- Hemis to Sarchu crossing the Kongmaru La towards Nimaling and then to Sarchu via Lun/Dat, by crossing the Zalung Karpo La, Yar La and Maralang La
- Markha Valley trek from Spituk to Shang crossing the Ganda La and Kongmaru La
I left the hotel by about 3-4 p.m, as I did not want to stay in Leh for another night, and took a Rs10 bus-ride to Spituk. In Spituk I asked around for the trail to Zingchen and I was helped by the locals in the right direction. It was evening and there was a strong wind blowing. I approached the point on the roadhead from where there were would be no further houses. The road then cuts through a typical Leh terrain, dry, barren and rocky
As it was close to 6 p.m I was thinking if I should pitch my tent, when a person near the last house on the roadhead emerged and asked me to enquire inside the house. The house was a pretty large one, the only one with a 2nd storey in Spituk. The lady of the house welcomed me to stay in the house for the night. There were huge apple orchards, and apricot orchards behind the house. Apparently, this Ladakhi family was very rich and owned land "as far as the eye could see". I feasted on the apples and the apricots, which followed the hot cups of tea. The 22 year old lad who asked me to enquire in the house, was a Nepali boy, who spoke fluent Ladakhi, was an employee (helper) at this house. He had left his house in Nepal 3 years back at the tender age of 19, in search of employment. Had worked in some labour jobs before he got employed here in this household a couple of years back. He takes care of the finances of his brother, who is studying to become a lama in a monastery in Mysore. When on the trek there are many such interesting conversations one hears which made me realize what a privileged life and upbringing I have had. After some interesting conversation, especially with this lad (I don't remember his name) I was served a sumptuous dinner.
At Zingchen (~3400 M), which I reached after nearly 4 hours, there are a number of campsites. Most trekkers decide to camp here. This is the last point on the jeepable track and after this one wont find any vehicles (thank god...). The trail then criss-crosses a stream flowing through a gorge. Initially there is a wooden bridge to cross the stream to the left of the gorge. Further up (say about a 100 m or so) one has to move to the right and this involves stream crossing (wet boots). This is not a dangerous river crossing like the crossing of the Zara / Lingti Chu or Tokpo Gongma. At the stream crossing I met a young Spanish guy, who was a school teacher teaching chemistry in Madrid. He too was travelling solo and planned to do a solo hike to Stok La as he had to be back in Leh by 13th Aug. He would be my companion on this route upto Rumbak (~3850 M). We talked on a number of interesting topics including bull-fighting which I thought was a favourite sport in Spain. He educated me that there were a number of people, including himself, who did not like the sport and incidentally only yesterday (27th Sept) I read a report in the newspaper which said that bull-figthing has been banned in Spain. For a change, one can find some trees along the route to Rumbak.
11 Aug : Spituk (~3300 M) to Yurutse (4160 M)
After a shower and a hot breakfast of Ladakhi bread I was ready to leave by 8:00 a.m. The hospitality shown by this family was such that it felt awkward even asking them how much I had to pay them. They asked me to pay Rs 200 and I had no change (only Rs 1000) or Rs 160. They ended up taking Rs 160. Throughout this trek, all the time I have been on the trail, I have been extended such help, warmth and courtesy by the locals, that is difficult to imagine in the cities. After bidding goodbye to the family, I marched along a dirt road, which is by the Indus River all the way upto Zinchen. Most trekkers take a shared jeep from Leh along this jeep track upto Zingchen (would cost about Rs 200/300 per head). Walking on the road when there are jeeps passing you by, kicking up a storm of dust is not a pleasant experience. However, there are still good views to be hand enroute
Reaching Rumbak takes around 3 hours from Zingchen. About 20-30 mins before the Rumbak village there is a parachute tent. Heading along the left of it one reaches Rumbak, a village with about a dozen houses. There are plenty of homestays in Rumbak. I ended up going to Rumbak, along with my Spanish Friend. There are grand views of the snow-capped peaks of the Stok Ranges from Rumbak. Later on the villagers told me that if I wanted to get to Markha valley trek I need not have come here. I should have taken a deviation to the right towards Yurutse from the parachute tents. As Yurutse was not too far off I descended from Rumbak towards the parachute tents, took a shortcut on a ridge overlooking the parachute tent in the direction towards Yurutse. En route it started raining. As you can see (in the pic below) there is not much place to take shelter in this this glacial valley terrain.
