Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Ashoka, and the idea of India

King Piyadasi conquered the Kalingas eight years after his coronation. One hundred and fifty thousand were deported, one hundred thousand were killed and many more times that number perished. After the Kalingas had been conquered, Piyadasi came to feel a strong inclination towards Dharma, a love for Dharma and for instruction in Dharma. Now Piyadasi feels deep remorse for having conquered the Kalingas.

Even those who are not affected suffer when they see friends, acquaintances, companions and relatives affected. These misfortunes befall all as a result of war, and this pains Piyadasi. Now it is conquest by Dharma that he considers to be the best conquest.

I have had this edict written so that my sons and great-grandsons may not consider making new conquests. May all their intense devotion be given to this which has a result in this world and the next. - Rock Edict 13


This trek I’m on is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. The first week was tougher than the next two put together - of the nine passes so far, eight were crossed in those seven days - lugging a backpack heavier than any I’ve carried. A rest day, sandwiched between the two toughest days - a punishing fifteen-hour day and a scarcely easier thirteen-hour one - was meant for respite… but then I was told that if I rearranged my itinerary a bit (read that as “give up the rest day”), I might be able to visit the stupa at Sani.

This stupa is ten kilometres from Padum, the capital of the valley of Zanskar, and it may have been built by Ashoka. I was sceptical (and I was right to be - the stupa was built a few centuries later by Kanishka) but not wanting to kick myself later if this was indeed true, and having no way to check without access to the internet, I went ahead and rescheduled anyway.

Since my introduction to Buddhism here in the high mountains and passes of Ladakh, I have an affection and a respect for it (especially its pragmatism) that I've felt for no other religion. So, given that Ashoka seems to be virtually unknown outside India, it seems appropriate that I dedicate a post to the emperor to whom Buddhism probably owes its survival.

I must warn you that I’m no historian… and much of Ashoka’s life is unknown even to them. Indeed, for many centuries, this emperor who has been called “a star that shines almost alone in the columns of history” was dismissed as wistful fantasy - and it wasn't until his edicts around the country were discovered and translated in the 19th century that it was established that the king Piyadasi of the edicts was the same cruel Ashoka of Buddhist legend who turned to the ways of the Dharma. And a more complete picture has emerged of the man who is an emblem for India.

The edicts, which are admittedly what Ashoka chose to have the world know of him, and whose translations differ widely, are all we pretty much have. The tone of the edicts is never boastful, though; he mentions several times that he’s had them inscribed on rock so that they'll live long and remind his people and descendants to continue living by Dharma.

This version below of Ashoka’s story is the one I grew up with, and since it’s a great story, it’s something I choose to believe in.


The young emperor arrived in Kalinga, elated at the victory that would complete his empire. His grandfather, Chandragupta Maurya, had created the first great Indian empire, stretching from parts of Persia in the west to Bengal in the east; from the Himalayas in the north to the borders of modern-day Kerala and Tamil Nadu in the south. Within these bounds, only a pesky little democracy on the eastern coast was independent. While the southern states were very distant from the Mauryas’ capital in modern-day Patna, Kalinga was entirely within reach. They were fierce warriors, though: his grandfather had tried to invade them and had been repelled. And now, eight years into Ashoka’s reign, he’d outdone even the great Chandragupta.

Where would he go from here: south to the very tip of the peninsula or west through Persia? Sixty years earlier, a Greek named Alexander had swept eastward into Asia, forming an empire that disintegrated almost as soon as he died, stopping only at the river Beas in India when his soldiers grew weary of the ceaseless fighting. Ashoka was still a young man (he would rule for thirty more years) and a skilled general himself: as a prince born to a lower-ranked queen, he’d often been banished to far-away lands to quell rebellions, which he did ruthlessly. Now, ruling over the largest empire in the world, at the command of a fearsome army whose "chariots thundered across the land, their white pennants brilliant in the sunshine,” perhaps he could carve his name into history with unparalleled conquests and be remembered as a Great?

Where this story diverges from a familiar pattern, from the tales of countless kings and nations through history, is that when this cruel and ambitious man set foot upon the land he had just conquered, he couldn’t find it in himself to celebrate. This was someone who’d reputedly killed most of his brothers to become emperor and yet the unprecedented bloodshed that greeted him at Kalinga appalled even him. They'd fought almost to the last man and uncountable bodies littered the burning fields, the river Daya ran red with blood. Instead of an elation that would translate into more conquests, then, he felt remorse.

When a woman asked him what he had achieved by killing her father, her husband and her son, he had no answer, not even to himself. There was nothing to be proud of, no glory to be had. He’d already been contemplating converting to Buddhism for a few years and with Kalinga, almost overnight, he did. He saw now that more than his fame that comes with territorial conquests, his responsibility was the well-being of the people already entrusted to him; that instead of being feared and respected for his military prowess, he needed to be a father to them.

He renounced the path of violence - there would be no more wars for territory - and set about establishing a moral kingdom based on the wheel of dharma. He seemed to genuinely care that his subjects not just be good citizens but also good people. King Piyadasi does not esteem glory and fame as of great value unless they are achieved through having my subjects respect Dharma and practice Dharma, both now and in the future… such as duty to parents, generosity to friends, acquaintances, relatives, Brahmins and ascetics, protection of children; liberality is good, not harming living creatures is good, and abstinence from prodigality and slander are good.

He set down laws protecting forests and animals and banned hunting for pleasure. In my domain, no living beings are to be slaughtered or offered in sacrifice. In many edicts, he mentions that his policies are to benefit both humans and animals. (There is even a theory that so much of present-day India is vegetarian owing to him.) A fairer, kinder justice system was introduced; leniency towards prisoners and mandatory stays of execution for the condemned (allowing them time to appeal) became state policy. If the officers think, "This one has a family to support," "That one has been bewitched," "This one is old," then they work for the release of such prisoners. He constructed medical facilities throughout his empire and in neighbouring states, even the Greek provinces - again, for both people and animals.

He made it known that his duties took precedence over his personal life - not only did he frequently go on inspection tours (and expect his officers to do the same), he could also be interrupted no matter what he was doing. I consider it best to meet with people personally. In hard work and dispatch of business alone, I find no satisfaction. But I consider the welfare of all to be my duty, and the root of this is exertion and the prompt dispatch of business. There is no better work than promoting the welfare of all the people and whatever efforts I am making is to repay the debt I owe to all beings to assure their happiness in this life, and attain heaven in the next.

He attributed his change for the better to Buddhism and, for him, his responsibility to improve lives did not end at his borders. Where Ashoka might earlier have sent armies to crush his neighbours, he now established peaceful relations with all of them, sending emissaries to spread the word of the Buddha far and wide - he sent his daughter and son to Sri Lanka, monks to Burma and the Mediterranean - and so, when Buddhism was almost wiped out in India in later centuries, it survived in other lands.

