I had been planning this project for almost a year – photographing snow leopards and other rare Himalayan wildlife. This trip was planned as a recon trip, to get a lay of the land and figure out a strategy for getting good shots of each of the species on my list. And thus it was that on the morning on November 2, I, joined by Satyaki Ghosh (a keen wildlife photographer, former Photo Safari India client and now friend), were sitting on a Kingfisher flight bound for Leh. Now, going into the trip, I was aware that snow leopards would be hard to photograph – November is simply not cold enough for these elusive cats to come down from their rarefied heights into the valleys where there is a good chance of spotting them. However, hope springs eternal and I was hoping to at least catch a glimpse of the leopard, if not get a photo. We spent a couple of days in Leh, acclimatizing and doing the tourist thing. A very pleasant surprise was that despite the temperatures hovering between 0 and -10C, it did not feel that cold – the dry air, combined with the strong sun, meant that a good fleece and a woollen hat were all that it took to stay warm. And our hotel, the Oma Shila, used intelligent design (double paned glass bay windows facing the sun) to absorb and retain heat. After a day and a half of rest, we took a trip down to Hemis Monastery, and a walk up to the Meditation Point. The walk started easily enough but the gradient soon picked up. A look into the narrow valley revealed a herd of 10 blue sheep on the other side, Obviously somewhat habituated to humans, these hardy, hooved herbivores mostly ignored us as they browsed on the scant, stunted shrubbery, growing on the hillside. The distance was perfect for shootingt; however, the light was less than stellar, so the photography was average or so, at best. Still, this was a much closer encounter than typical, and was a good start to the trip. We also got a few bird species – the omnipresent black-billed magpie and great tits, rock and hill pigeons, white winged redstarts, a juvenile pallid harrier, common raven, red and yellow billed choughs and rufous-breasted accentor. The next day, we were in business. We took a jeep to the start of Hemis National Park and from there, started the 3 hour hike to Rumbak Valley, which was going to be our home for the next few days. It was an easy enough hike along the river bed, criss-crossing the stream. We spotted numerous chukar en route, and a golden eagle flying overhead, but not much else. And once the sun dropped behind the mountains and shade descended on the valley, so did the cold. It was time for multiple layers, fleece and Goretex shells when outside. Sensibly, we spent most of the evenings huddled around the stove in the kitchen of the Ladakhi family in whose home we were staying. The rooms were very clean, very comfortable and provided a reasonable amount of protection from the cold. The food was simple, but wholesome. All in all, much more comfortable than camping. We woke up fairly early the next day and after breakfast, decied to explore a couple of the valleys in the area. The morning walk did not reveal much, other than a large herd of blue sheep on a mountainside several klometers away. On the way back, we noticed another herd of blue sheep, much closer this time, and were able to have a good session observing and photographing them. The plan for the following day was to hike along a second valley up to a high-altitude pass. However, all the plans went for a toss when Sonam, our guide, rushed over to us when we were having breakfast and uttered the magic word: “Shaan” (Ladakhi for “snow leopard”). Dropping everything, we rushed to the scope. We spotted two fighting young Snow Leopards. Scope to photograph these elusive and lovely animals was great. We decided to climb the peak on our side and see if we could get a glimpse of the leopards from a different vantage point. Sonam went on ahead and we followed a few minutes later. Shay suddenly got very animated and started pointing at the next slope over – two red foxes, with their gorgeous, fluffy tails and thick furry coats, were scampering along the mountainside. Too far for my 400 lens, I set up my Televue 85 refractor (which, when paired with the proper adapters and spacers, gives the equivalent of 3000mm+ of focal length), but without a tripod, was unable to get critically sharp shots. Still, it was an exciting encounter – we lay flat on our bellies atop a crest while, a few hundred meters away, one fox went about its business, oblivious to our presence. A moment to savor indeed – and that was good, because after this, we faced some of the most gruelling climbing I have ever done in the Himalayas: straight up the slopes at a gradient of 35-50 degrees, gaining 700m of elevation during this climb. There were the loose rocks that slipped and slid below one’s feet? Trying very hard not to think about the prospect of going DOWN on this slippery slope, and trying even harder to ignore my lung’s desperate pleas for oxygen, I struggled up the slope, finally reaching the top of the ridge. And what a view awaited us – we were literally on the roof of the world, looking down on the mountains. We discovered fresh leopard prints, fresh leopard diggings and even damp leopard urine – but no leopards themselves. The cat on the other ridge was either gone or in hiding, and the only thing