…For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.
— Daffodils, William Wordsworth
There are no daffodils along the road that leads from Manali to Keylong. But there are daisies and other wild flowers. There are streams flowing out of melting snow and there is snow that hasn’t yet melted. There are mountain trees and herbs. In just 115 km, the road offers travellers an amazing range of variety — of vegetation, terrain and cultures.
Kullu Valley is the abode of Hindu oracles, Lahaul, predominantly Buddhist. For centuries, it has remained the only path that connects the two worlds. It’s the fascinating journey on this stretch, and not the destination, that continues to haunt me long after it is over, and connects me to Wordsworth’s poem. If only I had travelled on this road years ago, I could have done better in the poetry exam.
Up, up and away
The steep climb to Rohtang Pass — that is roughly the halfway mark to Keylong — begins as soon as you are past Bhang on the outskirts of Manali. As hired SUVs begin the swerving ascent to Rohtang, on one of the most beautiful mountain stretches in the world, my thoughts go back to a small temple, some 80 km downstream. Drivers of all vehicles carrying passengers make sure they halt at the temple by the Beas near Aut and seek the blessings of the Goddess Hanogi Devi, for a safe passage through the hills. A broken patch of the road on the way up, a jam caused by last evening’s accident, tales of previous accidents that the locals tell you about, remind you of why the little temple commands great belief among even the non-believers who have travelled even once on this road.
The road is busy because it serves as the Army’s main supply line to Leh and beyond. One of the very few similarities between the stretch to Rohtang Pass and the one beyond it is the presence of scores of men, women and machines of the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) — busy clearing, repairing and building the road. It remains shut usually from October to May. Thanks to narrow or broken stretches and heavy vehicular traffic, traffic jams are common. Though, not many avail of it, the jams provide a good opportunity to check out some scenic stretches. Patches of melting snow create sudden springs or, sometimes, small waterfalls (like the Rahalla Falls) all along the road. The area is full of tall pine and deodar trees that line the wooded slopes on both sides of the gorge. Below these trees exist smaller flower and fruit-bearing shrubs and plants. Wild yellow flowers and white daisies peep out of the green grassy patches.
From Marhi, 12 km before Rohtang and the last spot before the pass where Maggi-parantha-chai tourism is at its thriving best (there’s also paragliding, by the way), the terrain changes. It gets steeper and the road leads up through several hairpin bends and walls of snow. Just before you enter the pass, on your right is the Beas Kund. This is where the Beas originates.
Rohtang, at a height of 13,050 feet is not very high but rather treacherous. Icy winds at high speeds lash the pass in the afternoon and an occasional blizzard can suddenly close the pass even during the summer months. It is because of these winds that there are no dwellings here and travellers do not cross the pass late in the day. Nature can show some temper here: a clear blue sky can suddenly become overcast and cloudy. Sunshine can give way to rain or snowfall. Don’t wait to enjoy the snowfall too long. Rohtang in the local language also means “a heap of corpses”.
There is also a lesson in geopolitics here. The snow that melts on the slope to Rohtang becomes the water of Beas, which travels several hundreds of kilometres through dams and flows from the taps in Delhi, among other cities. A few feet away, the snow melting on the other side of the slope flows down to join the river Chandra, 12 km downstream at Koksar — the coldest place in Himachal. The Chandra flows to meet the Bhaga at Tandi 40 km further, and becomes the Chenab. The waters of Chenab are awarded to Pakistan under the Indus Water Treaty.
As soon as the descent from Rohtang into the Chandra Valley begins, the change hits you. The previous stretch is full of vegetation, the Lahaul Valley by contrast is a cold desert. It does not rain here, it only snows when it does.
The madding crowd has been left behind. At many places, patches of the metred road have simply been invaded by running streams of ice-cold water that join the Chandra. Only Sissu, 15 km from Koksar, has a rare patch with trees. The drive along the river Chandra continues till Tandi, eight km short of Keylong where it meets the Bhaga rushing in from the north. Driving for half an hour on what finally looks like a road, the journey ends at Keylong — the last big town on the way to Leh.