Thursday, October 9, 2014

Chandratal to Sarchu... a picturesque drive through Lahaul

Goa - Delhi.... the journey begins in the plains

Delhi – Sangla ... journey through the verdant valleys of Himachal

Chhitkul... The emerald green Valley!

Destination Pooh...

Spiti.... journey through ‘The middle land’

Road to Chandratal

Chandratal to Sarchu... a picturesque drive through Lahaul

Lahaul and Spiti are some of India’s remotest regions. Spiti is characterised by completely barren, snow capped mountains in a high altitude cold desert. Sparsely interspersed by small patches of greenery, it has picturesque villages of whitewashed mud and brick houses clinging to snow fed streams and rivers.   

The Spiti valley ends at Kunzumla where Lahaul starts and together, they form the district of Lahaul and Spiti. Lahaul is greener, though it becomes arid and a cold desert as one drives away from Keylong and towards Leh on the Manali-Leh highway. Our exploration of Lahaul started with Chandratal yesterday. We look forward to traversing through to the northern most point of Lahaul with Sarchu being our destination today.

Yesterday, we entered Lahaul via the Kunzumla and saw the beautiful Chandratal. This morning our aim is to make it from Chandratal to Gramphoo before the water crossings become even more hazardous due to swelling waters closer to mid-day. Our tight schedule puts paid to any idea of visiting Chandratal once more in the morning!   

19 Jul 2014. We leave after a quick breakfast by 0630 hrs. Monsoon is making its presence felt in this rain shadow region with the slow drizzle refusing to stop. The fog hugs the mountainsides and progress is correspondingly slower. We cross the bridge across the Chandra and reach Batal. Batal is a two shop and a HPPWD guesthouse place with nothing else around. A couple of bikers are sipping steaming tea in the chill of the morning.

Road from Chandratal

On the banks of the Chandra

The (dirt) road winds along at the river level and what a road it is! The track is filled with jagged rock fragments from weathering like scree and the smooth water worn pebbles and stones. Huge boulders intrude on it arbitrarily. There are uneven overhangs and blind foggy corners when the river is running close and the road rises up the cliffs. Streams take possession of it whenever it is convenient...! There are still snow drifts along the path and at times, the road has been cleared through them or around them. 

Road from Batal to Chota Dhara
Rock scape

Between Batal and Chota Dhara

We cross Chota Dhara and the not so ‘chota’ water crossings thereafter! Driving through the water is rough because the mud and finer gravel has been washed off leaving the larger stones and sharp rock fragments. At one point I see an i20 being driven ahead of us. It stops at one of the large water (almost river!) crossings and the passengers all get out. They wade through the rushing waters and the car is laboriously and precariously driven over with much stopping and pushing. Only after it crests the incline on the other side are the passengers allowed back in. In fact this continues in the next big crossing too but we find some space and overtake this adventurous bunch! The pictures below will give a better idea of the nature of the roads... 

Almost a river crossing!

We reach Chhatru which is the end point of the Hampta pass trek starting at Manali and crossing over the Rohtang range to end here. We cross over to the left bank of the Chandra and the ascent towards Gramphoo begins. The streams still cross the roads with impunity but in between, the road improves. An abundance of tiny colourful flowers in patches of lush green grasses signals the beginnings of a wetter biome. 

Ahead of Chhatru towards Gramphoo

Colourful flowers in grassy patches

White capped water redstart with nesting material

White winged water redstart

On these roads, distances do not count. Time taken for travel is hugely dependent on the condition of the roads, the terrain one is traversing and the magnificence of the landscape which will force numerous (photo) breaks. We take about 4 hours to drive the 50 odd Kms to Gramphoo and we count 36 sizable water crossings on the way!

Gramphoo welcomes us with very heavy traffic creeping through the thickest slush I have ever seen on the roads. I can feel the vehicle slip and slide loosing traction on the stretch. Very dicey with over laden trucks for company!  


Once on the other side, it is smooth sailing. The water crossings are a breeze after what we have just gone through and the well tarred road a luxury! The green all around is a feast for deprived senses. Hypnotic though the charm of the spartan Spiti Valley, Lahaul entices us with abundance... and we are captivated!

