Friday, September 20, 2013

Chandra Tal - Aug 2013

There is no public transport to Kaza and the Spiti Valley from Keylong, the district headquarters. My options are to go to Manali and then backtrack 60 km over the Rohtang Jot or to take my chances at Gramphoo where the road to Spiti branches from the Manali – Keylong highway.

Reaching Gramphoo by mid-morning, I find that I have missed the bus to Kaza by a few minutes. That is the only bus to Kaza for the day. I must try my luck with passing vehicles if I am to get anywhere today. It is ages since I have hitched rides and I hesitantly try to flag vehicles down. After a few rejections - the drivers are invariably polite and indicate why they can’t take me – a truck stops for me and I run and climb into the cabin

My destination is not Kaza, but Chandra Tal (see map), a lake at an altitude of  4290 m situated in the Chandra Valley a dozen or so km off the Manali - Kaza road. The truck is heading further ahead to the village of Losar to pick up a load of Green Peas and bring it to the markets.

We drive on a rough un-tarred road that follows the Chandra River upstream. Near Keylong which I have left behind, the Chandra meets the Bhaga becoming the Chandrabhaga and eventually the Chenab. 

A gang of workers is clearing rocks falling on the road. From their appearance, they seem to be from the eastern states; poorly clothed, without shoes, they are working with bare hands and shovels. Coming up to the truck, they ask the driver for bidi’s which he obliges them with.

We cross several streams that are flowing over the road where the driving gets tricky as the mud and gravel has been washed leaving a bed of large stones. Eventually, the road descends to the river; we cross over to its right bank and stop at the small settlement of Chatru. ( For trekkers, it will of interest to know that the Hampta pass trek from Manali over the Rohtang range ends at Chatru) The driver gets out, inspects the truck and then breaks the news that he cannot proceed further as his truck needs a major repair that will take time.

An oil tanker is standing just ahead facing the same direction. I approach the driver – a turbaned Sardar - for a lift and he agrees to take me, but his truck engine refuses to start up. Across the road, the Kaza - Manali bus has just pulled up and the Sardar seeks the help of the bus driver. My luck holds, for together they manage to get the truck started and we are on our way. Minutes later, on approaching a fork in the road, to my consternation, the driver asks me if I know the way – it appears that this is the first time he is driving down this road!

The road follows the right bank of the Chandra staying on the river’s edge and mostly level with it. And what a road it is! The surface is of pebbles shaped by flowing water and rocks smashed into stones by human hands. Large boulders encroach arbitrarily. Streams take possession of it for lengths where convenient. Jagged rock faces and irregular overhangs accompany sharp curves hugging the mountain side.

The tanker loaded with 8000 liters of diesel heaves and wobbles and jerks as the driver dances with the steering wheel to keep the vehicle out of grievous harm and under control. Every now and then, after a difficult maneuver, Sardarji turns and looks back at me with a wide grin and a gleam in his eyes, wordlessly asking “how was that?”

Where the going is relatively easier, I get a chance to talk to the Sardar. Malkiat Singh works for a transporter who hires his trucks out to Indian Oil. The diesel consignment originating in Ambala has to be delivered at Kaza. Normally the route used to get there is NH 21 that passes through Kinnaur, but after the flash floods of June 15th, that route has been closed though more than 2 months have passed; hence he has to take this road which does not deserve to be called one. Malkiat roundly curses the truck owner for sending him on this trip without bothering to find out if the road is suitable for heavy vehicles.

Home for Malkiat is a Patiala village, where his wife and two children live with his extended family. The daughter excells in studies at the English medium school, while the son is more interested in the farming than in study, he tells me. Home is a land of plenty with fertile fields and high milk yielding buffaloes; when he gets home, he does not feel like leaving on another trip. However, leave he must. Malkiat has spent 25 years on the road driving oil tankers.

