Himalayan ranges can be addictive. Since the time I visited them for the first time after completing my 10th grade exams, I have always wandered through those circling roads and fern and snow-clad mountains many times in my thoughts. I got another opportunity to be in the realms of Himalayas after a long time with Impressions photography tour to Ladakh in 2015. During that tour, I heard a lot of stories about Spiti valley and Chandartal lake. Somewhere in my mind I was already making plans to visit that place. I had to wait for almost 3 years to get that opportunity — again with Impressions Photography group. One thing about group travel is that you don’t need to plan anything. (This, for me is a little bit of a setback as I always love to plan my travel but it is good in a way when you are crazy busy at work and get to packing only the day before your travel). Honestly, till that day, I did not even check the travel route or the names of the places we were going to visit. The only thing I knew was that I am going to get onto a flight from Pune to Chandigarh and that I have a taxi arranged for me from Chandigarh to Shimla. Suddenly, on the day before the travel, the God of curiosity blessed me and I checked my itinerary. I tried searching for the places on Google map and they looked really exciting. The next big thing was packing. We were instructed to carry certain items and strictly a rough and tough rug sack. That part was comparatively easy. In fact, I was done with the packing in just 30 min. or so.
It was the usual restlessness before the travel. The main thing was to get all the camera gears. I got a really odd shaped tripod bag from Amazon. Did not have a choice but had to carry it along with a fully loaded backpack, a camera bag and a gift bag. (I was planning to meet my relatives in Shimla and bought some gifts for their lovely kids. I sent my husband to purchase the gifts and given my luggage’s size he showed no mercy when he bought two big sized gift packages.) Anyways, on home front it’s a different story. You are leaving a kid, a husband and a dog behind and more importantly all of them together, adds to a lot of possibilities for you to worry. With all these thoughts clouded in my mind, I finally bid a good bye to everyone and set on to my journey.
I met two of my fellow group members at Pune airport. After a quick selfie session and introductions (please note the sequence of events here :P), we boarded our flight to Chandigarh. We hired a car for our journey from Chandigarh to Shimala and stopped at a restaurant (modern dhaba) called Haveli (Dharampur — Trip Advisor Review — Haveli). Even though this was a photography expedition, it was also a beginning of a great food trip. It is roughly 5 hours’ drive from Chandigarh to Shimla. However, it took us almost 7 hours due to landslides at certain places, slow moving traffic and the side effect of being with Photographers. (we must stop where we feel that there is a slight change in flora and fauna or sky colors or anything random which a normal human being (including me) probably cannot see — photographer’s eye as they call it.) After we reached Shimala, the two of them got off at a hotel and met the rest of the group and I went to stay with my relatives for a night. In the evening spent some time on the Mall road and enjoyed a chocolate drink at Honey Hut (Trip Advisor Review — Honey Hut).
The next day, I met the rest of the group. After a brief awkward introduction session, (its always funny how when we meet someone new, we immediately try to guess the age group, whether we will fit in or not etc.), we boarded our tempo traveler. (Well, first few hours in a bus / tempo traveler / car are tough for me due to the motion sickness. As soon as we started we got few more motion sickness victims identified. After looking at them I took no chances and popped up some anti-motion sickness meds. With all the travelling experience with motion sickness, I think I am grown smarter to deal with it. I was a veteran there and started my own consulting business on motion sickness topic.) It was the beginning of what was ahead of us for the next 10 days. Our itinerary was as follows — Kalpa (1 night stay) — Tabo (1 night stay) — Mud (pronunciation as Mudh — 1 night stay) — Dhankar (1 night) — Kaza (2 nights) — Chandartaal Lake base camp (1 night) — Manali (1 night). (Our Itinerary — On Google Maps). After my previous trip to Leh Ladakh, my expectation was slightly different. I was expecting myself to be on deserted roads with no signs of population and just pure untouched nature. However, this part of the country is fairly populated and polluted (due to the road construction work going on everywhere). The mountains were still growing taller and taller and mesmerizing. Even if you just glance at any one of them, you realize how small you are. There were news of landslides and road closures everywhere. We got lucky and escaped all such patches without hurting ourselves or waiting for too long. Finally, after a long ride and a few stop overs, we reached our hotel Rakpa Regency, Kalpa (Trip Advisor — Rakpa Regency) at around 4:30 PM. We were given an hour to relax and then we were asked to gather on the terrace for the evening photography session. It was a lovely weather outside. The rainfall was slightly more than expected during this time of the year. With a slightly cloudy atmosphere, we were all ready to capture amazing wonders of the nature in our artificial eye. Ideally, at such places, instead of taking my camera out, I feel like just looking at the things around me. While everyone was busy clicking photographs and trying out different things, I attempted few things for myself and started observing others and enjoying the view. There was a group of Bengali folks who came with all the music instruments and decent singers. Their songs were making the environment even more delightful. All those songs which you have liked during your school or college days were adding a nostalgic touch to the setup.
