A Narrow Escape

August 11, 2010

Almost exactly a week after Amit got on a flight out of Leh, the region was hit by a cloudburst and flash floods. Roads were wrecked, bridges swept away, buildings destroyed, and over 150 people died, with hundreds more injured. Eighty-nine tourists were airlifted from Skiu, the village that Amit stayed at the first night of his trek and where I have stayed three times since our first visit to Ladakh in 2005.

Immediately after the flash floods, Leh was cut off by road on both sides (Manali-Leh as well as Srinagar-Leh); by air, as the runway was covered in mud; and by phone, as the BSNL building was destroyed. Tourists in Leh found themselves helping in rescue operations. Although the army, air force, and ITBP were mobilized for relief and rescue operations, the scale of operations boggles the mind.

All the usual disaster management activities, like getting the injured to hospital, and setting up temporary shelters, sanitation, food and potable water for survivors, are complicated by the terrain. It must also be difficult to know where to focus and how to prioritize – whether to fix the roads first, as they are the lifelines of the region, not to mention their strategic significance; or to fix the city first; or to evacuate tourists stranded in remote villages, high-altitude campsites or along the roads first. I wonder what it would be like if you were a car or a bus on the beautiful, tortuous, endless road from Manali to Leh. I have been on that road several times. Since the rain occurred at night, nobody would have been actually driving on the road at that time, so vehicles and passengers would have been “safely” (?) tucked up at the overnight stops. But to then have to spend day after day and night after night on the road as you come up against one gigantic landslide after another… running out of food, running out of water, running out of patience as you wait to tell your loved ones that you’re alive and safe…

When we went to Ladakh for the first time in 2005, we had wonderful weather. But when I went down to Himachal a few weeks later that same year, there were three or four days of incessant rain. The Beas was in spate and elsewhere in Himachal (Kullu, Kinnaur) there were serious floods in the Sutlej river (as well as the Kosi river in Nepal). There were landslides on the Manali-Leh road and the road was closed for a few days. I went back on that road as soon as it opened, and I saw the remains of the damage firsthand. Huge boulders were scattered around at random and in a few places the streams (one aptly called Pagal Nala) still charted a course across the road surface. Corpses of cows still lay where they had fallen. We got stuck a few times where smaller, more recent landslides were still being cleared. In one instance, even as repairs progressed, a tiny rattle of stones threatened from above as everyone looked upwards anxiously and hurried out of the way.

When we went back to Ladakh in 2006, we had miserable weather. It rained every day for more than a week, and that time too, there were floods. That time too, the army was called out and people were rescued and evacuated. We saw for ourselves where the river had overflowed onto the road and bridges had been swept away. On our route, we turned and walked back without meeting any crises; but on other routes, trekking parties were stranded for days.

In 2007, we went back on the route I had been on alone in 2005. That route had seen a lot of rain the previous year, and some of the topography had changed beyond recognition. The old trekking path in places had been obliterated by landslides. I still remember walking merrily on the left of the river, heading up to where I could see a trail clearly snaking along the mountainside high above the river. Behind me, someone whistled to me and directed me to cross the river and walk on the other side. Why? I asked. They pointed further along the trail I had been heading for – the path simply disappeared under a pile of rubble! The terrain is such that there was no chance of getting across the landslide, or getting over or under it. There was now a new and much less conspicuous trail on the other side of the valley and that was the only way forward.

This was just one of many noticeable changes in the landscape. In places, the course of the river itself had changed, wiping out a path on one side and forcing you to either climb a hill or cross the water to find a path.

I’ve seen some of the TV coverage of the flood and I’ve read many of the newspaper and website reports. I can only imagine the kind of destruction it has wrought on this beautiful, barren, stark landscape. Even back in 2005 I’d heard the people of Leh complain that trees were the cause of their woes. The plants that do so much good for other parts of the planet are not good for this environment. This terrain, made of mud and dust, is not made for rain. Trees, they said, need rain as much as they cause rain. Planting trees here is wrong.

It looks wrong. The brilliant green of plant life stands out like a sore thumb in the dusty beauty of Ladakh. But whether it really is the cause of the sudden seasonal flooding of Ladakh is not for me to say.

Earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, cyclones, drought – there are always natural disasters of one kind or another going on somewhere in this world. Those that are closes to home hit you hardest. I’ve been to Leh more times than most other places I’ve visited as a tourist. I’ve been there sick and I’ve been there alone. I know the people, I know the shops, the streets, the mountain peaks. I know the bus-stand that’s been flattened, I know the village that people were airlifted from. In fact, I know all the places mentioned in the news report – Choglamsar, Nimmo, Pang, Bazgo, Skiu… My thoughts are with the family who runs the guesthouse we always stay in, and the women who run the trekking agency we always go to first, and the horsemen (and horses) who have come with us on our many adventures there and taken good care of us. I hope they are all ok and I hope they can rebuild their homes, their businesses, and their lives as soon as they possibly can…

And I’m thankful, so thankful, that Amit came back when he did and I didn’t have to spend a single moment worrying about him (any more than I already did).

A few pictures of Ladakh – not Leh itself, but the remote valleys outside. From our 2007 trek.

