Next morning after breakfast, we put some snacks in our backpacks and started walking towards Chandrataal lake. We took the trail route through mountains rather than road. It was uphill walk for a while, but nothing too difficult. Again the landmarks I remembered from my last visit like bunch of black stones, dried out seasonal ponds were all there. Interestingly we also found out some ponds which still had not dried out. Instead of straight walk to lake, I took a detour to show Samudri Tapu to wifey and ACB. They were not too thrilled by the extra walk. Walking distance via road is about 3 km. Our one way hike was about 4.5 km, but a lot more interesting, to me at least.

Starting the hike

Starting the hike

The trail we followed took us past the usual route and we came across the lake from it’s western flank. The usual poses and photography ensued. We walked along and settled down for some rest along it’s northern side. A few local tourists were already there having some kind of picnic. After a while, Jamaica too came along with a couple of his guests. The two French girls had completed the circuit around lake before us and came around to rest. I grew restless sitting in same place and annoyed by noisy tourists and wanted to walk around the lake. Wifey tagged along while ACB just wanted to relax, meditate and in his words “ask myself some questions” . So me and wifey left him there with Jamaica and other tourists and walked along the lake. I had done it 3-4 times last time I was there and it felt good to do it again.

View of Samudri Tapu

View of Samudri Tapu

Upon reaching the other side, we rested there for a while and had some snacks. That side was deserted and we could see only 1-2 tourists walking towards our general direction. After enjoying the views for a while, we started our walk back which went on without any incident. I was hoping to spot the duck family I saw last time or some other birds or animals, but there was nothing. When we reached the other side, ACB, Jamaica and the French girl were all gone.

One pond we found on the way

One pond we found on the way

There was not much to see or do there for day for us, so we started the 3 km walk back to camp via road. Wifey just put her foot down against taking the “off beat path” back. In a way, it was in line with my principle of never taking the same path back. hehe. On the flip side, that “road” is just a dirt track and coughs up copious amount of dust every time a vehicle drives by. So we just covered our noses with bandanas and started the long march. Combined with tiredness from previous day, not being used to this altitude and the walk that day, we started feeling tired pretty quickly. After we had covered about 2 km, we saw a pickup truck coming from lake’s direction and signaled it to stop. It was being driven by a worker from one of the workers from another camp. Only empty place where we could get in was back of the pickup truck. It had 2 tires and some junk lying around. Not an ideal situation, but still better than nothing.

First close view of Chandrataal lake

First close view of Chandrataal lake

It was just about half a km ride or so we thought. The driver seemed to be on some kind of kamikaze mood and drove likewise taking shortcuts every where. Imagine taking shortcuts on a mountain road.  We kept on bouncing around in the back and got covered with a thick layer of dust. Once it finally stopped, we got out on wobbly legs and covered in dust from head to toe. After mumbling thanks for the ride we walked towards our tent to shake it off. I had a mild headache early on since morning and this ride had turned in to a thumping one.

View of Chandrataal Lake from other side

View of Chandrataal Lake from other side

When we reached the camp Jamaica and ACB were both busy talking to some other guests in camp site and wanted me to join. I didn’t feel like talking to anyone and just rested after cleaning myself up as much as possible.

 

Later on, I asked Jamaica about possibility of doing the trek to Samudri Tapu and water level in the river. He flat out ruled out any possibility saying that the water level was too high and some of the trekkers who follow the same route for a while for some other trek had to turn back. The rope route option was dependent on some shepherd passing by, but the chances were pretty slim. I decided to wait for a day more to see if the crossing would be possible and asked Jamaica for some thing to do in the meanwhile. He suggested that he could ask one of his workers to put up a tents for us near the lake on the southern side.

Snow covered lit up by moon light

Snow covered lit up by moon light

I felt that it was a great idea as if there was some chance of water level receding, I could start the trek from there instead from campsite 5+ km away. If I remember correctly, both ACB and wifey and “opted” out of trek to Samudri Tapu when we were at the lake. A small setback, but I was really adamant on doing it one way or the other. Jamaica was leaving next morning for Kaza and had plans to come back in evening. So he asked one of his helpers, Dorjee to make arrangements. We spent the evening in kitchen tent drinking chai, talking to tourists from all over and had a late dinner. After a while when it got dark, I got out to do some star gazing. The sight of Milky Way is a sight to behold, specially at this altitude. There are hundreds of stars in every inch of night sky and is a great place to look for shooting stars, satellites, planets and almost any other thing of interest in the night sky.

