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 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.

I was supposed to write this travelogue last year, but due to work, laziness and website not working, I couldn’t. Now a year later, I don’t remember all the details. So this one will be according to best of my memory and what can I remember from the photos.

Early morning view of river Ganga from Laksham Jhula

Early morning view of river Ganga from Laksham Jhula

I had last visited Rishikesh around 16-17 years back and didn’t remember much of it or places nearby except Lakshman Jhoola and beach near river Ganga. So visiting the place again was almost like visiting it for the first time. To reach there, we took a bus from Delhi and reached Rishikesh at sunrise. We had booked a room in Shiv Shakti Guesthouse near Lakshman Jhula and hired an auto to take us there. It dropped us on other side of the river and we walked across the bridge. The whole thing shook whenever a two-wheeler drove across it just like I remembered. The town was still asleep except a few temple bells ringing. Reaching the hotel, we changed and had a short nap. We woke up hungry and asked owner of the place Nitin for some suggestions. He advised us to check out a few cafes on the street. Unlike restaurants in Delhi and most other cities, eating joints in such places are very relaxed and slow. Guests just relax in their seats, enjoying the view, reading a book, listening to music and their orders take a long time to be ready.Some places don’t have chairs and tables, just some cushions on the floor. With a nice view like river Ganga flowing by, it’s a pretty good way of spending some time relaxing which we did.

 There were many interesting people in such places from all over the world. One of them told us his life story about his life since he discovered India. He worked 4-5 months in Italy and spent rest of his time in India living off his savings.

The day outside was sunny and getting hot. We strolled through the market which is just like most other markets in a touristy place with shops selling silly touristy clothes, knick-knacks, signboards of massages, cooking classes, yoga and so on. In Rishikesh though, Yog and meditation classes outnumber everything else by a fair margin. We kept on walking till we reached Ram Jhula area. The ghat there (river bank) is fairly crowded all day long due to temples nearby. 2 restaurants with a man dressed like a cartoonish pandit sitting on a high chair are popular with vegetarian people.

Welcoming committee

Welcoming committee

We walked to the beach and spent some time there. Saw a lot of rafting boats floating by and people practising kayaking. Kids were making sand castles jumping in water. The river looked placid but the current was very strong. Rishikesh is the place where Ganga enters Indian plains for the first time. It felt nice to stay in the water with the hot sun just above our heads. We walked along the beach for a while and reached the streets just beyond the main road we had walked upon earlier. The area had a a number of small houses, ashrams kind of places and lots of greenery. After reaching back to our hotel for rest and washing up, we considered our options. We liked Rishikesh, but wanted something cooler for a while. Asked Nitin about it and he suggested that we do the 4-5 days Chopata Chandrashila trek. It seemed interesting and he made the arrangements for it for next morning. 

This being done, we walked across Lakshman Jhula to explore other half of the city. On the way, we saw a young white guy playing bagpipes. He lived on the money people gave away and selling some kind of herbal tea. I bought a pack and used it for a while. The herbs were from northern Europe and supposedly helpful with sleep. I’m not much of a connoisseur but it was good.

We found a dhaba kind of place and had dinner before walking back to get ready for next day.

The bagpiper

The bagpiper

This was the last day of our trip and we started the drive back home at about 7 am. After a quick breakfast, we

A little bird making a nest

A little bird making a nest

started the drive back along the same road we had arrived. I tried to catch up on sleep, but the road was too bumpy. On the way, we stopped at Bhuira to visit the jam factory there. It’s is a small village 6-7 km from Rajgarh known for it’s fruit orchards and the jam factory mentioned. Wifey had visited the place during a school trip and  likes their products. Our fridge almost always has a few jams, chutneys and a few other items from this pace. I too wanted to visit the place to see if it could be a travel option for  tour itineraries.

In hindsight, it’d have been better if we had visited while we were staying in Rajgarh as we could have utilised the day better. Anyhow, we visited on a Sunday when the plant is closed but the lady on phone said that we were welcome to visit and pick up some stuff. Some construction workers were busy laying down new road when reached the factory. We were met by caretaker Ramkali who had answered our phone call. She was of great help answering our queries and showing us around. Day being Sunday, no other staff was there except the gardener. The plant was closed for some upgrades and renovation anyway. So even if we had visited on a weekday, we couldn’t have seen the process. But we got a fairly good idea of how things work from Ramkali.

premises

Factory premises

I had gone there without any idea about what to expect but it was pretty nice. The plant is constructed in the village and the area is very green and full of trees of various types. It’s not huge, just a hall where fruits are washed, processed and packed, cold storage unit an office in addition to a beautiful garden and a house. There are 30-35 women working in the plant who are all from nearby villages. According to Ramkali, working in the plant has helped them raise their standard of living and empowered them. A lot better than the “empowerment” Rahul Gandhi keeps talking about. All the products, jams, pickles, preserves etc. are made by hand in hall. There are a few machines for  steaming, cooking the fruits. The plant is eco-friendly as the water used to wash the fruits is recycled and used in the garden. Instead of fertilizer, they use compost. This stuff was in the factory garden, don’t know if the orchards they source fruits from follow the same practice or not.

Ramkali

Ramkali

We bought a bunch of jars at some discount and went on our way to reach Solan at about noon. Met rest of family and started driving towards Delhi. On the way, we first stopped in Ambala . There is one famous Mohan Bakery, a few minutes drive from the college where we stopped to pick some really good Swiss Rolls . Next stop for snacks was Sharma Chaat where we had Gol Gappas with 7 different flavours like guava, jasmine, heeng etc and some chaat.

In evening, we made another stop at Murthal, where we had some paranthas for dinner. I had heard a lot about the place, but never been there. Early on, there were only 1-2 dhabas, but now they are lined up by the dozens. I had an onion parantha served with copious amounts of fresh butter. 2 paranthas are usually enough to fill up a normal person. After meal, they got us some orange and cola flavoured toffees, the same kind we used to buy for 10-20 paisa apiece a very long time back. It’s hard to find them these days, but a shop in the premises was selling them and we bought some of those.

Some stuff we bought

Some stuff we bought

Rest of the journey was uneventful. Passed the same mess I had mentioned in 1st part of this series to reach back home at about 11 pm. The temperature at night in Delhi was higher than the day temperature of every place we stayed in Himachal. After being on road for 13+ hours,  it hardly mattered.

Last photo of the trip

Last photo of the trip