It is late afternoon when we arrive at Batal, a settlement with two dhabha’s and a PWD guest house. After sending me off to have lunch, I notice that Sardarji remains in his cabin. From the distance it appears that he is gulping a drink from a small bottle. The trekking path to Chandra Tal starts not far from here, but after listening to local advice, I decide to stay at Batal for the night and attempt the trek the next morning. 

View from the ridge - Batal
Meanwhile, Sardarji has found another truck that is headed for Losar that can give him company. It turns out that it is the same truck that I rode till Chatru – its repair having taken less time than originally anticipated. It is time to say goodbye and Sardarji peremptorily rejects my offer to pay for the ride.

I have several daylight hours to spend in Batal and ask the owner of Chandra Dhabha, Dorje Bidh for ideas. Dorje points to a ridge just behind the PWD guest house that affords a panoramic view of the Chandra Valley and I decide to go up. He also indicates a route that has been taken by army javans searching for the wreckage of an aircraft. (I later read in the newspapers that the army expedition to 
Chandra River and the road to Kunzum La
the Dhakka glacier in the Chandrabhaga range concluded the next day with the recovery of the body of 1 soldier from the 1968 crash).

A strong wind blows continuously, raising the earth made loose by my footfalls in clouds that swiftly dissipate. It threatens to throw me off balance as I walk on the ridge. Flocks of fork tailed swifts busy pecking away on the bare slopes fly away in a swarm as soon as one of them detects my presence from afar and raises an alarm. I make my way back to the dhabha mainly to escape the unpleasant wind and content myself with short sorties to take pictures of the horned larks and wagtails foraging about outside.

The Chandra dhabha is a hive of activity. Dorje and his entire family - his wife, son and daughter-in-law – and their two young helpers are busy cooking, serving the guests or taking care of his toddler grandson. The satellite phone – with a charge of Rs 6/min for calls anywhere in India – is extremely popular and even BRO personnel come in to use it. A couple of solar powered LED lamps light up the dhabha and I settle down in a cozy corner to stretch and read.

I am up and ready early next morning, waiting for a ride up to the top of the Kunzum Pass from where the trek route to Chandra Tal begins. It turns out that a truck carrying gas cylinders that I saw under repair yesterday has been fixed and will soon leave for Kaza and the driver agrees to take me. The top of Kunzum Jot is only 11 kms away but 500 m abbove Batal.

Kunzum Jot - Prayer flags & low clouds
The old and battered truck struggles to carry the load up and I know from an earlier conversation that it has to negotiate 22 hair-pin bends. At every left hand bend the driver is unable to turn the vehicle around at one go; the vehicle comes up against the hill side before completing the turn, has to be reversed towards the cliff edge and then propelled forward on an upward slope – a difficult operation with a fit vehicle but positively perilous on this loaded truck with its protesting engine and gears that engage only after repeated attempts. 

The driver holds his cool though I can see his assistant getting tense when the truck sometimes refuses to move forward after being reversed. It takes an hour to cover the 11 km to the top and the driver takes the customary loop around the Stupa’s on Kunjum Jot, stopping to offer his prayers.

The track leading towards Chandra Tal is clearly visible on the other side of the entrance to the Stupas. At a dhabha behind the Stupas, I learn that the track is clearly marked and that Chandra Tal will become visible from up above along the way.

Road winding to Spiti
It is an overcast morning. Clouds come rolling over the Kunzum Jot and soon envelope the Stupa’s behind me. To my right, I can see the road winding down from the pass and the waters of the Spiti in the far distance. After a short climb, I am on a ridge from where I can see glimpses of the Chandra River on the other side through the fog. From this point onwards, the path is more or less level and follows the contours of the Chandra valley. 

For short periods, the fog lifts across the Chandra Valley revealing an incredible sight – a broad and massive glacier winding down from the clouds, turning at lower heights into a meandering silver stream before tumbling into the Chandra. A strong wind carrying fine droplets tears at my umbrella. When the fog clears, the wide basin of the Chandra with numerous silver streams snaking through presents a striking picture.