Milky way looked awesome

Milky way looked awesome

While others were inside, I spent some time taking pictures of night sky. Unfortunately, almost every single picture I took there turned out crap as I ignored to turn off image stabilisation on lens. The pictures looked OK on camera screen but a lot more blurry when zoomed which I checked out much later. I was carrying one extra battery but wanted to conserve as much as possible, so didn’t spend much time checking quality of pictures. I don’t exactly know what happened, but my older battery ran out that night without any warning, probably due to too many long exposure shots. Next day I also realised that there were two dust particles on camera’s sensor It screwed up a majority of pictures I took. As I was not carrying a blower, most of my pictures from this trip are just shit quality.

 

This series of posts is about my trip to Lahaul Spiti in September 2015. People who have read the previous Spiti travelogue will find only a few things new and a lot more of rants and other less interesting walls of text. This post will have the general information and background about the events, people and purpose of the trip.

Kunzum La

Kunzum La

It was a great trip and I enjoyed it immensely. There were a couple of things planned which didn’t happen but experienced a lot of awesome stuff as well.  Unlike last time, this wasn’t a solo trip. My wife and her cousin Achin Bhai (ACB from now on ) were my companions. Neither one had been to the region before and had limited experience of trekking and camping.

Our plan in beginning was to trek to Samudri Tapu and spend about 8-10 days in the area. But there were some changes and the actual journey was a bit less adventurous but enjoyable nonetheless. We bought most of our travel stuff from Delhi except stove, gas which we got from Manali. Only ACB was carrying a tent and we were getting rest of the camping stuff from Jamaica’s camp site near Chandrataal.
Just for the sake of record and in hope that some one finds it useful, following is the list of stuff me and wifey carried:

Chandrataal Lake

Chandrataal Lake

1) Rucksacks, 70 ltr and 50 ltr. Small backpacks.

2) Waterproof and windproof clothing like jacket, trousers. 2-3 change of clothes.
3) Trekking shoes and socks.
4) Ready to eat meal packets, biscuits, chocolates, snacks, dry fruits.
5) Medicine pack with pills for altitude sickness, pain, stomach upset and other general stuff.
6) Trekking sticks (one each).
7) Propane gas and stove, from Manali.
8) Tents, sleeping bags, ground mats from Jamaica’s camp site.
9) Hats, shatter resistant sunglasses, bandanas, high SPF sunscreen to protect against the sun.
10) A portable water filter bottle and a lightweight plastic water bottle.
11) Lightweight metal pot, mugs.
12) Tape, multi-tool, torch,  and a couple of other utility items.

Much later, when it was too late to do anything about it, we realised that each one of us was carrying too much stuff. In my last trip, I was carrying all that gear in my rucksack plus camping gear and still had some space to spare. But in this one, I didn’t have any camping equipment, but my rucksack was still bursting at it’s seams and was too heavy for any kind of long walk in the mountains. We had overstocked on food and clothes in particular. More on that later.

Following was our planned itinerary :

Hiking route from Kunzum La to Chandrataal

Route from Kunzum La to Chandrataal

DAY 1: Leave Delhi for Manali by Volvo in evening.

Day 2 and/or Day 3: Morning arrival in Manali.
WORK: Hiring Sumo for journey till Kunzum La.

Day 3: Early morning departure from Manali at 4 am.
Reach Kunzum La by 12 noon.
Start trek towards Chandrataal. Approximate 4-5 hours. Night in campsite.

Day 4: Rest and sightseeing near Chandrataal

Day 5: Trek towards Samudri Taapu. 
2 routes, one the long way around covering both sources of Chandra river.
2nd route by crossing river by a trolley. Preferences for 1st. Night in Samudri Tapu.

Day 6: Day in Samudri Tapu camping. 

From Chandrataal to Samudri Tapu

From Chandrataal to Samudri Tapu

Day 7: Trek back to Chandrataal.

Day 8: Two options:  Get a lift  to Manali  and go back to Delhi on Day 9.

Option 2
Day 9: Get a lift to Kibber or Kaza.

Spend 3-4 days in region before going back through Shimla route.

Actual itinerary was much different though.

