As is tradition, we began our day early and had left home by 4:00 am. The drive till Manali was as unventful, thankfully, as it had been on the past several occasions. Chandigarh was about to bustle when we crossed it at 7:30 in the morning, thus thankfully we avoided the early morning traffic within the city. The stretch from Swarghat to Bilaspur was as pathetic as ever, with slow prowling trucks not giving way at turns and bends. What a horror it is to overtake them! All in all though, it felt as if it was just yesterday when we'd left for our Ladakh trip, driving on the same roads, and it was fun reminiscing about those sweet memories.
Brunch happened at our usual haunt (HPTDC's Hotel Lake View in Bilaspur) at about 11:00 am or so. The drive to Manali took another 6 hours or so. The sky was mostly clear, and it was only when we reached closer to Kullu that it started drizzling. It cleared up again when we entered Manali. We cheked into's Aarti's temple in Manali - The Johnson's Lodge - and then proceeded for dinner at our favorite joint in Manali, Il Forno. The pizzas they serve are truly out of this world! The rest of the evening was well spent trying my hands on some macro shots.
Day 2: Manali - Chandratal: 140 + 4kms. 10.5 hours
We got late in leaving next morning for Rohtang, and managed to leave our hotel only by about 7:15 am or so. I think my intention to take some nice shots of Johnson's lodge only added to the delay in our departure. We just hoped that the traffic further up would not become too much of an issue because of our late departure. The sun was already up by the time we hit the road, and the day was partially cloudy. With the recent rains in the region, the hills were all draped in a lovely shade of green, and the play of sun and clouds added to the charm even more. Thankfully, we had got some sandwiches packed from the German Bakery (the one on the Circuit House road) the evening before. This meant no stoppages before Gramphoo at all.
We were expecting the road till Marhi to be in good condition, and knew that beyond Marhi we were bound to have a bumpy ride, as is usually the case. However, we were quite surprised to see the road in poor condition after Kothi itself. It seemed that the monsoon was particularly harsh this time around on the roads with a lot of landslides. The road beyond Marhi was unimaginable. This was definitely the worst roads we'd seen till Rohtang in all our trips. The final 17 kms were done in 1st gear, sometimes switching to 4WD to ensure proper grip.
It took us an hour to do the Manali - Marhi stretch of about 34 km, and another 1.5 hours or so to do the Marhi - Rohtang top stretch of 17 kms! Such was the condition of the road. A minor traffic jam, by Rohtang standards, of about 30 minutes also increased our frustration and hopelessness of the stretch. This was the first time ever we had been stuck in any jam while climbing / descending the mighty pass, and our delayed departure was to be blamed for this. Finally, at about 10:30 am or so, we reached the top, stopped, took a U-turn for the shot below, and then immediately took another U-turn to proceed further towards Gramphoo.
Thankfully, the descent till Gramphoo was better than the climb to Rohtang, although only marginally. We managed to do this stretch of 15 km in about an hour. A small break was necessary to stretch our shaken selves. After stocking up supplies for the next two days, and with the assumption that the dhaba at Batal might be closed, we proceeded further.
The stretch till Spiti is one of the least inhabited drives I've been upon. Even in the Changthang region one can find Changpas with their tents and flocks. But here, the only people one finds are the locals thriving on running a dhaba on the deserted highway & the PWD guys for road maintenance. Immediately after descending from Gramphoo, the road starts ascending again. The road towards Spiti is less frequented, narrow and has probably never been tarred, but still is in a better state than the Marhi - Gramphoo stretch. The drive is quite beautiful and the beauty lies in the barrenness of the stretch, which some might not appreciate. After ascending for a bit, we again started to descend, with the road now hugging the Chandra river.
Our progress on this stretch was slower than we'd expected. The recently concluded monsoon had been harsh and had taken its toll on the road, with it being marred with potholes, forcing us to keep our speed slow.
