At just a few minutes past 3:30 am, I woke up and started getting ready. Water in shower was very cold at that time. Felt strange wishing for hot water in middle of August. After getting ready, I checked out of the hotel and reached the taxi stand. Tenzin, the driver secured my bag on roof of his Tata Sumo by a rope along with luggage of other passengers and started driving by 4:15. Apart from me, there were 3 Israeli tourists and 4 locals. A local 3 day long festival was just starting that day in Kaza and some of the locals were going there to attend it. I took a seat in back and sat down hoping to doze a little.
But that hope proved to be futile. For 30-40 minutes or so, road was well paved but after that it got bad, helped in no less deal by the recent rains. It was full of rubble and stones due to big and small landslides and the ride was not exactly smooth. I even started to get a little motion-sickness but it wasn’t too bad. After 5:30 am, sun started to come up and one could enjoy the sights. The scenery was beautiful beyond words. We were traveling on mountains and could see dense clouds covering the valley below. Going by the view, we could’ve been flying in an airplane. By that time, road had been completely replaced by a dirt track with mud up to 10-15 cm deep, sometimes even more. Just a few km before Rohtang pass, we got stuck in a jam, but fortunately it didn’t last long.
We stopped in a place called Gramphu for rest and breakfast. There one more passenger joined us. He was Tibetan guy working for WWF in Chandratal (Chandertaal)area. He seemed pretty knowledgeable about local flora and fauna, so it was nice chatting up with him. By this time, I noticed that there were no trees around us, except some small 1-2 meters high shrub like things. Those too were a long way off to have a close look. While coming back a few days later, a local co-passenger told me that the tree is called Chaturbhuj and according to legend, Valmiki wrote Ramayana on bark of this tree. The fact that WWF guy (let’s call him Si) had no idea about that, made me realise that there is no substitute for local knowledge and wisdom.
As we traveled from Gramphu towards Spiti, greenery became rarer till it was just a few small shrubs and grass in isolated patches upon massive mountains. Chandra river flowed along the road and was fed by numerous big and small waterfalls from adjoining mountains. A lot of these waterfalls flowed on the road which was already damaged. At some places we it felt like we were driving over a stream instead of a road. At this point, vehicles were few and far in between and the only sound was the roar of Chandra river and chirping of a few numerous yet hard to see small birds. Owing to altitude (4000m+) and clean air, the sky was a very beautiful and darker shade of blue. No ugly buildings to spoil the view either. You can never see such sky anywhere else. Although the road was nothing more than a dirt track even on better stretches, I hardly noticed it over the outside scenery.
Around 12, we stopped at Batal at the famous Chandra dhaba run by an old couple and their son. There’s another dhaba nearby but it doesn’t seem to be as popular. I thought that they had named it after the river Chandra which flows just a few meters away but later came to knew that the lady’s name is Chandra. They are a helpful and jolly couple who take good care of their guests as well in every way possible. Theirs is the only place within tens of km which has a phone. How they managed to persuade BSNL to install a satellite phone there is a mystery. Oh, I forgot mentioning that there is no cell-phone coverage after Gramphu. There’s no electricity either except generators and solar power in some settlements. Pure bliss :) While I was clicking photos, Si asked me 2-3 times to conserve my camera battery as I wasn’t carrying any spare and there was no way of charging it.
I had a plate of daal-chawal, my first meal of day before we left for Kunzum La. I was expecting some kind of exotic local food but was disappointed. Their main clientèle aren’t very adventurous with their food. A road has been constructed from Batal to Chandrataal, but the distance is 14km while from Kunzum La, it’s a trek of 8.5 km. As I was more interested in trekking, I decided to take the trail from Kunzum La. On the way, a convoy of 9-10 Mahindra Bolero vehicles was stopping the road. Turned out that one of the vehicles had an accident, luckily no one was seriously injured.* They started moving soon after taking the vehicle off road. After noticing Hebrew markings and Israeli flag on some vehicles, I asked the Israeli tourists about it. I was told that this was Desert Queen, a group of adventurous Israeli women which travels around the world exploring deserts. I was impressed.
Si had gotten off in Batal where he had some work and I got off the Sumo in Kunzum La pass. It’s a comparatively flat but picturesque road junction. There is a temple dedicated to a female deity Kunzum. Tenzin, as helpful as always introduced me to a a few people waiting there for a ride to Chandrataal via Batal route. One of the guys turned out to be Jamaica. I was familiar with the name through a forum BCMTouring.com and asked if he was the same guy. I had the impression that he was a tour operator in Spiti, but had no expectation of finding him in Chandratal. Turned out that he operated a camping place near Chandrataal. Another surprise. I thought there was only one or two such places there and I had not decided whether to avail of their services yet. Later, I found out that there were four. Heh. Jamaica advised me to take a tablet of Diamox if I was to trek 8.5km to Chandrataal. I hesitated at first, considering that I had no symptom of any sickness except for that small period before Rohtang. I had taken a tablet for motion sickness soon after, just to be safe.