As mentioned earlier, I had visited Spiti in 2012 on a solo trip. That time, I had hiked from Kunzum La to campsite near ChandraTaal and spent a few days exploring the area. I had seen Samudri Tapu then from a distance and it was on my mind ever since.  Back then, I didn’t have enough time for the trip. Then 2013 and 2014 went by too fast and I couldn’t visit. I My initial plan for 2015 was to visit Lahaul Spiti and trek to Samudri Tapu solo. But then wifey and ACB joined in and the plan was changed accordingly. The preparations and shopping were done over the course of a month as we worked out schedule and other details for the trip. But like every time, there were moments of last minute running around looking for some stuff we had forgotten.

Hike from from campsite to Chandrataal

Hike from from campsite to Chandrataal

 Anyhow, after all being said and done, our bags were packed and we caught a bus to Manali on 30th August. We chose HPTDC Volvo bus over private bus operators even though the ticket price was twice as much. The boarding point is convenient,  buses are clean, on time and unlike private bus operators, are not staffed by semi-feral humanoids who only know how to look at their list of seats and snarl randomly. These days, the staff of HPTDC buses and the department in general is much more helpful and polite than private sector.

Headdress worn by monks during some ritual ceremonies in Komic monastery

Headdress worn by monks during some ritual ceremonies in Komic monastery

After a journey of about 14 hours, we reached Manali at about 11:00 am and were immediately accosted by touts offering us rooms for Rs 250. Feeling insulted and a bit amused, we started walking towards Old Manali to get a hotel. ACB had his one favourite place, but it is 5 km away from the city. We found a good enough hotel near the bridge and checked in. After some rest, we walked around Manali buying stuff we couldn’t get in Delhi. Old Manali had not changed much from 2012 apart from a few old restaurants closing down and new places coming up in their place. We thought about doing some sightseeing, but dropped the idea as we had tentative plans of coming back from Lahaul Spiti the same way and staying there for 1-2 days. 

During our time out in the city, we also booked a shared taxi to take us to Kunzum La from where we planned to start walking towards the lake. These taxis are absolutely stuffed and the drivers try to cram in 10 people inside 1 Tata Sumo or similar vehicle. So we bought 4 seats to keep some breathing space. Rest of the day was spent walking around in Old Manali and eating in whatever place looked right. Unlike last time, when the taxis were leaving at 5 am or earlier, this time the boarding time was 6 am. I didn’t like it as I wanted to have enough day light for the hike, but the driver promised that we’d be at Kunzum La by 12:30 pm. He overshot the target by 2 hours and almost ruined the whole thing for us, but that’s for the next post.

Next morning, we got in to the car and drove for 10-15 minutes. It left us at some point, I don’t remember what it was called and we entered in to the jungle to start our trek to Deoria Taal. We found a trail and kept walking led by Pammi. The jungle itself was pretty beautiful with old trees all over. There were a few small trails here and there which are used by locals and lead to different

Starting the trek

Starting the trek

villages nearby. But we kept to the main trail which was pretty easy to walk upon till 35-40 minutes.On the way we came across a mountain stream and there was a small concrete bridge to cross it.

We rested there for a while. Water was ice cold as most of it was coming from melting snow high up in the mountains. After this point, the terrain got relatively difficult with many steep ridges on the way. But the weather was pleasant and walking was enjoyable except for a few difficult stretches. It did get a bit hot later on though. Our hike took us through some dense jungles with trees, wild flowers and grass all around. This area is habitat of a few wild animals like leopard, wolves and Himalayan bears, but we never saw anything.
On the way, we stopped in a grassy area, somewhat like a bugyal to rest. It looked like some place straight out of picture postcards. A few minutes later, a few young girls walked in with their buffaloes to add a local touch to it. Pammi told us that the villagers nearby will take their livestock to different grazing grounds when snow melts and those girls were probably doing the same thing.

Trek route through jungle

Trek route through jungle

After a few minutes of walk in grassy area, we entered jungle again, but by this time we had climbed down quite a bit and the trees were different. The path was covered with fallen leaves in most of places and was slippery. It was still beautiful and peaceful with many interesting sights on the way.

On our last stretch, we climbed a very steep incline and then walked on a ridge which had a rocky path and some kind of silly boundary wall on both sides. Saw some Himalayan Griffons and a kind of lizard which was fairly common in this area. Locals had a funny name for it, but I can’t remember it now.
We again entered a densely wooded area after this and then walked out of it to reach Deoria Taal lake. It’s a beautiful little lake with green wooded area on two sides and grassy on rest. It’s not too

Shepherd girls

Shepherd girls

big but too large to be called a pond. The water is a dark shade of green and apparently not safe to drink. Some workers were putting up stones on lake bank and some others were doing it on the path which connected lake to the village below. We stopped at a small eating joint for rest and to eat something. While we were there, Pammi had arranged for our tents to be pitched near the lake.

