Chhotta Chandratal – A journey through the clouds

“To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
and Eternity in an hour…”
– William Blake

After a month of planning and constantly living in fear of my leave getting cancelled, the trip finally happened. A destination which I had already unsuccessfully planned twice was finally happening.

The Destination – Chhotta Chandratal

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Chhotta Chandratal (the small Moon Lake) or Base of Deo Tibba peak is a high altitude lake (approx. 14500 ft) in Kullu-Manali region of Himachal Pradesh. It is usually confused with the much bigger Chandratal lake in the Lahaul-Spiti region which for most part now has a motorable road.

Trek plan
The best time to visit Chandratal is May till mid June. And the probability of whether you will be able to see the blue water lake depends on how severe the last winter was. Since this year the region received most of the snow during months of March-April, the lake was frozen when we visited it.

The trek for the most part was planned by a couple of Delhi based photographers. It was part of an on location Landscape/Macro Photography workshop. And the twelve of us – a few Fashion Designing students, three photo enthusiasts from Singapore, a friend pursuing his MBA, a couple of school kids and of course the two teachers – formed an interesting group to be with. A group though different in profession but united by interest in photography J

The logistics from Manali were taken care of by HimayalanCountry, a Manali based adventure tours agency run by Mr. Khem Raj Thakur. It was the third time that we were traveling with them and I must say they have never disappointed. The traveling arrangements which include the kitchen tent, dinner tent, sleeping tents, food for 7 days, mules for carrying the luggage, a cook, a helper and a guide were all meticulously handled for most part of the trip.

I have no idea specifically about how much the tour company charged for the trek because our package also included the fees for photo workshop. But I must put it down (though that may seem obvious) that the cost of the trek per individual goes down with more number of people.

The Journey

June 15th, Delhi – Manali.
Came 15th June and we boarded the much awaited bus to Manali at around 7 o’clock from Himachal Bhavan, Mandi House. The bus journey was fairly comfortable and unlike state roadways buses it doesn’t stop at many places.

Just for information, Himachal State tourism runs Volvo bus service to predefined tourist locations and the bookings can be made from Himachal Bhavan, Mandi House (91-011-23716124) or ISBT, Old Delhi (91-011-23868694). It’s always a good idea to get these bookings done well in advance.

June 16th, Manali.

We reached Manali at noon. Ludar, our contact at Manali and our guide on the last two treks picked us up from the bus stand. We straight away headed for our Hotel (Hotel Narayan). After a hot bath and sumptuous lunch we just walked through Manali. We had a brief photography presentation and rest of the day was spent acclimatizing.

June 17th, Manali – Khanol (7300ft) – Chhikka(10240ft)

June 18th, Chhikka – Seri I(11640ft)
I got up at around six in the morning. It seemed that we had a nice clear day in store for us.

We started for the next camp (Seri) immediately after our breakfast. The trek to Seri was much more tiresome than the last day’s trek and hence we had frequent water breaks. Unlike day before we were carrying our lunch and had a lunch break midway.

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I wasn’t carrying a pullover and the luggage on the mules hadn’t arrived yet. I squeezed myself into the dinner tent till the luggage arrived. Second day’s lesson learnt: Always carry atleast a pullover since the weather in the mountains changes quite rapidly.

June 19th, Seri I – Seri (12560 ft)
The original destination for the day was Tenta but once we reached Seri we were so overwhelmed with the beauty of the place that we decided to break for the day. Seri was once a glaciated lake surrounded by mountains on all sides, but is now a meadow carpeted with an astounding variety of herbs and alpine flowers. I could have never imagined such a vast ground equivalent to a few football fields up there on the mountains. The treeline had completely vanished by now and it was just rocks, snow, water and wild flowers all round.

Once again it started raining mid day and the temperature dropped suddenly. Our tents had still not reached Seri and we had to take shelter in a cave. We managed to find some wood and made fire, finishing up a roll of toilet paper in the process. Later on we came to know that a mule had slipped on the steep climb and had hurt its leg and hence delay in the luggage.

