To the moon and back.

Dear you,
I knew where I wanted to be. This time it was a lake perched in the lap of cold deserts of Spiti. The moon lake(Chandrataal) as it is usually called owing to its crescent shape. I had it all planned in my mind. It turned out to be altogether different was another matter and probably was better than what I’d wished for.

I left on 10th September,2016 evening so that I may reach early. As it was to be, I reached Manali at 9:30am in the morning and so decided to stay for the day. I chose zostel where I met Zehra, another solo traveller, and Mohammad. I walked back and forth to the Mall Road. Sometimes to meet an acquaintance, or to get tissues, or to confirm about the bus next day, or to get paper soap, or to just see if I was prepared to walk. After all my walks I returned to my night place to again walk back for dinner with Zehra and two guys from Spain whose names I don’t remember. The night was difficult for sleeping because of the interesting conversations on the phone between another of another mate with his girlfriend or to-be girlfriend.

Anyhow, when my alarm woke me up at 5am I was quick. Ten minutes to 6am and I was running towards the bus stand. The last thing I wanted was to stay in Manali a day more. And even though I found the bus, I could not find a seat. I asked the conductor who replied there wasn’t any. I declared that I might as well sit on the floor of the bus but I would board that very bus. I put my bag in front of the engine and adjusted myself on it. A few minutes after the bus started, the conductor offered me his own seat. I couldn’t help but notice that another old lady who had to go till Kaza was offered to sit on on the bags. The conductor(Sher Singh) later adjusted himself on a mattress carefully placed on the engine and the talks began. I also met V on the way and we talked for a while when the bus stopped for breakfast. I didn’t know then how a stranger was to turn into a companion for the rest of my trip and a friend even after the travels.

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V and I en route.

This was the third time I was at Rohtang. A different time of the year every time. This time the terrain was covered with white flowered bushes and the pass was devoid of the usual crowd.

At about 12:30pm, I reach my decided bus journey came to an end; I’d reached Batal. I was to walk from here to Chandrataal. V and I ate together continuing our chat. I was later to be remembered as the girl who was told that the plate of rice cost Rs700( instead of Rs70) and who believed this and was even willing to pay that much. Here, I also met M and two of her friends who were also going to the lake but from Kunzum pass. Since I’d left Delhi, my concern had been if I had to walk the 14kms from Batal to Chandrataal all alone. So, I was busy making my inquiries running from one person to another who had any advice to offer. Tashi, son of the famous chacha-chachi at Chandra dhaba, even offered a drop. However, I wanted to walk and so I chose to go ahead with M’s group plan. At 2pm, we reached Kunzum and V decided to join us as well. The uncle, who worked in Himachal tourism at Kaza, convincingly told us that this was the shorter and easier route. “just about3kms“, he said, adding also that we had to go just “down and down“.

V and I started a little ahead of the M group. And we started by eating Kinnaur apples I’d brought from Delhi. A few minutes later, we met a guy walking back to Kunzum to answer nature’s call. There is a toilet and water there. We continued walking till we arrived at a point where the path seemed a little confusing. While M’s group checked the one that seemed to go downhill and wasn’t a clear path at all, I put down my bag and climbed up the other one to find that it was clear path from there on. We moved forward from here. And it was now that we finally introduced ourselves to one another. M and her friends were from Kerala. While R was doing his PhD from Dharamshala, H taught in some college there.

We continued walking for hours but the lake wasn’t in sight. We stopped to have some snacks once. From this point, we could see the lake still far away. We were still walking and had two mountains yet to cross when it started turning dark. It was 6pm. M’s group started considering to walk back a little and set up the tent or just climbing downwards from where we stood. V took the initiative for the latter. I refused to climb down from there; I thought it was too steep and slippery. I remember H apologized for making the choice of this route. Finally, we all decided to walk back from there till the flat area which appeared to be a gaddi’s campsite. M’s group set up the tent and M and I were the first to barge in. We prepared ourselves for the cold night by putting on more clothes. I was so cold that I wore one jeans over another! In the meanwhile, the three men had found what appeared to be cow dung cakes and lighted a fire. M and I felt too comfortable in the tent that we didn’t even get out. I must say that I was lucky that at least M’s group was prepared for the camping; they had the tent, sleeping bags(which had to be shared), food stuff and even petrol. What we did lack was water. So, we refrained from eating much and just ate a few apples and prepared to call it a night. While M and her two friends slept quickly, V started with his shayari and stories and so we slept only a few hours. I couldn’t but think of his thoughts of a leopard or a bear visiting us in the night. Not to forget the ghosts of people who had died there.

