29 July : Bharatpur to Keylong Sarai (4510 M)
As I was having lunch and resting at Bharatpur I was thinking over the next part of my journey.
As I was wrestling with these questions the options I was mulling over :-
- Surely, I won't get lucky again and find another group trekking over Phitse-la into Zanskar (as most trekkers would take the conventional route over Shingo-la into a Zanskar - a route I had done couple of years ago).
- Since it is not a frequented route would there be any trail. How difficult is route finding going to be ?
- Would there at least be Gaddi shepherds along the way ?
- I knew that I had to cross the Lingti River and is that something I could do alone (without rope / harness as guidebooks recommend).
- After the exertions of the previous 4 days did I have enough energy to do this stretch solo
Well, if I had to hire mules I had to go to Keylong/Lingti River a 3-4 hours drive. I almost did this. I did enquire a few cars which stopped at the dhaba but they were reluctant to give me a ride. A truck driver agreed to take me to Keylong but by the time I could get my rucksack the truck driver was gone.
- Should I hire a couple of mules (horseman) to carry my backpack - the horseman would cook the food.
- Should I hire a guide/porter who could carry some load from by backpack and that would ensure that I at least have a companion in case of emergency
- Should I go for this solo
Then, I tried the 2nd option of hiring a porter. Luckily a group from Calcutta had just come there after finishing their Mt Yunum expedition and I talked to a porter from that group. He asked me Rs 500/day and said that he could not travel alone with me as he needed another porter for company. So, I needed to hire 2 porters. Now that was too much for me.
I did not want to spend the night in the dhaba so I decided to go for it solo. I had rations for 4-5 days. I would reach lingti river by 2nd day and so if I had to turn back I would still have rations enough to return. So, having reached the decision of going solo the next question was "How do I get to Keylong Sarai ?". I could either trek to this place (and that would be about 2 hours) , once I find the trail (which was not apparent to me) or I could hitch a ride (about a 30-45 min ride downhill). Again as luck would have one of the truck drivers who had stopped at the dhaba for lunch agreed to give me a ride to Keylong Sarai. I must thank the dhaba owner for persuading the truck driver to give me a lift. I got off near the GREF post near the bridge at Keylong Sarai at about 5 p.m. Ok so next I had to find a camping site. I asked a GREF personnel as to where the trekking trail was. He did not know but pointed in a general direction behind the GREF post. Checking my map I knew that the campsite had to be close to the Yunam river, which was flowing close by. I hauled my backpack and climbed the hill behind the GREF and continued in the general direction parallel to the Yunam river. There was no clear trail, but off and on, one could spot what seemed like a trail. After about 30 mins one could see areas where folks had camped. I continued for the next hour till I reached a flat grassy area close to the river which seemed like a good campsite. There was good clean, from a stream by the river, at this location. 10 mins further along there was a side stream which was flowing with such force that it did not seem like a good idea to cross it. Well, then that was it for today and I started pitching my tent at about 6:30 p.m and was hoping to cook some hot dinner before it got dark. Just when I was thinking the day is over Murphy chose to strike. I took out my MSR stove, connected it to the tank, primed the stove and tried lighting it with my gas lighter. Well since the first gas lighter did not work I tried the second one. That too did not work. I cursed my luck as I had forgotten to get a matchbox. Well I did not want to sleep hungry and it was getting darker by the minute. So, I took out my headlamp and ran all the way back to the GREP outpost. When in crisis one somehow finds the energy. I reached the outpost in about 40-45 mins. There was a truck driver there and few other GREP personnel. I told them of my situation and pleaded with them for a box of matchsticks. The truck driver gave me half-a-box and some other personnel gave me a nearly full box of matchsticks. It was close to 7:30 p.m and I had to find my way back to the tent so I ran back. Halfway back it was already dark. Switched on my headlamps and found my way back to my tent by 8:15 p.m. By the time I had my maggi & soup for dinner and cleaned up it was past 9 p.m. Finally, I hit the sack with my hunger satiated. In the mountains, especially when one is away from civilization, the slightest miss in planning tends to get magnified and the impact can be severe.