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The peaks surrounding Seri received fresh snow. Dropping temperature, low atmospheric pressure, less oxygen wasn’t helping us and some of us were down with altitude sickness. We were already lagging by a day so we decided to do away with the rest day and move on to Tenta next day. Only six of us decided to go further away. But that too also was fully dependent on how the weather behaves for the next two days.

June 20th, Seri – Tenta (13340 ft)
In the normal trek route people usually trek to Chandratal and come back to Seri in a day. It’s usually takes 9-10 hours. But we had decided to camp at Tenta and this created a problem of sorts. Mules cannot go further than Seri because the last two days is a pretty steep rocky climb. So we decided to pack our basic necessities and carry them ourselves.

The weather seemed to be on our side. It was nice sunny out there. Since we were breaking at Tenta, it was the shortest day as far as the trekking time was concerned. We were there in Tenta in around four hours. Yet another amazingly beautiful camping site.

It was the best day weather wise. Good light, lots of photography memories from the place. By six it again started getting cloudy and in fifteen minutes I was literally in the clouds, with visibility reduced to one to two meters. We had dinner by half past seven and by eight I was in my sleeping bag.

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Chandratal was now in sight and we needed just one more nice sunny day to reach our destination.

June 21st, Tenta – Chandratal (14340 ft) – Seri
It kept raining the whole night and I kept wondering (and praying) if Chandratal was going to happen. Night Temperatures were sub-zero and it was really cold. But fortunately as was the case through out the trek sun came out in the morning. We had a really long day ahead and hence started our final climb at around 8.

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As was expected it turned out to be the toughest day of the trek. For the first time I was feeling the lack of oxygen and the need to stop and take long breaths after few steps. But as our guide kept repeating the key was to walk at your own pace and not rush.

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There was around three to four feet snow on the approach trail to lake and honestly speaking we were not equipped to handle that kind of snow. The shoes were all wet and the feet were frozen. All said and done we made it to the lake at around 1 o’clock and had our bout of madness. The lake was completely frozen and view all around was completely white with patches of rocky mountains. The lake is the camping base for the peak Deo Tibba (6000m).

After spending an hour or so we started our journey back to Seri. By this time (after noon) the water level in the JagatSukh stream had risen because of the melting of the snow, as a result we had to take a detour. I must say we had some heart stopping moments while walking on rocks just on the edge of the stream. We reached Seri at around 7 o’clock, had our dinner and went of to sleep – end to a very tiring but satisfying day.

June 22nd, Seri – Further Down Chhikka
Since we had our bus back to Delhi on June 23rd we needed to be as close to Manali as possible by day end. Climb down is much easy and faster than climb up but at the same time it is much more demanding on the knees.

We covered the required distance quite easily and were at our destination, the last camping site before Khanol, by 3 o’clock. Since the sun was still there we had a cold but refreshing bath in a stream running nearby – a bath after six days J.

June 23rd, To Manali – Delhi
Final day of trek. We trekked down to Jagatsukh from where the jeeps picked us up. We reached Manali by 2 and then took the bus to Delhi at 4 in the evening. I was really exhausted as I had slept late the night before looking for star trails (bad weather hadn’t permitted me to shoot star trails till now) and the next thing I know is that I was back in Delhi.

With no newspapers, no mobiles, no laptops, essentially no hooks to the so called “civilized” world, I had nearly lost sense of time. It would be a journey long remembered for people I met, for the madness we had besides the sheer pleasure of being in nature.

A link to Chandratal photographs

Do’s & Don’ts

– Avoid street side meat or any uncooked stuff before the trek. A bad stomach is the worst thing that can happen to you before you start hiking.

– Avoid alcohol at altitudes, it dehydrates and can worsen your altitude sickness

– Booking of return tickets happens only from Manali and only before some fixed number of days. So the first thing you do when you land in Manali is book the return tickets in case you haven’t.

– Somebody gave a very nice advice “Weather is rather unpredictable up in the hills, so one has to be prepared for all eventualities…hard core campers tend to pack their clothes in polythene bags before stacking them in the backpack, in the order in which they are going to be unpacked, unless of course your bag is water proof.”

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