Exploring Madness in the Silence of Spiti

When I woke up in the morning, I was in two minds. Should I go? Should I wait for a ride? Should I just stay on in Batal instead? Save both money and effort? The choice was simple. All I had to do was say yes or no. So, I stopped thinking. I tuned out and went about my duty, focusing on the next task alone.

The plan is to walk to Chandratal. Google told me its 14 kilometers and the board in Batal agreed.

I packed essentials in the small water proof bag I am to take with myself; carried the rucksack to the storeroom behind the dhaba; and then wishing my Israeli roommates goodbye (they are to head out to Manali later in the day), I started walking.

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The road after the Batal bridge

Setting out a little before 9 a.m. I channelize my energy on enjoying the walk. At first it seems like a mad thing to do, to walk in this gigantic rocky abyss, but after 15 minutes, I have made peace with what I’m doing. Still, it is annoyingly easy to lose my breath and my lungs command me to take frequent pauses.

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Hark! Hark!

After about 30 minutes of walking, clicking pictures and reading warning signs painted on the rocks on the side of the road, a jeep stops to offer me a lift till the junction (about 3 km uphill from Batal). The road forks here – one heads to Kaza further uphill (where this jeep is headed), and the other continues straight ahead to Chandra Taal – my prized destination.

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The road to Kaza

At the junction (we are here before I can start a proper conversation with my benevolent companions) a sign board informs me that from here the Chandra Taal is 14 kilometers. The signboard at Batal states the same distance. There seems to be a distance lapse somewhere. Or did the hill folks not count 3 kilometers. Haa! what is 3 kilometeres. Such an undignified amount of kilometers to add to the beautiful 14 number. This is still an optimistic moment in my day. I’m alone with my shadow. So far I’m euphoric that I have just started and brimming with the excitement of the adventure. The rest can follow at its own pace.

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At the junction
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Clearly, I’m the only awkward poser

After an hour of walking under the sun (I’d like to remind you that my nose is generally not as red as in this picture. That’s the doing of the Spiti sun), and wading through a stream, the magnitude of the road starts to sink in. I feel that this walk will never end. That I will keep lifting my legs, one after the other, and hear them make that inconsequential crunch on the white road where I place my boot. Mile after mile, not a single soul in sight. Just my breathing, the crunch and my shadow – the only sign of life on this road.

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The little stream which seemed huge when I waded through it

I’m kept company by the blinding blue sky, the constant howling of wind, and the glittering stone slides that follow me steadily on the right side all through the route. How does it work, I wonder. This slide of rocks. It could very well start sliding again now, as I pass invitingly beneath it. And it could take me down the valley all the way to the banks of the Chandra. The height isn’t so bad. Just that I’ll get quite peeled on the way.

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The great slide stopped by this hilarious human effort

At intervals there are white maggot like spots on the hills opposite. On a closer look, I spot movement among them. Sheep grazing on grass that seems to grow only on the other side of the Chandra river. This side, my side, there’s only stones and rocks reflecting the sunlight. I’m grateful for the sheeps and their infrequent bleeting.

Today, I realized sanity and madness is the same thing. Just that the latter is aimless. But both ways it’s just you alone with your breathing and your grit/stupidity. I am delusional in parts. The road, blinding me with the brightness, seems to change colours. Purple, red, pink. The silence encourages me to practice some of those rusted dance moves. It also demotivates me to walk further. The occasional car and bike that passes by, leaves behind a trail of dust and some courage. I make it a point to speak to them. Just to see people. Just to know there are others on the route and that there really is a taal at the end of this madness.

To give me company, besides the sheep, there are the three black stick figures on the hill across. A sheet of ply tied to each one’s back, making their way to god knows where. They are at a much lower height and don’t reciprocate when I wave.

After I had walked on for almost three hours and thought, I was nearly there (because almost all the stones read ‘Tenzin Camps’ and also because Google said 3 hours is all it takes), a bend in the road, revealed an endless trail that went on as far as I could see before it again disappeared round another bend.

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The road stretches as far as the river is visible before it disappears round the bend

This was rather upsetting because by now my legs had reduced to sticks of achy muscles. I fancy I’m still walking because that movement has become involuntary in my head. And I’m focusing on breathing. One missed breath and I feel like stretching out on the ground.

I did a lot of ‘talking to myself’ today as you can tell. This post is full of me and I and thought and felt. I made some embarrassing monologue videos as well, which I’m not going to share because they are simply lame.

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The cars have been parked. Every visitor must walk the rest.

With about 5 kilometers of the road still left to cover, I managed to secure another ride. And I was more than glad to be offered this spot in this car. Because when we reached the end of the road where all vehicles must stop, there was yet another kilometer to walk at the altitude of 4,300 meters (14,107 ft.). Compared to Batal at 12,992 feet, the oxygen is clearly less here. I see horses graze, and more sheep. It feels like four in the evening but my watch says it’s only 12.20.

When I finally spot the lake, my first instinct is to look away immediately. I’m shocked by it. And then to look back again slowly. Just to make sure it won’t disappear or go further away. It really does seem like a dream. It’s so refreshing just to look at the cool blue of the lake after the dry and dusty road I’ve covered that I really just want to run and splash into it. There’s that kind of excitement building up in my throat, the overwhelming kinds. It’s also immediately relaxing. I’m here.

The water is so clean, so translucent at the shore and such a deep mystique blue further in, that I don’t have it in my heart to dirty it. Neither do I have it in my heart to deal with the shocking cold of this hill lake (god knows what lurks in its depths). I dip my feet into the water along with the waterproof shoes and stand awkwardly, really not having a clue what to do further. So I stoop down and touch the water with my hands.

A family from Bombay (they passed me in a tempo bus on the way), with their Gujarati accent have been making ruckus on the banks of the lake. I couldn’t have asked for a more welcome sound. The sound of happy humans. Mothers, aunts, uncles, nephews, friends, brothers, sisters, splashing about in the water without a care in the world.

Today I realized that anything that lacks the warmth of human voice is silence to me. Silence is so pervasive. It may not feel that way in Delhi or Mumbai but a major chunk of our world lies in it. Just like the Chandra Taal with its poisonous beauty. She seems to have swallowed a man in her belly only last week. The father was there to mourn his deceased son yesterday, I was later told at Tenzin camp.

PS: If the varying spellings of Chandratal irk you it’s because I stuck to what I found on the signboards of the region.

* This story was previously published on Living Unplanned.

About the author:

Neetole Mitra is a storytelling and creative communications professional based in New Delhi. She loves to collect and narrate stories for her blog Living Unplanned besides helping out production houses, advertising agencies and digital platforms communicate better and smarter. Find her on Instagram @LivingUnplanned

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