To Hell With Common Sense

July 15, 2008

Amit must be a world champion at emotional blackmail. Against my better judgement, he persuaded me on Thursday afternoon to accompany him to Delhi on Thursday night (well, technically Friday early morning) and then on to Leh the following day. With the twins, of course. Insane? Absolutely. That’s why I had resolutely stuck to my guns and refused to consider carting the kids off to an altitude of almost 11000 feet, where acclimatisation takes 48 hours, there’s no natural greenery so oxygen is in short supply, flights out are always sold out and descent by road takes two days and involves crossing altitudes upto 17000 feet.

So I had unilaterally decided that taking two under-twos to Leh was a bad idea and nothing Amit said could convince me otherwise… Until Thursday, when he gave me several of those looks and piled on the pleading and persuasion and I suddenly agreed.

There followed an evening of frenetic activity as we made additional flight and hotel bookings, and packed 50 kg (!) of clothing and camera stuff into 4 rugged backpacks. It was almost 12.30 before we were done, and with the new airport being so far away, we planned to leave at 3.00 for a flight at 5.30, so of course we didn’t get any sleep. What’s worse, when we carted the kids to the taxi at 3.00 a.m., they woke up and didn’t sleep again until after lunch!

The fun really started the next morning (if you can consider the dead of night to be morning) when we again awoke at 2.30 to catch our flight to Leh. It was pouring cats and dogs as we loaded everything and everybody into a rattletrap Ambassador taxi and set off for the airport. I sat with the kids while Amit and his dad handled the check-in. Then, from 4 a.m straight through till 10.30, we made the airport lounge our home as we waited for the flight to take off. It was clear from about 7, or for the hopelessly optimistic about 8, that our flight would be cancelled because no flights can land or take-off at Leh late morning onwards. But, we had to wait for the airline to take the final decision to cancel the flight and they decided to keep us waiting a few extra hours.

Meanwhile, the kids kept us on our toes. The ran from end to end of the huge lounge, watched the aeroplanes through locked doors and grimy windows, flirted with other passengers, ate cake and sandwich for breakfast, submitted to having their diapers changed in the ladies’ bathroom, sprawled on the dusty floor and made swimming actions with their arms and legs, held hands and played Ringa-ringa Roses, and generally enjoyed themselves thoroughly and provided free entertainment to all.

It was 11.30 before we got home and by then Tara was fast asleep and the rest of us were inclined to follow suit in short order. It was a really tiring and hardly a very successful start to a grand holiday. But you can never keep an avid traveller family down for long.

Lost in the Himalayas – Part 4 (the last)

July 25, 2007

Were we lost???

It was 4.30, when I at last forced the issue with Ballu. He, too, was loath to concede that we might very well be. But, by this time we had come in view of two wonderful peaks that should have been visible on the route to Thochuntse – the only problem was that we seemed to be behind the peaks, when I could have sworn we should have been around in front of them, at quite a different angle.

We held a quick round-table conference (minus the table). As a first step, Ballu was dispatched to investigate whether Thochuntse perchance lay around the next bend. The second step was to fortify ourselves with whatever little food we were carrying – we certainly looked as though we were in for a long, long day, and perhaps, in the worst case, a cold and hungry night.

I explained why we could not be on the right path to Thochuntse.

“You see that ridge over there on the left?”

Everyone looked ~1500 ft upwards and nodded.

“Well, if we could get over that and around the foot of that peak there, we’d be at Nimaling – that’s where we want to be tomorrow.”

The thought didn’t seem to lighten the mood much.

“Let’s not panic,” said DDB sagely.

Everyone nodded.

Why would we panic? We only had to retrace our millions of steps of the last four hours, and we’d be back at Hankar. Surely the villagers would provide us some food and a place to sleep – then we’d go on tomorrow and everything would be fine.

But, what had taken us four hours on the outward path, would certainly take five, maybe more, as tiredness and as darkness enveloped us.

To make matters worse, the sun, which had been shining brightly earlier in the afternoon, seemed to have been vanquished yet again by rain clouds; and each of us had carried only a light jacket with ourselves.

At length, Ballu returned with a crestfallen look. He had hurried a long way ahead and seen no sign of Thochuntse. The fact that no horses and no people had passed us in four hours seemed the clinching consideration – we must turn back.

We were a worried lot, as we picked up our stuff and turned around, but this time, now that things had gone seriously wrong for once, there were no recriminations, no raised voices, no drama. We just turned around and started back.

It wasn’t long before we heard the welcome tinkle of a bell, signifying that a horse was nearby. Another few minutes, and our own horseman appeared in view, riding his best steed, a light coloured horse with a flowing, blonde mane. We were never so relieved to see anyone or anything as we were to see that horseman and his horse. He, apparently, was equally relieved to see us.

It transpired that, after reaching the campsite at Thochuntse, he had learned from others at the campsite that we had not yet arrived. As he had not overtaken us on the way, he deduced that we must be lost and came back to look for us. There weren’t, luckily for us, too many wrong turns that we could have taken, so his search options were limited.

