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.
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!
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.
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.
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?