How Not To Be Fools While Planning A Spiti Valley Trip (Chandratal Lake)!

You must be thinking that she just wrote a clickbait title so that more people decide to click on it and read it. Well, even though that is the secondary reason (who wouldn’t love more readers), this title was suggested to me during our Spiti valley trip. We were definitely fools and by writing this, I am hoping that you can avoid at least some of the mistakes we made. It has taken me a while to write about one of the craziest trips last year but hopefully, it is better late than never (Like the many posts I have in drafts now).

Disclaimer: I like to laugh at my own mistakes and that is why I will be writing this post with humorous undertones. But a trip to Spiti and Chandrataal lake is no laughing matter and it could turn out to be one of the most dangerous road trips you have ever been on. But I do find it really funny now thinking about how stupid we were during this Spiti valley road trip.

Lots of mountains in the background of a green field with a tiny green shed and a lovely blue sky

Table Of Contents

So before we head to the post, let us set our basics right as usual.

Where are Spiti valley and Chandrataal lake?

Ever since Lonely Planet included Lahaul and Spiti in the best regions to travel in 2018, there has been an added interest from people living outside India. Spiti Valley is a cold desert valley located in the state of Himachal Pradesh in Northern India in the Himalaya mountains. It is accessible only by road from either Manali or Shimla. The entrance to Spiti from Manali is through Rohtang pass and is usually open only between June and early October. The route from Shimla to Spiti valley through Kinnaur is open almost throughout the year except for days when the highway is closed due to heavy snowfall.

Chandrataal or Chandratal lake or ‘The Moon Lake’ is a lake situated in Spiti valley. It is a crescent-shaped lake and is quite popular with campers and trekkers in the Himalayas.

How not to be a fool while planning your Spiti Valley Trip and Chandratal Lake Itinerary?

Don’t plan your Spiti valley Itinerary at the last minute after seeing some gorgeous photos of the Chandratal lake!!

I know the photos are gorgeous and you will feel like going to Chandrataal lake on a whim. This is exactly what we did. DON’T DO THAT. When we were planning a trip with cousins in June, we went through multiple iterations on where to go for 10 days. We started with Europe, then the Philippines, Bhutan, Leh-Ladakh and finally we decided that we will choose Himachal Pradesh. It was our first time in Himachal and we decided to spend 10 dedicated days in Himachal with a couple of days in Chandigarh. We weren’t too keen to visit Shimla but Manali, Kasol, Bir Billing and Mcleodganj were on our list.

But don’t you think that was a boring itinerary? There was no spice in it and that is why I suggested Chandrataal almost at the last minute. We were all at my sister’s and brother in law’s place 10 days before the trip to finalise the itinerary. Everyone instantly agreed after seeing the pictures of the Chandratal lake and that was how it was decided that we will go see the lake in Spiti valley.

But we were very clear from the beginning. Even though there are many other places to visit in Spiti Valley, we decided to limit ourselves only to the lake since we had only two days to spare during our Himachal tour.

Don’t be a fool and book a Zoom car from Chandigarh!!

We were very clear from the beginning that we wanted to do a road trip around Himachal Pradesh. There were 6 of us and 4 of us were excellent drivers (please note this point since I will get to this in a short while). And we had a spare 5th driver in case the need arose as well (I think I just called my brother in law a spare tyre).

Obviously, we needed a big car since there were 6 of us and luggage (even though all of us had only backpacks). So now we wanted to travel in comfort (the naivety of all of us. Himalayas and comfort) and we decided to book a Ford Endeavour through Zoomcar for approximately Rs 70,000 (Approx 1000$) for 10 days. We were flying in and out of Chandigarh.

But the minute we landed in Chandigarh (I think Zoomcar was sleeping till we decided to board our flights), we were informed that the Ford Endeavour was not available and they only had a stupid Scorpio in its place for around Rs 48,000. After a lot of fighting, we realised that we did not have any other option. We decided to accept our fate and go with the Scorpio only.

P.s: Actually, it is a common scam of Zoomcar and they won’t let you know until the last minute that your car is not available and they give you one dabba car in its place. I have heard that this is quite common in North India.

By the time we reached our homestay in Manali, it was already past 12 AM that day.

Johnson_Orchards_Manali_Homestay_share

One of the Pagal Nahlas (Streams that flow from the melted glaciers above onto the roads). Here, a group of people are helping a car stuck in one of these streams

 

Don’t be a fool and wait until the last minute to obtain a permit to cross Rohtang Pass!!

Like I mentioned before, the way to Spiti through Rohtang Pass from Manali is open between June and early October and is closed for the rest of the year. However, in order to cross Rohtang pass, you need to obtain a permit from the Government and only a limited number of passes are issued every day (It is one of the most pristine locations in the world and it is admirable that the Government is doing their bit to preserve the beauty of the place). In addition to going to Spiti Valley, there is another route from Manali to Leh through Rohtang pass. The road to Leh and the road to Spiti valley split up just after you cross Rohtang pass.

