After being two decades in the making, the Atal Tunnel in Himachal Pradesh is finally open. We shoot off in two very different Audi Q8s to contrast this spanking new route with the legendary old one that runs via the Rohtang Pass.
We’re in Manali, Himachal Pradesh and we’re heading northwards this fine October’s day. But today it’s not about the destination but the journey itself…the journey that just got a lot shorter with the opening of the much-talked about Atal Tunnel, the world’s longest tunnel above 10,000 feet. What we want to know is exactly how much shorter the route has become in, both, distance and time. On this mission is Rahul who’ll be driving from Manali to Sissu on the Leh highway via the Atal Tunnel in an Audi Q8. Nikhil, on the other hand, will be taking the older and longer route via the famed Rohtang Pass in the Q8’s evil twin, the 600hp Audi RS Q8.
Gentlemen, start your engines.
The Q8s part ways at Palchan. It’s straight for the Atal Tunnel and right for the Rohtang Pass.
1 PM at Manali – Rahul
Ordinarily, a drive to Rohtang involves a pre-dawn departure to beat the mad rush of tourist traffic that scrambles its way up the route. Time it wrong and you’re setting yourself up for a horrid journey. Things, however, are very different today. The COVID-19 pandemic has meant there are, sadly, very few tourists in town. The only plus is that traffic is minimal, and this has allowed for a fashionably late departure post-brunch. Might I suggest some local trout? Our two-Q8 convoy sails out of the town centre and soon enough we’re on the Leh-Manali highway.
1:30 PM at Palchan – Nikhil
I’ve been tailing Rahul’s Q8 so far but this is where we part ways. Rahul carries on straight onto the Solang Valley Bridge and I turn right towards the road to Rohtang. It’s a very nondescript entrance to such a historic route, I can tell you that. The very first section of road is narrower than your average supermodel’s waist and to compound matters there are a few overloaded Bolero Pik-Ups parked on the side that are inadvertently playing width restrictor here. The RS Q8’s super cool augmented reality 3D camera is summoned to help ease my way out but this is not the start I’d hoped for.
Vibrant autumnal colours greet Nikhil and the RS Q8 on the initial bit of the climb to Rohtang.
1:35 PM AT Solang Valley Sports Center – Rahul
Tourism is one of the sectors worst hit by the pandemic and it really is sad to see Solang, a place usually bustling with tourists, so empty today. Maybe Nikhil and I can come back for an ATV ride later in our trip. Or go paragliding. For now, I’m very content in the Q8. It rides well, steers with grace, and on this drive I’m really taking to the 3.0-litre V6 petrol engine’s genteel nature.
It’s a picturesque drive to the Atal Tunnel. It helps that the roads are super smooth, too.
1:52 PM at Gullaba Check Post – Nikhil
Status update. That frown is now upside down! The last few kilometres have been brilliant. For one, there’s no traffic! It’s like I have the entire road to myself, which is surreal on what is a notoriously busy route. The road is also in surprisingly good shape, save for the odd bad patch that the RS Q8 comfortably takes in its stride. This is still not a journey for the faint-hearted as you wind your way up the mountain fairly quickly. Over the climb and hairpins that have made up this leg, I have managed to work up a fine rhythm with the Audi RS Q8. I love how cosseting it is over the rough stuff and how explosively quick it can be when the conditions allow.
And did I mention the technicolour setting itself? The sun’s shining bright, the sky’s blue and the green and yellow autumnal hues are just magical. I’ve rolled back the RS Q8’s panoramic sunroof screen for the full effect. I reach the Gullaba check post with a big grin plastered on my face. Unbelievably, mine’s the only car here. In peak tourist season, it’s a major bottleneck that can see vehicles backed up for kilometres on end. Permit paper checked (you need one to drive to Rohtang), off I go.
1:55 PM at South Portal, Atal Tunnel – Rahul
It’s an expectedly scenic drive up with fir trees lining the entire route, and majestic views of the mountain range. I’m also happy to tell you that the road is super smooth, well-marked and features guardrails for added protection. Now, for the main event – the Atal Tunnel. There’s an understandably heavy presence of security personnel outside but as I learn, their job description also includes keeping an eye out for overzealous tourists. Selfie-crazed visitors were behind some accidents inside the tunnel mere days after it opened.
Welcome to the Atal Tunnel. The tunnel’s South Portal is the Q8 and Rahul’s point of entry.
