Dream Catcher – The ATAL Tunnel – Rohtang, Himachal Pradesh

Dream Catcher - The ATAL Tunnel – Rohtang, Himachal PradeshIn-front of the Tunnel in November 2020

I heard about the proposal of a Rohtang Tunnel (its initial name) when I visited Manali for the first time in October 1997. To me it sounded an almost impossible dream as the mountains looked mighty and impregnable and tunnel too long – imagine a tunnel of 9-10 km long at such a height. Nonetheless it was a dream worth dreaming for many reasons – some strategic, some pleasure.

Tunnel in March 2021

Under construction  in October 2017

The South Portal – June 2023

After 1998 when I visited Manali in 2017, I was happy to learn that the work on the tunnel not only started but was almost complete – main work being done by BRO – Border Road Organisation. I got an opportunity to visit the tunnel and travelled up to 2-3 km inside. The experience was simply exhilarating coupled with a sense of wonder and achievement and looked forward to the day we could cross it and reach Lahaul- a faraway destination.

The main tunnel under construction –  2017

With Officers of the State

Under construction evacuation Tunnel-2017

In November 2020, just after its inauguration, we made a plan to cross the tunnel and go to Keylong. As luck would have it, it snowed in Manali the previous night. The drive up-to the tunnel was all snowy but the scenery after the tunnel beyond the North Portal was surreal. Sissu and the confluence of Chandrabhaga was beautiful beyond imagination – as if I reached a wonderland. We started from Manali in the morning, reached Keylong for lunch and were back in Manali before 7.00 pm. – A feat unimaginable before the tunnel.

On way to the Tunnel in 2020

Chandrabhaga confluence – 2020

The idea was initially seeded by the Moravian Missionaries in 1860’s and then later by the officials of GSI in 1940’s. But it only remained a talk as the project if planned involved huge cost and major technical skills to tackle harsh weather conditions.  We can thank our visionary ex PM Atal Bihari Bajpai’s love for Himachal and especially Manali to announce it in the year 2000 during his visit to Lahaul, though the work did not commence till it was approved by the ‘Cabinet Committee on Security’ in 2009 and the work started in 2010 with a deadline for completion in 2014.
The pictures of the initial construction work – in the Model room created by BRO
This dream unfortunately met with many hurdles – harsh topographical conditions – the snow on the north portal (3/4 tunnel was dug from the Manali side –i.e. the South Portal), the avalanche like conditions on 24 sites, unstable rocks, mammoth muck disposal from digging  and most of all the excess water from the Seri Nallah (at times 30 lakhs litres a day to be dewatered) – leading to costlier treatment which resulted in huge cost overrun and delays (from estimated 900 crores to actual 3200 crores), change of Governments (fortunately no people’s protest and no human loss – except for initial 42 lives lost in 2003 flash floods). Overcoming all these the tunnel was inaugurated by our PM Mr. Modi on 3rd October 2020.
The Inauguration Day – Picture source Wikipedia

North Portal – June 2023
Thousands of vehicles crossed over the Tunnel and entered the almost elusive Lahaul in the very first week of its opening and became an instant hit with the tourists. Its popularity can be seen by the number of vehicles crossing the Atal Tunnel on a daily basis reaching a record of almost 11 thousand vehicle in a single day during Christmas last year. Now the question comes why it has become so popular? – After all it’s just a tunnel?
The North Portal totally packed with Cars and snow – Wikipedia
But it is not just a tunnel – it is dream catcher. It is taking people to a world beyond and inaccessible; to the  vistas unimaginable – the majestic snow clad mountains, beautiful Sissu with its lake and willow trees, Chandrabhaga confluence, the unique culture of Lahaul, drives amidst the snow, more selifes and more memories. Most importantly all can be covered in just one day from Manali. And those who want more adventure can drive up-to Lahaul and beyond – to Kaza, to Udaipur, to Chandrataal, to passes, to Leh and many more.
Sharing some pics of the culture of Lahaul during Snow Festival 2021-possible only after the Tunnel.
The famous ‘Halda’ festival of Lahaul – to ward off the evil eyes
With the local tribal women of Lahaul in their traditional dress and jewelry
CHOLO – the most popular Dice game of Lahaul – the main attraction of winters to time pass
Trying my hand at ‘Teerandazi’ during Snow Festival – March 2021
Dressed up in traditional dresses of Lahaul – Snow Festival 2021
Since the opening of the tunnel there is a 600% increase in the footfall in Lahaul, more than 800 Homestays got themselves registered with the Tourism department in Lahaul and Spiti area, more than 20 lakh vehicles have crossed the tunnel, many day treks and long ones, tented colonies at Sarchu and Sissu, Bikers and Cyclists tours (I came to know that a vendor has recently bought motorcycles worth rupees 4 crores to put out for rent in Manali), the Snow – Festival in Lahaul was initiated in 2021 January itself  by Mr Pankaj Rai, the then D C Lahaul, many adventure sports and  more. Most of all the movement of the Army became faster and smoother. 
The Snow Festival  – Pic curtsey DC Office Lahaul
The ATAL Cafe Sissu
The meadows of Sissu
The Sissu Water Fall
The Sissu Lake – where one can enjoy the boat rides as well
The tunnel itself is an engineering marvel with all possible modern amenities. Do you know that there is an evacuation tunnel just below the actual tunnel? It also has two separate exits for rescue. And do you also know that it has a public announcement system and many cameras to monitor the entire tunnel 24*7 including telephone connections at every 150 meters and fire hydrants ? . It has state of art ventilation system and controlled illumination with proper dividers and signage for smooth flow of traffic. To tackle the persisting problem of water inflow from the Seri Nallah an evacuation tunnel is being constructed by NHPC on top of the highway tunnel. So modern and impressive.
The Evacuation Tunnel – beneath the main tunnel
The Control Room – with many cameras and Public announcement system
I recently visited the tunnel again and felt the same excitement – same exhilaration, same enjoyment of the world beyond. Enjoyed the Trout fish at the newly constructed Tourism café and the Zip-line and the scenery around. Again marveled at our ability to envisage and collectively execute our dreams and enjoy – a truly awesome trait of us Sapiens.  
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