visible was a golden eagle getting mobbed by a group of pugnacious choughs. After a few hours of scanning the area, it was time to head down. The less said about that climb down, the better. Suffice to say, it was a miracle we didn’t slip and fall, and my knees were sore for 4 days afterwards. Even Sonam, our guide and part mountain goat himself, muttered something about this being a pretty rough climb. The next few days were similar – lots of walking and scanning. We spotted argali, more golden eagles, a few lammergeirs and of course, plenty of blue sheep. But no more foxes and no shaans. But we were able to scout out a couple of good locations for setting camera traps – Sonam had also guided the National Geo team that had set up the camera traps which produced the winning images in the 2008 BBC Wildlife Awards, and that greatly helped in narrowing down the choices. After this, it was time to try for wolves, in Tso Kar. Thus, a couple of days after our return from Rumbak, we were off, crossing Tanglang La (at 5200m) and then descending into the high-altitude Moray Plains (4500m), where Tso Kar is located. Now we were in a different league of cold altogether. I was wearing a base layer, 2 additional layers including a thick, windproof fleece and a heavy duty Goretex shell on top of all this, and the wind was still cutting through me like a knife. Exposing any bare skin even for a few minutes meant numbness. And right at the onset, we got some unfortunate news: the homestay where we were planning to stay was closed. So we had to take over an abandoned building with broken windows and a door that would not stay closed. Yes, it was cold. The only redeeming fact was that we did most of our wildlife searching from the jeep. I did spent 30 minutes by the lakeside waiting for a photograph, and then had to spend the next hour or so sitting next to a stove to thaw. Kiang (Tibetan wild ass) were plentiful in Tso Kar, but very shy and did not let us get too close, even inside a jeep. Ultimately, I had to take over the wheel from our driver and spend a good amount of time in carefully approaching them in order to get a few good photos. We also saw golden eagles, horned larks, lammergeiers, an unidentified accipiter, Tibetan sand grouse & bar headed geese, but of the wolf, there was no sign. After a couple of days, we moved to another village a couple of hours away, and this turned up a bunch of pika (small rodents) but same luck when it came to wolves. According to the local shepherd, no wolves had been sighted in the region for a while. Thus, it was a very deflated bunch that was sitting in the jeep as it wound along the road, climbing towards Tanglang La. I was looking out of the window, trying to ID a flock of larks which were flying alongside the road when both Sonam and I spotted something moving in the plains. The gait was unmistakable. “Wolf”, yelled 2 excited voices as the driver brought the jeep to a screetching halt. We sat and waited, and soon, the solitary wolf trotted onto the road, gave us a look, and then kept trotting. TOUCHDOWN! And to make things even better, a scant 10 km away, we saw a red fox on the road!
Archivos del Autor: parthadesarkar
Pangong Tso, glamourised by its cinematic presence in 3 Idiots, often overshadows its more reticent cousin, Tso Moriri. But if you can resist selling out to the hype, camp by Tso Mo and you will be rewarded.
It was 2.30 am and my behind was freezing, regardless of the utterly passe long underwear, a pair of what I supposed were reliable denims and another pair of thermal leggings thrown hastily over them. And then my bladder reached its near-bursting crest which meant that I had to shed all those layers in pitch darkness and hope to not turn rock solid, only to be found frozen to death and partly-naked the next morning. I survived the night. And if I were bribed to undergo that endless night only to be rewarded with gorgeous views of Tso Moriri the next morning, I would happily take up the offer, with an additional warm blanket thrown in for good measure.
We, I and my wife, were camping the night by Tso Moriri (Tso = lake), a high altitude brackish lake in the Changthang Plateau of Ladakh, about seven hours from our homestay in the Himalayan town of Leh. One of the highest villages in the world at 15,075 ft, Korzok, overlooks Tso Moriri. Drives in this region are never uneventful. If the majestic mountains and desolate scenery don’t hold your attention, the road signs surely will. At the Mahe Bridge check post where you have to show your permit to visit Tso Moriri, a painted rock read: ‘Don’t be a Gama, in the land of Lama’ while another en route was more audacious – ‘I am curvaceous. Be slow’.
After a pit stop at Chumathang, famous for its hot spring, and where dogs in heat lie around as you slurp on your Maggi, the drive to Tso Moriri involved off-roading and passing a stunning Kyagar Tso with vivid hues of blue on the lake waters.
Leading to Tso Moriri are fields with varying hues of green and farmers who look like minute specks from the tent site. The lake itself, a serene bed of blues rippling gently with the winds, is flanked by snow topped mountains and a forget-me-not blue sky with marshmallow-like tufts of clouds. Close to the edge of the lake is our campsite with demarcations to indicate your territory. We were staying at Watermark Camp, run by Camps of India.