There is a small wooden bridge across a stream which flows in the centre of the pic above.
Then one heads up on the valley on the right. It is a 300m climb
from the parachute tents to the village of Yurutse which has 1 house. I camped beside the lush green barley fields in front of the house
It was about 6 p.m by the time I pitched my tent. The wind was so strong that when I was pitching my tent it was blown away a few feet and I had to run after it and catch it It reminded me of a story i heard in 2009 during my Zanskar trek where a trekker's tent was blown and washed away in the river. Luckily i did not have to face any such adversity. There were a couple from Austria (spoke German) who had pitched their tent next to mine. they were doing the trek by themselves, sans guide/horses. Most other trekkers I saw on this route were doing "sahib style" trekking and a few opted for the "homestay style trekking". These folks were to be my companion in another couple of campsites as well. I may be travelling solo but I was not going to be alone in this trek -:) .
Another fact that will hit you both in this trek and the Zanskar trek is that Indian trekkers are conspicuous by their absence. The only Indians that you see on the trek route are either locals, guides, cook, helpers and horsemen. The pre-dominant trekking population is mainly European - French, German with a few Englishmen and Israelis. In Leh you would find internet centres with Hebrew keyboard. (Am not sure you would find one with Hindi keyboard -:) ). I did not come across a single Indian trekker in my entire route. The local guides too confirmed this fact. My only reasoning, knowing about the trekking community in India, is that Indian trekkers probably lean more towards the Garhwal area.
A sumptuous self-cooked dinner of soup/maggi and pasta followed some hot cuppas of coffee in the evening, before I called it a day.
TIP (for trekkers): If your body is not well acclimatized you could consider breaking up the journey from Spituk to Yurutse into 2 days.
Reaching the parachute tent at the base camp I had a good breakfast. After taking rest for 30 mins I decided to move on. From here one has a clear view of the initial trail to Ganda La and there are breathtaking views of the mountain ranges.
12 Aug : Yurutse (4160 M) to Skiu (3435 M) via Ganda La (4950 M)
I was feeling very lazy when I got up at Yurutse. Knowing that there was a parachute tent at the base camp of Ganda La I decided to skip making breakfast. Started around 7:30 a.m. There is a gradual ascent of about 250M to the base camp. This was one of those days where my walking speed was so low (given the fact that I did not yet have breakfast) that a number of trekkers overtook me. As soon as I got out of Yurutse I came across a huge colony of marmots in the nearby fields. There is something about these creatures that makes one feel like lifting them in your arms and cuddling them.
There is an indescribable splendour to the clear blue skies, dotted with tufts of white cotton clouds, kissing the stark brown mountain landscapes. For oldies like me this reminded me Mukesh's voice lilting the song "Yeh Kaun Chitrakar Hai" and in particular of the lines (in Hindi) :-
ye sarpa see ghoomeradaar, gheradaar ghaateeyaan
ye kis kawee kee kalpanaa kaa chamatkaar hai ye kaun chitrakaar hai.. ..
kudarat kee is pawitrataa ko tum nihaar lo is ke gunon ko apane man mein tum utaar lo chamakaalo aaj laalimaa, apane lalaat kee kan kan se zaankatee tumhe, chhabee wiraat kee apanee to aankh yek hai, us kee hajaar hai ye kaun chitrakaar hai.. "
There were a number of other trekkers who were also admiring this "kavee ke kalpana" (poet's imagination) savouring the views of the Ladakh ranges and the ruggedness of Zanskar ranges. Amidst the various trekkers I met on the pass there was an English group with a porter carrying "Oxygen Cylinder". Now, I have seen many "Sahib Style" groups but an "oxygen cylinder" being carried by a porter along with the trekkers, was a first for me. Just in case you dont know what "Sahib Style" trekking is picture a trek where
- Your load is carried by mules, porters
- You have a guide to show you the route, hold your hand on difficult stretches and sometimes carry you across the stream on his/her back
- Staff who will pitch/un-pack your tent / sleeping bags
- A cook with his kitchen staff (usually some helpers) to cook hot meals for you before you leave for the day, and they usually ensure that hot cup of tea/coffee is waiting for you when you arrive (along with biscuits).