But despite how important it was to him, Buddhism was never the state religion - everyone was free to practise any faith they chose. King Piyadasi honours all forms of religious faith, whether professed by ascetics or householders. The root of his encouragement is this: reverence for one's own faith, and no reviling of that of others. Let the reverence be shown in such a manner as is suited to differences of belief; as when it is done in that manner, it augments our own faith, and benefits that of others. Whoever acts otherwise injures his own religion. One should listen to and respect the doctrines professed by others. He who honours his own religion and reviles that of others, this, his conduct, cannot be right.

He extended this freedom to non-believers, too: King Piyadasi desires that all unbelievers may everywhere dwell unmolested, as they also wish for moral restraint and purity of disposition. When modern India talks of unity in diversity and liberty of thought and expression, perhaps this is part of what we mean: he is anxious that every diversity of opinion, and every diversity of passion, may shine forth blended into one system.

And so an essentially Buddhist symbol - the Ashoka Chakra - is at the centre of the national flag of the secular Republic of India. I don’t know the reasons for its adoption but the thing I like the most about it is that every time the jingoistic wave it in nationalistic pride, they’re admitting to being at odds with everything that the flag and the wheel at its heart represents. Much like the Buddhist prayer flags atop the high passes that scatter good wishes in all directions, they’re vigorously waving messages of love, peace, gracefulness, humility and the like towards the “others” - while having none of these virtues themselves.

His edicts are surprisingly relevant more than two millennia later, in a completely different society: I suppose messages of tolerance, compassion and non-violence always will be. But there's so much more to his edicts; like the idea that the performance of duty is far more important than the glory of the individual tasked with it - even if he be the most powerful man in the world. While we're only just starting to wake up to the harm we're causing our environment; two thousand years before industrialisation and globalisation, when the extent of damage must've been far less, he still had the foresight to protect the forests.

Even more astonishingly, at a time when emperors seemed to be judged by their conquests and by the extent of their empires, he saw that true greatness lay in the hearts of his people and in their everyday deeds. Hence, the sincerity of his language and his desire to reach out to the people beyond merely what could be enforced by laws. The advancement of Dharma amongst men has been achieved through two means, laws and persuasion. But of these two, laws have been less effective and persuasion more so.

These are perhaps reasons why his sculpture at Sarnath, of the four lions, is also the emblem of our democracy: why it adorns every currency note, every passport - it's our way of saying that we still consider ourselves his subjects, that we come from the land of Ashoka. And these aren’t just arcane symbols that meant something only to our founders. In a country veering towards Hindu nationalism and away from the socialism of our founders, where they themselves are no longer as revered as they once were, India’s great Buddhist Emperor is as much a hero now as he was at his “rediscovery.”

Even bone-weary trekkers - unfit and unskilled, trudging over the highest mountains on earth - belonging to lands never ruled by Ashoka and who do not consider themselves religious or nationalistic in any way, will still gladly take pains to send their respects 2300 years into the past. Because his is a story they want to believe in and because his edicts represent a worthy idea of India - one that we’re very far from… but if he could change vastly for the better, then maybe so can we.

Greetings from the hidden kingdom, from beyond your northern frontiers, Emperor Ashoka Maurya! You are still remembered.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Tales of Fire, Rock & Ice

The vast majority of trekkers in Ladakh are European and, therefore, so have been most of my companions. One of the unexpected pleasures of this trip have been the other tourists I’ve met - from the very south of Italy to cold, dark Norway. There’s something about Ladakh that attracts those with a liberal outlook here; most of them would spend the evenings complaining about the way their countries are shifting to the right of the political spectrum. Backpackers are infinitely more fun company than folks who travel in large groups and on fixed itineraries. And… if I ever go to Europe again, I think I could save a bunch on hotel bills.

Still, their being nice does not in any way force me to be anything more than my usual nasty self, so I would tease them about their “white-people problems” whenever they had to take a break to apply sunscreen. Of course, it was all show. I may not need sunscreen but the sun's almost as harsh on my skin as theirs. There are times when I feel a hole's being burrowed into my neck. After three months in Ladakh, I resemble a colour wheel (well, at least, one embodying the brown-to-black spectrum): no one part of my body has the same colour as anywhere else. That’s the odd thing about Ladakh: if you’re in the shade, you need about three layers on clothing on but if you step into the sun to warm up a bit, you feel like you’ve been bunged into an oven like those three blokes were by that emperor. No middle ground, that’s the trouble with Ladakh.


The Europeans would get their chance for revenge when, in the evenings, I’d be thoroughly cold and miserable. It was their turn to bait me with “brown-people problems.” There are many things that are hard about trekking in Ladakh: the difficulty of breathing in these high altitudes, the exhaustion from trekking up high passes and over long distances (villages are far apart in these sparsely-populated mountains) with a heavy backpack, the pain from walking on trails that barely exist and, above all, the sheer terror of walking on ledges a few inches wide and high up a gorge. But even with all that, I never feel as lonely, as out-of-place, as marooned in a vast and alien landscape, as when I walk after dinner to the nearest stream to wash up. There isn't a sound about save for the howling of the wind - none of the variety of insects and animals that we from the tropics are used to - just to add that bit of the unaccustomed to the already disheartening experience of taking tiny, halting steps in the freezing cold... a cold multiplied several times by the stiff wind. And that is before I dip my hands in waters that melted from a glacier in my line of sight. And that is still before I cup the waters in my hand and splash them on my face.


One of the more interesting villages I visited was Turtuk, in the Nubra valley. Along with a couple of other villages, it was in Pakistan's Baltistan until the 1971 war, when it was captured by India. The people here have a language distinct from Ladakhi, called Balti, and some still have relatives across the border whom they haven't seen in decades. I was pointed out the remains of another village nearby where they moved over to Pakistan when India took over, but the people of Turtuk refused to give their homeland up. If being separated from the people they share a language and a culture with - owing to a conflict that has nothing to do with them and that has no resolution in sight - is a source of sadness, you wouldn't get to know that by their demeanour. Their hospitality is matched only by the beauty of their little village by the Shyok river... and it doesn't hurt that they're the most attractive people I've seen anywhere!

