It was 8:30PM and two guys in front of a small shack were presumably waiting for us. They must have heard our bikes from afar. Royal Enfields are known for their distinctive and loud noise. They were expecting us for quite some time, it seemed. We asked if they have a place for us to crash the night. Contrary to my fear, their reply was positive. We parked our bikes next to their entrance and went inside the restaurant for some tea. If they still had some fire burning, some dinner. The place was a makeshift shelter with stacked up stones as walls and tarpaulin as roof. But it was definitely better than staying outside in a tent. We were too beat up to untie our rucksacks from the bikes so we ordered some rice and paranthas with Dal. And to celebrate our victory over darkness in trans-himalayas, Bob ordered some Rum. Since the situation outside was critically cold, we decided to take it easy with the Rum. Alcohol and altitude does not mix well together. We finished our dinner and popped open the bottle for a few shots and slowly paced to the sleeping area next to the shack. Hari reached over to his pocket to settle the bill.
"Hey, you have my purse right?" Hari asked casually.
"No, didn't Bob give it to you outside the camp in Chhatru?" I said slowly turning towards Bob.
Bob nodded and reached for his pocket. We sat down and watched him search for it for some time. Our frowns became apparent when his search turned frantic. He had a thousand pockets in his cargo pants but chose to keep the purse in his back pocket on a motorcycle on one of the toughest terrains on the planet.
"Didn't I ask you to hand the purse over to Hari immediately in Chhatru?" I asked Bob.
"Yes you did. But he was far away so I thought I'd keep it." He said without facing us. He knew it would probably end up in a fight as we already had a verbal feud over walking 20 steps and giving the purse to Hari back in Chhatru.
Hari seemed more shocked than disappointed, but was disappointed nevertheless. The reason he did not pester me about the purse during the journey was because he had thought it was with me which was fine by him. I apologised for not handing it over to him myself. The purse had 10,000 rupees and his driving license and a credit card. He was more worried about his purse than the money. We sat down together in shock of what had just happened as we watched Bob check our rucksacks in case he dropped the purse inside one. We poured two more glasses of Rum, neat. Soon we watched Bob go frantic again.
"Hey, your camera bag is also gone!" Bob yelled casually at me.
Maybe it was all a dream. I really hoped it was. But then I saw Hari look at me the same way I looked at him when he was in shock. I stood up and paced myself slowly to the rucksack which was still tied up to the bike. It was my fault. I trusted a stranger I just met online with valuables. There was no point now and dwelling in the past has been something that I had been doing before i embarked on the journey. I snapped out of it and sat down with Hari staring at the darkness outside uttering words of comfort.
"Can I make a call? Does somebody out here has a phone." Hari inquired.
The guys at the dhaba guided us across the road, we followed cutting the freezing wind to a small tent which had an army insignia on it. We were greeted in by a slender man in a uniform who wrote down our names on a dusty old register before letting us use his satellite phone. The price was a steep 10 rupees per minute but the clarity was unbelievably good. While Hari was making the call, I stepped out of the tent to light a cigarette. While I was trying to grip the reality of what had happened, Bob came out and started apologising profusely. Bob was a peculiar living being. He belonged to an elite community where his parents locked him off in a room full of goodies and pot and left him to rediscover life. When I went to Chandigarh to pick him up, I accidentally picked the lock.
"It is not your fault, things like this happen. Do not worry." I told Bob.
It stopped the apologetic spree as he walked out further away from me. I felt better saying that too. But then, in a fraction of a second, he came back storming and as he stomped the ground like a war horse, uttered the words that anyone at that position would not appreciate.
"Hari should have taken his purse in Chattru, I am not the one to blame. He is the one to blame." He said to me smiling, almost like a maniac.
It was not his attitude but it was him tossing blame that got me right to my nerve enough to throw a punch at him. I hadn't felt such a compulsion in a long time. Luckily, Hari stepped out from the tent at that exact moment, of course, unaware of anything Bob had blurted out. It was my turn to make the call home. Since it was my camera and not my life that I had lost on the way, I decided not to tell my parents about it. I cut the call letting them know that I'd contact them once I made it to Kaza. We hit the hay and tried not to discuss much about things that happened just hours ago. It was like a victory that was taken from us by our own mistakes. We finished most of the rum aided by a candle light as we fought the cold inside thick blankets. It took a good half hour for the shack to reach normal temperature but as always, it wasn't good enough for me. I heard Bob mumbling about the cold so we poured him a glass of rum and tucked ourselves inside the blanket. I could not sleep no matter how hard I tried. At about 2 AM, I decided to step out to the toilet. Since I figured that the establishment isn't exactly a star hotel when I could not find one. So I went behind the shack to relieve myself.
That moment was my first encounter with the calming silence the atmosphere had. I took off my gloves and hat to feel the wind but there was none. Just a smack of pure sweet breeze under the moonlight which was unusually powerful without the clouds. Starry night, blue tinted terrain but well lit under the moon. Giant mountains stood erect miles away from me. I spent few more minutes outside and felt the cold disappear. I went back with a smile on my face but everyone was in deep sleep. This refreshing outing I took made me think good thoughts that virtually made me pass out.
We woke up feeling dehydrated and dizzy due to the level of rum in our bloodstream. I slowly ducked out of the exceptionally small doorway to the restaurant and found myself intensely chatting with the host when Hari entered the shack.
The host at the restaurant told me about this lake 14kms away called the Lake Chandratal. I had read about it before but was unaware that it was just a slight detour away from Batal. I quickly shared this newfound information with Hari who seemed excited but hungover. It took us some time to saddle up the bikes and finish our breakfast since Bob had to be woken up and he looked not so well. He had vomited near on the sheets and had covered it up with a pillow, the helper at the restaurant found it just before we left. He did not charge extra for it which was very good for us since we did not have the big money like we used to. We paid almost 1200 rupees for our stay and dinner in Batal, including the rum which is usually very expensive once you leave Manali. We were left with about 2000 rupees which Bob had. We bought some biscuits and left Batal at 9:00AM.
Batal was a good host, but was desolate and we saw barely anyone outside roaming around other than the Army. But as soon as we climbed up, we hoped we had stayed in Batal. Roads were far too worse and this time it was not just the loose mud and gravel, but the elevation was also hitting our bikes hard. At times I felt the climbing power of my bike drop tremendously, but through shifting the gear back and forth and releasing clutch carefully, it pulled us through another 2 kms uphill till we reached a rather small intersection with a signboard that had "Chandratal - 12KM" written on it. I quickly checked my watch. It was 9:30AM and we had a 100kms to cover. The detour to Chandratal was detached from the route to Kaza which meant that we were adding 24kms(from intersection to Chandratal and back) to our trip. There was no time to waste so we headed on towards Chandratal. This was the moment I nicknamed my Enfield. I named her "Damini". She had pulled us and our luggage for over a 100 kms now and was still holding up without any noticeable issues. As I explained the meaning of Damini to Bob, I felt the road narrowing out and saw traffic approaching from the front. There was a steady drop of at least a 1000 ft on the left side and the road could accommodate one four wheeler at a time. So we had to make way for every SUV approaching head on by pulling our bikes up on ledges and steep corners. There were few water puddles and falls on the way but nothing worse than what we had already been through. This newfound confidence let us increase our cruising speed by a lot. Avoiding the rocks and mud on the way we reached a flat road which looked marvellous. I wanted to stop there and take some photos but we were once again running against time.