To sit and stare
To sit and stare is a luxury in itself for anyone visiting the lake. And you will revel in this even more when you spot a bar-headed goose trying to attract a mate, or a Red-crested Pochard wander too close out of curiosity. Since Moriri is a breeding ground for migratory birds, the area serves to be a haven for the quiet, patient birdwatcher. Apart from winged wonders doing their dances, it’s just a pleasure to sit on the road running parallel to the shore, watching the sky change hues and the sun change positions. Don’t forget to have your torches on you, though. The nights here get so pitch black you can’t see your own hand in front of you.
Chai with changpas
About a half-hour walk from the lake live the Changpas, the nomadic pastoral shepherds who use this area as grazing ground for their sheep, goats and horses in the warmer climates. Because we had our Ladakhi with us, a smiling Changpa lady seemed only too happy to welcome us into her Rebo, a yak hair tent. The rest of us smiled on and chimed our “Juley”, a sign of greeting in Ladakhi. As we sipped on our Ladakhi tea in which butter replaces milk and salt replaces sugar, and then took a swig of their local barley brew, Chang, a tangier version of beer, the heady concoction of the clouds, the crimson sky and the Chang made us re-affirm our to-do list of going back to Ladakh for a fortnight every year. Conditions don’t apply.
How to get there
The best way to reach Tso Moriri without an organised tour is by hiring a private jeep from Leh. During the summer there is occasional bus service from Leh.
Tso Moriri is a restricted area and to visit it you need permits which are easily obtainable from the DC office in Leh. They can be procured by either submitting the application yourself or through a travel agent. The permits are issued for a maximum period of three weeks.
Where to stay
There are tented accommodations are available at Tso Moriri. You can choose to pitch your own tent as well. There are some guesthouses in the village of Korzok as well, though the charm lies in being put up in a tent.
Thanks to increasing tourism, the area around Tso Moriri has been suffering from environmental degradation for the past few years. Use a dry toilet when you get here, and refrain from washing your clothes/utensils with detergents in the streams that lead to the lake. Our choice of travel operator: Ecological Footprint based in Leh. Log on to www.ecologicalfootprint.in
(The pearl shaped mountain lake)
The trip to Tsomoriri Lake, nearly 300 kilometres from Leh, would take all of 6 hours to cover, so we decided to leave very early and very well stocked. Tsomoriri is like no man’s land – no food, no cold drinks and definitely no petrol. So you have to make your own arrangements from Leh. Not only did we carry sleeping bags, small tents and thick quilts, we also had a trunk full of our rations for the dinner and breakfast at Tsomoriri, including utensils, and a kerosene stove.
17 kilometres from Leh on the way to the lake, is situated at the Thiksay monastery one of the largest and architecturally most exquisite ‘gompas’ in Ladakh.
Our first break was at the petrol station, not just to fill up the tank but an extra can of it as well.
Tsomoriri Lake lies close to the Indo-China border and is not accessible without a special permit, which your travel agent can arrange for you at a minimal cost. Costs for an overnight trip to Tsomoriri is about 3000 rupees for a family of four including jeep hire charges.
There is a story about how the lake got its name. Once a nun on a yak named Tsomo were travelling across the lake when the yak began to drown. The nun managed to wade to shore and called out “ri ri”, which meant ‘come here’ to the yak, and so the name Tsomoriri.
The journey is long and takes longer still if you keep stopping to get a feel of the beautiful majestic mountains. Through the yellow orange hued hills we meandered alongside the river Indus.
The wonderful part of driving through these hills is that there is always a surprise awaiting you around a bend in the road. The first one was the complete turnabout in the colour of the hills from orange to a pinkish purple. The second surprise was an exquisite wild rose garden right in the middle of nowhere. Such gorgeous events can occur only in the beautiful Ladakhi terrain.
Anyway, it was time to move on and move we did, because you see, the metal road on which we’d been travelling for over 4 hours terminated some 150 kilometres before Tsomoriri and turned into a `kuccha’ road. Now if you’re of a queasy disposition maybe you should sit in your hotel room because the drive is not very comfortable.
It was after almost 10 hours since we began, that we reached Tsomoriri Lake stretching magnificently all of 20 kilometres. It was too late for a clear view of the lake but not for us to see the thousand hues of blue that were painted on to the scenery. I had till now only seen pretty pictures of sapphire blue waters and skies. Used to the monochromatic greys of the city, the vivid colour of the lake seemed almost unnatural.