We reached quite late on Saturday which meant that the SDM office was closed on Sunday and we had to obtain our permits online. When we went in June 2017, the online application only opened up 24 hours before the date of the journey. But what we didn’t know was that the online quota gets over as soon as it opens up and we were too late by then to commence our journey on a Monday.

Thankfully, we got a contact at the SDM office who assured us that he will have the permit ready for us by 9:30 AM on Monday morning. But as Indian standard time goes, that was a promise that was down the drain even before he told it and we finally got the permit only by 11:45 AM on Monday. (He actually did not charge us a single rupee of bribe for his help and asked us to donate Rs 200 for some welfare fund.)

Few things to note here:

  • Rohtang Pass Permit cost is approximately Rs 800 for petrol vehicles and Rs 400 for Diesel vehicles.
  • Rohtang Pass is closed on Tuesdays for maintenance work. Which means that you cannot go from Manali to Spiti valley on a Tuesday but you can return back on a Tuesday. (One of the points that came very handy later on in deciding our plans)
From July 2017, the SDM office is open on Sundays as well and the online application for permits open 7 days in advance.

Google Maps is an idiot and you shouldn’t listen to it while planning your Spiti itinerary

So we are sitting in a cafe at 10:30 AM waiting for our permit to be ready and we decide to check Google to see how much time it will take for us to reach Chandrataal. It told us that it will take approximately 4.5 hours to cover a distance of 140 kms. But thankfully, we knew that Google was wrong (Google refuses to be a god at some times) after speaking to various people and we knew that we would only reach around 8 PM if we left around 11:30 AM. 8 PM didn’t sound too bad and we still decided to continue on our Spiti tour.

Lots of green mountains and a road in the middle of it

Can you tell me where the road is?

Don’t be an idiot and leave Manali anytime after 7 AM if you are planning to go all the way to Spiti!!

So it is peak summer in India in June and most of the schools in the North are having summer vacations. Now the kid tells his parents that he wants to go see snow in June. What other option does the parent have other than to book a trip to Manali? And where else would you have buckets of ice to play around with other than at Rohtang Pass? So what does that mean for people like us who have decided to leave at noon to go to Spiti? You get stuck in traffic all the way till Rohtang Pass where you can see lots of happy families playing with whatever chunk of snow or ice they can find in Summer.

We also got lost and found ourselves staring at two army officers trying to guard a checkpoint in Solang valley. This meant that by the time we crossed Rohtang Pass, it was past 4 PM. It is here at Gramphu that the road diverts into two.

Don’t be a fool and forget to download an offline map of your route!!

This is one of the smartest things we managed to do. We had a downloaded offline map of the route on two different phones. None of our SIMs worked post-Rohtang Pass and we were completely offline till we got back the next day. None of the major networks work and even if someone tells you that BSNL will work, please tell them that BSNL will work only if you have a SIM that you purchased in Himachal Pradesh.

So what happens if you have a mom at home who is worried that her kids are lost in the wilderness and she has no way to contact them? Just expect to listen to the disgruntled complaints once you are back home. In spite of telling her multiple times that you will be offline for two days.

A green shed surrounded by mountains in a vast green field

Don’t  try to be a hero and decide to self-drive on your maiden Himalayan adventure!!

I told you I will get to this point soon. So why did we decide to do a self-drive on our first Himalayan adventure? Because we were too cocky and we thought that we can self-drive on our own.

Hear me out. We are city dwellers, all born, brought up and living in a big metropolis. Most of us drive on a daily basis through traffic and what could be worse than traffic in Bangalore? We have driven on multiple highways around India and the world. We had it all figured out and we thought it would be child’s play to drive in the Himalayas.

I started driving that day and due to some confusion, I handed the vehicle to my expert brother in law, Nitesh. Everything was fine till we crossed Rohtang Pass. That is when the roads started to disappear and we came to know the real meaning of potholes. After Gramphu, there are only dirt roads all the way to Chandrataal. There are some places where you will be lucky to find roads. I think it is when we got to our first Pagal Nahla that we finally realised that this was going to be a thrilling and adventurous journey (more like: ‘Please don’t let us die, God’ trip). Pagal Nahlas are streams that pass through these dirt roads from the mountains above and you have a cliff on the other side of the road. A car had got stuck in the stream and it took a while for all the people in the area to get the car out of the Pagal Nahla. A guy at the Pagal Nahla realised that we were novices after seeing my brother in law’s driving and told us to drive carefully. He told us that the road ahead is dangerous and asked us to remain alert at all times.