We should not have crossed the bridge at Hankar, he told us cheerfully. Having done so, we need only have continued on our present course a fortnight or so and we would have reached Tso Moriri. While Tso Moriri is a beautiful lake and any of us would have loved to visit it, 15 days of walking without horses, without food, and without finding any villages en route looked like a scary prospect even to the most experienced of us, and we were doubly grateful to the young chap for having had the sense and consideration to come out looking for us.

What’s more, much to our delight he announced that we need not walk all the way back to Hankar, where we had stepped off the beaten track; there was a shortcut to Thochuntse. Tired, but relieved, Amit and I walked the fastest we possibly could behind the horse, almost causing the horse to break into a trot, till we reached the point where the shortcut to Thochuntse diverged from our Hankar-Tso Moriri path. It was nothing but a gap in the hills, with a narrow stream flowing through it. “Just cross the stream and follow the route, and you’ll find Thochuntse after about an hour,” our rescuer assured us, as he settled down to wait for the others.

And so we did – we stumbled into camp at around 7.30, before the onset of darkness, to be greeted by worried, relieved, friendly, sympathetic, concerned, and drama-seeking countenances along with a flood of questions and comments from the score of people already settled there. We must have walked more than 20 km, instead of the leisurely 12 we had expected… but we had survived, and that, without panic.

The next day, despite the exhaustion, we left for Nimaling by 8 a.m. The one thing we were clear about was that, if we were to get lost again, we wanted to have plenty of time in hand so that we could be found during daylight hours. We adopted the strategy of trying to keep other trekking parties in sight, ahead or behind, and so made it to Nimaling before lunch and without incidence.

It was a little hard to appreciate the beauty of Nimaling, tired as we were, but Nimaling did her best to impress us – the weather remained clear, and the sunset was sublime. DDB and I found the energy for a short excursion up the slope behind the campsite that afternoon, but did not really get high enough to experience the best of Nimaling. I, well aware of the treasures in store, could hardly wait till the next day, when we had planned a “rest” day at Nimaling.

Our adventures were not yet at an end, though. Over the past several days, we had all watched with baited breath as Amit’s enormous, kiloton-weight, steel-tipped, ankle-high, inflexible leather, water proof, ice proof, wind proof, truck-proof workman’s shoes came apart at the soles. A couple of tiny tubes of Fevikwik (?) and Dendrite that DDB&B happened to be carrying had been put to use and the boots had been weighted down with some REALLY HEAVY stones overnight, but they had resolutely opened up again over the next day or two. Multiple water crossings had not been of much help. The situation was so desperate that Amit had even suggested taking a quick detour from Chilling to the nearest town that offered the services of a mochi, but since that town was likely to be Leh, he was persuaded to abandon this crazy undertaking.

It was clear, of course, that no other shoe would fit Amit apart from his own. Luckily, he had carried a pair of floaters (sandals) along – but these were so old and decrepit that the sole of each one was cleanly split in two across the middle. As they were made for use more as bathroom slippers than trekking footwear, the grip of the sole, even when new was not in the least confidence inspiring. I had been reassuring him that, apart from the descent on the last day, the terrain was not such as to make heavy demands on the footwear, but events so far had not really shown the truth of this statement. When the adhesive solutions failed, we tried Leucoplast (a somewhat stronger version of a bandaid) and later took to tying the front of the shoe together with whatever strands of rope were at hand. As the strands never survived very long, we were always on the lookout for stronger and stronger bits of rope, and eventually were reduced to pulling strings out of DDB&B’s jackets. From bright blue to mousy brown to dirty white – all manner of string were wound around the shoes, and each of them eventually fell off. If we had had no other form of entertainment at all on the trip, this would have been sufficient to keep us well occupied.

Amit decided that he wanted to look “presentable” on this trek, so he had started out with every intention of bathing and shaving. (It seems to me that he would have done better to dress more sensibly. He had elected to wear shorts and T-shirt, with the result that his arms and legs were excruciatingly sunburnt. I had sunscreen, of course, but covering his never-ending limbs with it would have required carrying a bathtub-full of it, and an extra horse to carry it.) However, dry, dusty, scratched and sun-burnt limbs notwithstanding, he wanted to look presentable. So far, he had managed two “baths” and one shave. Nimaling was too high and the water too cold to allow another bath, but the rest day was duly designated as shaving day. Having completed his shave satisfactorily (with warm water, of course), he set about slicing open his thumb with his safety razor.

By the time that damage had been controlled it was past 10.30 a.m. – and we set off almost lethargically for the climb to the foot of the Kangyatze. Amit was looking his resplendent best in his T-shirt and shorts, with deeply sunburnt limbs on display, cleanly shaven, wearing his they-come-apart-in-the-middle floaters and with a ragged and ineffective bandaid wrapped around his butchered thumb.

The walk up from the campsite – ~1500 ft – took almost two hours. The walk down took well over one. And yet, those four hours of exertion, panting at 16,000 ft and upwards, were a small price to pay for the one hour of sheer bliss up there at the base of the Kangyatze.

Photos will paint a better picture of the place than words can, but I’ll try to give some impression of it.

First, there was the exertion of the slow and steady climb. Upon reaching the top of a quite marked ascent, you’d find in front of you not a grand view, but another rise. You struggle on, upwards, wondering when it will end, and suddenly it does. It is quite a small crest, but if you are at the top, you are really at the top.

