This was the drive I hadn’t been able to complete on an earlier trip with friends. Delhi-Shimla-Sangla-Kalpa-Poo-Tabo-Kaza-Chandratal-Manali-Delhi. Or the other way around. We had gone up to Kalpa from the Shimla side before age and work drove us back. I still wanted to do it. So, on a nicely long weekend, when it turned out that my usual expedition buddies were otherwise preoccupied, I asked myself: why not go alone? I was thrilled; most people I told weren’t. Nevertheless, alone and at last, I was on the trip of a lifetime.
I left Delhi for Swarghat in crawling mid-afternoon traffic, sped past Patiala Chowk, Banur and Kharar, till rains and deep darkness slowed me beyond Ropar. It was 10 that stormy night when I reached Swarghat, reputed to be the proud location of ‘many hotels’. I pulled up near one such establishment, which appeared to be only 30 per cent built up, and asked for a room. The door to it wouldn’t open, and a boy brought me sheets with holes in them. No way! Well, that protest forced me to drive another 90 minutes to cover eight kilometres in torrential rains with near zero visibility on a curvy road. I couldn’t use my phone: the calls wouldn’t go through. It was terrifying. The next wayside hotel turned out to be no better, but by then I was in no condition to object. It took two large swigs of rum and a hot dinner of chicken curry with tawa rotis to calm my jangled nerves.
A massive traffic snarl, caused by the previous night’s rains and landslides, took me only as far as Mandi the next day. But the following morning’s drive from Mandi to Manali was beautiful, particularly the highway beyond Kullu, with the Beas gurgling to my right. I arrived around noon, earlier than I had expected, and proceeded to Marhi, a wayside pit stop 17 kilometres short of Rohtang.
It turned out that Marhi hadn’t had electricity for nearly a month! But power returned that evening and the owner of the dhaba where I was roomed for the night thanked me profusely for ‘bringing the light back’. After a tasty meal of roti, dal and subzi, I took out my sleeping bag and slept in my thermals. At 11,000 ft, Marhi was pretty cold in the night, but the halt here helped me acclimatise better.
I left Marhi at 7.15 the next morning and thoroughly enjoyed the scenic drive past a peaceful Rohtang Top — there were only 20-odd vehicles and none of the pass’s infamous crowding. The road went zigzag, but it was broad and well-maintained. Fifteen kilometres later, at Gramphoo, I turned right from the Manali-Leh highway to Chandratal. Only later did I realise that those were the last stretches of tarred roads I would see!
About four-five kilometres out of Gramphoo, and a couple of small water crossings later, I encountered my next big jam. I got out to stretch my legs and saw 15-20 men getting a stuck Tavera out of what locals call the Paagal Nulla (‘crazy water stream’), a particularly difficult stretch. Luckily, early that morning, the water was crystal clear and there wasn’t much of it so the rocks could be seen clearly. The trap zone was the end of the nulla, which dipped before it climbed up an incline of boulders. If the front of the car hit the higher boulders and the driver couldn’t pull out in one go, he would get caught between two rocks and the engine might not generate enough power to get out of the dip. It took an hour to rescue the Tavera.
I was fourth in line after a Scorpio and two Sumos, and there were 25 vehicles arrayed behind me. I was stressed out. Some drivers came over to give me pep talks. I shouldn’t worry, they said, I had a 4X4 drive. Everyone was considerate to the ‘uncleji travelling alone’. My turn arrived. I had no experience of negotiating a nulla like this one, and the Tavera that had gotten into trouble was a local taxi! Rescuers show no mercy to the car — they just need to get it out of the way. I drove through the rocks slowly and reached the dangerous end. I had split seconds to decide whether to heave from the left…or the right (no one guiding that). Full throttle. Left. Hurray! People cheered as I waved past. I was one cool uncleji!
Cold deserts and lonely roads made their beginning from here. The terrain was distinctly different. The roads were at best rocky pathways and I was rarely able to go past the first gear. I didn’t see anyone for miles, except the occasional (and fast!) Sumo, or the rare bus. I covered the 17 kilometres to Chhatru from Gramphoo in three hours, half of it lost on the nulla crossing. Chhatru has a nice meadow and there are two dhabas and some tents pitched right in front of it. I decided to give the car some rest and drink tea. There were many bikers there, mostly Enfield guys, changing wet socks and trousers. I didn’t have much time to hang around though. An hour and a half later, I finally saw a milestone that said ‘Chhotadara 0km’ but there was nothing there, not even a teashop! I stopped again at a BRO shed a kilometre ahead, but there wasn’t a soul there either.
