Lost in the Himalayas – Part 3

July 23, 2007

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?

Lost in the Himalayas – Part 2

July 21, 2007

From Lamayuru to Wanla to Hinju, the trek was uneventful. The weather cleared up at Wanla, the path was easy and pretty, the afternoons were warm and relaxed. Then we set out from the scenic campsite at Hinju for a long walk over Konzke La, a pass at an altitude of ~16,000 ft, to Sumdo village, far away from and about 3,000 ft lower than the pass. Many trekkers stop well before Sumdo, at a campsite called Doksar. This is good because it means that on the following day, you can climb one pass, Lanak La, and halt at the foot of DungDung La. On the fifth day, you get over DungDung La and reach Chilling. We, however, planned to cut a day and reach Chilling on day 4, and this involved going on from Doksar to Sumdo on day 3, and then crossing two passes, Lanak La and DungDung La, on day 4. We knew we were in for two long days.

We left early and followed the river for a long, long, long way before starting the climb to the pass. Somewhere along the way, I, in the lead, took a wrong turn, and Amit, right behind me, obediently followed. We wandered along a thin, almost invisible trail across the steep mountain side, and at the end, where the mountain curved around, I proceeded with the aid of my sturdy walking sticks to struggle straight up the loose stony face of the slope with the gay abandon of a mountain goat. Amit, meanwhile, was precariously positioned, tripod in one hand, nothing in the other, able to move neither up nor down, and cursing me with every passing breath. In the end, we both made it to the top of the slope without incident, only to find that there was a perfectly reasonable path approaching from another direction and sauntering along it was Ballu, our cook-and-guide, offering sympathy, food and a helping hand.

I had thought that this was the pass, but from our new vantage point we could clearly see that the pass was still far away, in fact, incredibly far away, and much higher as well. It took as a good two hours of sweat, hyperventilation, and despair.

This was not, in fact our first adventure on this trip. The previous day, Amit and I, going on ahead of the others as usual, had found a small stream in our path, which had to be crossed three or four times. These crossings are not remarkable – there are usually a few boulders sticking out of the water in just such an orientation that, with some courage and basic sense of balance, one can hop across them without getting the soles of one’s shoes wet. Every trekker has overcome many such crossings, and usually many worse ones as well. At the first of these, I duly hopped across, then turned around and waited for Amit.

Much to my surprise, he was stuck. One foot on one rock, he stood stock still, trying to summon up the courage to extend his long legs to the next rock. I waited. He waited. Time passed. I urged him on. He waved me to shut up. More time passed. Eventually I crossed back towards him and told him to give me the tripod.

Now, these crossings may not in themselves be difficult, but when someone as small, nervous and clumsy as me, is standing on a rock in the middle of a stream and encouraging someone else in a state of catatonic shock to handover a camera and tripod that together weigh about 15 kilos and cost a king’s ransom to boot, suddenly things don’t look so easy either. When Amit actually extended the tripod across the water towards me and I grabbed one end of it, I was leaning forward. When he released the blasted thing and the entire weight of it came into my arms, it took every bit of muscle power and determination for me to be able to straighten up and turn around. Both of us were more surprised than relieved – and that’s saying a lot, because we were really relieved – that I managed it without dropping the whole thing on the rocks or in the water.

The funny thing was that, with the camera out of the way, Amit crossed without further ado. And later on in the trek, when he had given permanent custody of the tripod to Ballu and the camera was safely packed away in his camera bag, he rarely thought twice about skipping from one rock to the next. With his long, long legs, he could afford to pick his own route across every little stream, while I had to hunt for the closest-spaced stones and even then sometimes ended up stepping in water.

That day, we reached the pass around noon, and left about an hour later. On the descent, Amit wasn’t feeling too good, so we walked really slowly, me doing everything in my power just to keep him going. Eventually, he did improve, but it was mid-afternoon by the time we reached Doksar. Now we had at least another two hours’ walk, or so we thought. Just as we exited the campsite at Doksar, we saw a huge mountain in front of us with a path going right up it. Crikey! Did we have to go up that???