Well, ok, this was taken from a smartphone, with maximum zoom on.
That said, I'll forever remember this trip for my first proper sighting of K2. It’s hard to say how near I was to the mountain. Google Maps doesn’t have Turtuk marked accurately - it's shown as way closer to Leh than it actually is. K2 seems to be about 215 kilometres from Leh as the crow flies (do crows fly that high, though?), and using markers such as Diskit Monastery, Turtuk is probably around 170 kilometres or so from Leh, which means that I was around 50 kilometres, give or take, from K2. Still, that little detail won’t stop me from beginning conversations like this for years to come: “The blizzard struck just as I was beginning my final ascent of K2. No big deal usually but I was hampered by the baby - left behind by a climber who’d just remembered that he’d left the gas on at home - and the snow leopard - who’d gotten her paw stuck under a falling serac - both of whom I had to carry in my backpack, on either side of my iceaxe, and so it took me a couple more hours to the summit than I’d bargained for…”

I guess my fascination with K2 has something to do with my Geography teacher from school, who was obsessed with the peak. But its Wikipedia article fully justifies my fascination. It is, of course, full of interesting facts: that it is regarded by mountaineers as the world’s most difficult and dangerous climb, that one in four die in the attempt, that it has never been climbed in winter, that its steep, exposed nature makes retreat all the more difficult in case of the extreme storms lasting several days that it has a propensity for. But most of all, rather unusually for Wikipedia, the article also has a soul befitting such an iconic mountain.

Consider its discussion of the many names K2 is known by:

K2, however, appeared not to have acquired a local name, possibly due to its remoteness. The mountain is not visible from Askole, the last village to the south, or from the nearest habitation to the north, and is only fleetingly glimpsed from the end of the Baltoro Glacier, beyond which few local people would have ventured. The name Chogori, derived from two Balti words, chhogo ("big") and ri ("mountain") has been suggested as a local name, but evidence for its widespread use is scant. It may have been a compound name invented by Western explorers or simply a bemused reply to the question "What's that called?"

It shows where its heart lies by throwing its weight behind the most commonly-used name, the surveyor's notation, by quoting the Italian climber Fosco Maraini

... just the bare bones of a name, all rock and ice and storm and abyss. It makes no attempt to sound human. It is atoms and stars. It has the nakedness of the world before the first man – or of the cindered planet after the last.

Wouldn't you like to see the Savage Mountain for yourself now?

P.S. - I'll be loading up a pony with a few essentials and travelling to Manali, thence to Dharamshala and the southern villages of Amritsar and Delhi, and finally to Bangalore and Cochin so many thousands of kilometres away.

To be honest, I've heard horrible stories of the lands across the Himalayas... that instead of simply taking a horse over a high pass, you folks travel to other villages in metal beasts that darken the skies and melt our glaciers... that instead of growing everything you need, you copy the ideas of the lands of the dying sun, where they exchange little bits of paper for what they need (and very often don't need) in places they call "supermarkets"... that you would lie and kill for these bits of paper... that you take great pride in and collect things of no value that you call "electronics"... that your bellies rival Annapurna and Nanga Parbat because all you ever do is sit in one place, doing things that cause this thing called "stress" but are really of no practical value at all... that you do not know how to smile anymore and that neither do you look strangers in the eye when you pass them nor do you greet them with a warm "jullay."

Still, these and other stories do not discourage me at all from my desire to travel and to see your lands. Besides, these are all surely exaggerations: things cannot possibly be that bad in your lands of which we've heard so much here. See you in a few weeks!

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Trek #4: Stok Kangri

I've always been a bit afraid of heights. It was never as bad as James Stewart's from Vertigo but, for instance, I couldn't stand next to the wall of my terrace without feeling a bit dizzy, or climb more than the lowest branch of my neighbour's mango tree. When I first came to Ladakh, I took to walking up the 550 steps of the Shanti Stupa, to get fit for my first trek. Towards the top, the steps narrow to a couple of feet with the hill on one side and a drop on the other. The first time I climbed up, I walked this section sideways, with my back pressed up against the rock and my arms splayed along it, while other climbers paused to give me bemused looks.

So it was that while I'd heard about the "trekker's peak" of Stok Kangri a little after I reached Leh, I never gave any serious thought to it. Trekking up high passes involves some vertiginous bits but you're usually too exhausted to notice and, anyway, develop "a certain absence of imagination" that makes you forget that the drop exists at all. But a peak is a very different story - they can bludgeon some imagination into the dullest of minds. Also, passes tend to be used by locals for transporting goods from village to village, and usually have serviceable trails up and over them for the horses. Then there's the psychological thing. A pass, no matter how high, is the weakest link in the topography. A peak is the exact opposite: and the Stok Kangri is quite intimidating, a peak visible all over Leh. In short, there was no way I was climbing it.

Little by little, though, the devil's favourite sin started to catch up with me. At 6153 metres, it's taller than any peak in four continents (sometimes by kilometres) and only a few metres short of the tallest in North America... not too many people can say they've been at over 20,000 feet on their own two feet. "And it's just a trekker's peak. You climb up, have a bit of tea up top and then climb back down. Easy-peasy." (It was nothing of the sort - more on this later.)

And that's how I found myself at the trekking point of Stok village, gazing up at the spot towering two-and-a-half kilometres over my head... and where I'd be standing in less than 48 hours if everything went to plan.

The first day involved a climb of a little over 800 metres to the tented camp of Mankarmo, at 4500 metres. It wasn't too difficult and the views were interesting, much starker than on any of my other treks. The toilets were disgusting.

On the morning of the second day, we set out for the base camp. The plan was that we'd reach there in about two hours and then sleep through as much of the day as possible, before we set out for the peak at midnight. During the day, the glacier starts to melt, making the walk up more difficult - hence the climb at night. We did reach the base camp in two hours but I couldn't sleep a wink. Even at 5000 metres, the sun converted the tent into an oven, making sleep impossible.

Towards evening, when the sun had cooled down, I was much too nervous to get any sleep. It had something to do with the atmosphere in the camps there. On my other treks, people had signed up simply for the joy of walking in the mountains and taking in sights unlike anywhere else. But here, most people had turned up simply for the bragging rights - including myself, I'm sorry to say. There was no sense of joy or adventure, all the peak was for was as a tick in a few bucket lists. Only a fraction of the parties that went up actually make it to the top and the stories around the camp were of how most folks turn back because they couldn't take the altitude and even of the few who fell to their deaths on the climb up - though more people have died due to altitude sickness.

In the late afternoon, though, a giant cloud hovered over the mountains that looked exactly like the USS Enterprise. I had been moping about wondering whether signing up for this trek was the wisest choice, and so this cheered me up immeasurably. After all, what could go wrong when Spock, Bones and Kirk are keeping a watchful eye on you from the skies?

After an early dinner, I went back to my tent to try and get some sleep. But again, no luck. So it was that at the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world slept, I arose to... well, I arose to find a little lunchbox packed for me and my water bottles all filled up. It was windy and the cold was biting. I was wearing thermals, a shirt on top of that, a further woollen sweater and a thick jacket over all of that. I'd never worn this many clothes in all my life. I deposited the contents of my backpack in the tent and packed just the lunch and the water.