30 July : Keylong Sarai (4510 M) to Lingti Plains (4400 M)
After the excitement of the previous evening I decided that I should have some extra rest this morning. But try as one may, with the bright sunlight streaming in, it is difficult to sleep beyond 7 a.m/ 7 : 30 a.m. It was around 9/9.30 a.m before I packed and got moving. Today was supposed to be an easy day (as per the guidebooks). First hurdle - stream crossing.
To my pleasant surprise I saw a Gaddi shepherd standing on the side of the stream. He had his shelter on the other side of the stream and had come to collect water. His presence gave me more confidence in wading through the icy cold water.
He welcomed me to his shelter and made me some tea which I gladly had. His earnings are less than Rs 100/day for taking care of the flock of sheep. Had some conversations with him and took some photos (which I have promised to send to his address and do intend to keep that promise). He even offered to give me some "atta" for the way which I politely declined. These simple folks really do have a large heart. I tried to confirm some directions with him towards Lingti but he did not know. However, he did point me in the general direction, which is follow the river and then go towards the left by the Lingti river. After spending half an hour with him I was on my way again.
The trail is parallel to the Yunum River. On the other side of the river one could see the stretch of the Leh-Manali highway leading to Sarchu, running parallel to the river.The majestic mountains overlook both the trail and the road on the other side. One can see an occasional truck moving on the road in the distance. The walk is not difficult in terms of the gradient, but is a tiring one in terms of the distance. After about 2-3 hours of walking I could see the "fixed camps" at Sarchu with the mountains in the backdrop.
At the junction where the Lingti Chu meets the Yunam River the trail veers to the left and then follows the Lingti Chu upstream.
The terrain from here on is undulating and one has to cross 2 or 3 side-streams (nothing major), which feed into the Lingti Chu, before one reaches the Lingti plains. I reached the junction of Lingti Chu/Yunam river around 1:30 p.m. After walking a further 30 mins - 45 mins one can see the Lingti plains in the distance but it would be another 3-4 hours before I reached the Lingti plains around 5:30 - 6 p.m.
As one reaches the Lingti plains one can see the "gaddi shepherds" high up on the slopes of the hills. There is also a "Dhoksa" - cowherd encampment - at Lingti plains where one can see over a hundred yaks. I camped near this"Dhoksa".
The yaks in the Dhoksa were tended to by the Ladakhi ladies in the Dhoksa and there were about 10 shelters in which these Ladakhi ladies lived. I was famished (as always -: )) after the 9-10 hour walk and asked one of the ladies if I could get something to eat. I got some tea (with "sattu") , 2 rotis, which had probably been made that morning, to eat along with curd (a treat I did not expect..). All through the evening (till about 8-9 p.m) the ladies were busy milking all the yaks (or dris...). That evening I decided I would not cook, given the late "roti meal".
31 July : Lingti Plains (4400 M) to bank of Lingti River
I awoke in the knowledge that I had to cross the Lingti River today. The "Ladakhi cowherds" were again busy this morning - churning the milk, collected in huge wooden caskets, with mighty wooden churners, each of which was about 5 ft tall, that required massive effort for each churn. Got some early morning tea, fresh & tasty paneer and several glasses of "lassi" for breakfast before I set off at 8 a.m. I would have travelled only about an hour beside the Lingti river when, to my pleasant surprise, I saw a camp with 3 horsemen. I stopped by their tent. As luck would have it, these horsemen were also going the same way - towards Padum over Phitse La - to pick up a trekking group by Aug 10th. They were to return the same way and head upto Chandrataal. They offered me breakfast and also offered to take my rucksack on the horses, which I obviously accepted. This was a welcome break as I could now have a more relaxed walk, sans my rucksack, for the next 4 days upto Khangsar. About an hour later, once the horsemen had packed their tents and loaded their horses, we set off once again. There were a few more minor stream crossings (and my foot slipped in one of the streams and I got quite wet -:) ) on our way to the bank of the Lingti river. In about 2-2:30 hours we reached the banks of the Lingti River and decided to camp, around noon, on a flat, grassy plain beside the river. The views from the campsite were awesome and seemed right out of a picturebook. If an artist were to conjure up a vision of a "picture perfect" landscape, for his masterpiece, all he had to do was to take a photograph of the surrounding landscape and see if he could match it.
