We thought transportation in India couldn’t get any worse, but we were wrong. A massive storm in northern India forced us to use our feet, a jeep, dump and cargo trucks to get to safety.
We had spent a week visiting the arid region of Spiti in Himachal Pradesh, India. (story coming soon). At the end of this visit, we caught an early morning bus from Kaza to Manali, intending to get off at a Kunzum La. We were planning on trekking to Chandra Tal (Lake) for a 2-day trek. We arrived at the bus station 30 minutes early at 4:30am, only to find at least 50 people ahead of us in line. When the doors of the bus opened there was a mad rush for seats, which of course we didn’t get. People were crammed into every possible square inch of the bus. We were going to have to stand shoulder to shoulder in an overloaded bus for the 4-hour bumpy drive to our stop.
It started to rain as we were leaving Kaza, which soon turned to snow. Rain is not common in this area and snow in September is even less common. We decided by now that we would no longer hike to Chandra Tal. Instead we would take the bus all the way to Manali which takes 12 hours and goes over 2 mountain passes. At first the snow melted as it hit the ground, but as we climbed higher toward the pass, the snow started to accumulate on the road. The bus, with its bald summer tires, was not prepared for this journey. After 1 ½ hours the snow was making the road slippery and slushy. Our bus started skidding, and we became concerned. As it climbed higher and higher on a narrow mountain road it skidded more and more. Eventually the bus became stuck in the snow on a steep, narrow, winding road with a sheer drop off. The driver didn’t seem confident to go on and was planning on returning to the last town, 15 km behind. We knew there was another settlement 14 km ahead, on the other side of the Kunzum La (Pass). We couldn’t imagine how the bus driver would be able to turn the bus around on the narrow road and reversing downhill seemed even more improbable. We didn’t want to leave our fate in the hands of an unconfident driver with bald, summer tires on a slippery winter mountain road so we made the decision to walk. Both of us along with Diane from Toronto grabbed our backpacks and started to walk toward Kunzum La. Many Indian passengers on the bus thought we were crazy to walk so far, and to carry our own bags, but having experienced winter roads many times, we felt this was the safest decision.
It was a wet, snowy hike and the snow continued to come down. The higher we climbed, the heavier it snowed. In less than an hour we reached Kunzum La (4590m). Days earlier, on our drive to Spiti, we stopped at the pass and had blue skies with beautiful views of the mountains around. Today, we could barely see 50m ahead.Kunzum La a week earlier Steve and Chris at Kunzum La (photo by Steve)
As we walked down the other side of the pass, we hoped that the snow would stop, but instead it increased. The long switchbacks on the way down from the pass seemed to go on forever, and the snow continued to fall. Finally, after 3 hours of walking we reached the dhabas (roadside inns) of Batal. We arrived cold and soaken wet but were met by a lovely couple who run the popular ‘Chacha Chachi’s Dhaba’. They made us hot chai tea and instant Maggi noodles and let us warm up by the fire and dry our jackets.
As we were warming up, more people started arriving. Many Indian tourists rent motorcycles and drive from Dehli or other cities to Chandra Tal to ‘camp’ for a night or two. The people arriving had done just that, but none of them were prepared for the cold. Most came in colder and wetter than we had after their 12 km motorbike ride in the blizzard.
Batal is still 5 hours from Manali in good weather. It’s a very remote spot, so finding a ride out was complicated. We met a very kind group of motorcyclists who offered to let us ride in the back of their support truck, which would have been cold, but it was the best offer we had. Eventually we met 3 people (Chris, Steve and Ritesh) that had also walked from our bus and together we hired a jeep taxi. The 6 of us squeezed into the jeep and another 5 motorcyclists rode in the truck-bed with only a tarp to protect them from the wind and snow.
The ride was on a rough mountain road that went over large rocks and streams covered by at least 15 cm of fresh snow making it difficult to drive. We worried about the motorcyclists we had met at Batal and wondered how they’d get through. We passed many motorcycles that had been abandoned on the side of the road, and a few stranded riders who were looking to be picked up. Our jeep was already overfull, so we had to say no.
After 4 long hours we safely crossed through the Chandra Valley and arrived at the main highway. Our jeep driver had not seen this much snow in September and had expected the snow to have stopped long before we reached this point. There was a lot of snow. The ground and mountains were completely white, and the paved main highway was very icy. The road had not been plowed and had definitely not been sanded. Our driver wanted to continue toward the next high mountain pass, Rohtang La on the icy highway. After he spun out and ended up in the ditch and we then watched a minivan almost slide over a cliff, we were able to convince him to instead take us back to the nearest village, Khoksar, 3 km away.