At the "cafe" tent, my guide was waiting for me with a cup of tea. I then slowly put on my balaclava, the gloves, the boots, tested out the trekking pole and the torch, until there was nothing left to waste time on. I now understood why all the sports movies fetishize pre-game rituals so much - it's a way of delaying the inevitable and also to calm the nerves. My guide clapped me on the back reassuringly and asked me whether I was all set. "Yes" was about the only answer possible, so with the pack on my back, the trekking pole in one hand and the torch in the other, I set off up the hill with him.

The first hill was very steep and slippery and it was unusual walking by torchlight. It took me a while to get used to it and I started to despair - if this is what the first hundred metres or so was like, what would the really difficult bits be like? At the top of the hill, we took a little break. We switched off our torches and sat in the starlight for a few minutes. I don't ever remember noticing starlight before, so this was a magical experience for me. There was no moon and to see the mountains lightly covered in light even older than themselves was an experience bordering on the spiritual. It was as if the Himalayas knew they were in the presence of something far older and mightier, so they took some effort to be on their best behaviour. Rather than appearing stark and intimidating, they looked delicate and reassuring in the pale light.

This break helped my mood considerably and I was able to forget about the peak and the glacier and altitude sickness and folks falling to their deaths, and recapture some of the joy of my earlier treks. We walked for about 2 hours until we hit the glacier. I couldn't see how far up we were on the mountainside, and I wondered whether I should be thankful for the darkness. (Turned out, it wasn't very high at all.) Walking on the glacier was extraordinary. Since I couldn't see anything, sounds were all I had to rely on. It made a reassuringly crunchy sound as we walked on it, though less reassuring bits included ominous-sounding cracking of the ice not too far from us. When we finally hit our first crevasse, I was massively disappointed. I'd expected something gigantic, of the sort you see in movies that have mountaineers falling to their deaths. But this was this one-metre-deep crack with a little stream flowing at the bottom. Chimet used his ice axe to carve footholds for us to jump across and that was that.

The glacier was done with and now began the real ascent. The first bit was a zigzag path up a rocky mountainside. It got steeper and steeper until I though I'd fall over backwards. And then we came across a hillside completely covered with soft snow. We had to cross it horizontally, through a tiny path cut across it. It didn't look much at all on the way back but, then, on the way up, it looked well nigh unpassable, that I'd slip and slide all the way down the hillside.

Chimet stepped in reassuringly. He cut a few footholds in the snow for me and then took my hand to lead me across. It was the first of several instances where I'd have turned back without him. He is several years younger than me - only in his early 20s - but there's a quiet competence about him that's absolutely reassuring for a beginner like me. Just after this patch of snow, we lost the trail for a bit and so ended up clambering on rocks for a bit. I was very near panicking. I have never climbed in my life and have neither the balance nor the instincts for it. Chimet again stepped in and in that calm way of his told me where to put my foot, which route to take up the hillside, and which rocks to take a hold of, all the while standing behind me, in case I slipped. I kept my head resolutely down - I didn’t want to see the heights ahead of me and I certainly didn’t want to see the consequences of slipping, down below me - and blindly followed his instructions. There was even a point where I was stranded on a smooth 2-metre-long bit of rock. I don’t know how I got on it but there I was, unable to move in any direction without sliding off it and taking a tumble down the hillside. Chimet simply asked me to hold still (I had no intention of doing anything else), while he clambered up another way and pulled me to safety by extending his trekking pole towards me.

After an hour or two, we made it up to the ridge we were aiming for. By this time, the sun had risen and we could put our torches away. We were just 200 metres below the peak but the walk along this ridge would be the toughest part of the trek. The ridge was very narrow and, to boot, was littered with mini-peaks, which we had to walk around. This involved clinging to a rock at the side of the ridge, with the valley way down below, to get across. The consequences of a slip did not bear contemplating. And the ridge was very, very steep. At several points, Chimet simply climbed up ahead of me and pulled me up with his hands or his trekking pole.

In winter, with the snow covering the peak, the ascent is less complicated. You simply use crampons and rope and go straight up from the valley to the peak, on the soft snow. In summer, without the safety blanket of the snow, the walk to the peak is rather circuitous. You walk along the ridge and then circle around the peak, taking the steepest and narrowest trail yet just below the summit. As we were climbing up this last section, we met some folks who’d gone up earlier and who were now on the way down. Terror was writ large on their faces, as they walked down. I suppose that was on mine too.

At 7:30 in the morning, we were on the top. It was surprisingly flat and spacious up top, with a nice, soft covering of snow and terrific views. Up north were the bad-ass mountains of the Karakorams, with the Savage Mountain, K2, in the midst of them. We could see parts of Leh and Stok - but the coolest thing was seeing these gigantic glaciers several hundred metres below me. That’s when it really hit me how high we were. 6153 metres… over 20,000 feet! We spent close to an hour-and-a-half on the top before making the trip down. Given how scared I was during the climb up, I’d expected nothing less on the way down but, strangely, it was much easier. Maybe Chimet’s confidence had rubbed off on me by then.

The walk down may not have been particularly scary but it was still hard. I hadn’t slept for 36 hours and without anything to motivate me, my mind started to drift. It was incredibly tedious, relieved only when we hit the glacier down below again. In the full light of day, it was an awesome sight. The glacier went up a peak almost as high as the Stok Kangri, so it was like a giant waterfall that had frozen over, along with the river at its base. We only had to cross the (very wide) frozen base, so it was a flat and long walk that allowed me the comfort to appreciate the glacier in all its glory.

Now, about the "trekker's peak" bit. The reason why the Stok Kangri has this reputation is that it doesn't need any of the more technical mountaineering skills. If climbed from mid-July to mid-August, when there's little snow up top, you don't need any gear at all - not ice axes, not even crampons. But just because you don't need any gear doesn't mean that it's an easy walk up. I had to use my hands quite a bit, and you definitely need a bit of experience with that sort of climbing to do it alone. The term “trekker’s peak” conjures images of a lazy walk up - it certainly wasn't that at all.

Given how much easier the climb down was for me, you could argue that the climbing bit is a skill easily learnt. But what you can’t negotiate with is the altitude. Many people come to Ladakh to do this as a sort of trophy and many agencies propose them an itinerary of about a week or a week-and-a-half to climb the peak. That’s 3 days to acclimatise and then a slow climb in 6 or 7 days. What they don’t mention is that the 3 days is JUST to acclimatise to Leh’s altitude of 3500 metres. Climbing up a 6000-metre peak is a different story altogether. The only way to practise for that is to trek across a high pass or two. The trouble is, this involves an itinerary of 2 weeks, minimum, and is a lot more expensive. And many don’t want to spend either the time or the money. It’s a shame because the views on the way and up top are astonishing, and best enjoyed without a splitting headache.

