Despite the long and ultimately quite harrowing day before, we set off for Chilling bright and early. Straight out of camp, we climbed up a mini pass, Lanak La, only ~14,000 ft. Down we went on the other side, and after crossing a campsite, up we went again, climbing gradually on a winding path to DungDung La.
Words cannot describe the unique agony of struggling up a steep and apparently never-ending slope at 16,000 ft. Placing one foot just microscopically ahead of the other, at a pace a caterpillar might be ashamed of, and still having to stop after only a few steps, gasping piteously – there’s no doubt that mountains can reduce the nominally fit to shreds in a matter of minutes.
But, by noon, we were at the pass, and our view of the path we had traveled stretched all the way back to Konzke La. It was hard to believe we could have walked that far in a day. Ahead of us, under gathering clouds, was the Ladakh range on the left and very far away, the Stok range straight ahead, and the Zanskar range on the right. The Zanskar river, which appeared briefly and disappeared far away showed the path the Chadar Ice trek from Chilling to Padum would follow.
After a long sloping walk at quite a high altitude, the path went down, down, down. I, in the lead again, again took a wrong turn and led Amit down a steep and uncomfortable descent of about half an hour. After that, I went on ahead to ascertain whether the untenable route we were following improved or disappeared and found, to my utmost dismay, that it did the latter. After a heated debate and a lot of self reproach, we got back on the right track and found the “tail-enders” coming along. From there on, we went together, and made it to Chilling without further incident.
At Chilling, our horses from Leh awaited us, as we discovered to our relief the next morning. Our donkeys from Lamayuru ferried our stuff to the river and there we parted company from them. We made the usual exciting crossing of the Zanskar: hauled across by means of a basket suspended high over the water. The walk to Skiu was uneventful, except that Skiu seemed much farther away than I remember it being. The trail is hot and dry and dusty like a desert and we were all relieved to reach Skiu around 3 p.m.
Hot and dry gave way to cloudy and the next morning, soon after we left, it began raining. Umbrellas and raincoats were grumblingly put into use, but everybody wanted nothing more than to reach and get out of the rain as soon as possible. Markha, our destination for the day, was a good 18 km away, but it was a level walk and normally we should have made it in 3 hours. At first, after our various misadventures, we all walked roughly together. Then, at one point the path went both down and up. Amit followed the lower option, while the rest of us took the high road. We expected to meet after a few minutes, where the high road went down to the river, and we kept an eye out for signs of Amit navigating the lower path, but saw no sign of him at all. We reached the bottom and waited, but he didn’t come. Then Ballu went back along the lower path to look for him, and came back and reported that the lower path was clear, easy to navigate, and that Amit must have crossed this point ages ago and gone on ahead. But I was adamant that he would not have done any such thing without waiting to see us first. We have to go back and check again, I told Ballu, who clearly thought I was out of my mind to be worried. I had seen the limits of Amit’s mountain-climbing skills already and wasn’t leaving anything to chance, though. As DDB&B said, only half jokingly, we were all expecting him to be lying somewhere, unconscious, hands, legs and ribs smashed, and to see his blue jacket floating by on the lazy waters of the Markha river.
After wasting a good half hour waiting and searching, we were forced to go on. As we proceeded, we did find signs of Amit’s existence, such as enormous shoe-prints, and a hastily drawn arrow in the dirt – but I could not be convinced until I saw the fellow in person. So, I proceeded post haste, leaving Ballu, DDB&B behind and trotting along all alone on the 18 km path, slipping, sliding, and even falling in the mud, swinging between anger, humour, hope, and despair, not pausing to breathe far less to eat, until I came to the Markha river crossing, just a little before the village.
This river crossing is a much more serious affair than all the tiny streams we had hopped across so far; while also not being major enough to merit a rope-suspended trolley such as the one at Chilling. The terrain is quite flat, and the river splits into several threads, most of which can be crossed without pause for thought. The central stream, though, is somewhat broad, with water up to the mid-thigh level, and, as I discovered, a current that is quite swift and strong. Perhaps I should not have attempted it alone with nobody in sight or shouting distance, but, desperate to find my other half as I was, I did. Afterwards, I felt a bit like someone who’s been learning to drive for a couple of years, and has just summoned up the courage to take the driving test – with some courage, some skill, and some luck, I had passed.
And 45 minutes later, I could reassure myself that the other half was alive and kicking, having walked along with the string of horses, reached the campsite an hour earlier, negotiated for a room (the same one I had stayed in a couple of years ago) and downed a packed of Maggi and some hot tea, all unaware of the trouble and turmoil he had caused.
By early afternoon the rain stopped, and by early evening, the sky was beginning to clear up. We sprawled in the room, occasionally going outdoors to stretch our legs and gaze hopefully at the sky. There was an energetic game of cricket going on in the muddy campsite, which provided sporadic entertainment.
Markha to Thochuntse is only 12 km, and though it is generally uphill, I didn’t remember it as being particularly steep or tiring. We expected to reach camp around lunchtime, and I promised a delightful campsite at which to spend what looked like being a sunny afternoon.
Things went well for the first few hours, and we reached the two tiny villages along our way, Umlung and Hankar, pretty much as expected. At Hankar, we all ate some Maggi, and it was around 12.30 when we left. The locals promised us the walk would take no more than two hours, even at our leisurely pace.
The first sign that all was not well came before we had even found our way out of Hankar. The path took a left and climbed steeply to the Hankar gompa. While it was extremely picturesque at the top, I had no recollection of having done this climb before. “The path just followed the river,” explained Ballu. “Now, that path is probably washed away with the rains, hence this forced ascent.” The explanation looked plausible, so we just followed the path from the monastery, through another part of the village, and back down to the river, where we crossed a convenient wooden bridge. “I don’t remember crossing this bridge last time,” said I to Ballu. He assured me that we had, and that I didn’t remember anything, in which he was at least partly correct.
The feeling that I didn’t remember anything only grew on me during the next four hours. I mentioned it repeatedly to Amit, with growing concern and bewilderment. We were following a path all right, and there was enough dung on it to indicate that horses had been on it sometime not too long ago; but were we following the right path, was the question that forced itself upon my consciousness with the passing hours. We had seen not a soul after leaving the monastery, and there should have been enough people traversing the path from Markha to Thochuntse. Moreover, our horseman, who had caught up with us at Hankar and stopped for tea, had not yet overtaken us, as he should have done hours ago.
Were we lost?