P.S: Please don’t drive a saloon on your way to Spiti valley. Your car will murder you for doing so much damage to it and your body will murder you for days after for putting it through such an ordeal.

Recommended Read – Road Trips in India
A car trying to navigate the treacherous mountainous gravel roads of the Himalayas with people looking on.

Scorpio was a stupid car and please only take a car that you know will be reliable in such a terrain!!

In hindsight, the Scorpio was a better option than the Ford Endeavour to drive in the Himalayas since it was smaller in size and it could still fit when we passed another car on those roads. Some parts of the route are extremely narrow and sometimes the rest of us had to get down to guide the driver to pass another car without scratching it or without falling into the nearby cliff. You can understand which was a bigger priority for us.

However, the Scorpio had its own set of problems. The gearbox had a mind of its own. It did not have enough power while navigating some of those tricky routes and there was one instance when it almost slipped on the rocks and fell into the river nearby. I almost had a heart attack at the moment since I was the only one who saw it from the front while others were pushing from the back.

Since there were 6 of us, it meant that one of the girls (because we were shorter) had to sit in the back. That was definitely not a good experience for any of our backs.

Don’t be fools and decide to skip your lunch thinking that you will get it somewhere on the way!!

We had a late breakfast and so by the time we got to Marhi, none of us were hungry. So we thought we could find something else on the way. Big mistake. The only food stop post this point is at Om Cafe between Chatru and Batal and by the time we got here, this place was closed. If you want to eat during your drive to Spiti, then your best option would be Marhi. We did have few tidbits and we survived on that for our journey there.

Don’t be fools and refuse to listen to the calls of nature!!

After Marhi, you will not find even a single working restroom on your drive to Spiti valley from Manali. There are a couple of resthouses on the way but all of them were closed by the time we reached. We enquired at a few of them on the way back but none of them were in working condition. What did that mean? It meant that we found some boulders to pee and hoped that none of the shepherds from up in the hills were spying on us. Thankfully, it is very difficult to spot people once you cross Gramphu other than fellow travellers.

We did the same in the night and one of us ended up stepping on someone’s else poop. Maybe I should have titled this ‘The Saga of our drive in the Himalayas: A tale of adventure, thrill and poop‘. I would have definitely gotten more clicks. After driving on those roads, I am pretty sure that all of us came very close to shitting ourselves anyway.

Don’t be fools and listen to the drunk manager at the only HP tourism resthouse at Batal!!

Batal is an hour away from Chandrataal and by the time we reached Batal, it was way past 9 PM. The drunk manager at the resthouse told us that he did not have any availability and asked us to continue on our journey to Chandrataal. There were around 20 other people (mostly riders and all men) at Bataal and all of them warned us from going at that time of the night. The road was even more treacherous and it had already begun to rain that night. Many of them had come down since it was too cold up there and they didn’t want to be victims of AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness).

It is always advised that you acclimatize at Bataal before you proceed to Chandrataal. Chandrataal is at a height of 14,000 ft and many people have suffered from AMS during their time there.

The road from Bataal to Chandrataal is even more dangerous and we were so glad that we did not listen to the drunk manager. At Kunzum pass, one route continues to Chandrataal while the other one connects to Khaza in the Spiti valley trek. Many travellers decide to do the 9km hike from Kunzum pass to Chandrataal lake.

A gravel road in the middle of many mountains and some huge rocks

Don’t be fools and refuse to accept the kindness of others!!

We survived that night only because of the kindness of Chachaji. He gave us food and shelter. He even arranged fuel for us for the way back because we were idiots and did not keep a spare can of fuel with us.

I was not only floored by his kindness. There are very few travellers on those roads and every time a car got stuck or someone needed help, everyone pooled in to do their bit of work.

Don’t be a fool and decide to come back without seeing Chandratal lake!!

In the morning, when we woke up, one of us suggested that we head back to Manali from Batal only. The reason was that Nitesh was experiencing a bad headache (a symptom of AMS) and he was the only one who had driven on those treacherous roads. But all of us wanted to see the lake and we decided to proceed at sunrise.

Don’t be a fool and pay the entire amount for your stay at Chandrataal!!

If you Google where to stay in Chandrataal, the only option that comes up is Bishan’s Parasol Camps. To preserve the beauty of the lake, you are not allowed to camp near the lake anymore. Your only options are at the campsite around 2kms away from the lake. Even though there are multiple camps available at this campsite, the most famous one is the Parasol one. We had paid the entire amount of Rs 15,000 (Rs 5000 for each luxury tent. Again, who pays that much-expecting luxury in the mountains?) in advance and this was one mistake we wish we had not done. We ended up not using these in the night and we only went there in the morning to use the toilets and they gave us some coffee and biscuits too. Since none of our or their phones were working, we could not tell them that we were staying at Bataal and they had reserved the tents for us thinking we would come later in the night.