I reached the base camp a little before 2 in the afternoon, and, oven-like tent or not, I slept like a log. I dreamt of large mountains

Monday, August 4, 2014

Trek #3: Likir to Alchi, via Tar La

After two children’s treks, it was time to try the real stuff. I’d enquired about the 6-day Lamayuru-Alchi trek when I first came to Ladakh but was told to forget about it until I’d tried two other treks. Well, I did two other treks. I was all set.

This one was a slight variation, a 9-day trek that had the Baby Trek for the first three days and then the Lamayuru-Alchi trek for the last 6, except that we’d bypass Lamayuru. We would instead finish the Baby Trek at a village called Tar and cross the Tar La, to Urtsi on the Lamayuru-Alchi route. This would make it even tougher than the original Lamayuru trek because Tar to Tar La involved gaining an altitude of 1.5 kilometres and then climbing down to Urtsi, a kilometre lower, all in one day. But I was full of bravado and, besides, the thought of completing two different trekking routes in one trip was enticing.

I had one other companion for this trek. She’d been in Ladakh for only 3 days before the start of the trek and as soon as we started, altitude sickness hit her. Just goes to show how unpredictable high altitudes are, completely independent of fitness. She's 21 and had trekked in a variety of places, from Kilimanjaro to Borneo. I, on the other hand, had spent the last 10 years mostly between a keyboard and a chair, and occasionally drinking plenty of beer and watching lots of movies. And yet she was the one bringing up the rear (a novel experience for me, if you’ve read the accounts of my last two treks).

The first three days weren’t much fun. One reason is that the highest pass we crossed was at 3900 metres or so, which is a molehill by Himalayan standards. And with this low altitude also comes heat, in late July. The second reason is that the entire stretch is covered by roads, making it easy to give up and hitch a ride back to Leh, but which also means walking on asphalt in parts. And this multiplies the heat. All in all, not the most pleasant of walks.

The first of the those three days, from the monastery at Likir to Yangthang, was probably the worst. Ladakh is a desert but through industrious use of canals from the glaciers high up they’ve managed to build up a valley impressively green in parts. But not here. It was just a long and dusty trail without a tree or even a shrub in sight for hours.

Yangthang to Ang was supposed to be our second day but my fellow trekker decided that walking with a splitting headache wasn’t much fun and went back to Leh. This meant stopping midway, at the village of Hemis Shukpachu, to make arrangements for her transport. We’d trekked only for three hours maybe, so we were there by noon. It’s a beautiful village though and the home stay there was perhaps the most hospitable of all my treks (given how hospitable Ladakhis generally are, this is saying a lot). Since we had plenty of time, it allowed me to go on a little picnic in the evening too. I get a lot of flak from everyone who treks with me for lugging my laptop around… but it does allow me to sit with food and beer in the middle of a stream, my feet dangling in the cool and crystal-clear waters flowing all around me and my laptop and beer perched on convenient rocks, whilst listening to Neil Young mixed in with Me & Bobby McGee and Into The Mystic. That’s the other side of the pain of an extra kilo on my back over a high pass.

The third day found just me and the guide, Dolma, starting out to Tar. And because we had to make up time from the previous day it was a long day. With significant bits on asphalt, it wasn’t too much fun either. We passed through Ang and Temisgam but, on the way to Nurla, Dolma spotted a small canal winding its way down below the road. We climbed down and walked by it, the trees along it giving us respite from the heat. At Nurla, the folks at a resort invited us to use their tables overlooking the Indus, and so we unpacked our lunches and then waited by the banks of the river for the sun to cool down a bit. The one-and-a-half-hour walk to Tar from Nurla was along a proper trail, with a particularly interesting section where the path wound through a narrow gap between two huge mountains - it seemed to be of some religious significance but we couldn’t figure out what. But it was captivating and easily the highlight of our first three days, if you discount watching the heavy late-afternoon wind play with a field of rye from my first-floor window at Tar.

So then, the fourth day. The start of the heavy-duty section. The villagers wanted us to go back to the highway and then find a bus or a cab to Urtsi, our destination for the day. “Tar La isn’t used very much these days,” they said. “Only about 2 or 3 groups use it in a year and no one has so far this year. You may not find a trail at all up the pass.” This was told to Dolma and not me, and she decided to give Tar La a try anyway. Of course, it wouldn’t have made much difference even if it was told to me - I would’ve left it up to her judgement. Tar was at 3500 metres. The top of Tar La was just short of 5000 metres, so we had a climb of a kilometre-and-a-half ahead of us.

A section of the climb up Tar La. And this picture doesn't really capture the gradient.The day began early, at 5:45 or so. The first hour-and-a-half was pleasant enough, following a stream up the mountains. It soon changed to a narrow and fairly steep gorge. There was a path up along the side, but because of disuse it was overgrown with plants that scratched and stung. So we took to walking up what looked like a dry stream bed. Clambering up those rocks was hard enough with a backpack on but at 4000 metres or so even the gorge disappeared. From then on it was just a mountainside to walk up. There was no trail at all and it looked like there had been landslides there. Imagine a whole hillside completely covered with loose rock and stones a foot or two deep and that was what we had to walk on. There wasn’t one solid step anywhere during the climb up. Dolma was much more surefooted but I was slipping and sliding every three steps. The mountainside grew steeper and steeper and I was now slipping and falling every two steps. Dolma grew concerned about the conditions at the top of the pass, so she asked me to wait while she scouted ahead. She came back in a while to say that the top of the pass was nearly vertical and that it would be better to turn around. We could go back to the highway at Nurla and find a cab to Urtsi instead.

I was nearly in tears. I’d climbed more on that day than on any other day of all my treks and I still couldn’t even see the top of the pass. We were at 4550 metres at that point, and we had been climbing for nearly 7 hours to gain that kilometre in altitude. The thought of walking all the way back in the mid-day sun and then the further walk to Nurla by the Indus was too terrible to contemplate but there was nothing to be done about it. On that loose rock walking down was, if anything, even more painful than the climb up and only slightly quicker. At 6 PM, 12 hours after we began the day, we were at Nurla. Half an hour before Nurla, we passed a few monks heading to a festival at Tar. One of them was my guide’s cousin and he told us that Dolma’s brother, a monk at a monastery nearby, was in the vicinity with his car, having just given them a ride up till there. He could probably give us a ride in his little car. Small world, eh?

