I must admit, walking to Chandratal was the loneliest experience of this journey so far. It put me in a shell of some sorts. I wanted to be quiet, shielding myself in the privacy of a small white tent at Tenzin camp, left alone with my thoughts. I felt incredibly shy at Chandratal.
On a valley two kilometers below the tal, there are two camping sites; each about a kilometer or two apart. The second site has six different camp groups each of who have set up multiple tents in their part of the area. It’s a gigantic oval ground right in the middle of sharp edgy hills. A strange site up close. A field of tents.
When I reached here around 1 in the afternoon, it was almost deserted. But as I walked diagonally across the ground to the far right corner to meet Chacha’s son, (of Chandra Dhaba in Batal. His son Tenzin Tashi sets up the Tenzin Camp here besides going to Bodh Gaya in the winters for all the Buddhist pilgrims), I spot a fluorescent rush driving up to join me on a bike.
It’s Bali, with his shoulder-length brown hair streaked like Dhoni and tied in a bun at the back, and his bandana and his flashy goggles and his biker jacket, worn jeans and Relaxo chappals grey and loose with use. He’s all swag. Bali has a bali in his ears of course and a sharp nose on a shrunken face with prominent bones. In bird world he’d be a vulture. But he has brilliant eyes, brown in a Rajasthani way or maybe it’s his moustache. And he talks a lot.
We are joined by the sheep herders who live near Chandratal (in tents, right next to where the cars stop). They are here for beedi and matches. It’s a wholesale purchase so they don’t have to come down again tomorrow.
Bali mixes me a glass of Glucon-d and then asks me to pick any of the small white tents for my stay. For solo travelers it’s cheaper. Actually it depends on the visitor. Everyone is quoted a custom price. An irish solo traveler was charged Rs. 1,000 later in the evening. A group of Indian boys with a car were charged Rs. 1,500. I got away with Rs. 300. I could have also picked a mattress in the ‘common room’ for Rs. 100 but it seemed too cluttered an claustrophobic and served as the camp’s stock room with the back chamber filled with kitchen supplies and the front filled with extra beddings.
Soon I’m trying to take a nap in my boiling hot tent which had been chained up under the sun since morning. The nap is a pretense. It’s suffocating inside. Yet the tent is almost threatening to fly off because of the wind outside. I continue tossing for an hour or so. Sticking my feet out to catch a little bit of the cool breeze that crashes against my tent. Yet the setup has been tied so strategically that not one bit enters inside. I can see a snow peak from where my head is on the pillow.
After about an hour I groggily walk out to visit the tent toilet. Tashi is back after meeting his friend from the neighbouring camp site. He makes wonderful Maggi and is a peaceful conversationalist. None of the vocal aggression of Bali here. Tashi is calm. Bali claimed to have started the camp with Tashi about 6 years ago but in the evening he sat cooking dinner while Tashi enjoyed run and popcorn with his friends and me.
Bali also said that he and Tashi trek up the snow each year to resurrect the Chandra dhaba before they set up the camp at Chandra Taal. He said it took 20 days to clear the snow from Chandra Dhaba alone. Chachiji had said 9 days. One of them is wrong. You can pick your own number too I guess.
I was soon back to my tent, trying to sleep again. My mind tells me I need rest but my body disagrees. I just lazing about. The altitude sickness here is real. I often panic as it becomes hard to inhale in a horizontal position. And every time I start drifting to sleep, I feel as though I’ll forget to breathe hard enough.
When the sun was almost done for the day, I walk out of my camp, reliving the ritual of tying my boot laces. I walk up to the mound to give company to the lone female yak grazing nearby. She looks at me suspiciously for a long time making me worry she might chase me back to my tent. But then she looked back to her grass. And I sit, savoring the warmth, dipping paint brushes into the small water puddle I have created in the rock I sit on and finish painting what I started at the banks of the Chandratal. The sun sets without a warning. Suddenly the hill opposite has swallowed it. It will return almost 18 hours later; again suddenly peeking out from behind the hill on the other side. It would have crawled from beneath our feet at night to surprise us tomorrow.
In the evening, Tenzin and his friends from the other camps here are talking about people they know in their native language. There’s Chhotu who loves to smoke. He’s young and shouldn’t be smoking says Tashi.
Tashi has the nose of a mountain goat. A straight bridge from his forehead. And he has a big face. And he looks strikingly like his father. He’s got kind eyes like his father too. But it’s his friend from Manali who has the ditto sense of humour as his father.
He sees the packet of Golden Virginia and immediately asks if he can roll. 4-5 hours ago, Bali had warned me that Chhotu might make that demand if he spotted the packet.
“Aap chhotu ho?” I ask
“Nahi, main motu hoon.”
Straight faced bugger had me believe him. But chachaji’s dialogues had me all prepared.
I shouldn’t have had the rum I was offered in a red plastic cup. “Aap ke lie laal glass taki aap bilkul laal ho jao.” Tashi offered me the glass with this line. Three sips later I was panting for breath. My heartbeat seemed erratic in my chest.
By 8.30 p.m. I was under 3 layers of blankets – panting, scared, tired and thoroughly insecure and irritated. I settled down to write but the thoughts won’t flow. Pain radiates down my left hip to the calf of my left leg. My left side is week it seems. Walking triggers pain, so does cold. There’s been no dearth of that today.
Breathing into the blanket, I was warm enough to soon slide into sleep when Tashi tapped on the tent canvas. Didn’t I want to go to the tal at night? I said I would. But I was in no mood now. Also I had over-heard that the best time to go would be during a full moon which has passed almost a week or so back. The disappointed Tashi told me that if I stay on my own the whole time, I’ll be boring. I must make effort to break out of sleeping so much.