The Illusion Called Chandratal

There is a very fine line between courage and stupidity.

We were poised to reach Kunzum La, from Manali, in one day. The drive through the Spiti valley is not a pleasant one for the car as well as the human vertebrae. There is no tarred road and the unpredictable weather means that it can rain, or even snow, at any given time of the day, month or year. But being the daredevils that we are, it all sounded like a cakewalk. Reaching Chattdu late in the afternoon should have been reason enough for us to not carry on (not to mention the bunch of people who instructed us not to go ahead in the night), but we marshaled on.

It was raining. The light was fading fast. And the numbers of snow cut roads were increasing with every turn of the valley. Finally, the inevitable happened. The car refused to pass through one of the many patches of snow, the front tire stuck in a ditch of icy stones. [A friendly advice to all the fellow travelers stuck in a similar situation – wear your warmest clothes and get out of the car. There is no point testing the weather outside while trying to push the heavy vehicle.] Three people could do nothing with the heavy car and finally we gave up, deciding to wait for help that would arrive only in the morning. But help arrived sooner than expected and a bunch of local transporters came like angels from heaven and helped push our now frozen car to safety. Sensing the divine presence of Moses under the pitch black sky over populated with stars, we drove ahead.

But not too far, there was another stretch of snow covered road ahead which we sensibly decided not to risk. The car was parked off road, and the stove was taken out. The wind made sure that the 2-minute snack took an hour to cook. We ate, we drank a little for the warmth, and said goodnight to the wonderfully star lit surroundings, which we hoped would evolve into a whole new world in the morning light.

And so it did. The morning was full of bird songs and a calming silence that only the mountains can provide. We drove on to Bhataal, a two house long village that is nothing more than a stop over to Kunzum La. After a hot meal and some tea, we were advised to trek to Chandrataal instead of going to Kunzum La. And we obliged.

There is a very fine line between courage and stupidity. And this line gets even thinner when you have spent a cold night in the middle of snow strewn mountains with a bowl full of over al dente maggi for dinner.

The facts stated that it takes 4.5 hours to reach Chandrataal on foot, a total of 9 hours to and fro. And since we were this far into the wilderness it would hardly make sense to just stay for a few minutes and head back, so add another 2 hours at the lake. That makes it 11. If we start at 10 in the morning then the chances of us returning during daylight is, well, nil. And we are no trekkers either, just lazy city people. But these are mere facts, meant for people with a more practical bent of mind. Not us, the ever romantic souls searching for paradise. So, we went ahead.

The walk was beautiful. The valley stretched till the horizon and the skies were open with freckles of white clouds painted on it with disdain. There was water flowing in tiny streams at every few yards and the adjoining land was a green patch of wet grass. There were small flowers growing in these oases, yellow coloured ones. Biting into one I realized how sweet they were, almost nectar like. Please do try if you ever venture this side of the world. Everything seemed a little surreal. The trek was giving an adrenaline rush that was making things more unique. It was so mesmerizing that the anticipation of Chandrataal grew stronger. After 5 hours of a well paced walk we were still a few kilometers from the lake. Tired legs were playing catch-up with the airless lungs. And the landscape was such that we could only see a few meters ahead, with no sighting of the lake to give us impetus. The clouds were building up for their evening dance as well. One of our comrades looked like he was in a trance, walking like a zombie getting more unaccustomed to his surroundings by the minute. Everything was looking bleak and the future was looking tense. It might have become a question of life and death in a couple of hours. A decision needed to be made – whether to trudge on or to retreat.

I have no shame in admitting that we lost. We came back. Chandrataal was never seen. We still hear stories about how beautiful and magnificent the water body is, and wonder if we could have been just a stone’s throw away from it.

Well, we will see the damn Chandrataal some day for sure. Maybe the next time we will start at 6, carry some camping gear and even spend the night by the moonlit lake, singing songs of yore and eating perfectly cooked maggi.