We were tired and just rested for a half hour before walking back towards lake. There was a path around the lake in between all the trees and a very small place of worship. Later on we came to know that the locals come here for some ceremony and pour milk in to the lake from that point. We spotted a few birds including a pair of magpies making quite a ruckus. The lake was full of frogs, dragon flies hovering all over and some strange fish like creatures which came to surface every now and then but moved too fast. We completed a walk around the lake and went to that small

Campsite Deoria Taal

Campsite Deoria Taal

eating joint for dinner. There a local guide from village down the hill joined us and started telling us some tales and legends associated with the place. According to him, this is the lake mentioned in Mahabharat where Pandavs were tested by a Yaksh and only Yudhisthir passed.

It had rained a bit after we reached Deoria Taal and the weather was a bit cold. After we had dinner, we went off to sleep. There isn’t much to add after that. We climbed down the mountain next morning in to a village from where we drove back to Rishikesh. Stayed there for 2 days instead of 1 planned earlier before going back to Delhi.

 

A dragonfly hovering over lake

A dragonfly hovering over lake

 

Path around the lake

Path around the lake

Himalayan Griffon

Himalayan Griffon

A mountain stream we crossed

A mountain stream we crossed

Next morning, we woke up just after sunrise to a very cold morning. A shepherd had brought his flock of sheep and goats downhill and was sitting outside dhaba waiting for a cup of tea. He had a few dogs with him, each one wearing a thick metal collar meant to protect it from attacks from leopards which live in forest. I have heard that these dogs are fiercely independent and not very friendly towards strangers. I had even experienced it first hand during my visit to Spiti. But these two were friendly and after we fed them some biscuits, wouldn’t leave our side. They did go off barking towards a heavily wooded area nearby to scare away some monkeys (I guess).
I walked on further before breakfast was ready and spotted a few birds and some pikas. Latter are sluggish in mornings and very active during day. After breakfast, we fed a few crows again and then started walking towards Tungnath Temple. A stone and cement track is what most pilgrims visiting temple usually take. There are a few

Mountain crows

Mountain crows

shortcuts, but owing to whatever I know about such “time savers” we preferred the longer route.
It was fairly easy but we flat footed city dwellers were out of breath in no time while Pammi walked on happily.
The view from the route was fairly interesting with number of trees all around. There were a few shops and grounds which are occupied only during summer season and lay vacant during winters. Trees in the area were covered with lichen and some kind of cotton thing.
After hiking for about 50-60 minutes, we found some snow lying here and there. But most of it was hard as ice. We could see Chandra Shila and it looked beautiful covered with snow. After a while, we probably crossed the tree line and from that point onwards, the vegetation was limited to small bushes, grass and a few wild flowers. It was sunny but a chilly wind was blowing.

Sunrise view of Himalayan mountains from campsite

Sunrise view of Himalayan mountains from campsite

After a hike of about 2 hours and 3-4 rest stops, we finally managed to reach temple area. There was a small dhaba where we had something to eat, don’t remember what. Or may be we ate after coming back.

The mountain from that point onwards was covered in ice and snow apart from the places where it was cleared by people and it was melting too. Water was every where and stone path was very slippery. We walked up carefully to reach the temple. A few workers were preparing for some religious ceremony of opening the temple for visitors, 1 or 2 days later. Tungnath Temple is the highest Shiva Temple in the world at 3860 metres.

View from trekking route

View from trekking route

But our destination was Chandra Shila, peak of the mountain at about 4000 meters. The small path was covered in water from snow melts every where and was a bit difficult to walk upon. Last stretch which was a climb of about 80-100 meters was steep and completely covered in 2-4 inches of hard snow. I followed Pammi’s lead as he hiked up but struggled to keep up. But after a while managed to reach the top. There was a small temple on top of the peak where a family was doing some kind of prayer ceremony. Another very small temple kind of place was built on other end. Didn’t expect that there. But considering the annoyingly prevalent religiosity of people, I should have expected that. As is the norm with all almost all religious people, the plastic bags and sweet boxes were chucked away casually down the hill after their apparently holy religious deed was done. When I asked the purpose, the guy answered that it was for the jungle goddess. Goddess which loves plastic bags and plastic lined cardboard boxes.