Chandra Valley near Khoksar

Henceforth, it is a straightforward route to Sarchu with mostly good roads and even better views.

The Chandra River originates at the glaciers near Baralachla and heads south, flowing past Chandratal, Batal... Chhatru to reach Tandi. Bhaga flows west from Baralachla and then southwest through a series of gorges to emerge near Darcha in a wider valley finally reaching Tandi. At Tandi we see the confluence of the Bhaga with the Chandra. Here onwards, it is known as the Chandrabhaga which gets renamed as the Chenab once it enters Jammu and Kashmir. This stretch through Khoksar, Tandi and Keylong is quite verdant before the drier regions start after Jispa, Darcha and get really bone dry around Zing zingbar and onwards to Sarchu.

Spring, summer and autumn are compressed into just a third of the year in these parts. This time brings new life and it is bursting out with a vengeance. The trees are all luxuriant with new leaves and laden with fruit. The birds are busy feeding the young making sure they get strong enough to withstand the harsh winter to follow. Lunch at Keylong at a roadside Hotel Padma and then off again. 

Bhaga valley just ahead of Keylong

Black redstart chicks

Black Redstart
White wagtail feeding its young

Jispa passes by followed by Darcha, all the while the flora declining to just stunted bushes and then grasses as we head higher towards the mighty Baralachla pass.  Deepak Tal is a glassy turquoise pond near Patseo, a little before we start uphill for the pass. As the road ambles up, a good smattering of snow patches gives a very dalmatiany look to the mountains around. The snow patches get denser as we reach higher and many a times the road has been carved out of the frozen slope. 

Somewhere around Darcha

Ascending the Baralachla

Our Scorpio against the snowy slopes

Suraj Tal, literally the ‘Lake of the Sun God’, is an exquisite emerald green lake bounded on its left bank by the Leh Manali Highway. The lake is fed by glacial melt and its pristine waters form the source of the Bhaga River. Our attention is caught by a little bird with a wavering gait on the snow near the road. It is a Horned Lark juvenile, learning the ropes! We drive just three more kilometres. And we’re at Baralachla (4883 m) ... an exhilarating feeling! 

Horned Lark chick

Suraj Tal

View from Baralachla

Baralachla Top
The other side of Baralachla also has a river flowing down, the Yunam river, a tributary of the Zanskar which in turn joins the Indus. In fact, the pass acts as a boundary between the watershed areas of the Bhaga and the Yunam rivers. 

Picture in picture
The Yunam is just a little sliver on the riverbed contrasting sharply with the dry, rugged terrain around. For kilometres there is no road to speak of, just a dirt track kept distinguishable from the rest of the debris dotted area by the occasional vehicle plying on it. Right there, is a bright splash of red. Turns out to be an elusive Crimson fronted Rosefinch. There are surprises in the most unexpected places!! 

Crimson fronted rosefinch

Just this morning I was overwhelmed to see the abundance that water has bestowed in the southern part of Lahaul. I thought that is glorious. And now I stand awestruck in this dry and desolate landscape where soaring mountains surround a vast high altitude rolling plain through which is a deep gorge and a river flowing through it... We are a little short of Sarchu and these are the Lingti plains where there is virtually no precipitation even in the winters...

And finally, Sarchu! There is virtually nothing in the place except a few tented camps during the summer months and a small army detachment year round. The wind howls making me burrow deeper into my jacket the minute I step out. We take a walk around the place and soak in its unique charm. But nature has been kind in all its adversity. Or maybe it is the stark unspoilt and unpolluted beauty that I am so taken with. Such places need no adornment, no embellishment. Just this raw, unadulterated nature is enough. This is a place one must travel to at least once in this lifetime! 


Snowfall in the higher reaches at Sarchu
This morning started with this grey overhang of clouds accompanied by a drizzle which gives us company till Gramphoo. On and off, it has been with us through the day and by now, the ominous clouds are threatening to open up and the biting wind drives us indoors. In minutes, it is snowing on the higher reaches of the surrounding mountains.

The team is happy to have come this far mostly ticking off all the points on our agenda. The Docs’ have been dishing out AIDS advice and awareness at every opportunity be it tea stalls or remote camps. Tomorrow will be the last leg of our journey when we reach Leh.

The journey continues...   

