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.

 

-Kashan

Chandratal-Part 2

Thankfully, our decision to spend the night at the mouth of the glacier didn’t backfire, the next morning the snow had hardened up enough for the car to pass through .

We drove on for a couple of miles, before hitting Bhatal, a tiny settlement comprising a grand total of two dhabas and five permanent residents. This junction hamlet is the only rest-stop enroute Kaza and Chandratal.

We stepped in to one of the dhabas, stretched our legs, shared our story, ingested some much needed and completely cooked food.

This is where the real story starts. We had mentioned that we were passing through and were headed to Kaza, to the gentleman who runs the dhaba, but he had recommended that way stay the night, get some rest, check out Chandratal and then head to Kaza. As soon as he said Chandratal and talked about its beauty, something happened and the wheels in all our heads started churning. For some strange reason, we decided we’d head to Chandratal right away, he told us the road was tough, it was a long walk etc. A bunch of healthy and physically superior looking foreigners who had done the trek, the previous day also shared their experience, they said we had to walk for roughly 5 hrs one way.

 

All this however  didn’t seem to matter to us, we were setting a trap for ourselves through our sheer stupidity. I guess in my head I was thinking, if they walked for so long, we could drive there in much lesser time(despite being told that the road was closed). Anyway the long and short of it is, we took off.

We barely went 3kms up the road from Bhatal, when we hit an ice-wall and that was it, we had to go on foot from there on. That should have shocked us out of trance but it didn’t. We were in awe of the surroundings, it was looking wonderful and we had dreams of a wonderful afternoon. Slowly as started walking further down the road, we quiet naturally started feeling hungry, it was only then that we realised, that being the fools that we were we didn’t get anything packed and all we had were two packs of glucose biscuits. Nevertheless, we kept walking, thinking there’d be a tea stall or something at the lake and we’d get by.

 

As we kept going higher, the air was getting thinner, the climb tougher, we slowed down, Soumik was almost dying, his back was acting up. We walked on, and the hills and streams kept teasing us, before every turn it seemed like this was it, every few meters a stream flowed, suggesting that the lake would be behind this hill, but no, there were series of such turns for us to negotiate.

Our spirits finally did break, we had been walking for close to 5 hrs now and the lake was nowhere to be seen. It was around 3 in the afternoon and we had to make a choice, do we walk on until we find the lake or do we turned around and reach the car before its dark. We did neither, we took a power nap.

 

When we woke up a few minutes later, it was warm and sunny, but we decided that it was best we turn around, we were anyway going to come back a few weeks later, we’d be better prepared then and hopefully the road would be cleared by then.

A few minutes into our return, the weather took a turn for the worse, first it was the howling mountain wind, it ways making it difficult to breathe and the strong head wind wasn’t making walking easier either. Then came the clouds, bringing the temperature down and finally rain and snow.

 

We had to make a run for it, else we could’ve been stranded. We were even looking for shelter, a cave, an over hanging, something that would protect us in the worst case scenario, but nothing, zilch, we were out there battling the forces of nature, equipped only with our woolens and some biscuit crumbs.

 

All of us set our own pace, and kept walking, we didn’t talk to each other much, we’d on occasion look up or look behind to see that the rest of us were still alive. Kashan, was in the front and he seemed to keep increasing the lead on Soumik and I, every time I looked up.

I was in the middle, I didn’t sit down to take a rest on the way back, for I knew that if I sat down, I would probably give up. If I had to rest, I did it standing up or leaning against a rock.

Soumik was bringing up the rear and was zombie like, a couple of times it looked like, his legs would buckle under him any minute. Thankfully he kept walking, I could see he was struggling, I stopped and handed him an extra pair of woolens and gloves, he gleefully accepted them and seemed to be doing better. I decided to walk with him, even if it meant slowing down, because I was afraid he’d collapse.

It wasn’t so much that I was concerned about him, it was more to avoid the double effort of walking back if he actually did.

I was reminded of a quote/motto of an army battalion back home (the bisons they were called) in Hyderabad “Bash on regardless” . Guess that was kept me going.

We eventually made it back to the car safely, we were very lucky though, had the weather been worse, who knows what could’ve happened.

While its true that “Darr ke agey jeet hai”, it is no excuse for faux bravery and pure stupidity. Overcoming your fears is good but disregarding common sense and sound advice is not. Always plan well.

 

-Akshay

 

 

 

 

Chandratal-part 1

The Spiti valley is not as popular as the other valleys in Himachal and rightly so. It is not for your average tourist, out on a holiday with chintu, babli and mummyji in tow and those who are slaves of luxuries.

No. This one is for badass travellers, the folks that are willing to tough it out. Those who are willing to take head on whatever nature, the elements and fate throw at them. The rewards are more than worth the trouble. The sights are no-doubt amazing but more valuable are the lessons that Spiti teaches you. I think everybody needs to get their butt kicked at least once in their lifetimes to get their bearings right.

Right, now on to our experience.

 

 

 

 

 

We got off the Leh-Manali highway at Gramphu and made our way towards Spiti,  we had hoped to cross Kunzum La by evening but our first destination was Chattdu. about 20 kms from Gramphu. The road conditions began deteriorating as soon as we got off the highway. We managed to drive through rubble, nallas, pits all on a narrow road no more than 5-6 feet wide and with a drop a few hundred feet on one side. We managed to reach Chattdu safely, it was late in the evening, it had begun to rain and the light was fading. We had asked passers-by  about the state of the road ahead, almost all of them had advised not to go ahead. We however went ahead and surely enough we ended up stranded on a glacier. The front tyre was stuck in an ice pit and it refused to budge. Three men, in light clothing, wearing chappals when it was raining and slippery were definitely not going to get an SUV out.

 

 

 

 

 

 

We tried, we exerted ourselves and did what any sensible person would have done much earlier, wait for help to arrive. Thankfully it did a few a minutes later. A couple of local tempo drivers, came to our rescue, they did their thing and the vehicle was out in a matter of minutes. At that point what we should have done was to check if we’d encounter any more trouble but no, we just shook hands, thanked them and went on.

 

You guessed it right, we were stuck again. Thankfully though it was not as serious as earlier. We couldn’t pass through a sloped road with snow/ice, because the snow had partially melted and was soft and since we didn’t have any snow chains, there was no traction, we kept slipping back. We decided that we wouldn’t take any more risks. We pulled up, tried to cook on a tiny stove in the howling wind. Instant noodles took an eternity and had to be washed down with some rum to keep ourselves warm.

We had the sounds of the river and stars peeking at us through the windshield and the windows for company. We were tired and so we dozed off quite quickly.

To be continued……..

-Akshay

Next part—–> http://www.aglastation.com/2012/06/chandratal-part-2/