This summer we had a brush with heaven... no literally we visited heaven on earth. People cry hoarse how Kashmir is THE HEAVEN on earth but I beg to differ. I haven't visited Kashmir so I may be wrong, but this place is also up there with the best. I am talking about Rohtang Pass in the higher reaches of Himachal Pradesh. In fact, if you ask what is this place? Then frankly speaking the answer would be - Its a portion of the Leh-Manali Highway linking the hill states of Himachal Pradesh and Jammu Kashmir in Northern India. This doesn't sound very exciting, but it is this simplicity of the place which attracts thousands of tourists every year to this desolate place (Not so desolate with the milling tourists that throng it...).
We left Bhopal on the 30th May 2007 on the Bhopal - New Delhi Shatabdi Express in very high spirits. The ride till Delhi was pretty ordinary with the usual trappings of Shatabdi travel, In fact did you know that Shatabdi Express is the fastest train in India - It reaches speeds of above 150 km per hour in some stretches of the journey. Anyway, we reached Delhi at about 11 pm about 1/2 an hour late and reached the house of my Brother-in-Law (Raghubir) whose family was accompanying us in the onward journey. It was decided that we will take a SUV as it would be comfortable as well as a safe vehicle. But as luck would have it Raghu's contact in the taxi trade was unable to provide us with a suitable vehicle at a suitable rate... So we consulted my uncle staying at Panchkula - He told me not to take vehicle from Delhi and asked me to reach Chandigarh by any other means and then take a Chandigarh vehicle for the trip. This I believe now in hindsight is the best decisions we took. Actually, the drivers from Delhi - although experienced in hill driving - tend to be less adept at mountain driving than those in the areas near the hills. I know this won't please many a Delhi readers, but according to my experience and also the pleasant journey we had in this trip - this is a fact.
Anyway we left Delhi at about 4 AM to reach Panchkula in the fore noon. Our ride was there promptly at the designated time. I must tell you about our driver a young lad of about 20 named Suraj. His driving skills made me envy him at the various bends and turns throughout the journey. Anyway... we left Panchkula and drove through Chandigarh city towards Manali on the National Highway 21। The highway is mainly in the hilly region but encounters the plains of Punjab in the initial few kilometers। The picture you see on the left is that of a canal feeding the fields of Punjab from the Bhakara Nangal Dam located on he Punjab-Himachal Border. The flow of the water in the canal has to be seen to be believed. The Punjab-Himachal border falls on the town of Kiratpur, till then we needed the comfort of air-conditioning as it was very hot (what was I expecting on 31st May). But as soon as we started our climb beyond kiratpur, the temperature cooled and it was very pleasant.
The first big town that we encountered on the way is known as Bilaspur. I had only heard about this place earlier and had no idea about its location. For the un-initiated in Indian Geography, this town is located on the banks of the Man-made Gobind Sagar Lake created after the Bhakra Nangal Dam was constructed on the River Sutlej. It is one of the highest gravity Dams in the world, if not the highest. The lake formed due to the Dam extends into the hills of Himachal Pradesh. The lake is shaped zig-zag following the contours of the hills and valleys. As we sauntered through the town of Bilaspur we could see the Gobind Sagar Lake below in the valley. It was said by my father - who grew up in the period that this Dam was built - that even if the water in-flow increased mani-fold the Gobind Sagar Lake would take it easily. I could see why he said so. The hill sides have plenty of expansion margin for the lake to grow. As you can see in the photograph, Bilaspur is at the very end of its catchment area. Beyond Bilaspur the lake fills only in the case of severe flooding in the river sutlej and its tributaries.
After we left Bilaspur we were firmly and positively in the Hills. The zig-zag road was one indicator of this as also was the frequent stops we had to take because of the nausea felt by some in our entourage. The hills have this effect on some people. My advice then and also now is not to think about the feeling as it is exaggerated by a persons constant thinking about it. We also encountered a brief spell of rains and squall on the way and we had to buy a piece of plastic to cover our luggage stored on the vehicle's roof.
The next major town was Mandi, which is a beautiful place located on both banks of the river Beas. Beyond Mandi river Beas ran alongside the road throughout our journey till Manali. There are many places around Mandi town which deserve a mention but we went to a quite little place on our way back, so I will tell you about it when we reach Mandi in our return journey. There is another town just before Mandi known as Sundernagar. The main attraction of the town which I saw during my 5 minute passge through it was the beautiful canal of the Bhakra-Beas Management Board. Actually it is the balancing canal of the Beas-Sutlej link canal. The drive through town is sheer pleasure because of the canal on one side and lush greenery on the other.
As we went up the road from here onwards there was an appreciable drop in the temperature and the unbearable heat of the plains left behind was forgotten. The road beyond Mandi becomes treacherous as the mighty Beas follows the road. The traffic was heavy, and the road was narrow. At some places the mountain had to be cut for making way for the road. At Aut we come across a 3 km long tunnel dug by the Himachal Pradesh Electricity Board near the Pandoh Dam. This tunnel is a well ventilated structure with a four-lane road. The Aut Tunnel as it is known is the gateway to the Kullu valley and there is a further drop in the temperature as we emerge out of the tunnel. Now there is a appreciable chill in the air and you feel that finally the heat of the plains is behind you. The Pandoh Dam on the Pandoh river is another of the micro-hydel projects that dot the Himachal Pradesh landscape. We stopped near this place to capture some of the beautiful sceneries alongwith the pictures of the Dam itself.
We somehow managed to drag ourselves away from this wonderful spot to continue our journey as it was already 6:30 in the evening. We also stopped at a smalltime dhaba as our driver Suraj, was feeling a bit tired and we also wanted to have some tea. The place where we stopped was a beauty, In the backside of the dhaba we could see the mighty Beas river flowing in full glory and the rapids in the stream were just amazing... There was an amazing piece of local engineering nearby. The locals wanting to cross such rivers/streams (which are many here) use a contraption which is simply a trolley hanging on a wire strung across the river. The person wanting to cross has to pull the strung wire with his bare hands to pull the trolley across. We could not gather our wits to make a crossing, but it was a terrifying site seeing a man make such a crossing in front of us.
Soon we reached Kullu at about 9:30 in the night. We had a reservation in a local lodge to spend the night as we had plans to move ahead - first thing in the morning.