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Road to Chandratal

Goa - Delhi.... the journey begins in the plains

Delhi – Sangla ... journey through the verdant valleys of Himachal

Chhitkul... The emerald green Valley!

Destination Pooh...

Spiti.... journey through ‘The middle land’

Road to Chandratal

Sarchu to Nimmu.... via Tso Kar

18 Jul 2014. At the crack of dawn I am out trying to check if the weather has turned for the better. It is still drizzling but there is a brightness about the morning which is making me more optimistic. We are going to do Chandratal today either on foot or hopefully, if the access is cleared, by road. 

Picture Perfect, Losar...

A walk around the guesthouse produces a few very tame Hill Pigeons (with the white band on their tails as opposed to our common Blue Rock Pigeons), some Common Rosefinches and Eurasian Goldfinches. A surprising sighting is House Sparrows! At an altitude of 4000 mtrs, I do not expect them but there they are... and fairly abundant at that! 

Hill Pigeon

House Sparrow

One Scorpio has gone ahead at 0600 hrs on a recce trip of sorts and we are expected to catch up at Kunzum top to go together from there. The roads are nothing to write home about but the scenery changes soon as we start the ascent for Kunzumla. The extremely dry and barren mountains give way to a slightly more moist landscape. The Spiti basin narrows as we go closer to the river’s origin at Kunzumla but the valley with shades of pink, beige, grey and dappled with the white of the stones strewn randomly  around the grassy green mountainside makes a striking picture! 

Ascending Kunzumla... the Spiti river valley

We reach Kunzum jot, slightly off the main road and where vehicles take a customary loop to offer prayers. It is an overcast morning.... has continued to be so since Losar. More clouds come rolling in and almost obscure the Stupas at Kunzum Jot. Behind the Stupas and to their right, the track is clearly visible going to Chandratal. 

Prayers in stone

Stupas at Kunzum Jot

As our three vehicles halt there, we see no sign of the advance party. After mulling our options, we decide that one vehicle will go down the Kunzumla towards Batal and check out the motorable road to Chandratal since that is the only other place the other Scorpio could be. Sure enough, in a while we get a message from a tourist vehicle coming from Batal that our two Scorpios are at the motorable road and for us to join them there. By then it is almost noon. The road down towards Batal is perilous with a steep down slope and the clouds coming onto the roads reducing visibility drastically. 

Descending Kunzumla... towards Batal

In due course, we come to the turnoff for Chandratal. Turning in we wonder if the road has been cleared!!?? Yesterday’s news from some travellers on this route was that they had seen clearance work on but not completed and therefore the road was not open. This route hugs the scree clad mountainside with the Chandra River for company on its left. No trees, no bushes and the tallest plant is not more than 6 inches high. 

Life blooms... even in these barren surroundings!

With a lot of optimism we crawl along the drivable but rough and bumpy road. Within 6-7 kms we come to a halt behind the advance vehicles parked at a point where the road is wide enough. 

Road to Chandratal

Up ahead in the distance we see a JCB working to clear what seems like the last blocked patch and information is that it would take a couple of hours at the most after which we could drive in. We would be the first vehicles to drive in this season to Chandratal.    

The parking spot seems to be a vantage point to capture the splendour of the Chandra valley. The clouds obscure the mountains on the far side revealing only their lower elevations with the tail end of glaciers tumbling into small streams joining the Chandra. The wide riverbed with numerous glistening silver streams snaking through presents a stunning picture. By and by, the sun comes back out, though the cloud cover does not completely let go its territory. The brilliance of the sun adds an indescribable vividness to the landscape. Instantly, all is well with the world! 

Rally Vehicles waiting for the road to clear

Chandra River Valley

As time wears on, some of us start a game of ‘pitthu’. I don’t think too many people can claim to have played in such heavenly environs! 

A game of 'Pitthu'

The road is cleared and everyone piles into the vehicles. The last bit of road before we hit our camp is a drive on a furrowed glacier/stream bed, the glacier long since melted leaving deep grooves which we negotiate across with much heaving of vehicles and churning of the gravel under.

The camp is a collection of multicoloured tents set in a square. Some of our party who have walked into camp before the road was cleared has alerted the camp hands of our imminent arrival and the requirement for lunch. A simple but delicious lunch of dal, chawal and gobi aalu subji later, we are all ready to hit Chandratal. It is still 3-4 Kms further away. 