A good three and a half hours later, we reached Batal. It was already 2:30 pm, and we had still an hours' drive left till the parking lot of the lake. And another 1.5 hours of walking till the lake itself. We decided not to take a break for lunch and marched on. The last time we had pitched our tent was after dusk, and that had been a disaster of a pitch. This time we intended to do it while the sun was still up. After crossing the Batal bridge, the climb towards Kunzum began. However, we were not supposed to climb till the pass at all. The detour was hardly 3 km ahead, and our heartbeats started to increase. We wondered if reaching till the parking lot would be possible at all, and were quite sure that a challenging 12 km were coming up ahead.
And the road did not disappoint, totally living up to its reputation of being really narrow! There were two points on the 12 km stretch where the road was so narrow that Kiyang barely managed to fit on it! Actually the road itself when blasted / made was not supposed to be narrow, but due to landslides there was a big boulder obstructing a part of the road at one point, and another landslide had led to the road giving way and falling into the river at the second narrow point. The road throughout was quite narrow, and it would be a nightmare if two jeeps were to pass each other from opposing sides. Reversing would be a dangerous maneuver. However, the road is quite straight and one has a good view of at least 2-3 km up ahead. So we were mentally noting down each corner where two vehicles could theoretically cross each other on the narrow road.
It was not long before we reached the "parking lot". We had expected to find a dhaba there, but were disappointed to find nothing, as due to monsoon, the dhaba guys had packed up and left a week back or so. The porter was now getting ready to pack all the stuff to be carried to the camping site, including tent, food, sleeping bags, etc, weighing in all close to 20 kg... the horrible part was that the porter was none other than yours truly!
The tent weighed about 9 kg, the sleeping bags 2.5 kg each, sleeping mats maybe a half a kilo each. Apart from this, medicines, woolens, food, gas, utensils, water, brandy and what not was in the rucksack. I did not weigh it, but it must've been close to 20kg, could've been more. It had been a while since my workout regime had been thrown out of gear, with swimming & squash not happening. Stamina was at an all time low. Still I trudged on. Aarti too was carrying a lot of stuff, as much as she could've. A 3.5 km level walk which should've taken not more than 1 - 1.25 hours took us about a quarter shy of 2 hours!
The road till Chandratal used to be till the very end and one had to walk down only about half a km to the lake. That was till an uncomfortable number of tourists realized its existence, and the relative ease with which it can be reached, and hordes of them starting making it a day trip destination from Manali. This resulted in a lot of littering and before long, it was turning into another "Rohtang" dustbin. Thankfully, better sense prevailed, and the road was dug up at several places making it impossible even for a bike to go up all the way till the lake.
The trek would be graded as a "very easy" one. The distance of 3.5 km is hardly anything and there's a moderate ascent from the parking lot, after which one reaches a flat area, but not as flat as a meadow. After this, it is pretty flat or a very gentle gradient at times. And the final half a km is another moderate descent. The walk itself is quite beautiful. We could not click any snaps as we were getting quite late, and thought of capturing it on the way back.
We reached the lake by 5:30 pm and were expecting to find a couple of tents pitched already. Much to our surprise, we could not find even a single soul around! It was getting darker by the minute, and the sun was just about to set. The lake was already under the shadow of the adjacent hill, and it was VERY windy. We decided to get rid of the burden ASAP and took out the tripod and the camera to "make hay while the sun shines". The temperature had plummeted and howling winds had increased the chill factor by at least a factor of 2. Soon after the photo session, it was time to pitch our tent.
The pitch was good, although the howling winds made the outer fly flutter ferociously against the inner fly. We were worried that this would rob us of a good night's sleep, which we later realized was the least of our worries. It was evident from the sound of our chattering teeth that we'd grossly underestimated the cold. Even after wearing all our woolens including gloves, mufflers, caps and jackets inside the tent, we couldn't stop shivering. A long night loomed ahead of us. We decided not to waste any more time and heated our ready-to-eat meal of dal and rice. The warmth of the gas cylinder made the inside of the tent quite warm, and by the time dinner was ready, the wind too had subsided. In fact, as we finished our meal, it became quite calm, so much so that reflections were partially visible in the lake when we went out for a night shot.