On your left is a sloping shoulder, dropping down behind you to the valley you’ve left below. In front, there stands a mountain, hitherto well hidden from view, with ridges extending in both directions. The ridge on the right curves around and links up with the Kangyatze you’ve grown familiar with, which looms above you. From where we stood, we could make out the rope that had been fixed just below the summit, and the steps of climbers across part of the snow on the face. It didn’t look so far, or so impossible, a mere 4,000 ft or so above us. The two climbers who had made it to the summit the previous morning had crossed our campsite on their way down.

Swivel around with the hidden peak on your left, and the view opens up to offer a limitless panorama, with ranges of mountains stretching into infinity. The farthest range, identified by DDB as the Karakoram, lies more in Pakistan than in India! Nearer at hand are the ranges that mark the path we have traversed in the past so many days. DDB tentatively pointed out Konzke La, which we had crossed on day 3, five days ago!

Swivel around a little more, with your back to the Kangyatze, and you’re facing the Stok range, which runs down from some high peaks to the low saddle that is Kongmaru La. Just in front of and below Kongmaru La, invisible to us from here, is our campsite. Further on, the Stok range seems to run out completely, with the ridge sloping down to create a gentle cradle for the valley.

To this panorama, add peace, stillness, quiet. No animals other than an occasional lizard and no plants. No sound is to be heard except what noise we make. There is scant movement, other than that caused by us. This is nature at its most undisturbed. I can understand why hermits legendarily sought high Himalayan peaks for their centuries-long meditation.

The altitude made me cough, but a few minutes’ complete stillness helped. We wandered around that high place, going in different directions, then shot some photographs. The group photographs required immense physical effort by way of a 100 m sprint in the ten seconds it took for the camera’s delayed shutter action to kick in. (Notice, in the picture, that I only just made it – not bad at 17,000 ft!)

In all too short a time, we turned around and went back, to the lunch that was waiting for us.

And from there, it was all downhill. Of course, the next day we had a similar climb of ~1,500 ft to reach Kongmaru La, and the views from the pass were perhaps just as good, but for me, this time as before, the high point of the trek was not the pass but the rest day at the foot of the Kangyatze.

The walk to Shang Sumdo was a formality. It had its moments, but they paled in comparison to all that had been. We walked, we tied up Amit’s shoes, we didn’t get lost, we crossed streams, we went slithering down the slippery bits, we admired the gorge, we stopped for tea and Maggi, we reached a village, and still we walked, and walked, and walked, and at last, around 5 p.m., we reached Sumdo and found our car waiting for us. And so our trek came to an end at last.

I would not call it the perfect trek. I wish our cancelled flight out had not caused us to lose a day; I wish it hadn’t rained even as little as it had; I wish Amit’s footwear hadn’t been so troublesome; I wish we had not got lost; I wish it had not been so long and so tiring a trek… but none of that really matters. We had spent two wonderful days at Nimaling and the weather had been glorious. What more could anyone want?

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”.

Mind in the Mountains

June 13, 2007
Two weeks to departure and the countdown is very much under way. As usual, there’s too much to do and not enough time. Apart from the usual trek preparations which involve getting out our tent, sleeping bags, warm clothes, assembling cameras and tripods, taking stock of medical and first aid requirements, etc etc etc – apart from all that usual stuff, I also have to think of a birthday gift for my sister and one for my cousin sister-in-law. Not just think of, but also obtain.

And all of that is quite apart from mundane stuff like getting ahead in German, writing an assignment in Archaeology, and keeping the house running.

To add to the excitement, tax filing date is around the corner!

On top of everything else, my second (or is it third?) most ardent wish has finally been granted and I have been given some work to do in office. It’s very far from being glamorous – or even challenging – work, but it’s work nevertheless, and it’s better than nothing.

On second thoughts, though, nothing would have been quite good just right at the moment. Well, I suppose you should be careful what you wish for.

At last, after postponing it for several weeks, I have finally started fitness training for the trek. Currently this takes the form of running 15 rounds at the tennis courts – that’s AFTER playing for an hour. If that’s not enough to impress you, let me add that my circuit consists of two courts side-by-side. It was enough to impress Tennis Sir, who thought I was doing this to improve my tennis – of which erroneous notion I have not had the heart to disabuse him. I should have done, though, because he was so impressed to see my assumed dedication to the sport that he promptly instructed me to add crunches (sit-ups) to my daily exercise routine. My poor stomach hardly survived the first attempt, but after giving it a week to recover, now I’ve done it three days running and it’s only protesting mildly. So, there’s hope for me yet.

Two weeks might not be enough time for all my preparations, but it’s still too long to wait – my mind is already in the mountains. For a naturally slothful person who avoids physical exertion like the plague, I’m constantly amazed at how I’ve taken to trekking, where you spend hours walking every day, for days on end, with no specific purpose.

I also never cease to be surprised at how I love the rustic lifestyle of trekking. I consider myself a fairly comfort-loving person. I was brought up in an urban and fairly westernized environment, eating dinner (AT the dining table, if you please, NOT in front of TV) with three sets of cutlery and all that, and here I am gamely taking to dust and dirt, a complete lack of privacy, outdoor toilets (sometimes communal), two weeks without a bath and other such delights of the mountains, as if they were second nature to me.

