Kinnaur Lahaul Spiti Trip 2017: Trek from Chandrataal to Surajtaal

I had almost forgotten to finish this travelogue just like my previous one. Which reminds me that I should work on that one too once this is finished. No other excuse other than just being lazy and a bit too much of work. Previous post of this series.

Anyhow, my plan was to stay in campsite for 2-3 days and trek to Suraj Taal from there. But Jamaica was unable to arrange a guide which he had agreed to earlier. It really poured cold water on my plans and I was not really sure about what to do if not that. Apparently there were some seasonal nallahs on the way which were flooded unexpectedly and the guide who was supposed to go with me was forbidden by his wife to go anywhere. But we eventually convinced a local shepherd camping in a dera (shepherd shelter made of stones) nearby to work as my guide. He was the same Kashmir Singh Rana who I had met during my first visit to Chandrataal. It was not easy convincing him and he agreed only after I promised a pretty hefty payment. According to him and his co-worker shepherd who was camping with him, trekkers usually start from Suraj Taal (4883 m) and hike down to Chandrataal (4250 m) in about 4-5 days. But since he was needed at dera, he’d try to do it in 3. I was not really confident of being capable of doing that myself. But he said that he’d carry most of my camping stuff leaving me with carrying only my camera gear, some water, snacks and some emergency supplies which in total weighed only about 7-9 kgs.

Some new visitors at the lake

Before we left, I had spent 3 days around the campsite walking around the area and exploring. I tried to locate the round stone I had noticed during my first visit but couldn’t find it. It probably rolled away to some other place. While wandering around, I followed yet another goat trail and ended up at the river bed. There I noticed the source of differently coloured water in the river bed. There was some clear water bubbling through the sandy river bed which gave it a different colour from sediment filled water of the river. I put my hand in to the sand from where it was coming out but found only more sand and pebbles. It was ice cold too. I still don’t know what exactly I was expecting.

Temporary “Lake” near Chandrataal

The trek started on morning of 16th August, I had arrived on 13th. Rana carried my rucksack and some of his own stuff and we set off on a brisk pace. My start was not that great. After walking for about 20 minutes, I noticed that one half of one of two brand new hiking stick shad slid off. I retraced my steps almost back to starting point and then gave up. I didn’t want to throw the rest of it as trash, specially after seeing how the camp owners and tourists were already trashing the place. So I ended up carrying it for all of my trek and eventually back home. I just tied it to a loop on my bag and let it hang from there. Rana said that he’ll give it to Jamaica if he ever found it. I suppose, he was joking. At first we were walking almost side by side, but eventually I trailed off behind him by quite a distance. He had 20-25 years on me, was quite skinny and was carrying almost twice the weight I was. But he was still much faster than me for all of the trek.

A beautiful, windy and cloudy evening

After about 3 hours of walking, we came across our first obstacle. It was a flooded nallah which was one of the reasons why my original guide had chickened out. There were 3 like this and this one was called Kala nallah, another pagal nallah and one other I don’t remember. There was a lot of almost black mud all over where it had flooded over pushing up a lot of big and small rocks all over. Rana said that it was due to flood anytime soon as the sun became stronger and snow melted. The current was very swift and the stones were shifting due to it. Rana was just wearing simple plastic (?) shoes and he just rolled up him pajama and crossed easily using his walking stick. Since I was doubtful of crossing the stream without tripping, he carried my camera too. I had to take off my shoes, socks and throw them over. The shoes were a moderately water resistant, but certainly couldn’t have avoided that kind of water flow. My first two three steps went fine. But then the cold hit and I started to feel it all over. Then there was the issue of nearly black muddy water which didn’t allow any of the moving rocks to be seen. I had to be really careful checking my each step carefully so as to not step on a sharp rock or an unstable one. The current was very strong as mentioned earlier and it made standing difficult even though the water was barely up to my knees. I managed to cross over eventually without tripping which didn’t seem to be a big deal in the beginning.

Sheep and goats grazing on a nearby mountain

A few minutes later we noticed some sheep and goats grazing just across the river and two shepherds in their dera which Rana knew. They welcomed us with some of their chai which had enough goat ghee and sugar to give any non-Gaddi person diabetes in a few weeks. But these people stay skinny and healthy due to all the work they do. They were in process of preparing lunch when we arrived and served some for us. It was again ghee served with some rice and daal. There was some dessert too but I remember it only vaguely. They get a lot of milk from goats and sheep which they can’t store. So it is usually turned in to ghee and consumed liberally. I was finding it a bit difficult just to breathe properly at this altitude but Rana kept smoking one bidi after another. The dera had one old hukkah which he prepared and smoked as shown in this video.

They had harvested a prickly herb which has many uses in Indian medicine and were drying it in sun. I cannot remember it’s name right now . Just touching it put quite a few prickly spines in the skin.I requested to take a few pictures but both of them wanted to wear something on their heads. One of them could not find his, so I lent him mine. We left a few minutes later after thanking them for the hospitality.