While it had been freezing at night, the morning heat was quite strong even at 9 o’clock. It is advisable to use layers and layers of sunscreen.
A good breakfast of hot tea, scrambled eggs and toast was the ideal refresher for the day ahead. While we left the others to do the packing before my friend Staney and I set out to the little village of Korzok, the last inhabited area of the region, to get a view of the lake. Besides the people of this village the other inhabitants are the nomadic herds people Chang-pa, who live in makeshift tents, travelling to green patches and to streams the whole year round.
We decided to spend a little time at the shore to get a close up view of the crystal clear water. Then we began our return journey by driving around the beautiful lake. The other side of the lake is not accessible to anyone, and in fact from Korzok the road to the lake has been fenced.
The lake is exquisite and forever embedded in my memory. I think the trip to Tsomoriri was an excellent finale to our journey into the land they call Shangri La.
Wanla – Lamayuru (Day 25)
The walk towards Shilla gorge takes us up a sidevalley that is covered by bushes and trees along the creek. At a chorten we enter a tiny, dry valley to our right that doesn’t really look like it leads anywhere, let alone contains a trail. It climbs gently at first, becomes quite steep in other parts and the lack of wind makes it quite a hot walk.
Then we reach the last pass of our trek, the low, 3’720 m high Prinkiti La. It’s hard to see where we came from, it must be from somewhere near the snow-covered peak. On the other side lies a wide valley to our left, with a valley the right that’s the exit to Lamayuru. Soon we reach the first fields and see the characteristic moon landscape of yellow sediments. Colourful red-violet rock and snow-peaks of the Ladakh range add more colours to the scene.
When we reach the sandstone of the former lake and turn around the corner at three chortens, the impressive monastery of Lamayuru rises in front of us. It is built on top of a steep hillside, with parts of the old town lower on the hill, and green fields near the river.
The main assembly hall is built around a cave where the important Buddhist scholar Naropa is said to have meditated in the 11th century. In the 16th century a Ladakhi ruler was so grateful to the head lama for some services that he declared the monastery a sanctuary. If a criminal managed to reach it, he was not prosecuted. These days, unlike many of the other monasteries during this trek, Lamayuru has a large community of monks and a school for novices. The annual festivals draw large crowds. In the evenings, it’s a quiet place and good time to visit.
Last dinner, and tip-ceremony plus a lottery with small handouts. The old horseman who got teased most by the crew (and who liked it least) is lucky and gets first pick. I’m glad for him, and hope that my boots will fit him.
Lamayuru – Leh (Day 26)
Naseer and another driver arrived yesterday evening. We leave in the morning, and reach Leh much faster I thought. It was a nice relaxed drive, and we even saw – from far far away anyway- the first (and only) blue sheep during our visit. In Leh it’s great to take a hot shower, relax on a bed, and go to a restaurant for a regular dinner.
I spend the next day being lazy.
Leh – Delhi (Day 27 / 28)
Security is extremely tight at Leh airport, no hand luggage at all is allowed. We manage to get window seats, and enjoy a fantastic flight with views over Rupshu. The white lake of Tso Kar, the blue waters of Tso Moriri, and almost the entire route is clearly visible – a great bye-bye from Ladakh.
We have a full day at Delhi and in evening we board Rajdhani Express to Kolkata.
La galeria tiene 7 fotos.
Singe La Base – Singe La – Photaskar (Day 21)
As it turns out, the drizzle didn’t stop after I’ve fallen asleep, it increases. The noise, and to a lesser amount ill premonition, wake me a few times during the night. We pack in the morning under a cloudy sky, the sun almost breaking through.
On the way up to the pass, Yulchung and Nyerak appear below us through the mist. But hopes of sunshine are dashed; the closer we get to Singe La the more clouds move in. The slight drizzle turns into sleet and heavy snowflakes. The weather is even worse than on our way up from the other side two weeks ago, but nothing compared to Louise’s epic day in deep snow some years ago. It looks as if Singe La has something against her, and since we’re in the same group, against us. We’re nice and don’t hold her personally responsible
We head quickly down the other side, still fairly dry thanks to the silly looking umbrella. The long-awaited break at the parachute tent turns into a non-event: the owners left already so no more tea or biscuits. A father with his son on their way back to Nyerak is making tea in the dripping tent, and they offer to share their tea. After this short rest I continue down in the hard rain. It was a very muddy and slippery walk the last two hours. I cursed more than once. Rain has decreased but I don’t feel like sitting around. Instead we jump across the creek which is much lower than before (luckily no taking-off shoes required), and follow the kitchen crew.