Another thing I about trekking that is perverse to my nature, is the complete absence of a plan. I mean, you do need to have a plan when you set out, and your plan should include certain essentials such as food, and a place to pitch a tent in the evening – oh, and a tent, of course. But all of that is “pre” planning – what you do before you set out. Once you’re out on the trail, you don’t have to plan a thing. You just keep going, and when you find a level spot with some clean water nearby, you stop and pitch tent. The only things to think about are where you’re going to sleep, where you’re going to find sufficient privacy for toilet breaks, and when and how you’re going to get your next meal. Life really boils down to the basics. No wonder hermits through the ages have taken to the mountains.

This time it’s not so easy for me to escape the trek planning part, though. Amit’s trekking cousins are accompanying us. Since I’m the only one who’s been on this trek before, I’ve somehow been made de facto “leader” of the team. This is terrible, because I actually see myself as the least experienced and also the weakest link; the trekking cousins have been trekking twice a year for the last couple of decades. And they are looking to me for information and organization.

Unfortunately, my idea of being “organized” for a trek is to get all my/our personal equipment together and get going. Everything else we’ll buy once we reach the trail head. I’m not used to dealing with questions such as: who’s bringing the stove and pressure cooker, and how many tents will we need?

I suppose it’ll all work out eventually and that whatever can be done will be done, and whatever can’t be done will get dropped by the wayside hopefully without any adverse effects. As long as it doesn’t rain up there and nobody falls sick, it should be ok.

Ladakh – Glimpses Through the Rain

August 24, 2006
When we planned a trek in Ladakh in August, it was with the supreme confidence that in Ladakh it never rains. Or at least, it never rains much. They build their houses with sand and straw (I’m not joking!) and those structures stand for hundreds of years, that’s how little it rains. So when it started raining the night before we left from Leh to Lamayuru to begin our trek, we shrugged it off as an isolated incident; and sure enough, the next morning, it dried up (somewhat).  

It was a cruel joke. On 12 of the next 14 days that we spent trekking, it rained, and rained, and – just when you thought it had stopped – rained some more. We walked through rain, we ate in rain, we slept in rain and we woke up in rain.  

It should have been miserable, but it wasn’t. Not because Ladakhi rain is any better than any other rain, but because Ladakh is the sort of place where it’s impossible to be miserable. Here are some of the dry and happy experiences we encountered. 

Hospitable Hosts 

Although this was intended to be a camping trip and we had our tent with us, the rain drove us to seek refuge in villagers’ homes whenever we could.  

Now, in Ladakh, a village might be just a collection of ten houses and a few acres of fields scattered on a sloping hillside. And “houses” often are a pile of stones put together around an unpaved courtyard. Some villages are sandwiched between passes so high that in winter they are completely cut off from the rest of the world for six months at a stretch. And when the passes are open, it is a five-day walk to the nearest roadhead. 

In this cold, dry area we found some of the warmest hospitality you could imagine. At Lingshet, where we spent two nights, we had another trekking party in the neighborhood, and we had made acquaintance with not only the German trekkers, but also with their Ladakhi staff. One amongst the staff was an old, toothless man with two donkeys, who passed the time of day with us.  

He was long forgotten by the time we reached Photoksar on our way back, thoroughly wet and disgruntled after walking six hours through rain. We stopped at the village, hoping for a roof for the night, and the donkey-man greeted us like a long lost brother. He welcomed us to stay at his house, and was so eager that we hadn’t the heart to refuse.

When we reached his house, he showed us proudly into the “guest room,” clearly the best room in the house. It had a bare earth floor, with three dusty carpets covering lumpy mattresses on the floor. The walls were bare and cracked. There was a pile of very heavy, warm, extremely rough, and disgustingly smelly blankets along one wall. He grabbed the thickest and softest of these and spread it along the wall to provide a comfortable backrest. The one window had a significant piece of glass missing. And, by far the most ominous sign, there was a thoroughly filthy bucket in the middle of the floor, catching the worst of the leaks from the flat ceiling. In other parts of the room, the ceiling leaked directly onto the floor, whence, possibly, it continued on to the room below us. That night, it would clearly be a challenge finding sufficient dry space to sleep on. And the mouldy blankets looked so forbidding that I decided I would unroll my sleeping bag after all. (In spite of which, I somehow managed to get flea-bitten twice in the course of the entire trip.) 

The room was so dismal that we would have preferred to set up our own familiar tent, albeit in the rain, but the man was so happy to be our host that to do so would have been positively inhuman. We settled ourselves down carefully, avoiding the drips as much as we could, and trying not to wet the bedding with our wet clothes. Tea was pressed upon us. Unnerved by the squalid air of dirt and poverty, we refused several times; but when our host had reappeared the fifth or sixth time to enquire whether we would like some tea, we gave in and consented; whereupon we were decorously served tea – quite good tea, actually – in delicate china cups complete with saucers and all! 

Some time later, when the rain had let up, we wandered out on to the open veranda and stood gazing idly at the rather lovely view of the valley and distant hills. Promptly, the old man appeared and, like a magician, with great delight produced a pair of binoculars with which to better survey our surroundings. What a pair of binoculars it was – an original Carl Zeiss Jena probably dating back to the Second World War, all polished brass with everything in working order down to the lens covers! 