The next morning we woke up to a thick layer of frost over the tent which we initially thought was snow. H had found a source of water nearby and M’s group decide to camp there one more day. So, it was V and I who had to find a way to the road. We discovered that the path was right where we had camped which we’d failed to see in the dark last night. V and I climbed down and finally at 9am (13th September, 2016) reached the camping point where the tent operators had their set up. We washed our faces and had tea and breakfast. Tashi met us again here and recognised me as well. The lake was still 3kms away from here and V and I were at odds whether to walk till the lake or not. I decided I wouldn’t go back without seeing the lake. Tashi was to leave after 2hrs to Batal and so we asked him to wait for us. He also offered a jeep ride which I thought was expensive so we chose to walk. We had taken only about fifty steps or so when we came back and agreed for the jeep ride till the lake to save time and energy( on which we were already short).

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While walking. picture by V.

We reach the “parking” of the lake and still have to walk a km from here. While we dragged ourselves, Tashi and his friends walk past us to take a bath in the lake. After reaching the lake, we walk around and sit for a while. Here, I got to know about male(green) and female(red) apples.

We return to the camps later where I get a beautiful yellow lily from amongst the flowers brought from Lahaul.

We reach Batal around 12:20pm and I’ve already missed the bus to Manali. My only option now left was staying there for the night when V offered another. He asked me to join him to Kaza and so we both hopped into the bus to Kaza which arrived a a few minutes later. The landscape was different from everything I’d ever seen and so my eyes were fixed on the window.

And now probably the most memorable part happened. We’d just crossed Losar when I noticed one of the tyres of the bus moving out and left behind. I told V who immediately shouted to stop the bus. And so there we were, in the middle of the road and, nowhere. I got some momentary fame for being the first one to notice it. The tyre was fixed with almost everyone giving a hand in tightening the bolts. The rest of the journey the conductor Prem kept checking the tyre again and again. However, without anymore interesting events for the day we reached Kaza at 7:15pm. I got my seat fixed for the next day trip back to Manali.

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The only greens of Spiti- weeping willows(locally called billoo).

In Kaza I had the comforts of life again. Hot water to take bath, food, a bed to sleep and also the luxury of a phone that worked. After dinner, V and I talked for a while with Tshering and another guy from Dehradun. And I was off to sleep as soon as I was in the bed.

The next morning, V and I walked to the bus stand after confirming that the bus was on time(it was the same bus from yesterday). While V had suggested I stay for few days more, I decided to head back to Delhi and come back next summer.

The return journey was as eventful as it had been till now. I sat beside the conductor Prem who was funny and good company. At Batal, M’s group boarded the bus. And there was an army officer from Lahaul who was headed to Delhi and then to Manipur. We’d left Batal and reached a little further when a tyre got punctured. The same one that had got off yesterday. And the spare tyre was no good too. So again, stranded on the road with nothing but the mountains and the river, work beagom to take off the tyre. Last days efforts of tightening the bolts made it no easier. We decided to wait for the bus that goes to Kaza to borrow a tyre. After an hour or so, the bus from the other side arrived and they agreed to the deal. In the meanwhile, I made more friends. The M&M sister and brother duo with a Bengali friend were quite interested in my travel stories. Finally, after much effort the tyre was replaced. The army man, our conductor, and M’s friends were the heroes of the day. The journey continued with my declared award of a Kinnauri apple to the conductor. It was equally distributed however, as was the omelette by the conductor.

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The Clouds.

A few hours later as soon as the bus stopped at Chhatru for lunch, a tyre got punctured again. The one we’d borrowed. The whole situation made me laugh and I joked about it to the conductor. After lunch, we continued our journey with the punctured tyre while our conductor made attempts to arrange for another bus at Gramphu through repeated calls. And now it started raining.

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Rainbow.

The conductor arranged for the passengers to board the bus that was coming from Keylong. It seemed that the M&M brother and sister group would reach Manali on time to board their already booked bus. As soon as we crossed Rohtang, we found a caravan of military trucks, with one of the trucks being towed, stuck on the bridge. It took a lot of time with frequent stops now and then when finally the caravan decided to let others pass first. And so I reached Manali, got a ticket for the 9:30pm bus to Delhi and then roaming around for an hour. The army man had decided to stay at Manali for the night and we bid farewell to each other with I receiving an invitation to visit Manipur. The M&M group were to accompany me till Delhi. The next morning, we shared more stories about books and travels. It wasn’t until afternoon when we reached Delhi and said goodbyes.

And so, while this may seem to you an ill-fated trip, it was a memorable one for me. The beauty of this journey lay not in the sights I saw but what I felt, the people I met and the friends I made. Hoping Spiti will give me another chance to witness more beauty and make more friends.

Always yours,
Muskaan

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