We did. It took us a couple of hours, but up we went and down the other side, and as we went down, we got a superb view of a neat path about a thousand feet below us, snaking along the mountain side close to the river.

Recriminations flew fast and thick. Clearly we should be on that path – why on earth were we up here? By now, the five of us were walking in a bunch, the easier to argue the matter, and nobody felt happy about having been led up the mountain path for no reason. Ballu maintained that the access to the lower path had been washed away by floods last year, hence the need for the high road, but visual inspection indicated that we could have sneaked along the side of the river, perhaps crossing it a couple of times and reached that path by that far quicker and easier route. As it was, we made an unplanned descent straight down the mountainside, which was certainly the direct route, but not so easy on the knees.

That day, after a “real” river crossing (which entailed taking off socks and shoes and linking arms to cross), we reached Sumdo around 7 p.m. It was still daylight then, but our campsite was to be found not at Sumdo village itself, but a couple of km further on. The donkeys who were carrying all our luggage would be waiting there for us, so we had no choice but to continue. Amit and I charged ahead at top speed. A matter of 2 km may not sound like much, but on a winding mountain path in fading light it can practically take forever. As it happened, we reached camp just after 8, when it was just possible to stumble along without a torch. DDB&B reached about half an hour later, by when torchlight was indispensable. It would have been my second trek by torchlight, and both are unforgettable due to the sheer physical tiredness and the mental determination that were intrinsic to the experience.

Lost in the Himalayas – Part 1

July 18, 2007

A trek in Ladakh is always a big event. The landscape is vast, infinite, without end… and the scale of preparation and coordination required is almost in proportion to it. Plus, a trek of 11-12 days is quite a major undertaking in its own right, when you’re not going through a travel agency.

I’m not sure if having a lot of experienced and well-prepared people on the team makes everything easier, or a little more difficult. When Amit and I went on our first Himalayan trek ever, we were five trekkers with a total of zero years of trekking experience between us. Our equipment then consisted of rented sleeping bags and a jacket each. In our ignorance, we walked in sneakers and somehow stumbled through alive.

This time, our team had four members: Amit, me, and his cousins DDB & B. DDB&B have been trekking for about a quarter of a century, so the total of our trekking experience amounted to maybe 60 years. Consequently, we had about enough equipment to start a mid-size trekking agency of our own. Apart from personalized sleeping bags and mats, some genuine, branded North Face jackets and rucksacks, and enough medicines to treat a small city, we even had high-ankle, waterproof trekking shoes and – for Amit – calf-length (almost), steel-tipped workman’s boots. We were well equipped to launch a veritable expedition.

I was the only one who had been on this route before, so, before I quite knew what was happening, I had been appointed “leader” of the expedition. This was scary, because the others were all older, more experienced, fitter, and in every way better than me, so I didn’t feel qualified in any way to be leader. I should not really have taken the designation seriously, but for the realization that three other people were just about to subject themselves to serious degrees of discomfort over several days, not to mention the rather high financial commitment, all on my sole recommendation. That was really scary. Every time a query was addressed to “leader-saab” – which was often! – I had serious palpitations, the more so as I didn’t really have such a clear memory of every twist and turn of the route as to be able to address basic questions like: How many river crossings will we have today? (This later had “interesting” repurcussions – but that comes later.)

Amit had been praying so fervently (despite his self-professed atheism) for sunny weather, that I was pretty sure we would find rain. And we did, but it altered our plans in a way least expected.