Venturing out for a night shot was quite difficult, but that was something that had to be done. Having missed the full moon night by just three days, we knew that moonlight would be sufficient for some good photography. We managed to take as many shots as possible before we could not take the cold any longer, and then zipped ourselves inside the tent to worry about how we were going to endure the night. Although the wind had subsided, the temperature plummeted to -4 to -8 during the night. Even with all our woolens plus the sleeping bag, we were still feeling cold. Sleep came to us both in half an hour to one hour bouts, and we had to light up our stove about 6-8 times during the night to increase warmth inside the tent. Thus we waited for dawn to happen, and move out for some more shots. I prayed for the lake to be still...
Day 3: Chandratal - Manali: 3.5 kms (hike) + 140 kms (drive) - 11 hours
We woke up at 5 am, immediately lighting up the stove for some warmth, as the realization that the time had come to invest in -20 degree C grade sleeping bags dawned on us. Finally, tired of trying to force myself to get some more sleep, I gave up at about 5:30 am, and peered outside to find dawn happening. I could feel that there was no wind whatsoever, and hoped to see the lake absolutely still. I knew Aarti was not going to venture out till the sun was shining brightly, so I thought to do a circumference walk of the lake all by myself.
The lake looked beautiful and absolutely still. Thus, needless to say, the reflections were spot on. I would not blabber more about the beauty and let the photographs speak for themselves.
It was a lazy stroll around the lake, and I made sure that I stopped at each point where I thought I might get a different angle to shoot the lake, and it was only by 8:15 am that I reached back to the camp site. A couple of locals, and some Israelis had reached the lake by that time and had started to take pictures. After saying hello and socializing a bit with all, I returned to the tent to find Aarti wide awake. We both strolled out, lazed out in the sun a bit, and took some more snaps. The decision to head back towards civilization, and not camp again the next night, was unanimous. We both agreed that the night had not been comfortable, and it would be best to move towards Manali, though there was absolutely no rush. So, after idling some more, and devouring a breakfast of toasted bread and cheese, we started our trudge back towards the parking lot. The luggage sadly seemed even more heavier this time.
Day 3: Chandratal - Manali: 3.5 kms (hike) + 140 kms (drive) - 11 hours - Part 2
The trudge back towards the parking lot, from the lake, began at approximately 11 am and the lack of a good night's rest was evident to both Aarti and me. The walk itself, which took us 1:45 hrs while going towards the lake, took 2:15 hrs while coming back. We took breaks every few minutes, and each step required a mammoth will, especially with the load we were carrying. Our valiant steed, Kiyang, awaited our arrival at the "parking lot". There were other tourists too who were waiting for other team members to come back from the lake so that they could commence their journey towards Manali. The group comprised of a driver, guide and about 6 odd people from Israel.
Crank! Kiyang refused to start. Another crank and it refused again. My heart sank and mind went numb. The car had been standing in the sun since morning and yet it had refused to start.
The fear of getting stranded there was mounting since the others had planned to leave soon now. The driver of their taxi was getting quite impatient. Then it was Aarti who came up with the brilliant yet simple idea of heating some water and pouring it over the engine block. It took a while to boil water in a pan, but once it was poured over the engine block, Kiyang immediately sprang back to life. After a 15 min idling of the engine, we thanked our stars and others profusely and we proceeded towards Batal for lunch. The drive till Batal was again on a very narrow track upon which we had came. It is indeed awesome to have a great travel partner, if one loses one's calm, the other one is there to think straight.
We crossed Rohtang while there was still some daylight and after a miserable drive till Marhi, smooth roads greeted us. We finally reached our destination for the night - Manali - by 8:30pm. Had a good dinner served by Roberta at Il Forno and relaxed away to glory at Johnson's lodge.
Day 4: Manali - Delhi: 590kms - 12.5 hours
Well I can hardly remember now what happened during our drive back. I do not remember the details of the route now though.
I do remember reaching back home by 12:30 am. So by reverse calculation must've left Manali by 12:00pm, and I now remember, after having a hearty brunch at a riverside cafe in Old Manali. We had gone upto Il Forno for brunch but only to find that it opens for lunch at 1:00 pm or so, so we then headed in the direction of Old Manali.