They had told Rana about another dera a few hours hike from theirs and he was keen to reach there before it got dark. But I was getting tired and was walking almost 200-300 meters behind him. At this time, I saw what seemed to be a large bird sitting on a ledge. With sun in front it was only an outline and I got excited thinking that I finally found a Himalayan Griffon perching at such a close distance. Eventually it turned out to be Rana partially hidden behind a rock smoking another one of his bidis. It was a bit of disappointment as I didn’t see any other wild bird or animal during rest of trek, even though there were footmarks and burrows every now and then. We managed to reach another dera before sunset. It had 3 shepherds who were in the process of gathering their flock and preparing dinner. I wanted to have a taste of my own MRE, but they insisted I eat with them. I sat in their dera as they cooked their food on a stone chulha (stove). It was simple daal roti, but a lot of it. I was surprised to see skinny people like them eating so much. When I requested them to pose for pictures, 2 of them got their better caps out.

A shepherd dog

For a change, I managed to setup my tent quite easily. But it was on a surface full of rocks and it took some time for me to get comfortable enough to sleep. There was not much plain enough space and it was getting too dark for me to find a better spot.

We started early next morning and noticed a few caves not far from river bank. A lot of them were collapsed or full of rubble and looked quite unsafe to take shelter unless one had no other option. These were marked on the map I was carrying and apparently some trekkers had used them in past. Walking for about 1 hour brought us to our 2nd water crossing. We climbed down a steep slope with loose gravel and I slipped a couple of times. The stream was wider and less fast than the last one, but it was supposed to have more water with sun getting higher. There were marks of more flow from previous day all over. The water there was deeper for most part, sometimes reaching up to well above my knees but we crossed it without much difficulty. As with the previous one, Rana crossed first with my camera and I followed once he got to other side.

Quite a lot of Unnamed mountain peaks and glaciers

We walked for about 4 hours more came across another stream. This one was much faster and Rana decided to stop there for the day even though it was just around 1 pm. The stream was 7-8 feet wide at it’s narrowest point but very fast. We saw the glacier where it was coming from next morning. A large piece of it had broken off and melting much faster. We were getting water sprayed on us even when we were 2-3 feet away and could hear rocks grinding against each other below the water. Rana was disappointed because his plan of finishing the trek in 3 days was affected and I had mixed feelings. It had been a hard hike through some really tough terrain and I was quite tired. But then he said that we had to cross only one other stream and we’d have reached a much better camping spot by evening. I don’t think I’d have liked to do that specially after covering that part next morning. The place where we had stopped was very rocky and we were stuck between the fast stream at front, a steep and unstable cliff face on right and main river body on left. It looked like someone long before us had stopped there. There was a big rock with rocks cleared around it providing a bit of shelter from direct sun and wind.

Easier part of the trekking trail

I took out my stove to heat up some MREs and found out that my trusty water bottle had finally developed a crack after yet another fall on the rocks. We had seen a small spring on our way and Rana went there to get some drinking water while I heated the MREs. Again, I didn’t want to throw the bottle in wilderness. The crack was at bottom, so I put some tape on it carried it upside down for rest of the trip. I had another filter bottle, but it’s capacity was not even 1 liter. I noticed a scrape on my camera body where some paint had chipped off after my fall just before the previous water crossing. There was no other damage though it could have been bad.

We wanted to start as early as possible next morning, so I set up my tent immediately after lunch. I tried to clear a small area of rocks, but there were just more rocks underneath. So I gave up moving rocks and just pitched it after removing a few pointy ones. Somehow I managed to sleep through the almost deafening roar of water and the wind throughout the night.

All water gone next morning

We started our hike next morning at around 5:30. That mad Paagal nallah was just a small trickle of water at that time, nothing like the loud cascade of water and stones crashing through the mountainside. We crossed in 1-2 hops and resumed our march, The terrain progressively got more difficult from this point onward for various reasons. After walking for 80-90 minutes we climbed down another steep slope to cross another stream, more like a small river. There was supposed to be an ice bridge but it had melted and we had to cross it the old fashioned way. I was a little curious about seeing that ice bridge and was disappointed. I did find a goat (?) skull on the river bank though.

I just placed this skull on this rock to take the picture.

We walked upstream for about a kilometer looking for a suitable place to cross. The water there was comparatively calmer and deeper. Since it was still early morning and the glacier was not that far, the water was just above freezing temperature. I legs were numb within a few seconds of getting in to water and took 2-3 minutes of exercises to get the feeling back after crossing. A few minutes later, we climbed back up on the next mountain using a steep goat trail which actually got me sweating.

View from mountain after crossing

After this, the terrain was flat for a while which was a relief. We found another dera after about a kilometer which had another gaddi and his assistant. Rana didn’t knew him but that didn’t prevent him from inviting us for a cup of chai and something to eat. He then showed me a an Olympus camera lens still in it’s carry case and asked me what it is. He said that he found it near his shelter a few years back. My excitement was short lived as it was in pretty bad condition.He explained that  his dogs “played” with it and he was curious why it didn’t have a glowing light like it had when he found it. I had no idea what he meant by this. He was happy enough to just give it away, but I gave him a little cash I had for it. All these shepherds told me that there were a lot of foreigner trekkers on the route a few years back but not so much anymore. I had seen one group in 2011 and mentioned it in the blog. I still have that lens and intend to open it up to see the inner mechanism.