It was very kind of the monk to give us a ride to Urtsi - about 2 hours away - so it pains me to say that he was the worst driver I’ve ever encountered. I wouldn’t have thought it possible to hit 100 kph on Himalayan roads but he managed it. He seemed to consider the whole stretch a one-way (it wasn’t), for he would sometimes blast full pelt around blind corners on the right of the road. Scared the bejeezus out of me. When he did remember to change gears, it would often be the wrong gear (or none at all); and when we finally hit the dirt roads near Urtsi, it seemed like he stalled the car on nearly every slope up… which in itself isn’t too bad but he would also roll back about 20 metres whenever he tried to restart and that can be scary when the road is high up a gorge with a furious river below. And irrespective of giant boulders in the middle of the road or smooth (and rare) paved road or u-turn (without railing), it was just one constant speed of about 60 kph for him - we were continually banging our heads on the roof or the sides of the car.

All through it, though, he had a look of absolute calm on his face that must come from hours of meditation or the power of the Lamas. Urtsi couldn’t come soon enough for me. And it did eventually, a cluster of fireflies high up in the mountains. Just beautiful. We’d already had dinner on the way, so as soon as I was shown to my room my head hit the pillow and I made a demonstration of the expression “out like a light.”

Day 5 was a day of luxury. I woke up late and lazed about till mid afternoon. And then… this place had a bathroom with a shower and a solar geyser. My first-ever shower on a trek. And the toilet even had a wooden bar to hang trousers on, too. (You'll know what I'm talking about if you've read the account of Trek #1.) It was lovely. At around 5 in the evening we set out for our walk to Hinju, three hours away. Dolma gave me two options. One was to follow the dirt road we drove on the night before. The other was to take “the scenic trail high up in the mountains.” Well, when she puts it that way…

For the better part of the next two hours I was taking terrified steps up on a goats’ path carved into the side of 3 or 4 adjacent mountains. It wasn’t more than 6 inches wide, with a wall of rock at a 60-degree angle on one side and a 150-metre drop on the other. And I’m not exaggerating about the 6 inches. There wasn’t the space to put both feet together. “Terrifying” actually is a bit of an understatement. When we eventually hit the dirt road again I made outward expressions of disgust at being back on a path for vehicles, but I was never more relieved in my life. The home stay was a bit of a disappointment too - one of the very rare ones. And, further, the toilet there did not have a door at all, just a curtain. But I’d encountered this before and had time to come up with a workaround. I left a bit of my trousers hanging out in plain sight of anyone who approached. Plus, I took my mobile in with me and played music (Gordon Lightfoot) on the speakerphone. It was foolproof.

Day 6 began early. At 7. If Dolma’d had her way, we’d have started at 5 but I managed to negotiate that down to 2 hours later. She likes the cold, I like the heat - fundamental differences there. We had a big pass, Konzke La at 4950 metres, ahead of us. After my exertions at Tar La, plus all my pull-ups in the weeks prior, this one was a bit of a breeze. Ladakhis are always around to teach you a bit of humility, though. While I was huffing and puffing my way up the pass, congratulating myself on not stopping too much, I encountered one absolutely haring down the pass balancing, of all things, a tray of eggs in his hand.

It took us about five-and-a-half hours to reach the top, but I needed only one stop during the last 500 metres up, which was a vast improvement over all my other treks. Woo hoo. I opened my lunch box with a celebratory flourish. And boom. Thunder. We’d trekked for 3 days at altitudes 2 kilometres lower in stifling heat, but not a hint of rain then. The moment we hit the top of a 5000-metre pass, though, a thunderstorm rolls right in uninvited… such is my relationship with the rain gods. I must have broken all previous records for climbing down that side of the pass, though the complete lack of concern shown by Dolma probably means that being up on a high pass when there’s lightning around probably isn’t as dangerous as I thought it was.

The walk to Sumdo-Chenmo was hard and long. We could see the village as a green patch from the top of the Konzke La but it took us over 4 hours to reach there. And there were a few stream crossings along the way, which meant we (or rather, I - she was perfectly content to leap from rock to rock with inch-perfect precision) had to constantly change from shoes to sandals. While it was refreshing to dip my feet in cool waters during such a difficult walk, my favourite means to cross streams remains the traditional bridge.

After the uncomfortable and rather unfriendly stay at Hinju, normal Ladakhi service was resumed at Sumdo-Chenmo where we stayed with the sweetest family you could imagine. Two Englishmen came along a little later hoping to find a room. And they did (one of them, an English teacher - must be an easy job in England - got along famously with the family’s 4-year-old kid). They were trekking without a guide and it came as rather a shock to them when Dolma told them that the next day - the day they’d supposed was a nice, flat and leisurely walk to Chilling, from where they could catch a taxi back to Leh - contained, in fact, not one but two passes. You could see both mountains from the drawing room, the first brown and rather high, but the second behind it forbiddingly black and enormous. A quick consulting of maps and they changed their minds. They decided to join us for the next day and then try and catch a taxi from near Sumdo-Choon, our destination for the next day. It was a trail along the river Sumdo-Chu and so was a rather hard walk with multiple river crossings but at least there were no passes to cross.

Day 7 was as advertised. Trails along rivers are not the easiest. They keep going up and down and river crossings are hard for those non-Ladakhis unused to leaping from rock to rock with a backpack on. But we had a new companion in the form of a little dog the home-stay owners had gifted Dolma. She refused to go anywhere near the river for the first crossing. But when she saw that we were all crossing she realised that she had no other option. She half swam, half walked across the stream and was thoroughly cold and miserable right after. No more of that shit, she decided. From the next one on, she switched to leaping from rock to rock, like Dolma. A quick learner.

After 3 hours, give or take, we turned a corner and ran into a taxi: that felt weird, walking in the middle of nowhere, seemingly miles from any road. Turned out the monastery at Sumdo-Choon is very old and famous, has the occasional visitor, and hence the dirt road. The Englishmen were torn. Sumdo-Choon, a little over two hours away, had a road not too far from it and they could find a taxi there, too. They were rock climbers and had found the views along the way unlike anything they'd ever seen before… but on the other hand, here, right at hand, was a taxi to Leh. In the end the promise of cold beer and chicken tikka won over untamed nature and they took the ride.

Dolma, the dog and I continued on our way to Sumdo-Choon. We were at that point at our lowest altitude of the day’s trek and the rest of the walk involved climbing over 400 metres. Boy, was it tiring! Even the dog was starting to feel it towards the end. And Dolma had this annoying habit of keeping on saying how Ladakhis would do that walk in 45 minutes. Well, I’m not Ladakhi and it took me close to two hours. The home stay we got was another of those rare ones with a bathroom. I was told they had a solar geyser, by which they presumably meant that the water tank was on the roof - the water was only slightly warmer than the icy-cold river. In sweltering Cochin, where people pull on sweaters when the temperature falls below 30, I’d refuse to take a bath in cold water even in the middle of summer. Still, here I jumped right at the chance.