- A 3 course meals with a soup, main course and dessert is served to you in a dining tent, which has tables / chairs and requisite cutlery.
- There are gas cylinders, carried on mules, for the cooking in the kitchen tents
- Extra comforters are provided (in addition to sleeping bags) to keep you warm in your tent
- A separate "toilet tent" is pitched for the group...
Skiu is situated at the confluence of the Shigri Nala and Markha river. The views of the mountain landscape from the Skiu monastery is breathtakingly beautiful.
The atmosphere in Skiu, with the darkness setting in, the lengthening shadows of the mountain, the sound of the Markha river thundering by, is such that it evokes a feeling of romanticism in you. There was a soft mellowness to the beauty of this evening.
Tip (For trekkers) : One can trek along the Markha river till its confluence with the Zanskar river and then trek further upto Chilling along the banks of Zanskar river. This route can be used if one wants to avoid the Ganda La pass.
Today was one of those rare days in the trek where one could see some green, with the poplar, willow and thickets along the banks of the Markha river, for most portion of the trek.
13 Aug : Skiu (3435 M) to Markha (3770 M)
Set off after a nice breakfast after 8 a.m. I was surprised to see beautiful flowers growing in the garden of houses in Skiu. The pretty sight of a lady among the sunflowers was a nice way to begin the day's trek. This just furthered my belief that Skiu is definitely is a place for the romantics.
The trail is pretty well laid out and is generally along the river interspersed by a few short ascents/descents (say about 50 M) where one cant walk along the banks. In some places you would find the direction marked by "bharal"horns.
You will cross the settlements of Narding (3540 M), Zara (3560 M) and Chalak (3610 M), each having parachute tents, serving some refreshments. There are a number of chortens and mani walls along the way.
Beyond Chalak, which is set amongst sprawling green barley fields, one reaches a point
After a hot cuppa, I visited the Shanmunatha monastery set atop the hill. This monastery is in such idyllic surroundings that it is hard to describe the inner calm & peace one feels when one enters these monasteries.
There were 2 caretaker monks residing in this monastery. This monastery, like the one at Skiu is affiliated to the Hemis Monastery. These monks were the most smiling lads I have ever seen. They had a radio, one of the rare electrical/electronic gadgets I heard after a long time and what did I hear - The misery of the Indian Cricket team losing its 3rd test to India (heard the commentary of the last 2-3 wickets falling). I shamelessly asked them if they had any food/dinner. They invited me and cooked a dinner of "Cabbage/Paneer Momos" - the most delicious momos I have ever had. Believe me after having satiated myself with 15 Momos I returned to my tent for a good nights rest
Combine the glistening stream with the majestic mountains surrounding it and you would
14 Aug : Markha (3770 M) to Thochuntse (4150 M) (via Hankar (3980 M) )
Today was going to be an easier day's walk, with the trail following the course of the Markha river. After leaving the Markha campsite at around 8:00 a.m I had to cross two streams, before I reached the Tacha monastery in about 30-45 mins. The streams were glistening in the morning sun and painted a very pretty picture.
have a landscape which aptly fits the description "picture perfect".
Perched atop a jagged rock spire and in the backdrop of an even more jagged rock faced mountain ,the Tacha monastery looks more apt as a spot for an "Eagle's Nest" than a site for a monastery.
While crossing the first stream I went through the oft practiced ritual of removing my boots. A few mins later I had to cross the second stream. I did not now have the patience to remove my boots so I just marched across the second stream with my boots on. With soggy boots I trekked along till I reached the Tacha monastery to be greeted by the lama who had cooked me dinner yesterday.
Whilst I allowed my boots to dry, I was chatting with the lama for about half an hour. I then bade him goodbye and was on my way. The scenery enroute seemed to be from god's picturebook.
