A year ago if you had told me I would be standing in a bus, at an elevation of 13,000 feet in the Himalya Mountains, trying to decide if it was safe to get off and help push it out of the mud, I would have thought you were crazy! Fast forward one year later and you might think I’m the crazy one! One thing is for sure, traveling up Rhotang Pass was the unforgettable experience of a lifetime.
Why it’s famous
Rohtang Pass is about 51 kilometers from the hill station of Manali on the eastern Par Panjal Range of the Himalyas. The roads are rough and steep with no guard rails. Typically only one car can fit at a time even though there is two way traffic. It is such an adventure that the History Channel has featured it on Ice Road Truckers and Deadliest Roads. Major traffic jams are common due to accidents, poor road conditions and snow and ice. In fact it is only open from May to November.
On our way
We had just stayed a couple of days in Manali and we were looking forward to spending time at Chandra Taal Lake up near the top of the pass. Kirti felt strongly that his car wasn’t robust enough for the journey so we decided to take a bus. Turns out he was absolutely right! We didn’t have a reserved seat so we were at the mercy of others, but luckily we were able to find a place to stand. At times we just sat in the aisle. Within moments of the bus arriving it was full beyond capacity. I knew it was about a seven hour ride and tried to prepare myself mentally for what I was certain would be a most uncomfortable and challenging bus ride.
About an hour into the ride we stopped at a little cafe/dhaba that serves as a sort of bus stop. It was 7:00 AM and we had been up since 4:30 so we welcomed the chance for a quick breakfast and tea. At the table next to us was a sweet young couple from Germany. They told us they were on a two month back packing trip through India. We were excited to chat with them about their experiences and future plans. A few hours later into the trip Fabian entertained the whole bus by playing his mini guitar for us and singing. He was quite talented and it was a lovely way to pass the time.
Within an hour on the bus I was astounded with the beauty around us! It reminded me somewhat of the Grand Tetons, with soaring mountains, deep ravines, pristine waterfalls and lush grass fields filled with wild flowers of all colors. It was breath taking and I couldn’t take pictures fast enough. At the inevitable annoyance of my weary bus mates I was leaning over others and trying my best to click the picture of a lifetime. Every twist and turn brought a new picturesque landscape and I felt like a child on Christmas morning!
Dangers on the road
My exuberance over the spectacular scenery was somewhat diminished at times by the horrid conditions of the roads. I was impressed with our driver and how well he could navigate over giant potholes, fallen rocks, streams of water over the roadway, herds of goats and on coming trucks. Most times when another vehicle was coming towards us one of the drivers would have to find a “safe” shoulder and pull over. Many times there was not a shoulder to be found so one of the drivers (typically the smallest car) would have to reverse until such time they could find an area to pull over and let the other vehicle pass. There were a lot of blind corners where we suddenly found ourselves unexpectedly head to head with another vehicle. As all this took place, we were just inches away from giant cliffs. One small error could be the death of us all, and indeed Rohtang Pass has claimed many lives in that very fashion.
Stuck in the mud
Apparently we were lucky that our bus only got stuck once. We were asked to disembark so the men could push the bus out of the deep mud. Ten minutes later and we were on our way again. However, on our way back from Chandra Taal, after three days of rain, that very spot was nearly impassible. We were extraordinarily lucky that we were able to finagle a ride back with a sympathetic couple in a tough SUV, and by some miracle he was able to make it through that mud. I was amazed! I thought we were doomed but we somehow made it through. There was no way in hell the bus was going to make it, and it’s a very very long trek back to Manali!
About an hour before Chandra Taal is a little dhaba in a tiny village called Batal. It has one real building and the rest are small huts made of stacked stones with a tarp over the top. That is where the bus ride stops and after that we would have to thumb a ride or trek about 8 kilometers to the top. We took about an hour break to buy some snacks, eat a hot meal and sit beside the beautiful Bias River. We chatted with other folks and soon found a ride for only 500 rupees (about $7 USD). It was a car full of young guys playing loud techno/trance music. The contrast between the nature outside and the music inside was fascinating! About an hour later I saw a camp of tents in the distance! We had finally made it to Chandra Taal!!!