For a couple of years now, I have had a yearning to visit the Chandratal lake in the Lahaul and Spiti district of Himachal Pradesh - just one of those things which you want to do the moment you hear about them first. So finally after all the delay that Covid, weather and my other plans could possibly bring in, I zeroed on a few dates in the August of 2021 to finally go to Chandratal.
The weather in June and July had been harsh across the Himalayas of Himachal and Uttarakhand with various incidences of landslides and floods which had made many skeptic of taking this trip in August, so I had to coordinate with some local contacts to be assured that the weather had finally sobered down. Ofcourse, weather in the mountains is unreliable and changes on its whim but a bit of confirmation does help.
I packed the new Terra series rucksack and took the overnight bus to Manali. A suggestion would be to try and find a bus that does not deal with too many cargo deliveries on the way and booking via Redbus to find buses that assure timely drop is recommended. I had missed my bus given some last moment work and ended up in a shady Volvo that put me back by a few hours with its stops so I only reached Manali after lunch.
Met some friends who’ve moved base to Manali, had one of the most savouring meals including the local favorite Sha Bhalay at this restaurant called Kyaroo House. This place is a hidden gem situated on the road to Burwa from Manali. I settled at the beautiful GlampEco in the Hamta-Sethan village high up from Manali for the night.
Getting to Chandrataal - The Atal tunnel's inauguration last year in 2020 has changed many things for the region of Lahaul specifically. While the Rohtang would block the entire region north of Solang from Manali, the tunnel is a blessing for a larger region above Manali that has good serviceable roads that can stay active throughout the winters. Getting to Leh or Kaza in winters is still not possible but it's a great start from the government's side. Plus, it cuts down the travel time by more than a few hours and avoids the hassle of going through the ever jammed Rohtang. It’s an engineering marvel of 10km beneath huge mountains - it’s a blessing!
You can either take the 5AM bus that leaves from Manali to Kaza and then take another one on the way back; hire a cab that would take you to the lake and back for an amount ranging from INR 4500-7000 depending on the vehicle and the days you want to spend around the lake; third is to take your own vehicle. And so I hired a Bullet at Rs 1200 per day from a shop in Aleo near Manali. In hindsight I would definitely go for a Himalayan instead of the Bullet given the route I would detail ahead.
Manali to Khoksar/ Yari Koksar - Beautiful 45 km BRO maintained roads via Atal Tunnel
Yari Khoksar to Batal via Chattru - 50 kms of dirt road - with all sorts of nalas (overflowing glacial streams) and rocks of all sizes laden across the route. An approximate midpoint comes at Chattru (which is also the exit point for the famous Hamta Pass Trek) where you can get food, maybe some fuel if you are lucky and camp incase of an emergency. There is no network or fueling stations on the way and the only company you’ll find is fellow travellers on their bikes or cars and the occasional cargo trucks. Google doesn’t have data on the time taken for this route and it will show you a calculated time of 1.5 hours which is not the case. It would take you anywhere between 3.5 to 5 hours depending on your speed and stops. I found some downpour between Khoksar and Chattru and was told it often stays wet with the clouds playing around between these mountains.
Batal to Chandrataal - I started late from Manali, hence reached late to Batal which is the second rest point after Chattru from where you take a diversion to reach Chandratal. I camped here for the night at Mr Tenzing’s camps. He’s got quite a personality and people frequenting Chandratal/Spiti would always remember him. His parents run the legendary “Uncle and Aunty ka Dhaba” next to his camps and they’ve been here for quite some years now. Batal to Chandratal is another 16km of dirt road with a couple of nalas before you reach the multitude of commercial camping sites before the lake. In recent years, as the popularity and the inflow of tourists has increased, people have been disallowed to camp around the lake so you’ll need to park your vehicle and walk for a kilometer before you’re taken in by the beauty of the Chandratal. At 4325 m elevation, it’s advisable to take a couple of breaks if you’re coming from Delhi or around. It has standing fresh water, which I’ve been told can be seen swirling early in the morning. The lake is considered holy by the locals and you’re advised not to go swimming inside it. It was a sunny morning when I reached here on the next day and would definitely return to spend an evening around the lake at some point in the future.
I left for Manali after coming back to Batal on the same day.
I’ve driven to Pangong Tso and Nubra via the mighty passes of Ladakh and even wandered off around Leh in the past but the thrill and adrenaline rush this route will give you has no comparison from Ladakh. Covered with changing mountains on both sides with the Chenab keeping you company across the route, this is one of the most adventurous routes you can take in Himachal.
I’ve let this experience be a beta to the pending Manali-Kaza-Kinnaur-Simla circuit to come back next year with more prep and planning to do the trip more efficiently. Although it needs to be noted that barring another distance of 15 odd km, a little ahead of the Kunzum pass, the roads return to standard BRO level and it's a smooth and beautiful ride until Simla via the entire region of Spiti and Kinnaur.
Post Note - I broke the rear brake of my bike while coming back near Chattru as a stone bumped on the paddle and dislodged it. The dirt road makes it impossible to use the front brakes and I had to use my gears to slowly come back on the concrete roads after it was much easier to steer. This experience made the trip all the more intense for me and left me with more than a few lessons for the next adventure.