I could tell how novel an idea bathrooms are to Ladakhi villagers by the fact that this one had a window the size of a door, and sans curtain, opening right out into the path to the house. And sure enough, while I was in the middle of my shower, the family’s little son popped by the window to have a chat. This caused much consternation in the household and his mom could be heard yelling at him to get away from the window. He couldn’t see why he had to give up on an interesting conversation with a stranger from across the Himalayas, especially when a middle vocabulary owing much to Ladakhi, English, Hindi and even a little Malayalam had just been established, so he refused. She was then forced to try and pull him away from the window but he had the strategic advantage of being on the side away from her and she did have to try and keep herself discreetly away from the window. She did, as moms tend to do, win eventually and pry him away, after which I was left to pick up from where I left off. Boy, did it feel good to have a shower!

Day 8 was to be the toughest day of the entire trek. First, there was the climb from Sumdo-Choon (3950 metres) to Stakspi La (5150 metres). To put it in perspective, the two toughest days of my last trek had a combined altitude gain of less than what we were to cover in half a day here. And those two days were part of the most popular trek in Ladakh and so were well trodden. This walk up to Stakspi La was used neither by Ladakhis nor by trekkers (most of whom prefer to end their trek at Chilling, from Sumdo-Chenmo). There wasn’t much of a trail up at all and what little there was was covered with loose dirt and sand. It wasn’t quite as bad as Tar La admittedly but the walk up was still tiring as hell. Every step ground deep into the sand and up the steeper sections I would sometimes slide back further than I went up - I took to scrabbling with my hands quite a bit. The Himalayas in my imagination used to be this solid wall of rock but it’s amazing how many mountains - even 5000-metre ones like this one - in Ladakh seem to be just a pile of sand.

I took to thinking of Frodo and Sam to keep me going. Sure, the weight of the One Ring and the baleful eye of Sauron may have been evened out by my backpack and Ladakh’s altitude (Mordor didn’t seem very high altitude) but they also had to deal with Orcs and Ring Wraiths and giant spiders. There are no snakes or insects or any wildlife to deal with in Ladakh - not even mosquitoes. And they had little feet and probably little lungs too. And Mordor was probably a good deal hotter too. And they were White and I didn’t see them carrying any sunscreen. And the fate of the world did not hang in the balance on the outcome of my trek. So, yeah, I probably had the better deal.

6 hours later, I was on top of the pass. And what an incredible sight that was! None of the other passes I went over even begin to compare with this one, so it’s a shame so few people choose to go over it. Looking back in the direction we climbed, we could see the sleek, lightly-snowcapped peaks of the Zanskar Range. To its right, the smaller Sham ranges... and to the left was the Greater Himalayan Range, gigantic, its peaks completely white with glaciers. And in the direction of what would be our descent, the entire first part of our trek. We could see the green patch dominated by the monastery at Likir, then the desert mountain we walked across the first day to Yangthang. Further left, we could see our trail to Hemis Shukpachu, itself a much smaller patch of green than the others in the valley. And from there, the trail disappeared into the distance, towards Tar. But Dolma showed me how it would later wind around the mountains to our left and then, finally, up the pass we just came. We would now descend to Alchi below to end our trek. The route was a gigantic circle (almost) through the mountains and this pass we were on gave a bird’s eye view of a whole lot of it.

Trekking up high passes can mostly be pain and exhaustion but through it all, through every step, there is the underlying magic of walking through perhaps the most awe-inspiring landscape on the planet. Which is why, though my trek accounts mostly read like whinges, I keep signing up for tougher and tougher treks. The joys of trekking here are usually not easily describable but when I do have moments like the Stakspi La, they give me an opportunity to put in words the moments of awe and euphoria that are as much a part of the experience as the ever-present despair.

The walk down was hard but I floated down on a cloud of triumph. Well, for the first 500 metres or so anyway. Alchi is about 2 kilometres lower in altitude than the Stakspi La and it took us about 6 hours to get there. There wasn't much of a trail at all and Dolma had to give me a helping hand through the many parts that involved scrabbling along rocks with steep falls on the side. For the first time on this trek I was feeling my backpack. Towards the end, every joint on my legs and along my back and hips were in agony.

It was well after dark and 13 hours after we’d started out in the morning that I saw the lights of Alchi in the distance. The relief it filled me with told me, much to my sadness, that however much I may pretend to enjoy the call of the mountains, I am very much a creature of city comforts. Still, it didn’t prevent me from giving myself a congratulatory pat on the back when I got back to Leh the next afternoon (after a brief hike up to the Alchi dam and power station) and the trekking agency told me that I was only the second person this year to complete this particular trek with them. Not bad for a programmer.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Tales of Cleanliness & Godliness

For those curious, here’s a breakdown of the differences between the Malayali and the Ladakhi styles of bathing.

Kerala: Normal Temperature - 35 ºC; Humidity - 98%, on a dry day; Bathing Frequency - 2 / 3 times in 1 day.

Average time for pre-shower activities: 7 seconds. How long does it take to strip off 3 articles of sweat-covered clothing?

Average time for showering: 72 minutes. Includes the 15-minute rain dance before soaping; the 45 minutes taken for soaping each separate body part and then taking a leisurely soak after each soaping session; and finally, the 12-minute post-soaping soak.

Average time for post-shower activities: 1 minute, for towelling and dressing. (Any longer in the bathroom after a hot shower and you'd need another shower immediately.)

Total Time - 73 minutes, 7 seconds.

Ladakh: Normal Temperature - Minus 35 ºC; Humidity - 2%, during a thunderstorm; Bathing Frequency - Once in 2 / 3 days.

Average time for pre-shower activities: 55 minutes. It does take time to take 37 pieces of clothing off, plus the time you take to mentally prepare yourself before taking something off, and the little jig you do after.

Average time for showering: 2 minutes, 7 seconds. Includes the 7-second soak-before-soaping; the 105-second soaping, with constant apprehensive glances at the geyser; the 15-second post-soaping soak, before you jump shrieking out of the suddenly-freezing water, the geyser having given up the ghost.

Average time for post-shower activities: 16 minutes. It does take time to put 37 pieces of clothing back on.

Total Time - 73 minutes, 7 seconds.

The same time exactly. Must be similar habits then...