Don’t be fools and decide to do a trek to Chandrataal on empty stomachs!!

We did have some refreshment in the morning but that was definitely not enough. The roads were really steep and since the car was not pulling, some of us had to hike part of the way till the parking lot. It is another 15-20 minute walk from the parking lot to the lake. But most of us had started to experience AMS symptoms and we had to do the walk really slowly. It is always advised that you drink lots of water if you start experiencing AMS symptoms. One very common symptom is shortness of breath or headaches and even the fittest of us all had this problem.

Don’t be fools and forget to take in the beauty of Chandrataal lake!!

So by the time we got to the lake after lots of huffing and puffing, we were struck by the beauty of the lake. It is very pristine and there were not too many people around. You also have an option to go around a trail around the lake. There was only one couple there besides us at that time (most people were on their way back to Manali or Kaza after catching the sunrise at the lake). It is so peaceful and all of us wondered where the lake got the water from. There is no visible outlet or inlet and there is even a famous legend surrounding from where the lake gets its water from. It is strictly forbidden to litter the place and it is definitely one of the most remotest parts of earth I have been to.

Don’t forget to take your trash back with you since Spiti valley is currently grappling with how to manage the trash left by tourists. It is one of those remote places that need to be preserved and I hope each one of us will do our bit.

A beautiful blue-green lake surrounded by mountains Buddhist prayer flags sitting at the edge of the blue Chandrataal lake

Don’t be fools and decide to go to Spiti valley in your mini skirt!!

We were three girls on this trip and none of us are thankfully in that category. Don’t forget to dress warmly because temperatures touched sub-zero temperatures even in June.

Tips for all travellers to Chandrataal in Spiti Valley

  • If you are on your maiden Himalayan trip, then it is advised that you rent a taxi from Manali and avoid self-driving. Another option is to take the bus from Manali to Bataal or Kunzum Pass. Then do a Spiti Valley trek or hitchhike from there to Chandrataal. There is only one bus and it leaves Manali every day in the morning (on the days it decides to run). There are lots of riders and that is another option if you love riding your bikes in unknown areas.
  • The total distance from Manali to Chandrataal is approximately 140 kms and it takes 8-10 hours to cover this distance.
  • Try to come back to Manali on a Tuesday since you will not get any onward traffic. You can make the journey and reach Rohtang in 3 hours without traffic.
  • Carry enough supplies with you so that you can survive in your vehicle if the need arises.
  • Travel only with people you know really well. I travelled with family and hence we survived this trip and we didn’t end up murdering each other. Because of the unpredictability of this trip, many people end up fighting with each other and you wouldn’t want this to happen with your friends.
  • Don’t do a lot of planning since this is one of those places where nature has her own way most times and your plan will go out of the window. On the way back, we were stuck for almost two hours in traffic near Rohtang Pass because an avalanche had displaced some rocks onto the roads. Like Umang says here in his misadventures in Spiti post, ‘What can go wrong will go wrong.’
  • Don’t say no to the kindness of the people. That is the one thing that will keep you going through the trip.
6 of us in front of the lake in sepia

The Six Fools

Conclusion:

For us, more than seeing the lake, it was the actual journey all the way to Spiti and back that made the journey so memorable. I will definitely be going back soon. So what did you think about my tips on how not to be a fool while planning your Spiti Valley trip with Chandrataal lake as the focus. Let me know in the comments below.

Liked it, then pin it.

              

 

 

12 Comments

    1. I would have loved to drive a Jeep there. It would have been a perfect car in my opinion for that terrain. I have never been a fan of the Scorpio since I have driven my uncle’s Scorpio many times and I have never liked driving it.

      1. I think more than the car, it’s important to have good experience of driving in the mountains and the route from Manali to Spiti is pretty much as hardcore as it gets. The 250km from Manali to Kaza are basically over a non-existent road and very narrow turns and passes and you could need to cross patches of deep mud at Rohtanf. You preferably need a car with good ground clearance. I have driven from Delhi to Kaza including Rohtang and Chandrataal in a Fiat Punto and that did the job decently too. So be mindful and respectful of the mountains and you shall find your way!

        1. Hi Mohak, I didn’t say you can’t drive in a Saloon. But why would you do that if you love your car so much? I love my car a lot and I would definitely not do that to my car. During this trip, we saw three saloon cars that had some damage or the other because of the condition of the roads. So it is best to avoid if you are not used to these roads.

  1. I think this is the best blog I have read on Spiti Valley so far 🙂 I love that different start, and yes you have mentioned everything one needs to know before visiting this most sought destination 🙂

Post a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.