A mountain pass is the highest point on a route weaving its way over a mountain range or a ridge; it is where political boundaries superimpose geographical barriers. One of the narrowest, most dangerous passes in the world is Rohtang La, which means “pile of corpses”. The pass’ notoriously unpredictable weather claims many lives every year.
At 13,050 ft above sea level in alpine Himalayas, the equipment required to navigate slushy roads is not GPS, but grit of steel. Especially when the road in question hosts to the world’s worst traffic jams, which last from a couple of hours to a couple of days.
But the setting is spectacular, and forms a gateway to exotic Himalayan destinations such as Ladakh and Spiti Valley. Rohtang La – closed for 7 months of the year due to snow– is a part of the Manali-Leh highway, used by the Indian Army to send supplies to the remote higher Himalayas.
Here, middle-class Indian tourists come to ‘see snow’ and foreign tourists zip past on roaring 500cc Enfields or spruced-up SUVs. Manali, the town just below the pass, gets the second highest annual rate of tourists in India (Goa is the obvious first). Rohtang itself is frequented by almost 4,000,000 people annually.
What most outsiders choose to ignore is that the pass is also home to a high-altitude garbage dump of plastic bottles, toilet paper and other pleasant souvenirs of globalization. And to wayside eateries offer everything from chow-mein to camera film rolls and skiing boots. And to the most ambitious tunnel project in the world: a route that will pierce through the heart of the colossal mountain and cut travel time from 5 hours to just 30 minutes.
On the day Rohtang La first opened to the public last year, many tourist vehicles left Manali as early as 2 am to get there. A seemingly endless traffic jam appeared that lasted until well after sunset. But nothing dampens the tourists’ enthusiasm– neither the environmental NGOs’ repeated warnings, nor the local government’s orders to let only Himachal-registered vehicles pass through.
Photographer credit: Parikshit Rao
Meanwhile, authorities in charge of the tunnel project continue to dump muck around the pass, after having cleared the area by chopping down 500 trees. Rohtang Pass will open for the season in the next few days. Anyone in the mood for some high-altitude adrenaline rush?