The old man had been in the army, he told us, and somewhere he had picked up half-a-dozen words of English, which he tried out on his with some enthusiasm. “Problem” was clearly his favorite English word, which he used at least once every 15 minutes to enquire whether all was well. At some point he had lost most of the teeth in this mouth, which sometimes made it difficult to understand what he was saying, but “problem” came through all right and as long as we shook our heads and replied “no problem” all was fine.  

At another village, Skyumpata, another old man was almost as proud to be our host. Though he had possession of all his teeth, and a few more words of English, he was more difficult to communicate with because he knew no Hindi whatsoever. His daughter-in-law knew Hindi, but her Math was a little weak; so it was the bevy of grandchildren who acted as cashiers and interpreters in our negotiations. All evening, as we sat in a room somewhat less sordid than the one at Photokasr, one or another of the children would come and stand at the door and stare silently at us, as though we were some strange other-worldly creatures. As night fell, their numbers swelled and later the village women banded together to troop upstairs and examine us. One woman showed me her child, who had a sort of rash on his back, and asked for medicine. Another wanted a cure for her toothache, which she had thus far treated by sticking two band-aids on her cheeks. The others just wanted to look at us. The old man wandered in around dinner time, examined my toothbrush and toothpaste, and then took me to the world map hung on the wall and quizzed me about all the major landmasses shown on it.  

In this room, for the first time since leaving Leh, we found a TV. Most of these villages have no electricity, but a lot of houses have a solar panel and a good-sized battery (in some villages, these are provided free by the government) with which they can operate lights in the evening. Apart from lights, I had not seen any other electrical appliances. I would not have been at all averse to watching TV for one evening – we had already been cut off from the world for over a week – so I asked one of the grandchildren whether it worked. It would, she said, and they had a DTH (Direct to Home) connection, but it hadn’t been set up yet.  

Next to the TV, by way of entertainment, lay a well thumbed book by Enid Blyton. Nobody can say she doesn’t get around! 

Herding Together 

At Photoksar on the way out, we spent a rest day, waiting for it to stop raining (an exercise in futility, as it turned out). In the afternoon, as we walked along the river, a bunch of village women descended upon us. They had seen our cameras and come to take a look. Ancient, weather-beaten, toothless, and dirty as they were, I was horrified at the thought of their grime-encrusted hands all over my precious camera. And yet, they were a rather shy, simple lot, easily pleased – how could I refuse? I allowed them to peek through the viewfinder and they giggled and went away thrilled.  

They flocked around the tea-stall nearby, talking and laughing. Then, they headed off across the river to gather up their flocks of sheep and goat, who had been grazing on the other side. What a sight it was! Long tunics waving, arms flapping, hair flying and voices rising they hounded and chased the poor critters into seven distinct groups. How they knew which group each sheep and goat and lamb belonged to I have no idea, but they were all quite clear about it. They grabbed them by the leg, by the scruff of the neck, by the ear, by the tail, by any part they could get hold of, all the while flailing at one to shoo it away, rounding up another, and holding a baby lamb in one arm. The animals themselves seemed to have no inkling which family they ought to be with, which is strange considering that they should be used to this routine by now. 

Once a couple of women had got their flock together, they started trying to herd them across the river. The animals were most reluctant, as the river was swollen and they had significant stretches of water to cross at either end of the bridge. The women had very definite ideas about the path the goats should and shouldn’t take to cross the water and the goats also had quite definite ideas, which, unfortunately, did not coincide. To complicate matters, as one herd of goat and sheep were sent across, the second herd tried their best to follow, which was not at all to the liking of the herders of the second herd. They tried their level best to hold the second herd back, while at the same time not allowing them to go wandering off to graze or, worse, to mix with any of the other five herds waiting to cross. It really was a circus. At 14,000 ft, such acrobatics would have had me gasping for breath, and watching the acrobatics had me almost rolling with laughter! 

Wool Weaver, Carpet Seller 

At Lingshet, the last stop on the trek before we turned around, at a secluded corner of the rather spread-out village, we wandered across a wool weaver. He was sitting at his loom – literally a “hand loom” consisting of a motley collection of wooden logs roughly fitted together – working on a partially-finished roll of woolen fabric. This fabric was not the heavy, coarse material blankets are made of, but the lighter and less rough material used for clothing. The roll, once completed, would fetch Rs 2000 in the village, he said. If he worked at it all day, he would finish one roll in one day; but he worked at it only in the afternoons and tended to his fields in the daytime. The fabric was not colored; that would be the buyer’s prerogative.  

At the other end of the spectrum from this plain, rough woolen fabric were the exquisite (though dusty) wool carpets that we found in even the poorest homes. In Leh, in one corner of the bazaar were clustered four or five carpet shops. At one of these, we stopped to look, buy, and chat. The carpet seller belonged not to Ladakh, but to Benares. The carpets were made in Benares, he explained, and he and the other carpet sellers brought their stock up to Leh when the tourist season started around June each year. From June till the end of December, they stayed in Leh, selling carpets not only to tourists but to the local residents as well. Towards the end of each year was the Ladakhi festival Lhosal, and at this time they sold almost all their stock. Amongst Ladakhis, carpets were considered a traditional gift for all occasions, he said, from weddings, to festivals, to deaths. People even used them on their animals. Those who could not afford to pay for carpets traded sheep’s wool, which the carpet sellers would take back to Benares for the next year’s supply of carpets.  