Bumiktse La’s yellow ridge is visible from far away, and gets closer much quicker than I hoped for. We stop for a few biscuits when the rain decreases. The slight drizzle makes it easier to enjoy the walk, or maybe the mind is looking for something interesting after hours of dull walking, and for the first time during the day I realize that the rain has transformed the lichen on the rocks into bright colours and also turned out the colours of the pebbles on the ground. When it rains the big scenery becomes dull, but the micro-scenery is often getting more interesting.
The village of Photoskar and its field are close now. On the long last stretch to the campsite marmots enjoy the brief break from the rain, and behave quite bold. I manage to get close for pictures; Phuntsok runs after one that has strayed too far from its hole and hops clumsily towards it. Just as Phuntsok tries to grab the cat-sized marmot, it dives into the security of its hole.
The weather seems to have confused other animals as well. A flock of long-legged egrets circles a few times above us before disappearing down the valley. Villagers from Photoskar come down the slopes with their sheep and goat. Their clothes are wet and heavy from sleet and rain, but they don’t have much choice and must use every precious day before the long winter arrives.
When the horses’ bells ring from the hillsides, we’re relieved and put up the tents in increasing rain. An hour later I sit comfortably in my tent. Rain doesn’t stop, but my things are dry, the tent seems to hold and after all it becomes a very comfortable lazy afternoon.
Photoskar Rest Day (Day 22)
There’s no sound in the middle of the night, did the rain finally stop? I open the tent, and a sheet of snow falls off it. But snow is better than rain, and a quick check reveals that everything in our tent is still dry.
Thick clouds in the morning remain. Heavy and wet snowflakes continue to fall for most of the day. Rivulets start to emerge, and some serious trench-digging is necessary to ensure a dry pre-breakfast nap until noon. The clouds lift a little, but hope vanishes when the sun’ disappears in clouds.
After hours in the tent, I have to go for a walk despite the rain and though it’s a short stroll it is very enjoyable. The rain has turned the pebbles along the riverbed into shining colours. The green, red, black and white pebbles make for interesting still lives.
The wet ground attracts many birds, white-winged redstart, white wagtail, and a sparrow-sized bird with a yellow head, and a flock of several Common Redshank (not that I know much about birds, but Dipu brought the book “Birds and Mammals of Ladakh” whose bird-section makes for a good read on a rainy afternoon. The mammal section is more interesting and highly recommended).
There are rumours of people not being able to cross passes. We just have to wait and see what the conditions will be tomorrow.
Photoskar – Sirsir La – Hanupatta (Day 23)
After breakfast the hills and mountains become visible, and are covered in snow. Fog and mist float in and out of the faces and collect before dissolving in the blue sky. The fields and village get the sun, quite a different picture than some days ago.
From the chorten the views are spectacular, snow and rock dominates the scenery except for the terraced green and yellow fields of barley.
The nearby Mani wall is home to a family of pika. They seem very eager to warm up on the stones and then get something to eat, making them much less careful than usual. I get quite close for a picture of an older one. When waiting for a young one to reappear for the Mani stones, I suddenly feel something tucking at the bottom of my pants. I look down, and am astonished. A pika is tearing and nibbling at my muddy trekking pants. The sound of my camera’s shutter doesn’t scare it away, neither do gently movements. Finally I get it to move away, and follow the others on the way to the pass. Sirsir La rises like a white wall out of the ochre valley. The snow has mostly melted until the foot of the pass, making the ground wet and muddy.
Marmots are enjoying the sunrays after two days of nasty weather, and not careful. The young enjoy boxing matches and walk far away from their holes to nibble on some bushes. At another hole a pair disappears when I get too close. After waiting a minute right in front of the hole without moving, the braver appears from the tunnel, looks at me and gets out of its hole. The other one is more sceptical but follows reluctantly. Only when I move to get away are they surprised and disappear deep into their hole.
We are just ahead of the horses that are quickly going up the muddy path that cuts through the white fairytale landscape. During the climb to the pass the muddy trail turns into a mud bath, a difficult ascent without walking sticks. Not very tiring, but much concentration is required to avoid a slip. I am surprised how quickly we are on top. The last two weeks have done wonders to our leg muscles.