Chandra river (to the left) and a small pond near Chandra Tal

A sliver of blue streaking the grey-brown hills ahead is the first indication of Chandra Tal. Weary after nearly 4 hours at walking at nearly 4500 m elevation in the tearing wet wind, I am instantly energized by the sight and increase my pace.

To the west, another gigantic glacier in the shape of an inverted funnel comes into view straddling the area within a semicircle of peaks hidden in the clouds. And mountains with many hues – grey to chocolate brown to black – with icing of snow under a veil of wispy clouds. To the east, the mountains look like the ramparts of a medieval fort far more impenetrable than any designed by humans. I make my way to the camping site with colorful tents and after making arrangements for the night with a tent provider, head for the Tal.

A board announces that Chandra Tal wetlands are a Ramsar (International protected wetland) site and lists the birds that can be seen in the area. The lake is oblong in shape stretching north-south. It takes on a light blue color under the overcast sky, contrasting sharply with the pink-grey of the steep hill bounding it on the east. 

A fringe of grass grows along the lake shore. The waters are clear and show up the rocks and pebbles near the shore. A strong wind blows north driving waves towards the flat marsh at the lakes northern edge. Near the northern edge, the pink – grey eastern slopes have been sculpted smooth as slides by nature. I take a slow walk around the lake, completing the last part in a light drizzle. Only a few hours later, the sky is full of stars with the Milky Way showing itself in full glory.

I wake up and peep outside the tent to see a low dark threatening cloud cover; I am going to miss the sunrise over Chandra Tal. It is not long before I am walking towards Batal, this time along the jeep road that stays close to the Chandra River. The strong cold wind with the light rain makes the walk very uncomfortable. My hands become numb with cold and my clothes become damp. I find it hard even to open my rucksack to pull out my breakfast. Three hours later, I am just in sight of the intersection with the main road when the bus from Kaza towards Manali passes by. I have missed it by a couple of minutes. After another half hour of trudging, I cross the river to arrive at the Chandra dhabha at Batal. It feels like arriving home.

The Chandra upstream of Batal
A change of clothes, hot tea, the delicious rajma chawal and the bustle and familiar faces of the dhabha revive me. Then Dorje breaks the bad news - vehicles have not come from Manali because of damage to the road after last night’s rain. I do not have much time to dwell on this before in walks Malkiat Singh! I can’t believe my eyes. We greet each other as long lost comrades.

Soon we are back on the road. Malkiat is optimistic that the road will open up by the time we reach the damaged section. The main obstacles we encounter on this journey are large herds of sheep that we must overtake without crushing any of the stragglers under our wheels. At Chatru, we pull up behind a long line of vehicles that include an ITBP truck carrying javans, a BRO vehicle and a police jeep. The news appears to be bad.

A section of the road a few km ahead has been washed away by a mountain stream and heavy earth moving machinery is required to restore the road. This section is under a detachment of the BRO that is headquartered in Keylong and they have not responded though they should be aware of the problem by now. The word going around is that the breach will not get fixed for two days, tomorrow being a Sunday. I start to get a bit worried as I do not relish the thought of spending two nights here.

There is a crowd collected around a man driving an SUV who seems very animated and is continuously on the phone. I learn that he is a wholesale merchant dealing in green peas and that his consignments of peas from Losar are stuck here and that he will suffer a big loss if he does not get them to the mandi by tomorrow.

A Pika (Himalayan Mouse Hare) at Chatru
After unsuccessfully trying to get the road repaired, he is apparently arranging additional trucks on hire that will drive up to the breach on the other side. The sacks will be unloaded on the near side of the breach, carried by foot across and loaded into the empty trucks on the other side.

I almost force myself into the merchant’s car on his next trip to the site of the breach. There is furious activity on here. Trucks are lined up facing opposite directions and a line of workers are picking up bulging gunny sacks on one side, crossing the stream on makeshift planks and loading the trucks on the other side. A couple of men who appear to be merchants direct the workers.