Reached the main village of Hankar (3980 M) at around noon. There is a satellite phone in the village from where I was able to call home. From Hankar there is a short steep ascent to the camping site at Thochuntse (4150 M). En route to Thochuntse one catches the first views of Kangyaze (6400 M). I was offered food by another camping group once I reached Thochuntse - so did not have to cook. Meanwhile one German girl had fainted during the short steep ascent to Thochuntse from Hankar. After drinking some water she was helped on her way to Thochuntse by her boyfriend. As the girl continued to have a headache at Thochuntse, her boyfriend was very worried. Spent considerable sometime talking to him about AMS, fatigue and its effects. The boy was really worried and understandably so. After consultation with a number of folks he decided to take a call the next day as to whether to proceed to Nimaling depending on how his girlfriend felt. Incidentally, the next day they did make it to Nimaling.
Just a side note on some of the guides in the Leh/Zanskar region. A number of these guides are college going students who part time as guides during their annual vacations to earn some pocket money (Rs 900/- a day is not bad). Such guides usually would have done 1-2 treks along the same route as a cook/helper before they become guides. These guides do not have any hard core technical mountaineering experience. So, when they are caught in adverse situations, like the one above, where they have to provided counselling/guidance to clients on aspects like AMS they might not be well equipped. However, the demand for guides during the peak trekking months of June-Sept in Leh is such that these college kids will continue to be used as guides. So, folks arranging treks through agencies need to be aware of the kind of guide these agencies provide.
As I had reached Thochuntse by around 3:00 p.m I spent the rest of the day relaxing.
15 Aug : Thochuntse (4150 M) to Nimaling (4730 M)
Today was supposed to be a short day(2-3 H) of trekking to Nimaling. However, the mountains (and yours truly) have a mind of its own, which makes what should have been a simple straightforward walk into an exciting adventure. Having whetted your appetite with the promise of adventure let me proceed to tell you that the day began with very clear skies. So, I lazily packed up my tent and started my walk at 8:00 a.m. About 15 mins down the path the trail forked. The trail to the left was the main trail and there was a side trail (or what seemed like a trail) to the right. I went on the trail to the right. After about 10 mins I realized that the main trail was the other one. But I continued on the trail to the right. The trail ascended gradually and offered magnificient views of Kangyaze and the valleys behind me. I suspected that this trail might be leading to the Kangyaze base camp. About an hour and half up the trail I spotted a "Dhoksa" (cowherd encampment). The views from here are spellbinding. The clouds playing "hide and seek" with the mountains made the viewing even more magnificent.
I walked past the encampment asking directions from a lady who was tending to the flock of yaks. As I ascended the views were breathtakingly beautiful. After another hour or so of climbing I spotted a goatherd in the rolling grassfields on top. I went upto him and asked him about the directions to Kangyaze base camp. As he was pointing me the general directions to Kangyaze base camp it started snowing. The snowing was so heavy that visibility was reduced to a few metres. Kangyaze, which was visible a few moments ago, could no longer be seen. There was nowhere to take shelter. I could either take out and pitch my tent or make a run for the dhoksa. Bitching a ten would take me another 10-15 minutes. So, I decided the best thing to do was to run back downhill to the Dhoksa. The way it was snowing it was clear that this was not going to abate soon. I reached the dhoksa dripping wet and cold. Requested for some tea which the hosts readily obliged. After some cups of hot tea I was feeling much more warm. It was another 30 - 45 mins before the intensity of the snowfall eased up. It did not seem like a good idea to go Kangyaze base camp any longer as with this snowfall there was no clear trail to it and there would also be no good views given the "whiteout" higher up. When folks talk about "fickle mountain weather" this is what they mean. It was clear some time ago and in a matter of minutes there was heavy snowing, whiteout and almost no visibility. I asked my hosts the directions to Thochuntse. There was no trail in the direction they pointed. So, I clambered up rocks/boulders for the next hour or so in the general direction they had pointed. I could guess that the river was between the ranges where I was standing and the next mountain range which was visible and the campsite was along the river. After about an hour or so I could spot folks walking along the main trail in the distance. One of the lessons the mountains teach you is to trust your "mountain instincts" and to follow the lay of the land. In about an hour or so I reached the Thochuntse campsite by around half past one. It had begun snowing again. So, I immediately pitched my tent, wore my down jacket and jumped into my sleeping bag to regain some warmth. Just before this leg of my trek I had decided to leave my thermals in Leh as the past 2 weeks the weather had been warm -:). The campsite of Nimaling is in a broad valley and is completely exposed to strong winds. The green of the valley had soon turned to a complete white carpet. It snowed relentlessly for the rest of the day and the rest of the night. It was difficult to even get out of ones tent and go to the next one. The tough part about solo trekking in such times is that one cant cook even if one has the rations as my tent is too small to cook (not a bottomless kitchen tent -;) ) and the snowing was so heavy that cooking in the open did not seem a wise proposition. After 2-3 hours of catching some sleep in my tent I went into the kitchen tent of the adjoining group. The cook welcomed me and provided me with tea/biscuits and dinner for the night. I went to bed thinking if it continued snowing so heavily trekking solo and crossing the Kongmaru-La would be difficult. Thus went my independence day - a memorable day in white surroundings.