Ceremonial gate at the South Portal crossed, in we go! Wow! The entry’s lit up like a stadium! This is such a departure from the dingy mountain tunnels we’re accustomed to. The Q8’s Matrix LED headlamps will have to work half as hard inside this tunnel, I’m sure. Of the other things, I like that all signage is clearly marked. Speed limits, emergency phone locations…it’s all in clear sight. It’s also good to know there’s a secondary escape tunnel under the main tunnel that can be used in case of an evacuation. Also, should the air quality inside the tunnel deteriorate, fresh air can be pumped in from either end. I don’t recommend opening your window and driving through, though. The fumes from old trucks linger on for some time.
Still, the first impression is that this could be a tunnel in Europe - it’s built to such a high standard.
Manali to Sissu via Europe? The Atal Tunnel is engineered to a world-class standard.
2:05 PM at North Portal, Atal Tunnel – Rahul
Isn’t it staggering to know that there’s about 2 km of mountain above the tunnel roof? Just think of the scale of the job of cutting through pure mountain. And remember, this isn’t the most hospitable of regions to work in with winter temperatures dipping well below freezing. The BRO or Border Roads Organisation are champs at road-building and are the unsung heroes of the Atal Tunnel.
End to end, the Atal Tunnel is 9.02km long and is almost arrow straight throughout. It is a place where you can theoretically, and I’m emphasizing on theoretically, max out your car. That’s 250kph on the Q8 55 TFSI I’m in and 305kph on the RS Q8 Nikhil’s driving. But don’t get any ideas because there are strict speed limits of 40kph and 60kph in the tunnel, and you’re always under watch. This is the last place where you want to be on the wrong side of the law. Also, there’s no overtaking in the Atal Tunnel and you drive in a single file. It still beats the narrow roads and stomach churning climb up the Rohtang Pass, though.
I see light at the end of the tunnel. It’s taken me about 10 minutes to cover the Atal Tunnel. And just like that I’m in the Lahaul valley. This is no less than time travel!
9.02km and 10 minutes later you enter a different world. The scenery changes dramatically.
2:12 PM at Chumbak Mod – Nikhil
The route just got a lot more serious. We’re above the tree line and filling my windscreen now are the intimidating mountains that we need to snake our way up. It looks like a long way to the top. Thankfully, there’s no melting snow or rain to deal with today but landslides aren’t uncommon even at this time of the year. The ominous boulders scattered on the mountainside don’t put me at ease.
The road has deteriorated too and the climb’s much steeper now. The story goes that the slow progress up had people believe their vehicles were being held back by a magnetic force, earning this section the name Chumbak Mod. Thankfully, a lack of power is the last thing I need to worry about. It helps to have a 600hp and 800Nm, 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8 petrol engine powering your vehicle! It suffices to say, the elevation changes go by unnoticed.
The Rohtang Pass route isn’t for the faint-hearted. Views like this do make it worth it.
2:14 PM at Sissu Helipad – Rahul
It’s a different world on the North Portal side of the Atal Tunnel. The contrast is stark. The mountains are barren and vegetation is minimal. There’s such a visual disconnect between the landscapes on the two sides of the tunnel that it’s hard to believe they’re just separated by a short drive now.
That’s when the magnitude of what the Atal Tunnel achieves for the people of Lahaul-Spiti hits me. It’s more than a road; this is actually a year-round lifeline for the locals here who were previously cut off from the rest of the world owing to the harsh snowfall in winter. The Atal Tunnel would have also greatly eased the movement of men and materials to forward military positions. Those mile-long military truck convoys on the Rohtang route might now be a thing of the past.
Soon, I reach our designated end-point. The wait for Nikhil begins….
2:37 PM at Rani Nallah – Nikhil
I’ve done the journey up to Rohtang before and know that the going gets tougher the higher you go. But never have I ascended as quick as I’ve managed to today. This is not entirely down to the lack of traffic or how the RS Q8 shrugs off petty things like gravity. The road up itself is in the best condition I’ve ever seen it. Much of it has been freshly surfaced and the good sections are actually longer than the bad ones. This period of late October is also the sweet spot in terms of weather. It’s well past the summer and monsoon months where the melting snow and rain water, respectively, create a nightmarish slush and legendary traffic jams at Rani Nallah. The light film of white on the mountain tops today suggests there’s been fresh snow fall but it’s not out of the ordinary. The Met department’s forecasts show the real heavy winter snow, that will force the Pass’ annual closure, is still a good fortnight or more away.