I cross the stream getting my shoes completely wet in the process. The Police Officer from Kaza has got here before me and is waiting for a police vehicle from Koksar to come and fetch him. I find him extremely good natured and friendly and he offers to take me in his vehicle. We must have waited an hour and there is still is no sign of the police vehicle. Raju – as the police officer introduces himself to me – decides to travel in the truck carrying peas and he makes sure that I am accommodated with him in the cabin. Some distance ahead we spot the police jeep and this takes us to Koksar.

For the next few hours, I am Raju’s guest. We are served a nice dinner at the circuit house and given the VIP room to relax in. Meanwhile, the policemen of the Koksar chowki are on the lookout for a vehicle that will take us over the Rohtang to Manali tonight. Raju has to get there by morning and that suits me too. At 10.30 pm, the policemen zero in on a couple of pickup trucks carrying cabbage from Lahoul to the mandi at Ner Chowk. Each truck has place for one person other than the driver in the cabin and both trucks will travel together. It has been raining and the road towards Rohtang is just a field of slush, sometimes so deep that the truck gets no traction. The drivers answer to this problem, is to speed up the vehicle before hitting a bad patch and then slither and slide through it!

As we get into the climb we face another more serious problem that the drivers dread the most. A thick fog has descended over Rohtang reducing visibility to a few meters. There are no crash barriers on the sides of the road or even reflectors to indicate its edge. The road surface does not stand out in any way from the surrounding darkness.

We pass trucks pulled up at the sides. Prudence dictates that we stop and wait for first light. But for our truckers, economics holds sway. They have to get to the mandi as early as possible to get good rates for the load they are carrying. They drive the vehicles on the wrong side, keeping windows open letting in the freezing air and heads looking out pointing downwards rather than in front so that they can make out where the road gives way to the sand verge. At least once, my truck leaves the road before coming to an abrupt stop.

At the top of the pass, one of the drivers decides that he has had enough; Raju moves in with me and the other driver continues the perilous journey, categorizing his partner as being “dheela” (lacking in gumption). By now, he is leading the pack downhill travelling at 20 or 30 km/hr. I have stopped looking at the road for I can see nothing. Instead my concentration is on keeping my tenuous hold of the door so that I don’t accidentally fall over him. Two trucks stick to our tail and our driver says that they are taking advantage of him. We reach Manali town center at 3 am and stop for a tea. Raju’s last comment in the truck is how these drivers are real heroes. I thank and bid goodbye to Raju and settle in a seedy hotel room to spend what remains of the night.

Back home, when I look back on my travels in Lahaul Spiti, more than the beauty of the rugged mountains, giant glaciers and pristine lakes and grand rivers, what stays in my mind are the images of the people of the road who make life possible in this inhospitable land.

Himalayan Trek 10, Aug 2013


  1. Very intersting and Awe some journey kanan. As you lastly said in your blog people in hills are extreamly helpful,lovable.
    You have recorded each and every minute details.

    Dilip patravale
    Co trekker roopkund

  2. Breathtaking...."For short periods, the fog lifts across the Chandra Valley revealing an incredible sight – a broad and massive glacier winding down from the clouds, turning at lower heights into a meandering silver stream before tumbling into the Chandra."

    How do you keep track of locations, passes, roads, directions, streams, rivers when you are trekking alone and it is your first trek to that place? I don't think you would be able to reach the starting point of the trek without the help of people on the road in these regions. Landslide and road blocks for days (not hours) must be real test of patience & endurance of everyone. I start honking if I get stuck for a minute in Bangalore traffic jam...



  3. Breath staking journey depicted in a very awesome manner. Thanks Kannan for sharing your experience.

    - Susanta Kundu

  4. kannan you are true adventurer!!! and I felt goose pimples while reading it....
    Excellent piece