from a slain buffalo or goat drains into Hadimba's mouth.
Another good walk takes you through Old Manali (center of cheap backpackers' accommodations), the temple dedicated to Manu, and beyond to silent hillside paths where you'll encounter village women passing the day over idle gossip while their men unhurriedly herd goats and cows toward greener pastures at higher altitudes. Most visitors pay a visit to Manali's two more modern Buddhist gompas in the town's Tibetan quarter south of the bazaar. Gadhan Thekchhokling gompa was built in 1969, and is recognizable by its yellow, pagoda-style roof; memorial notices outside draw attention to the extermination of Tibetans in China.
Just 24km (15 miles) short of Manali is Naggar, which like Manali is slowly being wrecked by unchecked construction and tourism. Visit the Nicholas Roerich Museum ([tel 01902/24-8290 or -8590; Tues-Sun 10am-1pm and 1:30-6pm), where the famous Russian artist lived from 1923 until he died in 1947. In this small but well-maintained museum, paintings and books by the prolific artist and philosopher are on display. In this stunning location, it's easy to see why Roerich and his wife, Helena, were so inspired by their surroundings (though not everyone feels the same about his artworks). Also part of the estate is the Urusvati Himalayan Folk Art Museum (Tues-Sun 10am-6pm), created for the preservation of folk art and craft.
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