But I still followed his advice considering his experience. He told me some basic directions about locating his camp which didn’t make much sense to me. According to him, the 8.5 km trek would take more than 4 hours. I was incredulous at the 2 km per hour speed. I wasn’t there on a slow-walk competition with a snail. That Desert Queen convoy soon caught up with us and the women alighted excited and shouting loudly. So much for the peace and tranquility. I put my rucksack on my back, tightened the straps and left on the trail to Chandataal 1-2 minutes later. After walking for 10-15 minutes, the road was still visible for a long distance with only 2 vehicles in sight for a long time. The sun was shining brightly but a stuff breeze was blowing. After 1 km or so, the rocky mountains had very little vegetation. The area was littered with small and big pieces of slate like rocks all over, most of them red and black. Only if it was a red morning or evening sky, it’d have looked a lot like a Martian landscape.
After walking for 50-60 minutes , I stopped to rest. That heavy rucksack combined with unstable rocky path wasn’t making walking any easier. After mostly flat ground, the path turned rocky and undulating pretty quickly. This kept on repeating every 1-2 km for rest of my trek. Sometimes, the trail was broken up by ridges carved out in the mountains by waterfalls, landslides or glaciers. Climbing up and down those rocky ridges was the hardest and most tiring part. As there was no firm foothold on the loose rocks, people have to be really careful while walking on them. I had a glimpse of a grey water body, shimmering in bright sunlight. It looked so different from Chandrataal and I was confused. I was told that the lake should’ve been visible by now but it didn’t look like anything in the pictures. But after walking further, a portion of dark greenish blue lake came in to view, driving away the confusion. Nestled between mountains, even the partial view looked so beautiful from distance.
Till now, only sign of life apart from small shrubs were some small insects and harder to spot sparrow/finch like birds. Around 2:30 pm, I spotted a herd of goat and sheep, guarded by a pair of dogs but with no shepherd in sight. The dogs, one of which was a strange red colour were 100 meters away from me and paid no attention, but the flock was directly in my path. They kept staring till I reached close and then ran away in all directions. Then I noticed Si walking a few meters behind me. Catching up, his first remark was, ” Hey, you’re walking so slowly !”
I thought, ” Right you idiot. Let’s exchange my 20+ kg backpack with 2 kg bag of yours, then we’ll talk about it.” But it was more than likely that he’d have walked faster even then. I asked him about distance left and he checked his GPS device to answer “approximately 2 miles.”. I thought it was 2 km and that caused a lot of confusion over the next 2 hours. Within a few minutes, he had left me far behind. By then, I had finished up a half-liter bottle of Frooti and was on my only water bottle. Till now, I had seen only dried out seasonal waterfalls and Chandra river with it’s undrinkable water which was a medium shade of grey due to soil erosion. ( No reference to 50 Shades of Grey book, haven’t read it). Even that was far away . By now, I could see some camps in foothills of mountains across the dried out nullah, but there was no direct way to reach there. After walking for some more time, I came across a small grassy meadow like place and lay down to rest. I think I dozed off for a while and woke up with a slight headache and nausea. But a drink of water gave some relief. After crossing 2 more dried waterfall/rockslides, I met a Gaddi shepherd near his dera (camp) and asked him if I was on right trail. He said it was just 2 more km away. Now I realised that Si had said 2 miles not km. The shepherd invited me to rest in his camp and have some tea but I didn’t feel like doing that so soon. I thanked him for the help and walked on.
He had miscalculated the length by more than half a km , as I found out a while later. But by then, I was very tired and was using a trekking pole a lot. The cheap made in China thing was of shoddy quality but was of good use at least then. That taught me not to underestimate worth of a good trekking pole . Somehow I managed to keep on trail and reached the closest camp. Si, Jamaica and two other people were already seated there sipping tea and invited me to join the party. I immediately dropped my bag, camera, stick etc. to the ground and walked over to them. It was a few minutes past 4. It had taken me more than 4 hours to walk those measly 8.5 km. After resting and a cup of hot masala chai, Jamaica helped me put up my tent. I didn’t feel like walking to the Chandrataal Lake just then, so just walked within a few 100 meters of camp site taking in the views. After a hot dinner of daal-chawal, I crawled into my sleeping bag and was asleep by 7:30. It had been a long day.
NEXT: Chandrataal, Samudri Taapoo
*While searching around the net trying to remember the actual name which spelled out like Malika or Malka, I came across a news article according to which one 63 year old woman was killed and 2 other injured in an accident on 26th August. Although they haven’t mentioned it, the place seems to be Spiti. Sad.