This Independence day surroundings reminded me of this year's Republic Day Surroundings in Chadar trek. Seems like God had decided to bless the India that I witnessed, on these 2 national holidays, showering his blessings in the form of snow. Had my breakfast at the parachute tent. Packed my tent, sleeping bag, mat and handed it to the horseman of the neighbouring group who had offered to take these on horseback - as it was the end of the trek a couple of the horses was devoid of much load. A wet tent, like mine was, weighs twice as much as its original weight (3 kg). So, you could understand how relieved I was at this good fortune. I started off around 8:30 p.m. By the time we started the snowfall had abated a bit and I could even spot a sliver of blue in the sky - an indication that the weather might clear up. I crossed an enclosure from which smoke was emanating. This was full of sheep. I do not know what the fire was for...
16 Aug : Nimaling (4730 M) to Shang Sumdo (3730 M) via Kongmaru La (5150 M)
It snowed through the night and when I got up in the morning it was still snowing. Through the night I had to ensure that the snow was shaken off the tent at regular intervals (lest the tent caves in under the weight of accumulated snow). The colourful tents managed to break the monotony of the white carpet which shrouded the entire plains and the surrounding mountains.
It was a 2 hour walk to the top of the pass, again marked by numerous prayer flags. There were a number of trekkers going up along the trail. Since a few horses had already passes along the trail the route was now well walkable. On the way up I had beautiful views of the snow-clad mountains...
By 10:30 a.m I was at the top of the Kongmaru la (5150 M) marked by the numerous colourful Buddhist prayer flags.
There is airtel network connectivity at the top of the pass. So, called up home from there. After enjoying the views for half an hour I decided to descend as it began to snow again. The initial descent was slightly slippery because of the melting snow and slushy mud.
After the initial 500M steep descent the trail follows the course of the stream which meanders its way through a narrow gorge. One has to cross the stream at multiple places. There are ways to avoid the stream crossing if one is prepared to climb the trails high above the stream. Half way down this narrow gorge I found an Israeli girl, who had lost her way, and hence wanted to accompany me so that she would not miss the route again. It was good for me too as I also would have company to talk. Interestingly, she had been travelling around the world (after the usual stint serving in the Israeli Army & some months of working) to places like Burma, Mongolia and China. There is a settlement with couple of parachute tents called Chuchurmo (I might have got the spelling wrong..) about 3 hours from the top of the pass. Stopped there for tea/lunch and a bit of rest. The Israeli girl also met her friend there. Well, here is an interesting fact about Israeli travellers - they do not necessarily travel together. But when they come to a place like Leh they know where to meet other Israelis and they do team up and usually they do this for company as well as for budget travelling. What amazes me is that for such a small country the number of Israelis whom you meet while trekking is really high. Amidst the interesting conversations neither of us (the Israeli girl being the other person) missed the grand mountain views.
There is something magical about these mountains. It casts a spell on you while you are there and leaves an indelible impression that is etched in your memories forever. As I was coming towards the end of this trek I tried to answer what is it that addicts folks like me to come to these mountains
- Is it the sheer indescribable natural beauty
- Is it the physical/mental challenge that such treks present
- Is it the simplicity/large-heartedness of the folks who live in these mountains
- Is it the sense of peace/the inner calm one experiences amidst these surroundings