Recently the sleepy Lahaul Valley in Himachal Pradesh made headlines due to the grand inauguration of Atal Tunnel (also known as Rohtang Tunnel) by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on 3 October 2020. Although the foundation was laid by UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi in 2010, it took ten years for its completion. This high altitude tunnel was a dream of former Prime Minister of India, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and is thus a fitting tribute to him. Measuring 9.02 km in length, Atal tunnel is the longest highway tunnel above 10,000 feet in the world and reduces the overall distance by 46 km between Manali and Leh via Keylong and the travel time by about 4 to 5 hours.
The treacherous route, which was previously accessible only during summers will have round-the-year road connectivity and is expected to boost tourism and winter sports in the Lahaul Valley. Moreover, the tunnel is very important from the military logistics point of view, as it will provide better connectivity to the armed forces in reaching Ladakh.
Hats off to Border Roads Organisation (BRO) for constructing this marvellous piece of engineering in difficult conditions. As per BRO officials, you can drive in the tunnel at a maximum speed limit of 80 km per hour and daily traffic of up to 1,500 trucks and 3,000 cars can pass easily. I can’t wait to explore this longest highway tunnel. But until then let me do the next possible best thing.
Nostalgia: Revisiting Lahaul Valley
The best cure for Himalayan Hangover is to get high on the Himalayas again. Not even fifteen days had passed since I returned from Leh-Ladakh and I had already started dreaming of returning to my favourite abode – The Himalayas. However, this time I was looking for offbeat travel ideas to leave the beaten path behind. So, when a long Dusshera weekend opportunity knocked, I started searching for the best offbeat places in Himachal Pradesh and finally I planned a trip to Lahaul and Spiti Valley.
Along with my friend and her 4 years old daughter I left for Manali on 1st October night. As usual, against the promise of reaching Manali in 14 hours, the bus took more than 20 hours. And it was a very treacherous and arduous journey.
Nevertheless, as I landed in Manali, the whiff of fresh Himalayan air worked like a soothing balm. We checked in our Conifer Woods cottage at Simsha village. Conifer woods experience was beyond words. If I could use one word to describe our hosts it would be – BADE DILWALE. They made sure our stay, travel and food were perfect.
Basis my experience, here are my 10 travel tips to make your Lahaul trip an awesome trip:
Never ever plan a trip to Mountains during long weekends
I learnt this lesson hard way. Was stuck in a mother of all traffic jams at Marhi, near Rohtang pass for two days – first time for three hours and next time for seven hours. The lovey-dovey couples, the BIG FAT Indian families, the college fuchas, the airport-returned-firang accented babes, the makeup-ki-dukaan babes, the middle-aged uncle and aunties, the ‘Jat Risky After Whisky’ brash men, the UP ke bhaiyas (sorry, if I am sounding racist :P)…basically the entire janta from Haryana, Punjab, Delhi, UP, Uttarakhand and Madhya Pradesh rushed to collect their share of a treasure hunt at Rohtang Pass. Otherwise, why would everybody queue up there? Thankfully this will no longer exist with the opening of the new Atal Tunnel connecting Manali to Lahaul Valley.
Hire a personal cab or book a seat on a shared cab
Thanks to Ramesh and Navang, the owners of Jispa Journeys, we got a local driver at Rupees Ten Thousand for a two days trip to Lahaul Valley. Our Driver, Ravindar’s good driving skills, polite attitude and sound Lahauli knowledge made our trip memorable and rich. If you think Ten thousand is expensive then you can book shared Taxis which take Rupees Eight Hundred per person to drop you at either Kaza in Spiti or Keylong in Lahaul.
Carry a lot of fruits and HPMC juices to keep you hydrated
Lahaul and Spiti is a sparsely populated, dry barren region therefore you might not find dhabbas for long distances. The hardly-ever-maintained roads near Rohtang Pass and in Lahaul Valley makes you hungry quite often. Hence, it is best advised to carry your own supplies. And since air becomes thin in this region therefore fruits and juices are best to keep you hydrated. Carry a lot of dry fruits and energy bars to keep your stomach full. But don’t overeat as the winding roads might make you sick.
Take time to reach your destination. Enjoy the journey
This rugged region has unique picturesque beauty of interlocking river valleys, deep gorges, lofty snow-capped mountains and enchanting mountain lakes, punctuated by tiny patches of greenery and villages clinging to the sides of rivers and glacial streams. Every village has a prayer flag fluttering over the Buddhist monastery. The views offered by Sissu, Jispa, Tandi, Keylong, Darcha, Zingzingbar, Baralacha and everything that falls on the Manali-Leh highway is awe-inspiring. It is a paradise for Mountaineers, Trekkers, Hikers, Bikers and Photographers. So fasten your seat belts and enjoy God’s piece of heaven.