Khoksar is a rough summer village with a few dhabas and homestays. It was already very busy with travelers desperate to find a place to stay. After a lot of searching by our new friend Ritesh, the 6 of us got a room. One room, in a local home where we slept on mats on the floor. It was dry and warm, and the family fed us tea and Maggi noodles. We thought it would be fine for one night. We were all exhausted after the stress of the day and fell asleep before 9 pm.
When we woke the next morning, we realized we weren’t going anywhere. A full winter blizzard had set in. It was snowing so hard that we could barely see the next house. The snow continued to fall for the entire day. We spent our day talking, napping, playing cards, eating Maggi and Dal (lentils), and staring out the window hoping for a different view. Our new friends, Diane from Toronto, Chris and Steve from England and Ritesh from Delhi, were a great group of people to be stranded with. They all had varied backgrounds and interesting stories from their life’s adventures.
On the second morning we woke up to rain. We thought it was a good sign, but it poured and sleeted all day and our spirits decreased again. Overnight, the sound of rain stopped, and we hoped to wake up to clear skies. Instead we were again in a snowy, blizzard. After 3 days of Maggi noodles and dal we were getting quite impatient.
In the other room of our guesthouse, 11 men from Delhi were camped out. On the same day that we walked over Kunzum La, they left Manali for a day trip to Rohtang Pass. Due to the storm they were unable to return to Manali and had to descend to Khoksar. Visiting Rohtang for the day in hopes of seeing a little bit of snow is a very Indian touristy thing to do to. The pass is at 3978m, so there are usually a few small patches of snow. A part of the gimmick is to rent the tourists 1980s style snowsuits with ankle high rubber boots so they are ‘prepared’ for the snow. The tourists usually take hundreds of selfies in these ridiculous suits and head back to Manali. The problem is, tourists can’t fit warm clothes or jackets underneath the snowsuits. These men had nothing else to wear and were frozen after spending the night in an unheated dhaba on the edge of Khoksar. On arrival to our house, they hung their wet snowsuits to dry, donned the curtains as skirts and climbed under warm blankets.
Rohtang Pass is on the main highway and is often closed due to landslides. The Indian government has been building a 10 km long tunnel under the pass for years and it is near completion, but not yet safe for the public to enter. After 1 ½ days in their room, 10 of the 11 Delhiites decided they would go to the uncompleted tunnel and demand to be taken to the other side. They walked 7 km to the tunnel entrance only to be turned away. They were told it wasn’t safe for them to be allowed in, so they had to walk the 7 km back to Khoksar. They came back to the house wetter and colder than they had the previous morning.
Finally, on the 4th day, we woke to a beautiful blue sky, surrounded by gorgeous white peaks. It was very surreal. If we hadn’t been stranded for 4 days, we would have thought it a great place to visit. Desperate to get outside, we threw on our now dry outer wear and headed to the roof. Most of the homes in Khoksar have flat roofs and ours had snow piled about 1 m high (3 feet). All 17 of us guests plus the homeowners spent the morning shoveling the roof of the house and the shed. We were given cheap toy-like shovels and heavy wooden paddles that were more prepared for pizza than snow. It was heavy, wet snow and was exhausting to shovel.
Even after all this exercise we still had a bit of cabin fever and were craving anything but noodles and dal, so we walked down the steps to ‘town’. We checked in with the police who confirmed our passport numbers and said they’d be letting our embassies know we were in Khoksar. The streets were a mess. Cars and trucks were parked everywhere, most still parked where they became stuck. Some people were shoveling out their cars and trying to get them started. Most had no idea what it was like to get a car out of a huge snowbank and they really had nowhere to go as the street had knee deep snow, and there were no plows in sight. There were a few foot trails in the deep snow going to the dhabas but that’s the only progress that had been made. Horses and goats were desperate to find food and were eating tree branches and leaves as this was the only greenery available.
Late in the afternoon of our 4th day we received incredible news. The government was arranging a mass evacuation. There were approximately 600 people stranded in Khoksar and the plan was to take us out through the uncompleted tunnel. Rohtang pass would not be plowed for many days as there was 3 meters (10 feet) of snow at the top of the pass.
