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 Chandrataal and the short distance of hardly one kilometre to the lake 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 Chandrataal enjoying the glorious views over the crescent lake.
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, the dhaba was named after her. We were told that he has accommodation and therefore very confidently arrived at the Batal in the wilderness; the only place to stay for fifty kilometres either side. It was a ramshackle structure with stones piled on each other, the height of the place barely letting us stand straight. 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. Wind blew fiercely through the gaps in the stone structure. We felt airborne even at seven in the evening. Some local whiskey shots were called upon and we had a gala time with uncle, auntie and the truck drivers who were drinking and dancing. One madman smoked some marijuana joints and consumed 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.
We were awestruck. Night had fallen, Batal was 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. There was no electricity and no sort of lights around. It seemed pitch dark but when the eyes got used to it, I could spot the milky way. It was very cold at 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 and the wind made swooshing sounds. The bed turned out to be almost frozen, we decided to sleep with all our jackets. Bombay guy didn’t even dare get out of his shoes. 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 come and were putting a show for me. It was just me and the universe. I felt so small and free. I wondered how it might have been if we had stayed back in the tented accommodation at Chandrataal.
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. 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.
Have you ever had a sleepless yet memorable night on your travels?