Most trekkers are oblivious to the impact of Atal Tunnel on trekking in India.
This historic tunnel, which was inaugurated on October 3, 2020, starts from Solang Valley near Manali and ends near the grand Sissu waterfall in Lahaul. Till now, not many travellers knew about the Sissu waterfall. But now, Atal Tunnel puts it on the popular map. Similarly, it brings the spotlight on Lahaul and underlines how little information is available about this region.
“You have not seen a setting as beautiful as Lahaul. It is very different from the stark beauty of Spiti. Lahaul is colourful, stark, yet differently beautiful. Even the villages are very interesting in the way they are laid out. They are steeped in culture,” says Arjun Majumdar, CEO and founder of Indiahikes, who explored these remote regions a few times, once as a young boy with his father and once with Indiahikes on an exploration.
This piqued my curiosity. At Indiahikes, we run treks in some of the most picturesque parts of Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and Kashmir. But now, here is a region that’s different from all these, and we haven’t talked about it yet. Why?
In response, Arjun Majumdar and Sandhya UC, the co-founder of Indiahikes, pull out the Leomann maps. Animated conversations about Lahaul and Spiti follow. They talk extensively about the treks, the people and the culture. They also talk about the arduous journeys, the challenges and road-blocks in that region.
What’s the Significance of Atal Tunnel on Trekking in India
Here, a few facts are necessary to bring perspective to the gravity of Atal Tunnel.
The project of Atal Tunnel was first announced by former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee on June 3, 2000. Its construction began only a decade later in June 2010 and it took a decade more to complete.
Finally, on October 3, 2020, Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the Atal Tunnel. It drills a hole into the eastern Pir Panjal range making it possible to travel from the Manali side to Lahaul in 20 minutes!
The Atal tunnel is going to change how we look at trekking in Himachal. Picture by Karan Lakhmani
This is a mind-boggling shift. Ask anyone who has taken the famous Manali-Leh route via Rohtang Pass and braved the 14 bone-crunching hairpin bends of Marhi, crossed the Rohtang pass and descended down to Lahaul. On a good day, with little traffic, it would take 4 hours. But Rohtang pass is infamous for its traffic and terrible roads. It would take 5 hours to do the crossover.
Now with the Atal Tunnel, we may be in Lahaul in 40 minutes and in 2 hours at Keylong (originally Kyelang), the biggest town in Lahaul and Spiti and also its administrative capital.
It’s no wonder that locals from Manali and Lahaul are rejoicing the opening of the tunnel. They’re ecstatic at the possibilities of agriculture, horticulture and winter tourism in Lahaul. Medical facilities to the tribal areas of Lahaul, that remained cut off from the mainland for most part of the year, will now become accessible.
A Big Impact: Opening up of new areas of trekking
The Atal Tunnel will finally allow trekkers to venture into the uncharted terrain of Lahaul. Earlier, bad roads and long travel time prevented trekkers from exploring this scenic region.
There were two main reasons for this. First, travel to Lahaul cost an extra day. Second, it was difficult and expensive to find guides and porters for a trek in Lahaul because of its remoteness.
Sandhya Chandrasekharayya throws some perspective by taking us back to the time when she did a high altitude crossover trek in Lahaul. She says, “for the Kugti Pass trek, it is easy to get to the Chamba side, where the trek begins. But when you finish the trek, you are deep inside the Lahaul valley. Though the distance is very short, I had to do a stopover at Kyelang and then find another transport to Manali. I had to spend an extra day at Keylong.
Kugti Pass is a high altitude pass in the Chamba region. Picture from the Indiahikes archives
“The roads too were not very great. There was a lot of uncertainty attached to the road journey, which had two back-to-back long drives. It was extremely tiring.
“With the Atal Tunnel, I can be in Manali the same day I complete the trek. That’s a very big relief!
“On the other hand, treks that start and end in Lahaul valley will now become easily accessible,” she smiles.
This brings me to the next, and the most important point for trekkers.
What New Zones of Trekking are We Looking at
Until now, trekkers who crossed the famous Hampta Pass and descended into the Lahaul valley, drove to Chandratal and quickly returned to Manali. This journey would be through Rohtang Pass, a 5-6 hour long journey on stomach-twisting hairpin turns and bad roads. Trekkers would just want to get it over with and reach Manali.
Exploring Lahaul wasn’t even a thought. The lack of roads and extreme weather in the mountains always played spoilsport.
Due to this, Lahaul remained hazy in most of our minds. It conjured blurred visions of a remote, beautiful region, but meant to be explored at leisure.
Now, however, trekkers can keep aside an extra day or two to explore Lahaul. This will add so much to the post-trek experience.
Set on the left side of the Atal Tunnel, Lahaul is distinct from Spiti or Pangi regions. Unlike the stark beauty of Spiti, Lahaul is very colourful, dotted with very pretty settlements. It has lovely trails to do, most of them rarely trodden on.
Take for example the Miyar Valley trek that we explored a few years ago. It starts from the quaint village of Urgose. The trail takes you to medieval Buddhist monasteries and has flower beds dominated by Himalayan orchids. Our team who explored the trek couldn’t stop raving about it.
Miyar Valley, also known as the Valley of Flowers of Lahaul is a less trodden trail
Unfortunately, we could never open this trek because of its remoteness. Now with the the Atal Tunnel, we are filled with hope.
I anticipate a shift in how most treks are going to be conducted in these regions. And this shift would begin with base camps.
How Base Camps Will Shift as a Consequence
Until now, Manali was the most accessible base camp in Himachal Pradesh. Naturally, treks that began from around Manali — like Hampta Pass, Bhrigu Lake, Beas Kund — gained prominence.
But now it’s highly probable that places like Kyelang that are on the other side of Atal Tunnel — will become the next Manali.
Also, trekkers will no longer halt at Manali, but move directly to their base camps in the Lahaul region (even if it is not Kyelang). This will save them a lot of time and money.
How the Atal Tunnel Impacts Your Travel Plans
Till now only private vehicles have started plying through the Atal Tunnel. But visionary plans are sprouting in the background.
In a recent interview, Kumud Singh, Managing Director at HP Tourism Development Corporation (HPTDC) was quoted outlining the idea of glass-roofed electric buses that will run through the tunnel. Plans of landscaping areas around the tunnel to bring out the culture and ethnicity of Lahaul are also underway.
Unlike Rohtang Pass, this 9.02 km long tunnel will remain functional for most part of the year. But travellers take note that every day it will be shut from 9:00 – 10:00 am and 4:00 – 5:00 pm for maintenance.
In the end, it’s evident that Atal Tunnel will bring out some unprecedented changes to the economy and tourism of Lahaul. Now, Lahaul holds great promise for explorers and trekkers. It surely looks like we’re on the eve of an exciting phase.
If you think some great treks can be explored in the Lahaul, Spiti or Pangi regions, let us know in the comments below. Our exploration team would be delighted to read about some good treks. Who knows they may even invite you on their expedition!