We could see clouds clearing off every now and then, chasing each other and playing hide and seek behind the mountain peaks. We could also see Kinner Kailash peak from here. A village painted with different colored roofs and shapes surrounded by lush green apple orchards, and being protected by magnificent mountains — it was quite a sight. It being 1st day of our journey together everyone was still quite formal. We wrapped up our day one after capturing silhouettes of pine trees against mountains.
The second day started with making new acquaintances. As per my daily routine, I ended up waking up a couple of hours earlier than others. So I got ready and went in the common dining hall. The hotel manager was trying to get things ready for breakfast. He offered me a tea and we chatted for quite some time. He told me many interesting stories about the area and some tragic ones too. As I was part of the photography group he ended up showing me the pictures he had taken and was really hoping for few lessons from my side. I think, I did not disappoint him. (or may be I did — but always look at the brighter side.) Moreover, no one else who really knew photography was around — so :). I also met a Swiss hiking instructor who used to work at Ladakh and comes to visit India especially Himalayas every year. Her stories were amazing and adventurous. When everyone was ready, we started for our next destination — Tabo. We got a news of road closure as soon as we hit the road. Nonetheless, journey is at times more exciting than the destination and this one was no exception.
We waited on the roads, we spent hours on clicking things, we listened to songs and we carried on. It was getting darker and our driver who, I think, was kind of irritated by our frequent stops, started running the vehicle as if we were on some F1 race track. With my eyes on the road I could see the vehicle taking sharp turns and was at times very close to the road edges. The driver’s skills however were amazing and we reached Tabo at dusk and checked in at Tiger’s Den. (Trip Advisor — Tiger’s Den — Tabo). Due to land slide the water supply was cut off. The entire staff at the hotel was very co-operative and managed to get water for us from the river in big containers. After a full day of hard work all the staff members including the manager fetched water for us to ensure a hassle free stay.
Third day early morning we started our day with a visit to Tabo monastery. It looked like one of the oldest monasteries in the region.
It seemed to be an assortment of mud huts, connected with each other. The sizes of mud huts were unequal. Everything was looking as if it was painted in mud. The baron mountains with a cloud icing on their tops, surrounding these huts were adding to the color scheme. Barley fields were adding some greenery to the scene.
After spending some time clicking pictures, we went to see the monastery from inside. The way these old things are built with a sense of architecture is amazing. There is specific time of the day, when sunlight falls on the face of the statue of Lord Buddha. Natural light through the ceiling keeps room lighten just enough to create a sense of calmness. After the monastery we started our journey to Mud.
Mud (Pin valley) was not accessible for almost 2 days due to landslides. There was limited food availability in the B&B we booked. We got some Maggie noodles for our lunch (decision of having them — I regretted later). After a bit of a free time, we went to capture dusk colors in our camera. There were a lot of green peas fields on our way.
A lovely lady named Shunita Dolma was working in her field with one of her sons playing around her and the another one wrapped on her back. All these women working hard are no less than Rani Laxmi Bai I must say. With a wide smile on her face, even after hard work of long hours, she offered me some fresh green peas. ‘Muttar Khalo — Mutter khalo’ she said. I hesitated a bit at first but she kept on insisting. “They are ‘export’ quality peas”, she said in a raw barely understandable Hindi. After her persistence, I took handful of them and that is when I realized that eating Maggie was like a criminal act on that part of the planet. These peas were so amazingly tasty that I don’t know if photography remained on the agenda for the rest of the evening. In the guilt that I am eating for free from a hardworking woman, I decided to buy some for our group. In just INR 100, I got peas which could have lasted for an year. (They were over in 2 days by the way).
We went to these fields again for the night photography session to capture the milky way. It feels so good to walk out in the night silence with a small flash light just enough to show you where you are going to put your next step. Rocky path and night creatures thoughts did not really bother me at that point in time. (I wish to do this often for sure). I got few good photographs here but more important was that experience. The next day morning we went to the same fields to capture the morning sky drama. Probably because of high altitude or less food or less sleep due to night photography, I am not too sure, but I did not enjoy the morning photography much on that day. We wrapped our stay at Mud and started our journey to Dhankar monastery.
