The elderly couple of Lahaul-Spiti, who had been running a small dhaba at Baatal for the last 48 years at an altitude of 13500 feet above sea level have saved hundreds of lives of adventure lovers.
The couple are famous as Chacha Chachi and a lifeline for all who travel on Manali-Kaza road. Some regard them not less than a god father because of the many rescues they have carried out and also provided food and shelter for generations of adventure travelers. Many awards are also named after them.
There is no mobile phone signal nor telecom system on Gramphu-Kunzam Pass route and if a traveler gets stuck, then they have the support of their chacha and chachi only.
Between Manali-Kaja Road, hundreds of tourists have been trapped in Chhota Dara, Baatal, Chandra Tal and walking out of the Spiti valley is a demanding adventure. In an emergency or a demanding situation this couple has proved to be a saviour for many adventure seekers and tourists alike.
Chacha and Chachi are happy even today by running a small dhaba at Bataal, 14 kms short of Chandertal Lake in Spiti.
Lahaul-Spiti is known for its high mountains with many glaciers, beautiful plains, rare fauna and very beautiful blue sweet water lakes. In summer many desire to settle in these scenic valleys but the harsh winters are difficult to endure with the natives only being able to live through.
At an altitude of 15,000 feet, ‘Chandratal’, the Moon Lake, is not just a scenic place but also a religious site for the natives and the Gaddi shepards who visit the alpine grasslands every spring.
The journey from Gramphu to Baatal is very dangerous. A journey of only 49 Km can take over six hours to cover. Completely off road, snow melt water drains onto the narrow raw road at many places, with danger of spontaneous flooding at any time lurking around. Many people have lost their lives here. It is difficult to tell when the weather changes and heavy snowfall forms on your life.
Forgetting the bumpy road along the banks of the Chandra river flowing and the glacier, vehicle may not be able to run at full speed amidst low oxygen. At most 10 KM to 15 KM per hour driving at snail pace speed. Along with religious faith in Kunzam La, tourists from all over the world come here to enjoy off road driving, trekking and adventure.
Every year in June, as the upper reaches of the Himalayas start to open to tourists after a long and dreary winter, Bodh Dorjee and his wife Chandra are inevitably the first locals — barring Border Road Organization workers who clear the snow-covered passes in May, to arrive at this desolate spot on the bank of River Chandra and very close to the snout of Bara Shiri glacier, one of the largest glaciers in the entire Himalayas.
Known among locals and frequent visitors as Chacha and Chachi the couple run in Bataal Chandra Dhaba for four months, serving food and arranging accommodation for travelers till winter renders the region inaccessible for eight months.
As there isn’t a single petrol pump, a ration store or even a permanent human habitation within 100 km, the couple believe in stocking up. In a worst case scenario, Chandra Dhaba can accommodate and feed 10 people for a couple of months. Bus drivers plying between Manali and Kaza, who stop at the dhaba for lunch, carry consignments of rice, rajma, dal, eggs, soap, etc for the couple.
Lahaul and Spiti and neighboring Kinnaur on the Old Hindustan-Tibet Road are among the most disaster prone areas in the Himalayas — the hostile terrain, unpredictable weather and dilapidated roads are a dangerous and many tourists end up getting stranded in and around Batal. For them, Chacha and Chachi are a godsend.
“Chacha knows the mountains inside out. He has trekked long distances in severe conditions,” says adventure tour operator Suresh Sharma, who has been visiting this place for almost 15 years and makes it a point to meet Chacha- Chachi every time he crosses the spot. “When in trouble, he is the right guy to be around. One feels absolutely safe with him.”
In the severest of conditions and toughest of times, Chacha and Chachi manage to maintain not only their dhaba but also a sense of humor. Chachi comes across as an extremely motherly and docile lady,
Sanjay Dutta, an engineer by qualification but is a journalist by choice.
He has worked for the premier new agency Press Trust of India and leading English daily Indian Express.
With more than a decade of experience, he has been highlighting issues related to environment, tourism and other aspects affecting mountain ecology.
Sanjay Dutta lives in a village close to Manali in Kullu valley of Himachal.