The wind is howling, it’s quite cold but a fantastic place to be and take in the grand scenery around us. Singi La lies in deep snow, the steep mountains which were barren two weeks ago are not completely covered in snow. Nothing reminds me of the colourful rock landscape; it’s like a different route we’ve never taken before. This makes it easier to accept the fact that we can’t return via the Shilla valley. The gorge is filled with much water, rockslides might occur. I am playing with the thought of going expedition-style with Lobsang, but the prospect of a very, very wet camp just across the valley stops me in the end. We’ll return to Lamayuru via a well-trodden route.
The horses don’t seem to have a problem with these conditions. They walk quickly down the other side, breaking a nice trail for me.
Lunch at the first snow-free spot sounds like a good idea, and then down to Honupatta. The snow intensifies the landscape in a strange way, and I enjoy the walk in the white surroundings. At the bridge the snow has melted already, catapulting me in very different world. t feels like desert again, with the molded rock pinnacles to the left and the first fields of Honupatta ahead of me. We camp at the same spot like last time. The routine “put up tent, lay out stuff, wash clothes, wash yourself” is done quickly. What now?
Lobsang mentioned that he saw ibex in a sidevalley two weeks ago. I walk high up into the valley, but don’t spot any animals. When the shades become longer, I turn back and enjoy the leftover pakoras at camp.
Honupata – Wanla (Day 24)
To make the walk back a little more interesting, I leave the main trail at the village and walk through the barley at the river. Great scenery, yellow fields with a deep blue sky above. Rows of trees separate the fields, the few houses stand slightly elevated above them. Birds and lizards warm up on trees and stones. A peaceful morning, I take it easy and enjoy the best time of the day.
After the village it’s a gentle walk down to the beginning of the gorge. Rock faces reach high into the sky. It’s cold in the narrow spots where the sun hasn’t reached the bottom of the valley yet. Not many people are on the trail; Nepali road workers carry heavy metal parts of a bridge to the village (and are so bewildered when I great them with “ramro cha?”, they’re confused and it takes some seconds until they answer “ramro cha”).
After Sumdo we soon hit the road, where rain has led to rockfall and parts of the road are covered by large and small boulders. Walking on or along roads make the way always seem longer than it really is, so even though it’s is probably just an hour to Panjila it feels never-ending, and my feet hurt a little. It’s actually a nice walk in the somewhat wider valley.
A quick lunch at Panjila where we get details about the deadly accident. The brother of the restaurant owner wanted to assist our driver Wangchuk, but our driver didn’t want to take him. Anyway, he insisted and came, and got out of the car near the bridge. A few moment later a single small boulder came down from the hillside and hit his head. Our driver brought him back to the village, but nothing could be done to safe him.
The road to Wanla is not used by cars often, which makes the walk to the large village a little more enjoyable. The valley opens up more, fields appear on both sides of the river and the further down we get the more houses appear. When the old monastery appears on a hill to the right, I’m glad to know we’ve arrived. After three hours on the road the feet hurt, not being used to such terrain.
We find a lovely campsite near the river. Next to the housewife’s well-kept garden, on a patch of harvested barley, we put up our tents in the afternoon. Later we walk up to the monastery that was being renovated recently. The mural paintings are very nice, the same goes for the large-sized statue of Avalokiteshvara. The gompa reminds me of Alchi, and later I find out it really was constructed around the same time, this means one thousand years ago.
The sun disappears behind the hills, and illuminates the side-valley that leads to Shilla. The hills disappear in the backlight and shade, while the river is a silver serpent crawling down its it bed – a great sight.
Lying on the haystack at camp is a good time and place to think of the last weeks, and the beauty of trekking in general and Ladakh in particular.
Tomorrow we’ll just have a short walk to Lamayuru, so the trek feels like finished.
Hanumal – Parfi La – Snertse (Day 17)
The cloudy sky isn’t an incentive to start early either. The walk is similar to yesterday’s at first; along the river slowly climb higher with a rather monotonous scenery. After a climb to a rest point the views promise to get better.
We leave the Zanskar river, branch off to the west and climb up towards the 3’950 m high Parfi La. When we reach the pass a cold wind forbids a long stay. A short glimpse is enough to reveal the walk after lunch: another climb up a steep slope.
The trail to get down to the creek called “oma chu” (milk water) used to be very bad, it seems to have been fixed and though it is quite steep and tripping or slipping has to be avoided at all costs, the trail itself is fine. After an hour of descending our knees hurt and we rest at the simple hut that serves as a restaurant and shop. While we have lunch a few raindrops fall, no serious rain but enough to get started quickly.