While dispensing tea and gossip, the carpet seller also made an earnest sales pitch, which involved ripping apart one carpet, pulling threads from another and all but setting fire to the one we had selected, in an effort to prove that it was genuine wool and a superior product (unlike the others) that we would not regret buying. It was fully washable, he assured us, and was all set to pour tea on it to demonstrate his point when we decided to put an end to his antics by buying it. 

Lassie Goes Home 

Though there are plenty of sheep and goat in Ladakh, we did not see any sheep dogs. In fact, at higher altitudes and in remote villages we did not see any dogs at all. But as we headed back and left the high passes behind us, early one morning a lovely collie-type mongrel came bounding along the path towards us. He nodded at us in a friendly manner, sniffed about like a busybody, and disappeared back in the direction he had come from. We waited, expecting his owner to appear, but his humans, when they did appear, turned out to be another trekking party. “Is he with you?” I asked, quite surprised that anyone would have brought their dog along for a trek. “He is since last night,” was the answer. Apparently the dog had joined their camp near Honupatta, appeared to have come from Photoksar (over Sisir La!) and looked all set to adopt them for the moment.

Throughout that day, we saw him off and on, as he kept pace with his adopted trekkers. He trotted, in a thoroughly composed and self-assured fashion, all along the 14-km path to Wanla. At one stage when he had passed us and gone ahead a bit, he came upon three donkeys grazing by the road. Apparently they didn’t like the look of him, because they lined up and brayed at him in a most threatening manner. He didn’t like the look of them either, and he paused at a safe distance and looked back at us, as if to say: “Why don’t you come and guard me against these terrible animals? I can handle one or two of them, but three’s a bit much, don’t you think?” 

Having got past the donkeys, he went on his merry way again, catching up with some trekkers far ahead of us. When we reached Wanla that evening, we spotted him at the campsite, alternately begging and foraging for food. Our donkey man, a local of Lamayuru, told us that he belonged to the Lamayuru Gompa. What on earth was he doing out at Honupatta then, I wondered. It was a good 30 km away, with a small pass on the way to boot. And yet, he didn’t seem very put out by it at all. 

By Pass

The usual trek along this route runs from Lamayuru to Padum (~10 days) and then, for the brave-hearted, on to Darcha (~20 days in all). Even before the deluge hit us, we had decided that we would not go all the way to Padum, but would cross all the high passes on the route and then turn around and cross them in the other direction. That way, we hoped to see the best views twice.  

As it turned out, we did not get to see too much, what with all the rain, but we sure as hell had to do all the hard work twice. The passes we crossed were, in order of appearance, Prinkiti La, Sisir La, Singge La, Khyupa La, and Netuke La. The last two passes, on the way to Padum, Hanuma La and Purfi La, we gave up on out of deference to the rain. 

Singge La was the highest (~16,500 ft), and Sisir La, being towards the north, was in the most arid region, where oxygen deficiency is felt most profoundly (there’s more greenery towards the south, even if in the form of shrubs), so both those passes were memorable in their own way. But in my opinion it was Khyupa La on the way back that was clearly the worst. It was a strange pass, Khyupa La, because it was an extremely gradual ascent from one side, and an amazingly steep ascent from the other. Of course, going down the steep side was a lark, but when I turned around and saw the steep ascent from afar, I almost decided not to go back! It would take me four hours to do the climb, I thought, but in the event it took a mere gasping and panting 90 minutes.  

If the passes took one’s breath away due to the steepness and altitude – and they did – the gorges took one’s breath away out of sheer beauty. I had already listed the walk from Lamayuru to Wanla as one of the best I’d ever done, but this time I found that the walk from Wanla to Honupatta was, if anything, much better. Here the river gushed along between two towering rock walls, twisting and turning like a ball of wool unraveled. At one point the water actually disappeared under the mountain, and emerged on the other side several feet away. It was the land of fairytales. 

Toilet Travails

At Lingshet, we were witness to an interesting toilet incident. Before the tale proceeds, it is essential to understand how toilets in Ladakh function. Typically, there’s a toilet cubicle built into the hill, such that the doorway is at a higher point on the hill than the lowest level of the building. Inside, there’s a hole in the floor, and if you’re lucky (and you’re not, always) there’s a door or at least a curtain across the doorway. And that’s it: no soap, no water, no electricity, no toilet paper, nothing except a smell.

So, back to Lingshet. We were sitting outdoors sunning ourselves (it was one of the two days when the sun actually won the battle against the clouds) when we noticed our neighbors making repeated forays into the toilet, with a torch on their foreheads. This was curious, because normally the last thing one would want to add to the delights of the Ladakhi toilet is unnecessary illumination.  