1 August : Bank of Lingti River to Chumik Marpo (4750 M)
The idea was to cross the Lingti river early this morning when the flow of water would be lesser. So, the horsemen got up early by 7 a.m. Two of the horsemen were off to gather the horses. One horseman (who doubled up as the cook and a wonderful cook he was) and I waited....and waited and WAITED for nearly 2.3 hours before the horsemen came back with the 20 horses. The horses had crossed the river and wandered off and it took a long time for the horsemen to even spot the horses, herd them together and get them back. They had to wade across the river multiple times and it was about 10 a.m by the time they returned.
It was another 1 hour before the horses were saddled up, loaded and ready to leave.
By 11 a.m the wide Lingti river, flowing with rapid force was a challenge to cross. The boots got garlanded around my neck, trousers got folded upto the thighs, and I followed the last of the horses into the icy-cold river. As luck would have it the last 3 horses played truant and decided to ford the deeper part of the river. When I was three-fourths of the way down I realized that the water was really deep and I had to balance myself against the gushing force and step carefully on the rocks in the river bed. 5 more steps pushing myself perpendicular to the strong current, conjuring up every last bit of strength I had, and I was in more manageable part of the river, before I crossed over to the other side. Thank god I did not have the backpack on else crossing would have been even more difficult and I would have had to resort to going further upstream (where the water levels are supposed to be slightly lower). Once across, the terrain almost reminded you of scenes from "old western" classics.
The trail follows along the Lingti Chu river
and then veers left following the river, which goes through a deep gorge,
leading onto some spectacular landscapes. The river, snaking its way through the mountains, with the snow capped peaks in the distance is a sight to behold. Did I forget to mention that to reach this paradise one had to cross a few more icy-cold streams -:) after Lingti
At around 3:00 p.m, after about 5-6 hours of walking, we established camp amongst these surreal surroundings. I thanked God for giving me the opportunity to see the beauty of His Nature.
This was the last camping site in the Himachal pradesh state (Lahaul region ). From tomorrow onwards I would be in J&K (Zanskar area).
2nd August : Chumik Marpo (4750 M) to Zingchen(4480 M) via Phitse La (5250 M)
Today was going to be the big day. Set off around 8:00 a.m and got a head start of about 30-45 mins on the horsemen. The day started off well with view of colony of marmots.
It was a tough and relentless climb. The initial trail was high above a small side stream
and then the trail ascended in a continuous stretch. It was surprising to see a number of wildflowers growing at this altitude. The views of the mountain ranges and the snow capped peaks along the trail provided the revitalizing tonic for the tired legs.
After nearly 4 hours of climb the Phitse La was in sight marked distinctly by the numerous prayer flags.
I was left speechless, spellbound and mesmerized at the views from Phitse La. All around, the complete 360 degrees, one could see mountain ranges (not just peaks). Right in front one could see a peak with a hanging glacier. My joy knew no bounds, like that of a child who had been given all his favourite toys in one go. I kept pirouetting about, savouring in the views of the mountain ranges, first on one side and then another. I should have been sitting down, tired after the labours of my arduous climb, but, believe me, I could not sit for a minute in my excitement. Such was the beauty, magnificence and grandeur of these views that it both numbs and refreshes you at the same.
If ever there was a time when the words in the English lexicon stops short of conveying the splendour on view, then this was it. It is at times like these that one wishes that time stand still. But time never does -:). So half an hour later came the horsemen
Normally, these horsemen are unflappable characters. But even they could not hide their joy atop the pass. So much so, that they decide to rest for half an hour before proceeding downhill. Finally, I reluctantly tore myself away from the pass at 1 p.m and started the descent.
It is a steep descent down the pass, much steeper than the ascent. Tip : Based on this gradient it is advisable to cross the pass from Lingti to Zingchen as opposed to the reverse direction. Also, in snowy conditions the descent might be more dangerous so please ensure proper gear.
After the initial steep descent to the base of the pass the trail eases out a bit and continues high above the stream (Phirtse Chu river), which passes through gorges, before evening out a bit near the campsite at Zingchen.
It was 4:30 p.m, 3.5 hours walk from Phitse la, before I reached the campsite at Zingchen , which is marked by large stone cairns.