After crossing two or three bridges, climb starts. It’s a rather long one, but once atop the views is spectacular: the trail bends around a ridge and then traverses a steep hillside. Turning around, we see the Parfi La and the zig-zag trail we took to descend. The horses arrive, and manage the risky part of the trail without problems. I let them pass us and see them stop at the next creek where level tent spaces indicate we’re not the first ones to camp here.
Snertse – Hanuma La – Lingshed (Day 18)
The reddish steep crags rise into the dark blue sky. Our caravan looks very small indeed, like ants. Despite good sleep my throat still isn’t better, it burns and I can hardly swallow. Maybe it’s the great sunshine, or maybe the prospect of an exhilarating walk, but despite the throat I feel very good. Hot ginger and honey water in the morning eased the pain temporarily.
The rain has washed away most of the trails and it takes a little bit of route-finding in the first half hour. Steep climbs along the creek for awhile. When the trail flattens out there’s still some tricky spots, like crossing an ice bridge that thaws, and a little bit of rock-climbing for short-cuts rather than out of necessity. There are great views down the valley where we came from.
When the steep canyons end we haven’t reached the pass yet that is just a little below 5’000 m. The trail becomes even more level, and rolling hills rather than steep slopes are ahead of us. The white of water, black rocks in the riverbed and red valley walls are simple but effective play of colours. We pass a destroyed hut, pass some grazing yaks and trod slowly uphill. To be honest, the yaks have quite an intimidating posture. It’s a long walk until we finally see the prayer flags flattering in wind, and even longer to reach them, with a throbbing heart, burning muscles and worst, a very dry throat.
On the way up I assumed this would be a great pass, since red mountain flanks and glaciered peaks were visible from further down. Still I’m not quite prepared for the scenery that opens up from the Hanumil La. The barley fields of Lingshed lie like in a bowl, white-washed houses in between the yellow fields, above tower steep cliffs and snow-covered peaks. To the left are round hills, probably remains of glaciers, with good pastures. On the horizon far to the right, above canyons that deep inside the earth, a triangular summit of pure white is the most prominent mountain – though it looks like Kang Yaze it is definitely not. We stay for a long time at the pass, marvelling at the scenery.
Little lines cut across and traverse the many hillsides that lie between us and the clusters of houses that mark the monastery, and our campsite. So before getting to the centre of the village that looks to temptingly close, we have to descend steeply to the creek, climb up a hill, and then walk all the way to the village. That we have to contour some more hills is not visible from high above, but adds to the long walk that awaits us after climbing the pass.
A long and steep descent, losing all the hard-earned altitude, only to climb up again afterwards! It takes us almost as long to get from the pass to Lingshed as it took us from Snertse to the pass. Enjoying the views of the wide green fields and large village, plus the elaborate water channels, is a good distraction in the last hour. A wolf-trap indicates the village, but unlike the one above Zangla Doksa there are no bones of young sheep visible.
Passing houses and walking through fields, we reach the monastery and with heavy legs I count every additional step we have to take to get to the campground. How good it feels to sit down and stretch the legs. Even the kitchen crew is a little tired, they admit. But for them the workday hasn’t really started yet; setting up kitchen, cooking snacks and dinner, while I enjoy the well-deserved rest. Young novices from the monastery have a break and help us putting up tents.
Lingshed Rest Day (Day 19)
There are lots of clouds in the sky, and when the sun finally breaks through it creates a strangely faded orange glow on the hillsides. The clouds prevail, and there’s still only little blue-coloured sky when we walk up to the monastery to attend the morning ceremony at 6.30. The monastery was founded some 500 years ago and belongs – like most monasteries in Ladakh – to the Gelugpa sect. It is one of the largest monasteries in the area, and the helipad indicates visits by the Dalai Lama.
Only the older monks appear for the ritual, novices serve tea and, one hour into the ceremony, tsampa for breakfast. The sun defies the clouds, and enough light comes in through the open door and the glass-front above to reveal the beautiful assembly hall’s paintings and statues. The paintings around the upper part show historic figures, part of them being covered by old thangkas.
The prayers started slowly, and are picking up intensity and strength. Occasionally they are interrupted by cymbals, bells and drums. It might appear rather monotonous, but in a way it is very relaxing to sit there and just listen and watch. It’s a good time to remember the last few days and daydream, and think about loved ones at home. After nearly two hours the ceremony comes to an end.
After a spicy post-breakfast / pre-lunch instant noodle soup we walk down to the main village and stop often in barley fields where people, mostly entire families, are harvesting. They are ready to take a break or have their lunch, and invite us to sit down and join them, or at least stay for a chat once they realize I speak a little Tibetan.
