Rohtang Pass! At 3978 m it is easily one of the highest mountains I had been to! I had no apprehensions about altitude sickness. But people who had not been to the mountains had a lot to worry. You are entering a different world. The air is icy and thin.
As soon as I saw snow peaked mountains from Kullu, I knew I had to be there. My trip to Himachal would never be complete without doing so. Though I have been walking most of my trip in Shimla, I knew it wasn't going to work this time. Rohtang Pass is 51 km from Manali at an altitude of 3978m. It is not just any mountain I had seen. The word ‘Rohtang’ is literary translated in Bhoti as ‘pile of corpses’. People die all time from bad weather while trying to cross the Pass. Rohtang Pass is quite significant in this context. It connects Kullu valley to Spiti and Lahaul and the NH-21 highway to Leh also passes through this.
It was a bright day down in the valley. I could see snow-capped Rohtang Mountains from the balcony of my guest house. The other day it was cloudy and I couldn't see beyond the deodar forest.
The road is too precarious and mostly jammed because of landslides. It seemed like a daily affair especially when it rained. The Armies and the BRO (Border Road Organization) are always alert and ready to meet up to the task. The pace of traffic here is at snail’s pace. A person had even filed a petition in HP High court against traffic congestion on the Manali to Rohtang highway. In spite of all efforts nothing much has been achieved. Small road doubled with recurring landslides and excess tourist’s vehicles made the situation worse. A normal 2-3 hours journey always ends up with 4-5 hours.
To my disappointment I found out that there were no buses to Rohtang Pass; only shared taxis but they too had left early morning to elude the traffic. I was left with no choice but to board a fully packed bus bound for Keylong and get down at Rohtang Pass.The bus to Keylong is nothing more than a museum of different human races. You have the blonde English speaking couples and loud Indian tourists in front. At the back were calm Buddhist monks, ever smiling Sadhus and some hippies bouncing and careening to the rather bumpy road. But it all seemed bearable until you began to worry about your return journey. How do I return was the big worry? To be on the safer side I could have waited for another day and book for a shared taxi for Rs.500. But sometimes playing too safe takes away the fun!
The road from Manali to Rohtang is one of the most precarious roads I had been to. Higher up, there are no trees but rocks and snow. The mountains are bare and you could see small road cut out of steep mountains. At every turn you tightened your grip and prayed that the bus wouldn't just drive off the cliff. Statistically speaking, this road has very low accident incidence rate. Perhaps, they are daunted to drive safe by the road itself.
After driving through endless winding road we finally arrived at Marhi, the last inhibited place before Rohtang Pass.Just before reaching Marhi I got a glimpse of the traffic trail uphill. Our bus tyre punctured and we had some time to stretch ourselves. I had two slice of parantha, for lunch. Rohtang pass is just 16 kms away but the mountain looks daunting and it looked like a gruesome task to climb on foot.
Marhi is a good place for Para-gliders. But the mountains and deep gorges can be more unnerving than Solang Nala. Here the wind is cold and the weather seemed to be changing all the time. The 16km road from Marhi to Rohtang Pass took more than 2 hours. After a certain point of time you stopped worrying about time and just hoped you’ll make it safe through the fresh lava like- sticky paste of mud and rocks. Many vehicles turned their way around and headed back to Manali without even reaching Rohtang Pass.
The lofty peaks above were covered with nimbus fog. You couldn't see a thing. These mountains are prone to cloudburst which is one of the most dangerous natural disasters around here. The Pass is open for a short period from May to November. Construction work for 8.8 km tunnel under Rohtang Pass towards Leh began underway on 28th June 2010. It will make life much easier for people traversing through these mountains. But it will take away the fun and thrill of driving on the mountains and the breath-taking view it offers.
Hundreds and thousands of people visited Rohtang Pass each day. Most people came to see and play on the snow. I had dreamed of playing in snow since I was a kid. But when I reached there it was freezing cold. I stepped on the hardened snow and after few minutes my feet got a little numb. I was stunned to find makeshift shops selling cold drinks. But than again some people would drink it just for fun. Here, even a cup of hot tea gets cooled pretty fast. A piece of charred maize is sold for Rs.50.
Popular sports here are skiing and quad biking. I made a mistake of not wearing insulated suits available on rent at Manali. I wore a decent jacket but I couldn't indulge in snow-sports the way I should have wanted to.
Rohtang Pass is also the place where many rivers rise. I wandered off from the madding crowd towards the upper mountains facing Leh. The lower face of these mountains is carpeted with purple, yellow and pink summer blossoms. You couldn't see it from distance but these tiny flowers are perfect and beautiful. By autumn they will rot under sheet of fresh snow and will have to wait for summer to see the light of day.
The sun was setting. Last golden sunlight hit the tips of these snow-capped mountains and turned it golden. The sun stayed on the mountains longer than I thought it would. Under the shadow of giant mountains, the air was getting cold. My fingers were numb and stiff. It was beginning to go into my head. Sometimes the beauty of nature belies its tyranny. I had never though of it this way. But as beautiful as it was, it could also kill fiercely.
After unsuccessfully asking for lift, I felt panic swelling inside my head. The place was thinning out. There were few vehicles left. If I stayed back I knew I would become one among the ‘pile of corpses’. A makeshift shop owner saved the day for me (and probably my life). I watched him pack everything into his old truck and when we drove off I could still see the tip of the Rohtang Mountain glinting like gold.