M.Most trekkers are unaware of the impact of the Atal Tunnel on trekking in India.
This historic tunnel, inaugurated on October 3rd, starts in the Solang Valley near Manali and ends near the great Sissu Waterfall in Lahaul. So far, not many travelers knew about the Sissu waterfall. But now Atal Tunnel is putting it on the popular map. Similarly, Lahaul is brought into the spotlight and underscored how little information is available about this region.
“You have never seen such beautiful surroundings as Lahaul. It is very different from the beauty of Spiti. Lahaul is colorful, stark and yet differently beautiful. Even the villages are very interesting in their design. They are rich in culture, ”says Arjun Majumdar, CEO and founder of Indiahikes, who explored these remote regions a number of times, once as a young boy with his father and once on an exploration tour with Indiahikes.
That piqued my curiosity. At Indiahikes we run hikes in some of the most scenic areas of Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and cashmere. But now here is a region that is different from all of 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 cards. Animated conversations about Lahaul and Spiti follow. They talk in detail about the hikes, the people and the culture. They also talk about the grueling journeys, challenges and obstacles in this region.
What is the significance of the Atal Tunnel when trekking in India?
Here are a few facts necessary to put the Atal Tunnel's gravity into perspective.
The Atal Tunnel project was first announced on June 3, 2000 by former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Construction didn't begin until a decade later in June 2010, and it took another decade to complete.
Finally, Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the Atal Tunnel on October 3, 2020. It drills a hole in the eastern Pir Panjal Mountains so you can travel to Lahaul from the Manali side in 20 minutes!
This is a mind-boggling change. Ask anyone who has taken the famous Manali-Leh route over Rohtang Pass, defied the 14 bone-breaking hairpin turns of Marhi, crossed Rohtang Pass, and descended to Lahaul. On a good day with little traffic it would take 4 hours. But the Rohtang Pass is notorious for its traffic and terrible roads. The crossover would take 5 hours.
Now with the Atal tunnel we can be in Lahaul in Keylong (originally Kyelang) in 40 minutes and in 2 hours, the largest city in Lahaul and Spiti and also the administrative capital.
No wonder locals from Manali and Lahaul are happy about the opening of the tunnel. They are enthusiastic about the possibilities of agriculture, horticulture and winter tourism in Lahaul. Medical facilities for the Lahaul tribal areas, which were cut off from the mainland for most of the year, will now be accessible.
A big effect: opening up new trekking areas
With the opening of the Atal Tunnel, hikers can finally venture into the unknown terrain of Lahaul. In the past, poor roads and long travel times prevented hikers from exploring this picturesque region.
There were two main reasons for this. First, the trip to Lahaul costs an extra day. Second, it was difficult and expensive to find guides and porters for a hike in Lahaul because it was so remote.
Sandhya Chandrasekharayya brings perspective by taking us back in time when she went on a high altitude crossover hike in Lahaul. She says: “For them Kugti Pass hikeIt's easy to get to the Chamba side where the hike starts. But when you finish the hike you will find yourself deep in the Lahaul Valley. Although the distance is very short, I had to stop over in Kyelang and then find another transportation to Manali. I had to spend an extra day in Keylong.
The Kugti Pass is a high altitude pass in the Chamba region. Image from the Indiahikes archive
“The roads weren't very good either. There was a lot of uncertainty associated with the road trip, which involved two long consecutive trips. It was very tiring.
“With the Atal Tunnel, I can be in Manali on the same day that I finished the hike. That is a very great relief!
“On the other hand, hikes that start and end in the Lahaul Valley are now easily accessible,” she smiles.
This brings me to the next and most important point for hikers.
What new zones of trek are we looking at?
Until now, hikers who crossed the famous Hampta Pass and descended into the Lahaul Valley drove to Chandratal and quickly returned to Manali. This trip would go through the Rohtang Pass, a 5-6 hour journey of twisted stomach hairpins and bad roads. Trekkers would just get it over with and want to reach Manali.
Exploring Lahaul wasn't even a thought. The lack of roads and the extreme weather in the mountains always spoiled games.
Because of this, Lahaul remained fuzzy in most of our thoughts. It conjured up vague visions of a remote, beautiful region, but should be explored at your leisure.
Now, however, hikers can plan an extra day or two to explore Lahaul. This will add so much to the post-trek experience.
Lahaul is on the left side of the Atal Tunnel and is different from the Spiti or Pangi regions. In contrast to the beauty of Spiti, Lahaul is very colorful and dotted with very pretty settlements. There are beautiful hiking trails, most of which are rarely used.
Take that for example Miyar Valley hike we explored that a few years ago. It starts in the picturesque village of Urgose. The trail takes you to medieval Buddhist monasteries and has flower beds dominated by Himalayan orchids. Our team that explored the hike couldn't stop raving about it.
Miyar Valley, also known as Lahaul's Flower Valley, is a less trodden trail
Unfortunately we were never able to open this trek due to its remoteness. Now, with the opening of the Atal Tunnel, we are full of hope.
I expect a shift in the way most hiking is done in these regions. And that shift would begin with base camps.
How base camps will shift as a result
So far, Manali has been the most accessible base camp in Himachal Pradesh. Of course, hikes that started from around Manali – like Hampta Pass, Bhrigu lake, Bea's Kund – Gained notoriety.
But now it's very likely that places like Kyelang, which is on the other side of the Atal Tunnel, will become the next Manali.
Also, hikers will no longer stop in Manali, but will move straight to their base camps in the Lahaul region (even if it's not Kyelang). This saves you a lot of time and money.
How opening the Atal Tunnel will affect your travel plans
So far, only private vehicles drive through the Atal tunnel. But visionary plans are sprouting in the background.
In a recent interview, Kumud Singh, managing director of HP Tourism Development Corporation (HPTDC), was quoted as outlining the idea of electric buses with glass roofs to drive through the tunnel. Landscaping plans around the tunnel to highlight the culture and ethnicity of Lahaul are also underway.
In contrast to the Rohtang Pass, this 9.02 km long tunnel remains functional for most of the year. However, travelers note that it is closed for maintenance every day from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. and from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m.
In the end, it is evident that the Atal Tunnel will bring about some unprecedented changes in Lahaul's economy and tourism. Now Lahaul promises a lot to explorers and hikers. It sure looks like we're on the eve of an exciting phase.
If you think there are some great hikes to be done in the Lahaul, Spiti or Pangi regions, let us know in the comments below. Our exploration team would love to read about some good hikes. Who knows, they might even invite you on their expedition!