Despite being on the main route, the atmosphere in Lingshed is quite different from Pimo or other villages on the main trail. Is it because the village community is larger and thus the experience with ignorant tourists is more evenly distributed and makes it easier for local people to deal with it? Or is it because most tourists stay at the campsite?
One family is taking a break from cutting grass for winter, and prepare their lunch. They invite me to have some gyathuk, a thick soup with dough conch-shells, potatoes and spinach. They all live together in same house, the old grandmother, the attractive mother with her child and her husband. Her nun sister sometimes lives with them, sometimes in a monastery. The nun’s name is Tsewang, she’s in her mid-thirties and became a nun ten years ago. Her English is quite good, so we speak in whatever language we get our message across most easily. She enjoys being a nun, and also likes living in remote Lingshed. Nevertheless, she says, Leh is a great place and she likes it for shopping and eating. Eating?, I ask. Yes, she loves the variety of food she can’t get here, like fruit such as bananas or apricots. Once again it hits me in the face: how spoiled are we in the plains?
Barley is the staple diet; in addition to that people grow potatoes, turnip, radish and carrots. But for fruit it is definitely too high, what a contract to the Indus valley where people barely know what to do with all their apricots. In summer the nuns help their families on the fields. In winter they have time for their studies, and married women can take care of the house then without the assistance of the nuns. But being housewife is also very interesting and boring, Tsewang says; preparing food, taking care of cattle, weaving clothes. While mother and nun extend the chat, grandmother and husband are soon back to work. Their dresses are nice, like everybody else they carry a small bag matching their clothes in which they throw all the worthwhile things they find during their work, like flowers, peas, herbs.
Their house is a little further down, “the small one” they say is big enough for their 12 member family. I ask them who owns the fancy-looking house next to it and they laugh, resisting the temptation to talk bad about their neighbours I think.
It is to a large part for those moments that I come back again and again to the Himalayas. Despite all the difference between us there is still a solid common ground and understanding that makes talking, listening, learning something new so interesting, and leaves lasting impressions.
From the helipad we watch the setting sun. The sun is actually gone behind ridges already, but its rays manage to lighten up a house and chorten while most of the valley lies in shade already. Even the rock-faces towards Hanumal La are retreating into darkness. What a wonderful play of colours. I feel somewhat sentimental having to leave this beautiful place tomorrow.
Lingshed – Murgum La – Kiupa La – Singe La Base (Day 20)
I do feel sad to leave Lingshed after one rest day already. The clouds break up on our way up to the chortens as we head eastwards and look back into the amphitheatre where barley fields stand out against the dark red rock and the yellow hills covered by green bushes. Partridge can be heard, pika run around the rocks. I’ve said good-bye to Linghsed yesterday during the sunset, and don’t feel too nostalgic when looking back from an unnamed pass.
We traverse to the first pass of the morning, the Mirgin La (aka Murgum La), from where we have a fine view south into Zanskar and a lively debate breaks out about our previous route and the passes. It’s a scenic walk down to the pretty “village” of Skiumpata, if the two houses can really be called a village. Up the valley are more fields, belonging to Gongma. The fields are a fine contrast to the cliffs which rise behind them. An hour climb takes us zig-zagging up a steep hillside to our third pass, the Kiupa La. This translates to “the pass which makes you throw up”, apparently because of its steepness.
Puffy white clouds in the blue sky form the perfect settings for the colourful prayer flags that flatter in the wind from the chorten atop the pass; red stands for fire, blue for space, white for water, yellow for earth, green for air. Snowy ranges to the south, open space towards the north and the craggy cliffs in the east will be our companion for the rest of the afternoon. After lunch at the pass we contour along the hillsides, a constant gentle climb with great views of our past route: Singe La is hidden by a rock formation, but the steep gorge we descended to Yulchung is right behind the ridge ahead of us. After half an hour a wide valley opens below us, and lets us see down to the pretty Yulchung where we stayed a week ago. Further away, across the Zanskar gorge, are the willow trees of Nyerak, and the slope leading to the Takti La. It’s a perfect afternoon with a gentle breeze, warm sunshine, and great views that evoke fond memories from the last two weeks. Colourful low bushes add extra colour to the scenery, marmots lazily retreat into their holes next to the bushes when they see me coming. The chubby animals are smart enough to realize that I’m a very slow and very lazy hiker today, and no threat.
In late afternoon the sun turns out the complicated rock formations to our left. Dark clouds on the horizon add to the dramatic scene. A light drizzle lulls me into sleep.