Tribune News Service
Keylong, January 8
Around 30 lakh tourists visited Kullu and Manali every year, but this time, not even one lakh crossed Lahaul-Spiti district.
The journey from Manali to Keylong—the district headquarters—was 116 km only, but Rohtang La (3,978 m) stood like a colossus—whipping up rough winds and inclement weather to make it nearly impassable.
Not very long ago, travelling by road to Keylong, in winters, was unthinkable while in summers, one had to think twice.
As the skies turned grey, choppers would return midway to Manali.
The journey from Manali to Keylong, or further up to Leh, was so fraught with hazards, that local taxi drivers kept an oxygen cylinder handy, in case an altitude sickness worried tourists.
Border Road Organization (BRO), Himachal Pradesh government and several agencies toiled for 10 years to unlock this forbidden land with the Atal Tunnel on October 3, 2020.
It is 9.02 km long and considered as the longest tunnel in the world above 10,000 feet.
The tunnel cuts the distance between Manali and Keylong by 46 km, but importantly, gives all-weather access to the Lahaul and Spiti and further up to Leh.
“As many as 5,450 vehicles crossed the tunnel (2,800 from Manali side and 2,650 from Lahaul side) on December 27 this year,” said Superintendent of Police, Kullu, Gaurav Singh.
Roughly, this means 22,000 visitors on a single day, close to one-fifth of the total tourists in the Lahaul valley in the whole previous year.
A year ago, such an influx of tourists was unthinkable, but the tunnel, “a technological marvel”, as the locals said, has made it possible.
The “Technological Marvel” is a moniker, that localities keep calling the 9.02 km long tunnel.
This tunnel has made life easy.
Worming through the verdant slopes of Solang is an uplifting experience till the South portal, followed by a curiosity-filled drive-through of 15 minutes under the glare of LED lights and accompanying gadgetry. Technological advancements are often the first things feted for such engineering marvels—a tunnel through a stream-strewn mountain is no mean feat—but nature’s assent also plays a big role in keeping the passageway going throughout the year.
On the other side of the tunnel is North Portal, bewitching the tourists with crisp sunlight on a canvass of crimson yellow in fall.
Sissu, the first town as one steps into Lahaul valley, is a picture of contrast with the turquoise blue of river Chandra flowing through the sparkling white bed of sand.
In winters, everything evens out in snowy white with a slight dip in temperature.
The Atal tunnel has opened up the valley for the outside world, but it has also exposed it to its vagaries.
Hiramani Kashyap, assistant professor of tourism and hospitality in the government postgraduate college, Kullu said: “There is an urgent need of dustbins, public toilets and parking space at small stops on the main highway. The government needs to develop multiple tourist destinations in the valley to hold up the tourists for two-three day before they decide to move ahead to Leh or back to Manali.”
It’s been only three months since the tunnel was thrown open, but already Lahaul and Spiti are witnessing long queues of vehicles— sometimes as long as three kilometres.
There is a feeling among the tourists and locals that the valley is not fully ready to welcome the outside world. It may take some time for the infrastructure to develop.
Chetan, proprietor of Karma Cottage in Jispa village says, “People like to stay here because Jispa valley is open, colourful. It gives a momentary respite from barren hills and cold desert. But the accommodation in hotels and guest houses is not enough to cater to the influx of tourists.”
What is happening now is that the tourists come from Manali in the morning for sightseeing and return to Manali before it gets dark.
“We only get traffic jams, litter, tourist nuisance and pollution. There is still some time for an average shopkeeper or a hotelier’s earning to go up on the main highway,” said Des Raj, a guest house owner near Sissu.
While the business community is still to benefit from tourists, the easy access to Manali is a big thumbs up for the agriculturists, especially potato growers. Potato is the last crop of the season for the Lahaul farmers. The season begins in April-May and the produce is ready by October-November. With little storage facilities, early snowfall in October used to block the roads for months, leaving the sacks of potato rotting out in the open.
Lahaul Potato Society chairman, Sudershan Jaspa, said: “The tunnel cuts the cost and the time of transportation to half, which means 50% saving in the cost of transportation for the potato farmers. Conventionally, potato growers take their produce to Manali for grading (classification according to the size) on their own cost. We are hoping that seed potatoes for West Bengal, Bihar and Karnataka will now be available on time.”
The vegetable growers, too, will be benefited, but they will have to wait for the impact till next year as the tunnel opened in October this year and by then the season was almost over.
Cabbage, green peas, hops, sea buckthorn and medicinal herbs are the major agricultural products of this region. It is said that Lahaul supplies green peas to the biggest vegetable markets of the country when production stops everywhere.
Lahaul and Spiti district has an area of 14,000 square metres and a population of just 31,500 (2011 census). Area-wise, it is the largest district of the state but population-wise it is the smallest.
The tribal folks of this area are landlocked by three major geographical features: Rohtang La (3,978m) separating Lahaul-Spiti from Kullu valley; Kunzum Pass (4,590m) separating Lahaul from Spiti and Baralacha La (4,890m) separating Lahaul from Leh district.
The Himachal Pradesh police department crime data shows an amazing aspect of society here.
It is hard to believe that there have been less than 700 instances of criminal cases registered since January 1, 2001.
Environmental conditions, religious beliefs, sparsely populated areas and peace-loving nature of the tribal folks are considered to be the contributing factors in this zen garden.
The biggest change this tunnel is going to make in the lives of the majority of the natives here is putting an end to the winter migration (November to April) of the majority of the people to low-lying areas.
The official data points that there has been a 30% cut in the winter migration in its very first year.
On the other hand, easy access to the outside world will bring in a deluge of commercialization and alter the way of living here in the coming years.
Ajay Kumar, a native of Lahaul, said: “At present, they may not want too much outside interference, but with time, they may learn to showcase the tribal culture to outsiders.”