We reached Dhankar just in time for lunch. The B&B here was quite new and very good with rooms having balconies with amazing mountain views. After a bad food day (sans peas) the previous day, the food here was just so tasty and amazing that everyone probably ate double their usual eating capacities. We got some free time to relax after our meals. The next thing on the agenda was a hike to Dhankar lake. Given the high altitude few of our group members decided to stay back at the hotel. The plan was to climb before the sunset and capture few photographs of the lake in the backdrop of mountains and evening sky colors. The hike was not very difficult but the high altitude was really impacting our speed and energy levels. We still made it to the top in decent time. I was slightly pleased with my energy levels here however, it was also an indication that if you want to enjoy such places, you must take care of your health and stamina. The feeling to reach the top was exhilarating.
I threw my camera bag and tripod on the ground and laid down on the grass for 10 good min. As I said earlier, such places make me forget that I was there to click photographs. I was trying to make my connection with the nature lying down on the grass and was interrupted by our mentor to get ready for the sunset. After clicking few beautiful shots here, we set for our return hike. This was an interesting one. It was already dark by the time we started to climb down. I was in the middle of the group. Few of us were slightly ahead of me and some far behind. I couldn’t hear or see anyone for at least 5 min or so. That is when I experienced the feeling of being alone and all scary thoughts started flowing in my mind. (believe me it was dramatic). That drama did not last for a long time though as I started to see other flash lights ahead of me. We were hoping that our driver is waiting for us at the location he dropped us. If not, it would have been another 1KM hike. Most of us were amazingly tired after carrying the camera bag and tripod and almost 3 hours hike and were really praying for our driver to show up. And there he was (trying to act like a ghost on a middle of the road), waiting for us. We blessed him with all our hearts and got back to our hotel after one of the most amazing experience of this entire tour.
The next day, we went to visit Dhankar monastery. It was more like visiting the place, talking to few monks and capturing few more little monks in our cameras. To be very honest, I am not fan of getting into these temple like things where everything pretty much looks the same. However, the nature that surrounds these places itself is so divine that you feel blessed already. After the monastery, we started our journey to Kaza. We were supposed to stay for 2 days at this place. Kaza is a fairly big town and is a headquarter of the remote Spiti valley. We visited 2 more monasteries (Key and Koumik) during this stay and experienced a storm on the way to Koumik monastery. It was one more highlight of this tour. I have never seen anything like that in my life. Part of the Himalaya ranges was getting drenched in rains, few mountain peaks were sun bathing and somewhere in between there were snow clad glaciers shining like molten silver. Mountain colors were adding more beauty to the overall setup. It was an out of the world experience and we were lucky to experience that.
At Kaza, we also got an opportunity to roam around in local markets. We had local food, (Mostly Thuppa) and also visited a post office which is supposed to the highest post office in the world. By the time we were in Kaza, we had formed a close bond with our group. The hotel at Kaza was again one of best during the entire trip. It had long corridors with bean bags and sofas. This was the best place to gather and spend time chit chatting. Our talks at times went till 1 AM (which probably can only happen in my dreams — those who know me can tell why I am so excited by the fact that I was awake till 1 AM 🙂 ). We discussed Hitler, world wars, Tom Clancy, Ethiopia, Science, generations, History, Bollywood, Hollywood and I don’t know what else. It was fun.
After Kaza, the next on the list was Chandartal lake. We were supposed to start from Kaza early morning. However, due to road closure, Kaza’s gas station (not to add world’s highest gas stations :P), did not get its regular diesel supply. We had to wait till almost 4 PM at Kaza to refuel our vehicle. This delayed our plans. Mountain roads can get pretty treacherous during the night. The experience to travel at that time was again one of the most thrilling one. I cannot pen down those feelings. However, remember a remark from our driver. He said, when I drive tourists from this road (road??), after they reach their destinations they touch my feet. He said you can witness Gods here. So lets not talk about that. 🙂 We reached Chandartal and got our tents ready for us. Hot rice and lentil soup was really tasty as I had forgotten all about food after the eventful journey.
The other day, early morning, we were set for yet another small hike. This one was comparatively easy after Dhankar lake’s experience. We hiked, clicked more beautiful photographs of Chandartal lake and came back to the base camp. (There are very few places in India where you witness turquoise blue water color and this is surely one of them). After this, we were off for our return journey to Manali which was quite interesting as well. On our way back, there were many places on the road, where the road was washed away by heavy rains and water flowing down from the top of the mountains. It was a mixed feeling of fun, adventure and fear while passing such patches. Our vehicle was bigger and comparatively safe for such roads.
However, our driver was stopping every now and then to help other smaller vehicles to pass through these obstacles. It gave us ample of time to enjoy the surroundings. We finally reached Manali in the evening. It was the last night that we were going to spend together as a group — so we continued our saga of chit chatting. The feeling of one wonderful journey coming to an end was creeping over me. However, it was a beginning of next one I think where I made a promise to myself to return to Himalayas every year if possible. One of the best things of such group travels is that you meet so many amazing people from different walk of life and you come back with new friends for life.