This is where our real adventure began. We quickly packed and put on our wet outer clothes and walked back down the hill in the slushy, slippery snow. We found a waiting local bus only to find that even though the bus was going to Manali via the tunnel, it wasn’t taking passengers. There was a lot of confusion with most of the information being given in Hindi. With Ritesh’s help we found the evacuation transport to take us to the tunnel. It was a much different mode of transport than we had envisioned from the army. We, along with 30 others, hopped into the back of a modified oversized pickup truck. It was an open truck with high sides designed to take supplies, not people. The army had plowed one lane of the highway between Khoksar and the tunnel. We stood in the back of the truck, huddled together as we drove down bumpy, slushy highway hoping that we wouldn’t need to be rescued from our rescue vehicle.
On the drive we passed many places where avalanches had come down. A few came right to the road bringing huge boulders down with them. There were hundreds of waterfalls, some small, some large, many only formed by the melting snow. A few waterfalls were cascading over the road and soaked us in the open truck. After 45 minutes we arrived at the construction site for the tunnel. Not only did we arrive on a disorganized and unsafe evacuation truck, but they also charged us 100Rs ($2 CDN) each for our evacuation!
After giving our names and passport numbers to the army, we stood in line waiting for the next evacuation vehicle to take us through the tunnel. We watched as workers from the tunnel walked out, dressed in hard hats and fluorescent vests. Then a large ‘Goods Carrier’ truck pulled up. It’s tarp roof was piled high with snow. They opened the back gate and it was mayhem as at least 50 of us awkwardly climbed over the high back of the truck. Inside it was dark and dirty but as VIPs (only because of our foreign passports) we were among the first inside. Unfortunately, that meant that we were at the front of the dark trailer, furthest from the door.
The truck lumbered along through the construction site and then finally entered the tunnel. The beginning of the tunnel is paved and initially the ride was smooth. The further we drove however, the rougher the road became. The snow-covered tarp was held in place by a weak wooden frame with thin metal pipes as crossbars. There was at least 1 m of heavy, wet snow on the tarp. With each bump, the weight of the snow on the roof started to crack the frame. We yelled and screamed until the driver finally stopped. We don’t know what was said, but he got back in the cab and started to drive again. The further we drove the more bumps we hit, and the more cracks appeared in the frame. Every time we yelled, and a few times he stopped, but he always continued driving. At one point a metal pipe broke in two and fell to the floor. The snow laden tarp dropped lower. We screamed again, but the driver didn’t stop, and we were locked inside. We all had our hands up, pushing against the tarp, thinking we were holding up the snow. Finally, after an hour of this terrifying drive, the truck stopped, and the driver opened the locked gate. We excitedly clamored out of the back of the truck and hugged each other with nervous elation, only to realize that we were 7 km from the nearest town and 20km from Manali. The truck did continue down the road with some of the passengers returning inside, but the 6 of us decided to walk instead of getting back inside of that death trap. This was our second evacuation vehicle that the government had arranged, and it was the most unsafe vehicle we’d ever been in.
As we looked around at our environs, it was like we had landed on another planet. It was quiet, the sun was setting, a full moon was in the clear sky and the trees and grass were clear of snow. It was very bizarre. No snow had fallen on this side of the pass. After 2 km of walking in the bright moonlight and reliving the horrors of the last hour, we flagged down a gravel truck. Again, we found ourselves hoisted up into another large work truck. This time we were able to sit down on the bed of the dirty truck as we drove the last 20km to Manali.
On this side of the pass they had torrential rain rather than snow. Instead of avalanches, we passed many landslides which also brought down huge boulders and knocked down powerlines. One knocked down power line was just above our heads as we drove under. As we entered Manali we could see where a huge section of the river bank had collapsed taking some of a major road with it. One landslide took out the land around a bridge, making the bridge inaccessible.
As we finally arrived at our riverside hotel in Old Manali, we saw where a massive 10m long section of the road had slid into the river. We spent the next 2 days watching a construction company rebuild the road by hand.
This government approved army evacuation was less than ideal. The transport trucks were very unsafe, and they charged us a fee on top of it. Once through the tunnel, we had expected to see taxis or army trucks waiting for us, but the roads were empty. No one on the Manali side even knew we were coming.
As we’ve seen over the few days since this occurred, the storm was much larger than just our area. A large part of the state of Himachal Pradesh was affected with a lot of damage to major roads and bridges and villages being evacuated. It will take a long time until all the damage has been evaluated and work completed. The people here though, seem to be used to it. They make adjustments, and then just carry on.
One final note, we recently found out that 9 days later, after our evacuation, Rohtang La is finally open to traffic.
Coming up next: The beautiful Hampta Pass
To read about more of our adventures go to Destinations.
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