I have to remind myself not to get carried away, though. We’re still high up and things can go very wrong, very quickly. That ‘Rohtang’ translates to pile of dead bodies (the extremities of temperature and altitude have claimed a lot of lives over the ages) is a sobering thought that stays with me.
2:40 PM at Sissu Helipad – Rahul
Nikhil’s phone is out of coverage so I don’t expect him to be anywhere close. I might as well use the time well (out comes the DSLR camera!).
Rahul came prepared for a long wait and indulges in some photography to kill time.
2:47 PM at Rohtang Pass – Nikhil
In less than 2 hours, the RS Q8 and I have climbed from 6,700 feet at Manali to 13,058 feet at the summit of the Rohtang Pass. What takes my breath away on the very last bit of the climb is not the rapid ascent or relatively low oxygen at this high altitude, rather, it’s the gorgeous view. Glistening in the afternoon sun, the white mountains in the distance look magnificent and waiting to be captured for a postcard. Rahul might be on the faster route but I’m now certain I’m on the more scenic one.
The Rohtang Pass top is usually a high altitude mela with thousands, and I mean thousands, of tourists. Today, there’s just a handful. Unreal. I’m in half a mind to stop for a chai and cup noodles (comfort food up here) but I opt against it. I’ve made amazing progress so far and want to see how this pans out. Ahem! I’m also quite comfortable on my heated seat, thank you very much. The fluttering prayer flags suggest it’d be a lot colder on the outside than the 9 degree Celsius indicated on the RS Q8’s display.
It’s a ceremonial fly-by at the Rohtang Pass. We’re at 13,000ft here.
3:04 PM at Khoksar - Nikhil
I do a double take when I see the road that leads us down from Rohtang. Far removed from the patchy path I remember it to be, the redone road is just brilliant. Impeccably surfaced and even clearly marked, it’s almost poetic how this ribbon of black cuts contrasts the white backdrop. I sense an opportunity to make up time so it’s all systems dialed up to 11. What a road! What a car! The RS Q8 uses brute force to shrink the distance between the hairpins and then seemingly shrinks itself in the corners. Four-wheel steering, active anti-roll bars and a torque vectoring rear differential come into play to make the big Audi feel smaller and lighter than its size and weight (it’s 5m long and tips the scales at 2.3 tonnes) would have you expect. The bassy roar from the V8 provides a deeply satisfying soundtrack.
The big Audi also manages the unfinished sections of the route further down without stress. I don’t have an issue with clearance even with the suspension at a low height though I do take it easy with the tyres. Finding a replacement 295/35 ZR23 tyre in this neck of the woods would be a tall ask, I’d assume.
Over the quick descent, the landscape transitions dramatically, and there’s a return of some greenery by the time I arrive at the Khoksar Check Post.
Comfy on the bad patches, the 600hp RS Q8 feels ballistic on the good ones. It’s a mega tool to shrink distances.
3:15 PM at Chandra Bridge - Nikhil
The Chandra river that flows alongside is now giving us company but what I’m caught off-guard by is the rapid drop in light. The massive mountains around cast such large shadows, it’s like someone’s fast forwarded us to the evening. Soon enough, I’m at the Atal Tunnel junction where the new Chandra Bridge meets the Leh-Manali Highway. From my vantage point some 300 metres away, the North Portal of the tunnel looks no more than a small opening drilled into this mass of mountain. I can’t wait to hear what Rahul has to say about his journey. I don’t think I’ll be taking much longer.
This is where old and new routes meet. The mountains cast such large shadows, it’s like you’re fast forwarded to the evening.
3:25 PM at Sissu – Nikhil
I see the red Q8, and I think Rahul sees me too. I’m sure he’s going to gloat but my journey was special in its own way…..
Rahul – You’re finally here! It’s been 1 hour and 10 minutes since I arrived.
Nikhil – You reached that long back?! What’s your trip reading?
Rahul – 40km. And yours?
Nikhil – 86km.
Rahul – Wow! A straight saving of 46km and over an hour in time!