Tank up your Vehicle and Eyes at Tandi
Manali-Leh highway only has one petrol pump on the entire route therefore whether you are going-over or halting midway, don’t forget to tank up your vehicle. Also, Tandi is famous for the confluence of River Chandra and River Bhaga, forming River Chandra-Bhaga which later becomes Chenab flowing into J&K and Pakistan. Sit and marvel the beauty of this Sangam. About 4 km from Tandi Village, is the Guru Ghantal Monastery, believed to be Lahaul’s oldest monastery. Built of wood with slanting roofs, it has exquisite wood carvings and images of lamas. If you are visiting in summers, then do attend the Ghantal festival which is celebrated on the full-moon night around mid-June by monks along with the Hindu Thakurs of the area.
See the majestic sunrise at enchanting mountain lakes
Deepak Tal and Suraj Tal offers one of the most splendid sunrises in the Himalayas. Break your journey at Jispa or Darcha to experience the Sun’s romance with the lakes. But leave before 5:30 am from your homestay. Homestays in Jispa are cheap, available at approximately Rs. 500-1000 per room but the food is expensive. You can also stay in tents at Darcha, which charge Rs.100 per bed. However, make sure you have extra blankets/quilts. Even in early October, the temperature dips to zero degrees. And don’t forget to carry from top to bottom winter clothes. It gets freezing cold as you move towards Baralacha La.
Marvel the hidden grandeur of Lahaul
The customs, rituals, beliefs and conventions of the humble unsophisticated people are the unique features of this border highland, which is also known as mini Tibet. Every village has ‘OM MANI PADME HUM’ prayer flag fluttering over the Buddhist monastery. These monasteries are more than a place of worship – they are the hub of the cultural life of the people. These stunning places of architecture and culture are still unexplored. Key monasteries in Lahaul are Guru Ghantal, Kardang, Shashur, Tayul and Ghemur besides small ones around hamlets and in deep mountains. Besides monasteries, there is also Lahaul’s lone fort – The Gondhla Fort. Built-in 1700 AD, this eight-storey fort is exclusively built with wood, in the tower type architecture.
Immerse yourself in the local culture
Lahauli natives are very simple and warm. They are shy in the beginning but then they pour their heart out. Their culture is Matriarchal culture. Three kinds of marriages happen – love marriage, arranged marriage and theft marriage. Casteism doesn’t plague their society. However, marrying a person lesser than your caste (sunar, lohar or baniya) raises few eyebrows. Their wedding is a three-day affair where everyone is dressed in a similar traditional dress. Drinking Chang (local beer) is like having an energy drink. Salted butter tea, thukpa and other Himalayan/Tibetan dishes consisting of meat, green veggies is their favourite food. They store their vegetables underground for winter consumption. And each household in Lahaul-Spiti stores at least five years of supply of daily consumption items.
Relish your stay in Lahaul Spiti like the locals do
This ignored part of Himachal Pradesh requires your special attention. Therefore when you plan a trip for Lahaul-Spiti, do it the way locals do. Slow down your pace. Take it easy. Keep at least 10-15 days in hand. The best time to visit Lahaul-Spiti is from mid-May to mid-October. Lahaul valley remains isolated from rest of the world from October-May due to closure of the Rohtang Pass. Although Spiti is an almost all-weather place. Lahaul and Spiti can be reached via Manali or Shimla routes.
Other small but important tips
- Government Rocks. Rest all Flops: If you want to stay connected with your family then buy yourself a BSNL SIM because no other SIM works Manali upward.
- Unsaid Rule of the Road – Give way to Army Convoy: Never ever take panga with the army Jawans, even if they are wrong. Our Driver retorted and he almost got thrown in the Chandra River
- Don’t experiment with food too much. Stick to basics: Daal chawal, Maggie and Aloo ka parantha are a staple food at dhabas here. If possible, have it at a Dhaba in Darcha, just after the police check post. He serves the best aloo parantha on the entire Manali-Leh highway
- Carry a good quality sunscreen, sunshades and lip balm: Sunlight is direct and harmful in this part of the Himalayas, therefore carry a sunscreen of at least SPF50. Keep applying a lip balm after every half an hour to avoid chapped lips
- Wash your hair daily and keep them tied in a ponytail or a plait: Roads in Lahaul are dusty and with huge potholes, therefore, take precautions to save your hair from a dust storm.
- Wear comfortable clothes and shoes. No jeans, please.
I hope I have given you enough reasons why Lahaul Valley is one of the best offbeat places in Himachal Pradesh.
If you need any information after stay, travel or sightseeing, please feel free to contact me. As Vodafone says, Happy to Help 🙂