The breathing problem got worse in the morning. I want to get down to Batal at the earliest. I feel awkward in Chandratal and there is no one to talk to. All the other tourists here are with friends and spent their time either in their tents or preparing for the trek to Chandrataal, stuffing their mouths with bread and butter. Four boys from Bombay were leaving from Kaza. I asked them if they could drop me till the junction. They said first they go to Chandratal.
In the morning, from 7 to 11, the wind is dead in this region. It gets crazy after 12 and rages on till 9.30-10 in the night before it lets you sleep in quiet. It is in these early morning hours that the Chandratal becomes a gigantic mirror. Reflecting the world around it on its ripple less surface.
I agree readily to the clause the Bombay boys have set before me. Then the process goes on for hours. Their driver from Punjab cleaning the car meticulously before it hit the road again. And the Bombay boys having breakfast, popping pills, making sure the khakhra was easily accessible, pilling their bags on the crate on top of the car, rearranging it, combing their hair and what not.
I was offered the lion’s share in this ride. The seat next to the driver with the uninterrupted view. And I thought I would be cramped at the back!
One of them stunk up the car at regular intervals and another dutifully sprayed deo to clear the air. Compromises true friendships are made of.
On the walk to the tal, this time, I took another route. I wanted to get a view of the blue mirror from top. Treading up the hill on which the horses grazed yesterday, I lost sight of the boys who went by the route downhill.
In my pursuit of the Chandratal, I chanced upon two other tals behind the hill that borders it on the left. Much smaller and somewhat dried up in the July heat. Someone had even set up a small blue tent on the banks of one of these tals. I have heard that one can get permission to camp here from Manali or Shimla. Or maybe this vagabond with the tent just broke the rules.
But there it was again. The Chandratal with its knack of hiding away. A still blue moment – a breath stopped midway – a sudden shock to the eyes and the brain. Much like the images in Google. Clear, crystal, pristine, blue and surreal. The mountains floating in the pond’s clear reflection.
I was mid-way an amazed gape when I heard someone call out Maya. I turned as there was no other girl in the vicinity and I felt responsible for the name. It turned out to be the Bombay boys. Sitting next to a pile of rocks towards the far right from where I stand.
“I’m not Maya.” I call back slightly annoyed at this generalization.
“Are you coming with us?”
“Yes…” (Why would they ask that?)
“We are going.”
! “Wait I’m coming there.”
I turned back to the lake again wondering why someone who’s seeing this beauty for the first time wouldn’t want to touch her shores. But then I hear faint giggling from where the lot sits.
“Arey Maya ho ya Jyoti, hume kya karna hai.”
The pride of my name over whelmed me but the ride was more precious. I walked over to them and asked “don’t you wish to go closer?”
“No, we’ve seen the lake. What else to see?”
“Btw, my name’s not Maya.” I turn to the other guy, “Neither Jyoti.” Giggles follow. The one in the center looks away with a smug half smile. “I’m Neetole.” I feel I’ve avenged my name full filmy style and plonk myself on a stone a little ahead of them.
There’s a man standing at the left edge of the lake clicking pictures. What a wonderful spot to be in. Right where the hill ends and the lake begins. Suddenly the boys behind me break out in screams. “Ankit”, “Ankit” “Hum jaa rahe hai. Tujhe yehi rehna hai kya? Mil gae tujhe shiv ji?” And then again, “Tu kar le bhraman, hum to ja rahe hai.” One scream after the other, piercing the silence of Spiti.
Ankit turns around from his poignant shore. Turns out to be the Bombay boy who walks the fastest. Now I know why he must walk fast. He doesn’t reply but turns back to the lake, bends down, touches the water and wets the back of his head. The small ripple his hand had started is now spreading out bigger and bigger over the surface of the lake, sending a distortion across the reflection of the naked mountains on its surface. A slim golden ring advancing on the blue surface. One that still reached for the far away shores by the time Ankit had clambered uphill to us. At least one of them had the sense of showing respect to the lake. Not that it was important. It is a dent on earth filled with water. But it still seems like a miracle of sorts for it to be there.
By the time I was dropped at the junction, I knew Jayesh, Vaibhav (the cheeky one) and Ankit somewhat better. The other boy, who works in a bank in Dubai, the guy who I spoke to about the ride first in the morning, I have unfortunately forgotten his name. He looked sincere and wore specs. We shared éclairs during the ride (a very handy snack to keep on the route. Everyone wants one). And I have also offered a Disprin and some water to the driver from Punjab, who’s a bit annoyed with the constant instructions and warnings the boys hand out. He has a headache due to the heights. I too have gulped a tablet of altitude sickness and lent one to one of boys. Only then I seem to have won some of their trust.
Eventually they asked me questions. Punctuated with respectful pauses, not to seem too eager or nosy. I knew they thought Ladakh was more beautiful than Spiti. And that they were done with the shoddy roads of this region. “The Pangong Tso Lake is at least three times more beautiful.” said Vaibhav. I knew they traveled to seek beauty. A tough choice to demarcate the landscape in such an unstable term. Beauty. Very subjective too.
I wish I could simplify my reasons to travel so easily. What was I doing on the road? Everyone I came across asked me that same question. You are travelling alone? Why? Incredulous look of disbelieve in their eyes. Why would you want to walk all the way from Batal alone? It’s really far. As if being on the road alone and worse still, without any aim, what sense did that make? Really indeed. What sense?
The bespectacled Dubai banking boy asked me how I knew the route to this Batal to Chandratal trek after he’d spent some time pouring over the GPRS to ensure we were on the right route to Kaza. I told him there’s only one route anyway. But there was some mention of a ditch on the route and that he wanted to make sure the car won’t get stuck in that. And anyway the GPRS didn’t need the non-existent network. It worked anyway.
They asked me if I was following a map, and what else was in my plan. And have I traveled solo before? I told them I had just started. I told them I had no plans. I told them I was going with the flow. And then I felt guilty because that meant bumming free rides from people who worked hard to go on planned trips.