3:45am and it’s a frantic rush to load up the cars quickly. Some of the crew are still rubbing their eyes. The hotel has been kind enough to arrange a breakfast of sandwiches for the road well beforehand, because there simply can be no delay to our exit. We don’t have a long distance to cover today, but we do have a deadline.
We’re on our way to the famous (or infamous, depending on who you ask) Rohtang Pass. Today, the one-way mountain pass is open in our direction of travel for a short window of 6am to 11am, and we’ve learned from past experience that if you don’t get there early, you could be waiting for hours, and could miss the opening entirely. The climb, even to the start of Rohtang is swift and steep, and AMS or Acute Mountain Sickness is waiting in the wings for anyone who isn’t prepared. Like, for instance, someone frantically checking e-mails in the back seat of an Audi in the last few remaining minutes of mobile phone reception – me. The combination of a steep climb, fast hairpin turns, rough terrain, and trying to focus on a page of text on a laptop screen means that by the time we reach the mouth of Rohtang, my head is doing cartwheels and pirouettes.
5:30am at Rohtang is no joke. The temperature is very low and the wind chill bites you in any part of your body you foolishly choose to leave exposed. It’s still half an hour before the pass opens, but already, there’s about 50 vehicles ahead of us in the queue, with many more joining behind in minutes. When it does open, all sense of gentlemanly order is forgotten, and it’s a veritable destruction derby of taxis, pick-up trucks and SUVs. But we’re letting them through, because what a view!
Suddenly, the Himalayas open up in all their glory; breathtaking is putting it lightly, and besides, the altitude is taking care of that already. It’s a melange of snow, ice, jagged rocks, waterfalls, rivulets and forest. It’s a relatively slow climb to the top and you’ll be glad traffic is one-way only (it wasn’t some years ago), and when you complete the climb, it’s pretty much as busy as a city market. We’re not shopping, though, and it’s on to the other side and down the mountain, which, incidentally, is completely empty. We take the opportunity to get some beautiful photographs.
The road from then on is a mix of tarmac and nothing at all, where random rock slides reshape the terrain on a daily basis; on more than one occasion, we encounter a crane clearing the path of boulders and mud. The big Qs make nothing of it, of course, sailing through water crossings and cracked roads without a fuss.
Jispa is a quiet, blink-and-you-miss-it sort of place, so it’s a good thing we spot our stop-off point for the night from a distance. It’s a tiny hotel and campsite located just a few metres away from the foot of a snow-capped hill, with a stream running through the centre of it. But surprisingly, it’s not that cold. A hearty dinner and a few stories swapped by the campfire, and we’re ready to call it a night.