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Chandra Taal. The name evokes visions of a distant and wondrous place, of exotic vistas and a difficult journey. Located high in the Himalayas in the Indian district of Lahul and Spiti, Himachal Pradesh, the isolated high-altitude lake is remote, beautiful and the destination for many journeys. Important to religious Hindu visitors, Chandra Taal is attributed by legend to be the place where the god, Indra, picked up Yudhishthira, the oldest Pandava brother, in his chariot. Many of the visitors are worshipers making a sacred pilgrimage. Others are Western trekkers, making their own kind of personal pilgrimage. The remote, pristine lake set against the backdrop of snow-covered peaks and brown, treeless slopes makes the journey all seem worthwhile.
Relatively small, Chandra Taal hasn't yet attracted a great deal of attention by scientists. The wetlands at the southeastern end of the lake are a summer haven for large numbers of birds. Because high-altitude wetlands in the cold Himalayan deserts are extremely rare, the site is protected as a RAMSAR Wetland of International Importance. At an altitude of over 14,000 feet, the lake is free of ice only about three months of the year. The Himachal Pradesh Fisheries Department stocked the lake with brown trout several years ago, but it is unclear if any fishing is allowed. The lake is about 1.5 miles long and relatively narrow, shaped like a half-crescent. It is easy to see why the Sanskrit name translates to 'Lake of the Moon'.
Located on the Samudra Tapu Plateau, one side of the lake is hemmed by steep, rocky, brown slopes, the other by a meadow which blooms in early summer with a profusion of wildflowers. Overlooked by the Moulkila and Chandrabhaga Mountain ranges, the meadow was once a glacier. A few families of local sheepherders have grazing rights to the meadows and come to take up residence near Chandra Taal for the short summer. June to September is the only time the road is open to motorized vehicles and even then, it is rough travel. The trekkers often come through Rohtang La and Kunzum La passes or via Batal from May to early October. Shortly after, snow closes the trekking routes and the passes.
Visitor accommodations are sparse. Camping is allowed in certain areas of the meadow at a distance of over a mile from Chandra Taal. Enterprising locals rent tents, sleeping bags and mattresses and offer hot tea and food for a reasonable price. Those hardy travelers who arrive outside of the narrow summer window are advised to bring their own camping gear and food, because the tent venders may well have left for the season. Warm clothing and winter weather gear are recommended year round, as even summer nights are often below freezing. Snow isn't unusual any month of the year on the higher stretches of the trail.
The lake is widely reported to have no visible source of incoming water, but the deep blue and turquoise colors indicate the presence of 'rock flour' from the nearby glacier, with water coming in partly via underground passages. Its outflow becomes the sparkling Chandra River. Although there are no published lake surveys, the lake is said to be exceedingly deep. Chandra Taal lies along the Batal-Baralacha La hiking trail, a popular trek for hardy outdoors fans. The trail is considered moderate, but many guide recommendations warn of unpredictable weather, tumultuous river crossings and altitude sickness. Tour groups can be arranged via bus or even pack mule. There are several options for lodgings along the main road, although none could be considered modern accommodations. The nearest facilities for most tourists are the two guest cottages near Losar about 20 miles back along the road. More luxurious lodgings can be found at Kaza, 30 miles further from Chandra Taal.
Because the trip to Chandra Taal takes several hours even by vehicle, visitors often plan a trip to the lake as a two-day excursion sandwiched within a longer tour of distant monasteries and picturesque temples. Surrounded by spectacular mountain peaks and glaciers, there are few manmade attractions in the area. Solitude is reportedly one of the major draws to Chandra Taal-starkly beautiful scenery, brilliant azure skies, waters in ever-changing hues of blue, and only the sounds of birds and the occasional sheep breaking the spell that is Chandra Taal. Let Chandra Taal cast its spell over you.
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