The roads were dusty and never-ending, but it didn’t matter overmuch to me: nor did the solitude of the drive bother me. The craggy mountains were my only company. There was a strange beauty about the desert-like landscape. The road was strewn with pebbles, rocks and boulders of varying shapes and shades, and a grey, serene Chandra River ran alongside for quite a long way. It was a stunning sight. I played music softly on my stereo. The sun was in and out of the clouds. I smiled to myself. Right beyond the bend was a shepherd with his herd. Only god knew where they had descended from and where they were headed. Another 90 minutes and I reached Batal. I felt a tremendous sense of achievement. Chandratal was just 14 kilometres away!
The Chacha-Chachi dhaba at Batal is almost revered by online posts, and I had read that they had a satellite phone. I snuck inside to find about 25 travellers, both Indian and foreign, relishing dal-rice sitting on beds (the room turns into a dorm at night). I sipped tea and asked about the satphone since my phone still wasn’t working. Chacha said, “Beta, the battery is dead; maybe it will be alright by evening.” Later, I realised there hadn’t been enough sunlight for the solar battery to charge.
The road to Chandratal was much narrower, but I was an expert by then. It was also endlessly winding. Suddenly, I heard a loud blast and figured out that my rear right tyre had burst. I got out feeling breathless. And what did I see there? Two huge mountain dogs were staring at me! This? Now? I wondered at my luck. I stared back till they slowly faded away. Phew!
I hadn’t changed a tyre in 20 years and I had to do it on that lonely mountain road. My brand new hydraulic jack was a real saviour, but it soon became obvious that I couldn’t replace the burst tyre on my own. I needed both my hands to lift and align the heavy replacement, so how was I going to insert the bolt? I gave up and waited. Fifteen minutes later, Manu pedalled up. This Bengaluru boy had been cycling from Gramphoo, having gotten dropped there from Leh. We were both trying to fix the tyre when the driver and passenger of another Sumo stopped to help us. Then it got done quickly. People are always helpful in the hills.
What if another tyre burst? I could fix a puncture, but I did not have another spare. Such were my thoughts as Manu and I made our way separately to the legendary Jamaica’s camp near Chandratal. I intended to pitch tent near it so I could have a hot dinner. It was only about 4pm. There was plenty of time before it got dark. Chandratal was just two kilometres away, followed by a 20-minute trek. I drove on the thin, steep and curvy road to reach Chandratal’s parking lot (oh yes, it says ‘Parking’). I hiked from here, stopping to catch my breath, finally reaching the lake at an altitude of 14,100 feet. Oh, what a sight it was! The mesmerising colours of the blue sky, the white clouds, the jagged mountains, and the incredibly beautiful lake — they justified the 715 kilometres it had taken me to get there.
I made my way back to the camp. Manu and I had hot rice and dal from Jamaica for dinner. The temperature went down to -5 °C that night, I was told by people who slept with thermometers.
I left Chandratal at 9am and reached Manali at half past four that evening. En route, I stopped at Batal’s iconic dhaba. The satphone was working and I called home and friends. I had been ‘missing’ for two days!
I couldn’t get a tyre at Manali, where I stayed overnight. I finally bought a secondhand one at Mandi the day after. Day 6 was at Swarghat, and exactly a week after I left, almost to the hour, I was back in Delhi. That was seven days, 1,412 kilometres, and more nerve than I thought I possessed.
The Shimla route to Chandratal is better for acclimatisation and because the climb is gradual, but I did not have the time it would take. So here’s what I did:
DAY 1 Delhi-Swarghat (340km/7hrs)
DAY 2 Swarghat-Mandi (105km/6.5hrs); ideally, this stretch should not take longer than 3 hours, but it’s prone to traffic jams as many trucks ply the route to the cement factories around Bilaspur.