Chandra Shila

Chandra Shila

I walked a bit further and rested taking in the views. Chandra Shila is one of the highest peaks in the region and views were really great. Saw a few crows flying at even this altitude and a few pikas on ground. A very strong breeze was blowing at the peak which made even standing there a bit difficult.

After enjoying the views for 20-25 minutes, it was time to go back same way we had climbed up. But on the way, I slipped, landed on my ass and started sliding downwards. On the way, I crashed in to Pammi and he joined me in the impromptu snow slide ride. We managed to stop after a few meters. Nothing was hurt though except for a light snow burn and uncomfortable wet feeling.

On top of Chandra Shila

On top of Chandra Shila

Walk down the mountain was uneventful, except for the fact that we took a shortcut. It wasn’t all that bad since we were going down and reached our campsite in about 80-90 minutes. After a hot cup of tea and snacks and resting our limbs, we went on another walk up the road and came back just before dark. While we were in dhaba, an interesting incident happened. There were two foreigner hippy backpackers, by their attire and looks eating something. They were staying in one of other places up the road. After they paid the bill and left, one of them came back searching for his half full water bottle. He claimed that he had left it there. Dhaba owner, just gave him a funny look and handed him a new water bottle. Few minutes later, that man was back again apologising that he had found his original bottle and gave the new bottle back.
I wonder what would have happened in any other place.
Whenever I am in a place like this, away from city lights, I spend some time star gazing. But the night was cloudy with strong breeze. So I just crawled in to the tent to sleep. We had a longer trek to do next day.

Near Chandra shila

Near Chandra shila

Tungnath Temple

Tungnath Temple

Found this Pika on top

Found this Pika on top

Pammi just moments before I crashed into him

One Pika I found near campsite

One Pika I found near campsite

Next morning, we were supposed to leave at 4:30 am, but managed to do so by 6 am. We had a Tata Sumo driven by a driver named Rana and our guide was Pammi.

Rudraprayag, where Alaknanda & Mandakini combine to form Ganga

Rudraprayag, where Alaknanda & Mandakini combine to form Ganga

There are two ways to do this trek. One is to start hiking from Deoaria Taal towards Chopata till Chandrashila and the other is it’s opposite. We took the second option and drove directly towards Chopata. On the way, witnessed the destruction caused by floods last year. Workers were working almost all along the route to repair the damage but it was huge. Some villages were completely wiped out and vehicles, houses and even bridges were lying toppled over like toys. People are getting too greedy, destroying eco-system and constructed houses and shops wherever they wish without caring about stability of mountains and greenery. A lot of the destruction could have been avoided if the construction was planned properly.

A destroyed village on the way

A destroyed village on the way

After Ukhimath, the area was less populated, greener and cool. We could hear a lot of bird calls but were able to spot only 2-3 of them. Unlike the places which saw significant damage due to floods previous year, this area was spared any such thing. The roads were more or less OK but had a few bumpy stretches every now and then. We reached Chopata a few hours before sunrise and stopped at a two-storied dhaba kind of place run by a family. Pammi’s older brother was already there resting after finishing up a trek with some other trekkers who were relaxing nearby. Upper floor had kitchen and eating area and the lower floors had a couple of rooms with beds for guests. 3 foreigners were staying there already and had just finished Deoria Taal to Chandrashila trek. We had a late lunch and went on a walk down the road. Tungnath Temple was just on top of the mountains we were at but not visible. Entrance to the visitor’s route was half a km from our place and had a few shops. There were a few other dhabas and shops which were still not open for the season. We were lucky to have visited just 2-3 days the temple opened for visitors. Otherwise the place would have been swamped with pilgrims.

Near Chopata

Near Chopata

Here we saw a number of mountain crows which are fully black and bigger than what we have in plains. They seemed to be much less shy and came as close as 2-3 feet of people. I fed them some biscuits and in no time, a group of 8-9 were sitting around cawing for more.

We walked for a couple of kilometers beyond the entrance area down the road. A very strong wind was blowing at the  time and it was getting colder every minute. Almost all trees in the area lean towards a certain direction due to these wins.  Views of the valleys and forests were pretty nice even in low light. A lot of mountains at some distance were

A shepherd and his puppy

A shepherd and his puppy

covered with snow. After we reached back, we huddled around the fire. Even in Rishikesh it was near about 40 degrees, but Chopata was cold. By this time, Pammi and Rana had set up tents and dinner was ready. It was simple meal of daal, chawal etc. After dinner, we took out stuff we needed for next day and went to sleep.