Snow covered peaks, impossibly high mountains, 5 shades of blue and clear skies. I promise I’ll be back.
I’m a dreamer and a bit of a restless soul, a city-bred girl who spends most of her time looking for a way out of the city. However, the reality is that my wallet allows for much less travel than I would like and as a result I just end up taking virtual tours. It’s an almost painful exercise of looking at places that could serve as an escape and fantasise about being there. I have a list that’s growing by the day. It was during one of these online excursions that I stumbled across a picture of beautiful Chandrataal, the high-altitude lake located in Spiti district of Himachal Pradesh, at 4300 meters! I remember looking at the reflection of the mountains in its crystal-clear waters and thinking, “I really need to be there.” I was fresh out of college, and finally had the time to scratch (some of) my travel itch.
I planned on making the trip alone; I’ve done my fair share of solo trips, but never to a place as far and intimidating as the Himalayas. My excitement trumped my fear and three weeks and several reassurances later, I was on a plane to Delhi from where I would make my way to my first stop - Manali.
With my travel buddies at Kunzum Top
I had a ten day window and I planned my trip in such a way that it ended with the trek to Chandrataal. I spent a couple of days acclimatising in Manali and Vashist, a small village 5 km from Manali famous for its hot springs. I had booked myself into a hostel and was staying there until I could find a ride to Kaza, located in the heart of Spiti Valley.
Navigating the mountains by yourself is no easy task, and I suppose the other solo women travellers, (a surprising number) felt the same way. Before long I found two others who were going in the same direction, and thank God for the company. The 200 km journey took us almost 12 hours on some of the most dangerous roads that I have ever seen! My heart was either in my stomach, or lodged in my throat for a majority of the ride; death seems like a certainty when you’re staring down the side of the mountain road and a wheel is threatening to slip off. But when I was not hanging off the side of the road, the view was majestic. Nothing can prepare you for the vastness of Spiti. Pictures cannot do this beautiful barren land justice. The hills are higher, the sky is clearer and the stars are brighter than most us have ever seen. Half a day and a solid backache later, we checked into one of the two hostels that operated there.
The hostel is the place that enabled some of my favourite memories. I arrived in Manali alone, but by my last night in Kaza, I might as well have been travelling in a group. I met so many people from so many different places who wanted to do the same thing - explore. Several beautiful friendships began there; they were my companions on visits to monasteries, my guides in a strange and deserted land and a hand to hold when the mountains overwhelmed me. When you’re the only person around for miles (Spiti has a population density of 2 people per sq km), and the only thing that you can see is one mountain after another, you cannot help but feel completely and utterly insignificant. Your footprints are of no consequence in a land that has remained unchanged and untouched through the passage of time, and that realisation is in equal parts scary, and wonderfully humbling. We explored villages together, climbed the slopes of the mountains to gaze at the Milky Way (yes, the galaxy) and the shooting stars that floated across the night sky, and drank Old Monk to keep ourselves warm in the numbing cold that came with the setting of the sun.
Trekking through the valley
I still remember the last night; fourteen of us around a table in the courtyard drinking and smoking chillums to keep warm, and making plans to keep in touch regardless of where we found ourselves after. It was during this session that the topic of Chandrataal came up. While I was already packed and ready to go along with a couple of others, our new found camaraderie (and the booze) convinced more to join us, making it seven in total.
The next morning, cold and hungover, we made our way to Batal, one of the entry points to the lake. What awaited us was a 10 kilometer trek, on barren and windy roads, not to mention the 10 kgs (at least) of luggage that we were carrying. I’m not going to lie, I stopped every half kilometer to catch my breath and contemplated the state of my fitness at least a hundred times. The sun is sharp and the wind is sharper, and neither are friends to your lungs. Streams flowed by the side of the road, fed by the snow littered high on the mountain tops that were so close that we felt like we could reach out and touch them if we wanted to. A few had made their way to base camp on a bike, while two others hitched a ride, leaving me and a couple of boys from Indore to trek our way there. Several breaks, rude tourists and a couple of hours later, we dragged ourselves into the camp and headed straight for the hot Maggi that was waiting for us.
Chandrataal base camp
The camp is about four km away from the lake, so we decided to catch our breath and refuel before we embarked on the last leg. It was cold, colder than you can imagine. The chill seeps into your bones and settles there, driving out all the warmth and leaving you a shivering mess. And this is all while the sun is high up in the sky! With the intention of watching the sunset by the lake, the seven of us set out on a short trek.
Three km in, we got our first glimpse of the lake, and what a view it was! You could identify at least five different shades of blue, and the closer we got, the number of hues increased. 800 meters at its deepest, Chandrataal is just phenomenal. I have never been in a place that has felt so surreal; the snow covered peaks, the coarse grass, the evening sun, the impossibly high mountains and blue skies painted a picture that was nothing short of magical. In a single file, silhouetted against the setting sun, we finally made our way down to the banks of the lake of the moon. I was in awe! The kind of awe reserved for experiences that captivate your soul. I looked at the people I had made this journey with, strangers a week ago, and felt so much gratitude to be sharing this with them. We took our photos, the best we could without removing our hands from the warmth of our gloves, and spent the entire time hopping from one foot to the other in a futile attempt to stay warm. A rather adventurous friend decided that he wanted to take a dip in the frigid waters and even though the rest of us advised against it he stripped and jumped, while the rest of us held our breath.
Watching the sun set
We decided to head back to base camp and the walk was more like a jog; we needed to reach the warmth of our tent before one of us collapsed from the sub-zero temperatures and fierce winds. We tried starting a fire to warm our frozen toes and fingers, but the wind seemed to have other plans and after a couple of failed attempts, we piled into the tent that we were sharing. It was like a giant, fluffy sleepover. With chocolate and conversation flowing, it was in the relative warmth of the tent, with the wind howling and threatening to blow us off the cliff, and in a tangle of limbs and endless blankets, that I made some very special friendships, ones that continue to this day.
I’ll be back!
To the places that I saw and the mountains that welcomed me so lovingly, I promise I will be back, over and over again. To the rivers, the mountains, the clouds, the stars and most importantly, the people I shared them with, thank you for making me a part of something bigger.
1. Chandrataal is a high-altitude lake located in Spiti Valley
2. Stay in Kaza for easy access
3. Best time to travel is between June and October, when roads are accessible
4. It’s sparsely populated, so do some research on how to get to places.
5. It’s VERY cold, and supplies are not easily available, so make sure you’re prepared.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are independent views solely of the author(s) expressed in their private capacity and do not in any way represent or reflect the views of 101India.com.
By Nikita Neti
Photographs by Nikita Neti