Another cup of chai with ghee and lots of sugar and milk

From there, we walked for 5 hours more and crossed two more streams which had only a few cm of water. After we crossed the first one he told a story in which one of the trekker or maybe it was a porter had been swept away by the current few years back.  After this , we walked through a very large flat area which was mostly swamp like with lots of water channels, large rocks and strange plants growing everywhere. Just before that, there was yet another stream in which the water was flowing under the rocks with only a little on top.  We could see the pass and vehicles on road from some distance. It took one more hour of walking to reach Bara Lacha pass and a few minutes of downhill walk to reach Suraj Taal. After 3 days of hard work it was a rewarding, yet a bit of underwhelming sight. I knew that it was small but it was even smaller than I expected. Then there was rubble from road just above it which had covered almost half of it’s bank. But it was still a beautiful place. We walked till it’s bank and rested for a while. Rana helped me setup the tent and we had a lunch of of  MREs. Rana and I shook hands and he took his leave to go back to his dera. He said that he’d reach back in 2 or 3 days .

First view of Surah Taal. Road is on right

After he left, I walked around the place taking pictures and enjoying sunset. The point where I had set up my tent was only about 50-60 meters down from the road, but there was no way to climb up due to huge boulders. The only reasonable path back up was about half a km of walk which I didn’t want to do carrying all my stuff. So I found a shorter and a bit more difficult way up for next morning. It was not a path, just some rocks which seemed stable enough. Even walking around at that altitude was a tough job and the fatigue was making everything including walking on a slope or even lift a small rock more difficult.

There were only a few vehicles on the road and most of them barely slowed down as they passed the lake. During my time there, I saw only 3-4 people who stopped their vehicles to take a few pictures, stare at me staring them back and move on. The traffic ceased a few hours before sunset and I had the whole place to myself. Only 2 vehicles passed through after that till the time I was awake. I wanted to do some night photography and then decided against it once I set foot outside the tent. The wind was too strong and the cold made my every exposed body part freezing cold. So I took a few pictures from within the tent and ended it for the night. It was a bit strange being truly alone in such wilderness for the first time. An exhilarating and terrifying feeling at the same time. A bit more terrifying because at times, I imagined something moving right outside my tent as I was about to fall asleep.

One last vehicle for the night with lake reflecting the lights

I woke up after sunrise and had some chocolates and dry fruit for breakfast before staring to windup the camp. Any exertion was still pretty hard and I did it slowly so as not to over exert. There was no traffic on the road at that time and started only after 8 am, I think. After all the packing was done I half carried , half dragged my luggage up to the road. Jamaica had promised that he’d send a car to pick me up from there and I waited along the roadside for it. Later I found out that the driver he asked to do it demanded too much money and he didn’t send anyone. I didn’t knew that at the time and I waited for around 90 minutes before the sky was covered by dark clouds started dropping half frozen rain. It got a extremely cold within a few minutes and I started walking down from there by the roadside. There were quite a few vehicles passing at the that time. I waved at a truck for lift and thankfully he stopped. The driver had delivered some supplies in Leh and was going back empty. He didn’t talk much and I was not in mood for idle chit chat, so most of our journey was quite peaceful. A ride in truck was never on my bucketlist, but was a fun thing to do. We stopped at 2-3 places for rest and meals in Lahaul area which is quite a beautiful place by itself. We reached Keylong in afternoon and he dropped me near the bus station.

View of the area as I waited for transport as I waited next morning, only a few minutes before everything was covered by clouds

There was one bus scheduled to leave for Manali in a hour and I waited at bus stand till it arrived and ticket counter opened. The bus ride was unremarkable and I reached Manali at around sunset time. During my last visit, me and wifey had stayed in a kind of fancy resort on the way to Old Manali. It had hot running water, fancy bathrooms and all that other expensive hotel stuff. Since she was coming to join me in 2 days, I thought that it’d be a good place to stay. But I apparently looked like a hobo, because the guy on reception desk said that the hotel was priced beyond what I could possibly afford. I had not bathed for 6 days, had almost matted hair and beard and was wearing same clothes for 4 days. But still….

After that I just walked to Old Manali and found a cheap guesthouse where people were more used to people like me. I had a hot shower, shampooed my hair, overgrown beard to get all the dust out. The water ran very gray and brown for quite some time. There isn’t much to say after this. I wandered around Manali town, discovered a few new spots, gorged myself in different restaurants till wifey arrived. Then we did more of that stuff together for 2-3 days more.

During this trek, I saw a lot of interesting things like plants, geographical features, rocks, glaciers, insects and more. Only problem is that I know almost nothing about most of them. I did take a lot of pictures and intend to find out more about them, if time permits.
For now, it’s time to end this post.