Our campsite

The drive over the last 2-3 Kms is a nightmare! There IS no road. It is just a deeply grooved path with boulders liberally scattered on it. At many bends, the vehicle comes up against the hillside before completing the turn, has to be reversed before the wheezing engine forces it forward. Even though the Scorpio is well capable of traversing such terrain, it is a nail biting ride.

We reach the parking area from where one has to walk about 500 mtrs on undulating land to reach the Lake. A biting wind hits us as soon as we step out of the Scorpio. It is cold and I wrap myself up in another layer leaving me feeling more than unwieldy! But I have to if I hope to keep even reasonably comfortable.

Trudging up from the parking area, the lake is not yet visible. A few Brandt’s and Common Mountainfinches with Horned Larks flit around. 

Brandt's Mountainfinch

Horned Lark

Instead of taking the well worn bridle path I make for the highest point to try and catch a glimpse of the lake. It is still some distance away, not yet visible... a few more undulations between us and the lake! Still further as I crest the next hillock, I stand spellbound! It is a magical setting. 

Spectacular vistas

The massive glacier visible from Chandratal

The panorama west of Chandratal complete with a small lake and the Chandra River beyond...

Menacing, craggy mountains make the eastern boundary running towards the north like an impenetrable guard. In the west is the Chandra valley bounded by looming mountains most of which are veiled by clouds and a gargantuan glacier visible easily even from where I stand! Closer towards the west is a tiny lake and further north are high altitude marshes. And nestled amidst this splendour, are the clear blue waters of Chandratal. No wonder legends abound that this is the ‘Lake of the Gods’. The lake is longish running north – south. The smooth pinkish brown mountainsides on the eastern margin of the lake are unique. The clear waters show the stones and pebbles underneath clearly. The mountains around are still under a thick veil and there is a steady drizzle going but seeing the intensity of the wind, I have hopes it will clear to some extent. 

The pink-brown smooth mountainsides on the eastern boundary of Chandratal

There are breeding pairs of Lesser Sand Plovers and Brahmany Shelducks and a distant Tern which I am unable to Id. Some horses are gambolling around near the marshes and the mini lake. The sun does come out yet again for just a bit and the clouds recede somewhat to reveal a glorious picture. The light blue waters have instantly taken on a much deeper hue and there are tantalising glimpses of the snowy upper reaches of the mountains around while the ones bounding the south are revealed in their radiant whites. 




I feel smitten by this place almost as if I have been lured here by unseen forces and trapped by an expert magician... After the initial frenzy of click, click, click I just sit on a rock at a high vantage point and soak in the atmosphere of the place. Yesterday’s disappointment is history in these subliminal surroundings.No words that I know and no pictures I can ever hope to capture can truly encapsulate the essence of this place. My partner is busy taking pictures. I just sit there in solitude... 

The Southern Guard
The light fading and the wind now penetrating all my layered clothing making my teeth chatter drives me back to the parking. The rest of the group has long gone and is probably wondering where the two of us are. There is a camp right next to the parking where we discover the entire group huddled into the small kitchen tent yakking and generally having a whale of a time. We too join them. It has been decided that we will have dinner here and then go back to our camp. The camp owner also promises a campfire which is enthusiastically received by us.

An enjoyable dinner and dancing round the campfire later, we are ready to roll. Looking up at the sky, I am amazed to see zillions of stars twinkling down at me. I make up my mind to try and capture some star trails back at camp. Alas, it is not to be since the weather being what it is in these regions, the clouds are back to reclaim their territory leaving me crestfallen!

The night does not end without some more drama. We are the second vehicle going down to camp and intermittently keep sighting the headlights of the lead vehicle as it winds its way down the hillside. It then overshoots the dark campsite and continues on the road to Batal without realising it. We wonder where they are as we turn into camp because they should have reached first. As the remaining two vehicles also might overshoot, we switch on the blinkers to get their attention. Long story short, one vehicle ends up going in search before the lead vehicle is found returning (sheepishly)! How they turned around is miraculous because the road is so very narrow....but all’s well that ends well!

After all this excitement, we hit the sack!

The journey continues...