Being very long-term planners when it comes to travel, Amit and I had booked tickets to Leh about six months in advance of our intended date of departure. This was a BIG mistake, because we spent several weeks prior to departure juggling air tickets, because the airlines (IC) took us on a jolly ride by changing the dates of both flights into and out of Leh. Then our flight to Delhi (Spice) was pushed out by almost three hours. Altogether we spent way too many hours and way too much money booking and re-booking flights, but when the dust settled, our flight from Delhi to Leh which was scheduled to leave at 5.45 a.m. on Friday got delayed till 7 a.m. and then sat on the tarmac for a further two hours, eventually taking off at 9 a.m. At 9.30, when our arrival at Leh should have been imminent, our pilot abruptly announced that weather conditions prohibited us from landing, that the Leh airport had been shut down, and that we were turning around and heading back to Delhi!

After a disaster like this, things can only get better… or worse. In this instance, they got worse before they got better. There was a free-for-all at the airport, brought on primarily by the airlines requesting us to wait for the next flight out on Monday. Although there were only a handful of passengers on this flight, and some wise ones (like yours truly) opted out of the fracase, bodily injury seemed inevitable, so the airline representatives gave in and organized a “special” flight for us the next morning. By this time, it was past lunch time and even the most energetic campaigners against the airline were tired, so we had lunch at the airport and went back home.

The next morning, things looked almost equally dismal. Internet reports on the weather at Leh were not promising. Plans B, C, D, and Z were discussed, including plans to shorten the trek, change the trek, abort the trek, and one particularly desperate plan to fly to Srinagar and drive from there to Leh; but the flight took off on time, and after circling above Leh for about half an hour, suddenly plunged through the clouds, swooped around the mountains, and landed at Leh amidst much applause from the 30-odd passengers.

The nice thing about Leh – actually, there are many nice things about Leh, but one of them – is that if you’ve been there once, when you go back it’s like returning to a host of friends. You have more than a passing acquaintance with a substantial proportion of the town’s population. We had been there a combined total of three times already, so we knew practically everyone. The taxi driver we got through the prepaid window at the airport, for instance, had driven us back from our aborted trek two years ago, so we were pretty much on first name terms right away. The small lodge where we always stayed, Palu Guest House, treated us like family, as did one particular travel agency, Royal Explorer, with whom we had never done business but only met socially.

Having arrived in Leh, things proceeded smoothly. Over the next two days, we got acclimatized and made all the arrangements necessary to start trekking. This included buying a large pressure cooker, a plastic can for water, kerosene, of course, and a sleeping bag for Ballu, who had decided to travel without one. It also included a trip to the Leh palace and Shanti Stupa, and to the local grocery stores and vegetable market. Having sneaked in several good meals along the way, at the end of two days, we were almost organized and ready to go.

The next day, we left for Lamayuru. At Lamayuru, we took two rooms, so we did not have to set up and tear down the tents from day one – there would be plenty of that in the following days. We negotiated with the locals for a group of five donkeys to carry our stuff, requested our taxi to pick us up from the end point on the appointed date, and with that, we were set to bid goodbye to civilization for the next ten days.

Lamayuru was wonderful, as always. It is a small, rustic place, with a monastery, a handful of run-down houses, solar lighting, a riverbed without much evidence of a river, and of course Moonland. Moonland is one stretch of mountain that has an ethereal creamy-white surface. Whether it is rock or sand it is difficult to say, but it is quite fascinating. The weather was somewhat unpredictable – it would rain every 45 minutes for a few minutes, not hard, but sufficiently so that whoever was outdoors would be forced to retire indoors.

Despite the rugged landscape and the unpredictable weather, there is a high awareness of cleanliness and hygiene in these areas, as evidenced by the following scene.

Five assorted people were standing around tentatively under a temporary shelter outdoors. On a nearby wooden bench was a fat cotton mattress, doubled over. It was just beginning to rain. The following conversation took place in Hindi, in which it is hugely effective.

First person: You’d better put that mattress in; it’s beginning to rain.

Second person: Well so what? When it rains, it’ll get wet, and when the sun comes out, it’ll dry out again.

First person: Why have you kept it out then, to wet it or to sun it?

Second person: If it gets wet, it will be washed…

First person: And if it gets the sun?

Second person (without missing a beat): …it will be “dry cleaned”.

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