Nikhil – Do you know what, Rahul? This is the least time I could have possibly taken. The weather was perfect, the road was the best I’ve ever seen it, there was barely any traffic…and, of course, I had the RS Q8. Factor in pre-COVID levels of traffic and we’re looking at an additional hour of driving time at a bare minimum. The unpredictable weather and ever-changing driving conditions can also slow progress by as much as a few hours. I’d think of my drive time today as a best case scenario.
While Rahul and Nikhil talk of their experiences, the shining Q8 and the dust-covered RS Q8 capture the essence of the routes they’ve come by.
Anyway, how was the Atal Tunnel?
Rahul – Oh, it’s just incredible. It’s like being in a tube that connects point A to point B in a straight line. The journey inside took all of 10 minutes - that’s unbelievable! And I’m talking as a tourist. I can’t imagine how this changes things for the residents of this region. The tunnel itself is superbly engineered and something that we all should be proud of.
Nikhil – But, hey, Rahul, you’ve come via the Atal Tunnel now and have done the Rohtang route umpteen times before. Which route would you take?
Rahul – Well, there’s a lot of history to the Rohtang Pass. I’ve personally done the route on a bike, in a car, as a tourist and even a rally participant and have some fond memories there. It’s a road to get you out of your comfort zone. I’d say it’s at least worth a visit once. But if this is a route you frequent or are traveling onwards to Leh, the Atal Tunnel is a no-brainer.
Nikhil – And that gets you thinking, right? The Rohtang Pass route has been an integral part of some of our most epic road trips over the years but all of a sudden, scaling its peak and braving the elements just seems so unnecessary. In a way, as much as this is a celebration of the Atal Tunnel, it’s almost a farewell to the Rohtang Pass route.
Rahul - So, now that it’s time to head back will you come back my way or the highway?
Nikhil - (laughs) I’ve come the long way around. Let’s take the shortcut home.
Special thanks to the BRO for helping make this feature possible.
Q&A - Colonel Parikshit Mehra, Project Director, Atal Tunnel in conversation with Hormazd Sorabjee
What were the challenges BRO faced when constructing the Atal Tunnel and what was the most difficult part?
Atal Tunnel is the longest tunnel built at an altitude above 10,000 ft. The tunnel has been excavated from just two ends (Portals) with no other access in form of adits or shafts. The North Portal was not accessible for around seven months in a year due to the closure of Rohtang Pass. Though work continued through the year from the South Portal, the winter months were difficult due to ever-looming avalanche threats on the approach road and snow accumulation at the portal location.
The fact that the tunnel has almost 2 km of mountain above it meant that complex support systems had to be designed to counteract the stresses on the tunnel boundary.
However, while all of the above challenges were being met the tunnel team encountered the Seri Nala Fault Zone, the longest shear zone encountered by any highway tunnel in the world. The 600 m excavation across Seri Nala took Border Roads Organisation four years to cross while the rest of the 9.02 km tunnel was also excavated in the same time. The best experts in the world had not seen tunnelling geological conditions as difficult as the the Seri Nala. In those four years, the project engineers developed innovative approaches for such poor geological conditions and under the leadership of BRO the fault zone was crossed without changing the alignment. India has arrived in the world of tunnelling with the accomplishment of Atal Tunnel.
What are the factors that determined the exact location of the tunnel?
The idea was to construct a tunnel in such a fashion to cause minimum disturbance to the existing highway which is the only link to Leh in this region. Hence, the approach road to the South Portal was developed inside Solang valley and North Portal was planned and constructed on the home side of the Chandra river ahead of Khoksar.
Why a concrete surface and not regular bitumen or tarmac ?
The Seri Nala water is being channelled from behind the tunnel concrete to the main drain of the tunnel. In monsoons months the overburdened material gets saturated, rate of ingress increases manifold and seepage on to the riding surface can be expected. Hence, a rigid concrete pavement was executed.Rigid pavements have a greater life cycle and the height of the surface is not increased like in case of bitumen surfaces. This will ensure that vertical clearance will not be compromised.
How will you use the experience gained in constructing the Atal tunnel with other tunnel projects?
Border Roads Organisation has been conducting classes on tunnelling including these experiences for its own engineers and also for engineering colleges. National level seminars are being planned for premier engineering institutes. In fact, a foreign outreach is also planned to share the experiences gained and achievements made.
I have personally published numerous technical papers and lot of engineers across the country have access to more such material.
This tunnel is definitely going to be a harbinger for other tunnels to come up in the nation.