The road to the Rohtang Pass

“D’you think the AA will come out this far?” A puncture near the Rohtang Pass

It was with some trepidation that I made my way down to the bus station to grab an onwards bus that would take me up into the Himalayas proper. I was concerned about the effects that altitude sickness could potentially have on me.

Altitude sickness is a bit of a mystery. It strikes indiscriminately, affecting fit, young and healthy people just as much as the rest of us, causing all manner of symptoms including headaches, loss of appetite, nausea, disorientation, tiredness, and in acute cases, pink frothy spit and, er, death via buildup of fluid in the brain or the lungs. Nice. The best way to reduce the risk of being struck down is to not ascend too high in altitude too quickly, but instead to allow your body to acclimatise by spending several nights at each new altitude. My time in the hill stations of late saw me residing at around 2000 metres (6500 feet), and my next destination, Keylong, was up at 3200 metres (10300 feet). I knew from previous experience at altitude that this jump would be manageable for me; in Malaysia I had climbed Mount Kinabalu and stayed overnight at Laban Rata at the very same altitude and not experienced any problems save for a slight shortness of breath when walking uphill. But when we had pushed for the Kinabalu summit the day after, at around 4000 metres (13000 feet) I had experienced painful stabbing headaches. This road would eventually take me even higher than that, and that was where my concerns lay.

The bus station was a chaotic place. Luckily the buses north to Keylong were displayed in English on a small sheet next to the ticket counter, and so I knew the approximate time at which it would show up, even if I didn’t know where it would arrive in the bus station, or would even be able to positively identify the bus from the destination sign, as all of them were written in Hindi. I’d have to rely on the shouting of the conductor as he did the rounds.

The bus was fifteen minutes late, then thirty, then forty-five. Then one hour late. Hoping I hadn’t missed it, I asked around and found a few other locals who were off to Keylong. One of them was making noises about taking a taxi instead. I made my interest known about grabbing a place in that, and half an hour later – still no sign of the bus or the one scheduled after it, also late – nine locals and I were loading a well-worn Tata jeep for the journey up to Keylong.

The road was surprisingly busy; we were part of a convoy of vehicles that snaked up the road as far as I could see. The winding route through the high mountain passes had only just opened at the beginning of the month, with snowfall making it impassable from September through to June and blocking off my little valley destination of Keylong from the outside world. We experienced frustrating traffic jams at certain points as vehicles further ahead struggled to pass each other on the narrow roads. The huge lorries were especially unwelcome in this respect. Still, at least such pauses gave me plenty of time to take in the alpine views.

We hadn’t even been underway for an hour when another jeep passing us flagged us down and we pulled over to the side of the road. The Indian chap next to me translated for me together with a roll of the eyes. “Puncture”.

I watched on with amazement as our driver removed the left rear tyre, the treads of which were bald as a coot, and replaced it with the equally worn spare. So that’s why so many drivers in India have lucky charms or idols in their cars… As the driver jumped on top of the jeep to check any baggage hadn’t shaken loose, I took the opportunity to stretch my legs.

Within ten minutes we were on our way again heading up to the Rohtang Pass, the highest point of the road at around 4000 metres (13000 feet), but before long we were flagged over in exactly the same manner by a fellow jeep.

Another puncture.

What are the chances of getting two punctures within such a short space of time? Pretty good actually, if the state of this chap’s tyres were anything to go by. Having previously used the spare, the driver had no choice but to flag an empty truck heading downwards, throw in the two wheels and stop somewhere to get them both patched up. He was gone for nearly three hours, and the incident highlighted to me the dangers of the journey. We were lucky for our unscheduled stop to have occurred in daylight, in chilly but dry weather, and at a manageable altitude. Not all unscheduled stops are so fortuitous; in the past people have had to be airlifted to safety by the Indian army after bad weather or avalanches have caused them to become stranded at the more lofty altitudes along the Manali-Leh highway.

Finally we limped onward up to the Rohtang Pass, a popular spot for domestic tourists to come for sledging and horse trekking. The tourists had thoughtlessly abandoned their cars on both sides of the road so that only one lane of traffic could pass at a time. Once we’d passed the snarl-up, however, it was much better going as we descended round sweeping hairpins down into a deep valley to stop for chai and noodles at a little village which served as a rest stop, and for me to register my passport with the local police.

The remainder of the journey was much easier going, as we followed a barren yet ethereally beautiful valley towards Keylong. Its untouched appearance was slightly unsettling; it felt more and more as if I was heading into the middle of nowhere.

Ploughing through a couple of seas of goats led along the road by local goatherds, we finally crossed a bridge over the valley and the little settlement of Keylong (pronounced Keh-lang) unfurled in front of us as the light started to fade. Knackered from a journey that had taken over twice as long as it should’ve, I did the rounds of its few hotels, grabbing a room, a quick curry and naan and hitting the hay early to speed along my acclimatisation.