3rd August : Zingchen(4480 M) to Purne/Khangsar (~3700 M)
Normally this stretch is done over 2 days. However, we decided to do this in 1 long day. The horsemen would drop me (or my load) of beyond Yal and proceed further, while I proceeded further on towards Purne/Khangsar. As I was having breakfast there came a horseman from Tanze. His horse had wandered off into the mountains and he had been searching for it since 5 a.m in the morning and it was close to 8 a.m now. He was hungry so shared with him some of the dry fruits/raisins which I had and the horsemen gave him some "roti". I started around 8:00 a.m. The trail ascends from Zingchen and continues high above the Phitse Chu river. From this high vantage point one can get beautiful panoramic views of the route from Phitse la, which one traversed the previous day, and the snow-capped peaks and mountain ranges ahead.
After about 30-45 mins on the trail the trail splits. You can either follow the mule track on the upper trail which continues to traverse the upper ridge ( a trail I was recommended to take by the horsemen) or there is a steep descent into the valley and one follows the stream through the gorges. I chose the latter. As I made the steep descent I found an interesting rodent in the shade of the rocks.
As one tries to find a way through the gorge one has to keep hopping and jumping across the stream. Compared to the bright sunlight on the trail in the top of the ridge, the gorge has an interplay of sunlight breaking through the dark shadows cast by the ridges, on either side of the gorge.
The stream and the gorge ends up in the village of Tanze (3900 M). The Tanze to Purne stetch is part of the more frequented Darcha-Padum trek (Trans Zanskar trek), one which I did in 2009. Slowly the Darcha-Padum trek is being consumed by road construction on both the Darcha and Padum side. At the end of the gorge was a very interesting contraption
If you have not guessed it from the pictures, it is a "Sattu" grinding machine powered by the stream flowing down the gorge. I believe this is what is termed as "HydroPower".Tanze is a beautiful village, with lush green barley fields, set in the backdrop of the majestic mountain ranges.
It was a ~2.30 hours walk from Zingchen to Tanze, which I reached by approx 11:00 a.m. After some refreshments, I crossed the bridge at the end of Tanze and from here on the trail continues on the same side of the Kurghiak Chu river (the trail is on the left side of the picture) till one is close to Purne.
It is a 5 hour walk from Tanze (3900 M) to the bridge across Kurgiakh leading to Purne/Khangsar (~3800 M). Enroute one crosses the village of Karu, Tetha (~3900 M) and Yal. Reached Tetha around 2 p.m. At Tetha there is a satellite phone, in one of the houses, from which I could call up home after 1 week. The greenery of the fields in each of the villages provides a welcome relief from the brown of the rugged mountain views one sees throughout.
After about 15 mins from Yal the horsemen came and gave me my rucksack. I thanked them and parted ways. Hauled my rucksack back up, after nearly 4 days of respite, and descended to the bridge leading to Purne. Close to the bridge is the confluence of the Kurgiak and Tsarap Chu rivers. Purne is on the banks of Tsarap Chu. It is a popular and busy camping ground and a favourite pit-stop, especially among the French trekkers. Trekkers usually camp here and make a side trip to Phugtal gompa. It was a further 45 min walk from the bridge to Khangsar campsite and it was around 5-6 p.m when I reached it. Khangsar is about 100m further from Purne and at a slightly higher elevation. The campsite is a good, clean, flat, multi-tiered, well maintained and run by the only family living here. It is less crowded and hence much quiter than the Purne campsite. One could get food, hot water (for a shower) and it also had a good, clean ladakhi composting toilet. Well what more can one ask for -:).
A little "aside"
There is a lady called Dolma in Purne, who is a nurse. She featured in a French television series called "Rendez-vous to an unknown land" with Gilbert Montagne (a blind singer from France). This is a series featuring a celebrity spending a week with folks like Dolma, who live in remote/harsh conditions. This show/episode was quite popular in France and hence Dolma is popular among the French/French speaking trekkers. Of course, being the only nurse in the region she has done her bit for the Zanskar community/villages around here. She rides a horse well and is called upon to the nearby villages for medical assistance.
This concludes the 2nd stage of my solo trek.