Altitude Mountain Sickness (AMS) had already resulted in me being alone after just having entered Spiti from Kinnaur. A stroll in Chitkul at 3450m had caused breathlessness to my co-travellers and the short walk to Nako Lake had proven disastrous. The check post officer in Sumdo complicated matters further by asking them ‘Why have you come to die in this land with no oxygen?’ They had barely been able to sleep in the unknown town of Spillow and lunch at Hoorling was the last attempt they made at fighting it out.
I had been telling them to make an escape from Kaza and perhaps get their oxygen levels checked if their AMS got worse. We chose to part ways at Tabo, and it would be a while till I found fellow travellers. While hanging around Kungri Monastery in Pin Valley, I met a German, a guy from Bombay and one photographer from Shimla. The German guy opted to stay back and teach kids in the village school, Shimla guy left one morning via the morning bus from Kaza to traverse the hair-raising road to Shimla via Reckong Peo again.
Me and the Bombay guy had made our way to Chandratal and walking the short distance of hardly 1 kilometre to the lake from the parking spot was proving to be impossible to cover for him. He drank water and said ‘So near yet so far’ and refused to go further. I walked slowly and spent considerable time at Chandratal lake enjoying splendid views over the crescent lake. It was blissful to walk around the periphery of the lake and soak in the silence and raw beauty.
There were two campsites near the Parking site where a tent cost around 400-500 Rupees per person including food. The number of tented accommodation had more than doubled on my next visit in 2014, and the camps had been pushed back too. I was happy to meet Jamaica there, we spoke about BCMTouring and he didn’t charge me money for black tea. Jamaica runs camps at Chandratal lake. Camping is not allowed near Chandratal as it is a Ramsar Wetland site of International importance.
Read : A glimpse of Spiti in winter
I saw the bollywood movie Lootera recently and these lines have stuck with me : Conversation as it goes between the two main actors in the movie.
Female : If you get a chance to do something else, What would you do? Tell me... Male : I want to see Chandratal before I die. Female : Where is that? Male : Beyond Manali. Deep in the Himalayas. Clear blue waters, and not a sound. None at all?...
Read : A glimpse of Spiti in winter
It became a cold evening with blistery winds as we made our way to Batal. That was the first time I met Dorje uncle and Chandra auntie; Chandra dhaba was named after her. They have since become famous as chacha-chachi dhaba at Batal! Outside the dhaba, there were newspaper cuttings from June 2010 when the army and dhaba wallahs of Batal helped a group of tourists who were stuck here after a freak snowfall.
We were told that he has accommodation and therefore very confidently arrived at Batal in the wilderness; the only place to stay for fifty kilometres either side. In those days, Losar had some common stay options and a PWD rest house. On the other side, Chatru (Also spelled Chhatru) had dhabas where one could sleep in emergencies.
Chacha-Chachi’s Chandra dhaba was a ramshackle structure with stones piled on top of each other, the height of the place barely letting us stand straight. Tarpaulins were being used as a a sturdy roof. Mattresses had been laid out on a bed of stones and we were supposed to share the place with 8-10 other people; mostly truck drivers.
It would cost only fifty rupees per person, Dorje said. That price included a mattress and blankets too. Wind blew fiercely through the gaps in the stone structure. We felt airborne even at seven in the evening. There were a few truck drivers who were drinking and dancing; the Bombay guy also asked for some local whiskey. Even I had a glass or two and we had a gala time chatting up with uncle, auntie and the truckers.
At around 9 pm, one madman truck guy smoked some marijuana joints with copious of alcohol and in one fell swoop grabbed his truck keys and said that he was going to cross Kunzum La at 4551m for some fun. Spiti is a wild land and certainly these are the kind of places where you can almost expect to see inexplicable behaviour.
We were awestruck with the twinkling stars and the incredibly beautiful skies at dusk. Night had fallen, Batal felt like being in the middle of absolutely nowhere and Dorje uncle started telling us stories of a time when a huge group was stuck there in June many years ago as it had snowed closing all roads. The end of the story meant all was well. I now realise that chacha chachi’s goodness have turned them into national heroes!
There was no electricity and no sort of lights around. There were only solar powered torch lights. It seemed pitch dark but when the eyes got used to it, I could spot the milky way. It was very cold as Batal is at an altitude of almost 4000m. I went for a little walk to pee in the open as the moon made an appearance. My ears almost froze, protection from the cap notwithstanding.
Chandra auntie fed us delicious rajma chawal (lentil + rice) until we could eat no more. We were effectively in a parachute tent that swayed while the wind made swooshing sounds. The ‘bed’ turned out to be almost frozen, and we decided to sleep with all our jackets. Bombay guy didn’t even dare get out of his shoes. It sounds hopeless in retrospect and maybe it was the alcohol, but I couldn’t help but laugh at his discomfort!
Check : Top Ten Spiti Experiences
The wind howled, I decided to try and sit and gaze at the stars, sleep being hard to come by. It was as if the stars had decided to put on a show for me. It was just me and the universe. I felt so small and insignificant and free. I wondered how it might have been had we decided to stay back in the tented accommodation at Chandratal.
It was freezing cold as I saw the clock strike midnight, the clouds whisked past the snowy peaks forming pretty patterns and the milky way showed me colours I hadn’t known even existed. Gentle snowflakes fell for a brief moment making me unsure whether I was awake or dreaming! The night was too beautiful for me to attempt sleeping.
I was a little child again, fulfilling my dream of being an astronaut. The moon lake, supposedly the abode of Lord Shiva had commanded the stars to descend on earth. It was magic, only meant for me.
Murakami’s words rang true in that moment :
‘Silence, I discover, is something you can actually hear.’
Good to Know :
Distance between Batal & Chandratal : 14 kms along a dirt road that is motorable.
More details in the A Comprehensive Travel Guide to Spiti Valley