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A splash of green

On a weeklong Himalayan Odyssey I discovered

travel Updated: May 07, 2010 19:55 IST

The tiny hamlet of Chatru is tucked away in the vast expanses of the rugged Himalayas. It is an oasis in the cold, high-altitude desert landscape of Spiti Valley in Himachal Pradesh. Chatru is nearly 83 km from Manali over the Rohtang Pass. My wife and I were on a two-week-long Himalayan odyssey, starting from Sundernagar and ending in Shimla.

As we took the high mountain roads, from Keylong, the district headquarter of Lahaul and Spiti, we didn't expect to see any greenery. A few of the peaks were covered with snow, which reflected a range of colours when the sunlight fell on it. A few adventurous bikers gave us company on the bumpy drive.

We entered Chatru late in the afternoon, and stopped at a dhaba for tea. The owner Ladoo informed us that Chatru only had a PWD Guest House, an office of the Geological Survey of India and two tented dhabas. Icy winds blew across our faces, as we sat at one of the tables. "We close once snow sets in by late October and move down to a lower altitude," he said.
There was a British and a German rock climber at the dhaba. Over tea, they told us that they had been camping in Chatru for over three months.

Oasis in a cold desert
We had just begun to move away after bidding them goodbye, when we saw some lush green patches in the barren landscape. "Green peas, sir, that's the only cash crop that grows here," Thakur bhai, our driver and guide informed us. "These high-valued peas are exported."
It looked like an oasis in a cold, desolate desert, and some hardy mountain folk were plucking the pea pods and stacking them up in gunny sacks.

As we made our way to the PWD Guest House -- a cute little cabin with 2 set of rooms -- I handed our stay permit (signed by the PWD Officer in Koksar) to the caretaker. I was surprised when the caretaker told us that he'd placed candles on the table to be used at night. "Why candles?" I asked. "Sir, there is no electricity in Chatru."

"Namaste, hope you'll spend the night here?" asked an elderly gentlemen. He was a glaciologist, and had been staying at the guest house for the last four months. "We'll be soon closing camp, as winter is setting in, and heading for the plains," he said.

With his team, he was studying the impact of global warming on the Hamta Glacier, 3 km uphill, across the Chandra river. "The glaciers actually are melting. Every year, they are receding," he said.

As dusk set in, we moved into the kitchen, and the caretaker told us that there was no gas connection but only a kerosene pump stove. We had already purchased dal, rice and eggs from the dhaba, along with cooking oil, onions, potatoes, cabbage, and of course freshly plucked sweet peas.

We were also carrying canned chicken sausages and tuna flakes. To his utter delight, we asked the caretaker to step aside, and offered to be the chefs for the evening.
As we made dinner, the glaciologist narrated a story of some trekkers who had lost their way in the Hampta Pass a few years ago. It was snowing heavily and the glaciologist and his team were huddled up in their camp. They heard frail cries of help all night, but couldn't venture out on a rescue mission.

"We felt so helpless. In fact, till date, their bodies have not been found. Perhaps they're buried amidst the snow," he recollected sadly.

But this harsh reality of the landscape was far from my mind when I went on a trek the next morning. As I sat down on one of the boulders by the Chandra River, watching its crystal-clear water gushing by, I felt peaceful. With Chatru's lingering serenity still in our minds, we headed to our next destination.

Getting there
From Manali, Chatru is on the way to Kaza via the Rohtang Pass. On NH 21, take the right turn that forks out at Gramphoo, (the left carries on towards Leh, via Keylong).
f you go via Kaza from Shimla on NH 22, it is beyond Kunzum Pass and Batal.

Roads to Lahaul and Spiti are closed from December to May as both the Kunzum Pass and Rohtang Pass experience heavy snow. The best time to go is between August to October.

Where to stay
The only accommodation available is a PWD Guest House with two rooms. Booking can be done from the PWD Office, Koksar, Lahaul and Spiti, Himachal Pradesh.