Then things got curiouser. In front of us was a barbed-wire fence, and one of our neighbors came over and began to attack it with his bare hands, trying to twist and break one strand! This was completely inexplicable and we all exchanged glances but didn’t have the nerve to ask what on earth he was trying to do. Suddenly one strand of barbed wire came away in his hand, and before we could say anything he marched off with this in the direction of the toilet, still wearing the torch on his forehead.

A while later, his wife emerged from the toilet, wearing a disgusted look and shaking her head. From her, we extracted a brief explanation: her husband, earlier that morning, had gone into the toilet with his watch attached to his belt (don’t ask me why) and had emerged without it, leading to the conclusion that the watch had found its way to a place it really shouldn’t have. Hence the barbed wire and torch approach. 

A few minutes later, the man emerged with a satisfied air, minus the barbed wire, and we all at once noticed the watch dangling from his belt. Ugh!

Call in the Marines 

Two weeks from the day we set out, we were back in Leh. After two weeks of trekking, all we could think about was a hot bath, and a hot meal – in that order. But almost before we had set our backpacks down, in marched Colonel Lakshminarayan. “I’ve been instructed by Military Headquarters to locate Amit and Anamika Mukherjee,” he announced portentously. My heart plummeted: what bad news had merited this visitation? Apparently, nothing more than a few scattered news reports of floods and rescue operations in Ladakh, which had set off a panic attack among the family echelons. After assuring Colonel Lakshminarayan that the said Amit and Anamika Mukherjee had indeed been located and found fit and fine (if rather smelly and noxious-looking), we put the baths on hold and headed out to phone family and assure them that we were alive and well.  

Having returned from this onerous task, we devoured samosas and hot tea that our landlady/hotelier had thoughtfully provided gratis (bless her!) and resumed our earlier intentions. I had progressed as far as unearthing all the appendages necessary for bathing, and had bundled fresh clothes, bath towel, soap and shampoo into my arms and was heading purposefully towards the common bathroom, when my progress was arrested by an unfamiliar voice speaking my name. This time it was a couple of gents from the Intelligence Bureau, seeking intelligence about a certain Amit and Anamika Mukherjee. This really was getting a bit much. Was the entire countryside crawling with government personnel searching for Amit and Anamika Mukherjee? And were they all going to track us down before either one of us had managed to so much as step into the bathroom?

Back from Ladakh

August 21, 2006
Got back from a three week vacation and found that we both had forgotten all computer passwords!!! Three weeks can be a very long time…

Trip report – here’s the short and sweet version. Full, formal account and photographs might happen some day (0r not).


The entire experience can be summed up in two words: damn rain. We trekked for two weeks and were blessed with two days of sunshine in the middle. Meanwhile, all around us were landslides, flash floods, bridges washed away, roads closed (including the leh-kargil road) and much excitement. A foreign trekker reportedly fell off a pass and broke a leg and a horse reportedly fell off another pass and lost an eye. According to alarmists, 800 foreign trekkers were air-lifted to safety and numerous treks turned back mid-way as the rivers were overflowing and impassable.

Unblissfully aware but unconcerned, we trekked from Lamayuru to Lingshet over five passes, the highest at 5000+ m (close to 17000 ft), then turned around and crossed all five passes in the opposite direction. Of the three donkeys who were accompanying us, one was seriously unwell and his load had to be carried by his owner all the way up the last pass!

Thankfully, amongst the human company, there were no serious ailments apart from general morbidity due to the weather. With the last pass behind us, holding back the worst of the rain clouds, the weather improved sufficiently for us to enjoy the last two days of trekking. We did see some spectacular evidence of landslides along the path, notably just outside Wanla, where there is an untarred road. Here huge rocks, as big as houses, had rolled off the hillside and onto the “road” – what a sight it must have been!

Due to clouds and mist and rain, we did not have the great views that we had travelled so far to find. Nevertheless, we had some great experiences, particularly with the local people and also with a local dog who had undertaken a solo trek from Lamayuru to Photaksar (3 days, 42 km) and joined us for part of the way back.

The only other matter of interest was the road journey back to Manali (fourth time for me, but still spectacular), which was followed by an exhausting taxi ride down to Chandigarh. After a hectic time meeting family in Chandigarh and Delhi we caught our flight back to Bangalore on Sunday night, and got straight back to work Monday (sigh!).

Going to Ladakh

July 24, 2006
I’m oscillating between hope and despair in the final few days before leaving for Leh. The reason: I’ve been down with a virulent viral since last week. Over the weekend, the fever came and went and I was not averse to spending long hours lying in bed and doing nothing – most unusual for me. Now the fever seems to have gone, but I’m left with a cough, stuffed nose and heavy head. Nothing unusual for a cold.

Trouble is, it was a much less potent cold last year, which, followed by a trip to Leh upgraded itself to Pulmonary Edema in short order. Not only is Pulmonary Edema potentially fatal (as opposed to a common cold that only makes you feel like death) but I also managed to ignore it long enough to bring matters dangerously close to critical.

So, naturally, it is with misgivings and in the face of some concern from near and dear ones, that I prepare for the departure to Leh this weekend.

My state of mind is not improved by the news from my would-be publishers, who recently announced that they would rather not be.

So, with these various slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, life goes on.

For news from Leh, watch this space after 4 weeks.

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