DAY 3 Mandi-Marhi (146km/5hrs); Mandi-Manali (110km/3.5hrs; since the next gas station was at Kaza, 210km away, I tanked up on fuel and checked air pressure at Manali. Higher tyre pressure is better for rocky roads, fellows around here insist); Manali-Marhi (36km/90mins)
DAY 4 Marhi-Chandratal (96km/8.5hrs); turn right for Kaza from Gramphoo, which is about 15km from Rohtang Pass on the Manali-Leh highway (remember, Marhi to Rohtang is about 17km).
There are no villages from Gramphoo to Chandratal. Chhatru and Batal have dhabas catering to tourists. Gramphoo to Batal can be nicely broken into three almost equidistant stretches — Gramphoo to Chhatru, Chhatru to Chhotadara and Chhotadara to Batal.
Gramphoo-Chhatru (17km/3hrs; it would have been 90mins if the Paagal Nulla pile-up hadn’t happened); Chhatru-Chhotadara (17km/90mins); Chhotadara- Batal (16km/90mins); Batal- Chantratal (14km/90mins; though I took much longer because of a tyre burst); take the road to Kaza and turn for the road to Chandratal 2km out of Batal.
DAY 5 Chandratal-Manali
DAY 6 Manali-Swarghat
What to pack
You’ll go mad Googling time taken to cover distances (weird and unrealistic) so printing out a broad route map should be your first agenda item. You won’t need a map for Delhi-Manali; mine was for Gramphoo-Kaza.
Be sure to keep a hydraulic jack, foot pump and tubeless puncture kit handy for changing tyres. You will need camping gear and woollens, of course, and don’t forget to pack a lath (wooden staff) for scaring away small animals. Your luggage should also include a Swiss Army knife, hammer, nails, torch, emergency lamp, food and medicines (keep Diamox handy with a prescription, for altitude sickness), and music CDs, of course. No mobile network functions beyond Rohtang Pass till Kaza, though I was told BNSL works on and off after Losar.
Where to stay
Mostly, I managed with whatever I could find along the way. I missed it in the torrential rain on my onward journey, but stayed at HPTDC’s Hotel Hill Top (from Rs 1,450; hptdc.nic.in) at Swarghat on my return; you can book ahead via their website.
At Mandi, I checked into the Raj Mahal Palace (from Rs 1,600; rajmahalpalace.com), the heritage property of the erstwhile ruler of Mandi: an excellent choice. My room was nice and the food was good, particularly the tandoori trout.
There’s a 2-room PWD rest house tucked away from the road to Rohtang at Marhi and it comes with a spectacular 360-degree view, but I hadn’t thought to book it beforehand so the caretaker turned me away categorically. That left me with a couple of dhabas which offered asbestos-roofed brick rooms and shared loos. Your best bet at Batal is the Chacha-Chachi dhaba; many people halt here for the night while travelling from Kaza to Manali and vice versa. Rates are not fixed and can range from Rs 600-1,300 per night at roadside dhabas.
Look up Jamaica in Chandratal for tents and hot food (he’s at +91-9418200183, but his number works only when he is visiting Manali; reservations are not expected in this part of the world). I paid RS 150 for my dal-rice dinner; I pitched my own tent and left before breakfast. Jamaica also offers a tent with meals for about Rs 2,000 per day.
After roughing it out on my way up, I indulged in a stay at the Citrus Manali Resorts (from Rs 6,000; citrushotels.com) in Manali, a beautiful property by the banks of the Beas, where I slept listening to the divine music of the river.
I drove a Skoda Yeti 4X4. A decent ground clearance is important, to negotiate the nullas, so an SUV is recommended. A four-wheel drive helps and it’s a huge psychological relief, but not a must.
Drink lots of water, and limit or avoid smoking. Pack breakfast and lunch whenever possible to save time. I usually took masala omelettes and stuffed parathas.
August–September is the best time to visit Lahaul-Spiti. I made this trip on the Independence Day weekend. As I planned my trip, a friend pointed me to videos that an Enfield group tour biker had posted on his blog — boulders blocked roads, the water crossings on the last Kaza-Manali stretch were very scary, and I wasn’t going to have anyone to help me through them. I reasoned there would be less water since my trip was over a month after theirs, and the BRO would have cleared the rocks by the time I got there. But I packed gumboots to check the depth of snowmelt streams, and I tried not to think about landslides, and fresh snowfall on the upper reaches (which would cause water levels to rise considerably downstream)