After the agony of the backpack on my first trek, I knew my back needed strengthening. So I set up a wooden stick between two trees as a bar for pull-ups. Worked like a charm, except that I shared that bit of space with the farm's cow. And she seemed eternally curious about why a human would want to spend 15 minutes grunting and pulling himself up towards the sky. If she'd just stuck to staring at me, it would've been all right - I wouldn't have liked it much, admittedly, but I could've dealt with that. Indians stare at each other all the time, after all.

But she wasn't satisfied with just staring. She would walk to within two inches of me and then stand gaping with a quizzical look on her face. And guys don't like having horns 6 millimetres from their crotches. We don't like it under any circumstances but even less so when in a position as prone as when doing pull-ups.

I tried reasoning with her, telling her that she had the whole field all to herself... that I wanted just the couple of feet around the two trees. But it didn't work. Talking to her only made her come closer still. In the end, there wasn't anything to do but adopt a Buddhist philosophy of "whatever will be will be" (if that is indeed a Buddhist philosophy), and hope that she wouldn't move her head suddenly while I was exercising.


The Dalai Lama paid a visit to Ladakh for the Kalachakra. It was quite something to see the adoration the people here hold for him. Entire villages emptied themselves into Leh for the festivities. His birthday was on one of the days and Richard Gere too turned up to wish him. (Gere began his speech with a message to the Ladakhis that they live in the most beautiful place on Earth. Who can argue with that?) I always lost count after 50 or so, but I was told by those who could count that over 120,000 people turned up on some days.

But even more interesting than the reaction to him was the man himself.

He was self deprecating (on why he hasn't practised a certain kind of meditation: "maybe because I'm so busy but more probably because I'm just lazy"), respectful of other religions and constantly referring to them to underline his points, and really just all-round cool.

He spoke out against religious intolerance, specifically mentioning attacks by Buddhists against minorities in Sri Lanka and Burma. He spoke of the debt Tibetans have to other countries and cultures - India for giving them refuge and a platform for him to speak for the Tibetan cause around the world, and also for their Buddhist heritage ("Tibet was a dark land before Buddhism came to us") and the 5 sciences ("the great masters of Nalanda," as he put it), and all the countries who've supported them against the Chinese occupation, while stressing that their struggle has to remain non-violent and based on a middle path that caused neither side any harm.

The coolest bit, though, was when he said that Buddhist teachings should not be taken literally and that they should be analysed and discarded if they're inconsistent with "logic and reason."

Maybe if I'd had someone like him as a religious model during my childhood, I might have taken religion more seriously as an adult.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Trek #2: The Markha Valley Trek

So then, my second trek…

It surprised me somewhat how quickly I signed up for this one, given that I’d whinged and groaned my way through the first. I’d thought then that I’d throw up merely at the sight of a backpack but here I was, in about a week, in the mountains again with one that weighed more or less the same. Melville was wrong then; it’s not the sea that calls to us but the mountains.

And I was smarter this time. On the last trek, everyone was much fitter and more experienced than I was, leading to very embarrassing situations where I’d reach the top of a pass about half an hour after everyone else and where the guide practically held my hand like I were a 5-year-old. So, this time, I made enquiries about my companions. Two of them were 10 years younger than me and experienced trekkers. Not so good. But the third was about my age and relying on “muscle memory” to get her through the trek. That sounded promising: it sounded like I’d have company at the rear. I signed right up.

The first day of the trek, from Chilling to Skiu, along the Markha river, was exactly the same route as the last day of my first trek. But it was in the opposite direction, so it was a whole different 180 degrees. It began inauspiciously enough, when a porter cut her finger very badly on the trolley across the Zanskar. We had a vet in our midst and she expertly bandaged up her finger (only noting that animals are easier to treat, their inability to talk and complain being a huge plus) before sending her back to Leh, to get it looked at in a hospital. I’d hated the last day of my previous trek but I enjoyed myself this time round despite the fact that the walk was uphill and that it rained a bit. Ladakh is a desert but it’s a law of nature that if I have a bit of a cold and am outdoors, it will rain. Still, I suppose it kept the heat away. The walk this first day was fairly short, only three hours or so. And I was pleased to note that my back muscles were in better shape to handle my backpack. I didn’t feel like the straps would burrow into my shoulder blades leaving permanent marks as much.

At dinner that evening, I would get an inkling of the disaster that would befall the good people of the Markha valley over the next 5 days. My companions were English and I’ve never seen any group of people eat as much. The villagers couldn’t cook fast enough to feed them. On that first day, at supper, our guide had cooked us these delicious momos. After my fellow trekkers were fed their three helpings, she went in and got her little plate. She placed it on the ground in front of us and then went in to take care of some business or the other. Despite the fact that they’d eaten about 36 momos each, they thought this plate was for us too. There were four of us and only 6 momos on that plate, so there were heated debates on how they would be split up. This took some time so, thankfully, she was back before we did anything that could never be undone. After a long, hard day of taking caring of us in the mountains and then cooking us our dinner, I wonder how she’d have reacted if she’d come back to find her dinner polished off by the four of us. To be fair, she’d probably have handled it with typical Ladakhi stoicism and not said a word.

The second day, from Skiu to the village of Markha, was a very long, flat and boring 8-hour walk along the Markha valley. The itinerary had painted vivid images of a “beautiful, green valley,” but meh… I’m from Kerala, I’ve seen greener. And towards the end, my backpack started to make its presence felt, so I was very happy to see a tea tent selling beer. I’d read somewhere that alcohol is bad for you at high altitudes but I think that’s puritanical rubbish. That beer was just great and for the next two hours, I felt no pain whatsoever.

Day 3 began a little later than usual. Markha was our guide’s hometown and we’d stayed at her house; she was understandably a little bleary-eyed when we started our walk to Hanker. It was, to our delight, a walk of less than 3 hours, I think, so we decided to walk a little further to Upper Hanker, so as to shorten our fourth day. The last bit was very steep and the views of an old fort or monastery up on the ridges were exceptional but there was nothing further to report.

Day 4, to the high-altitude plains of Nimaling, was to be our toughest day, so my companions fortified themselves appropriately. I imagine the villagers are, to this day, shaking their heads sadly at their severely depleted food stores and on a diet of one roti and half a cup of tea a day.

Nimaling is at 4800 metres or so. The climb was steady and hard and I think it took us over 8 hours to reach the camps. It was cold and windy, and it was snowing lightly at places. The altitude made it hard to breath, and with the biting wind all the layers of clothing we had on still wasn’t enough protection. Despair is a word that is often used lightly but I think I now know what it is. Despair is fighting exhaustion and cold and using your last reserves of energy to somehow or the other reach the top of the hill that you’ve set your sights on… and discovering on reaching there that it's only a false ridge and that there's another hilltop impossibly high further ahead of you… and then climbing to the top of that one and finding out that it was just yet another false ridge… and one more… and yet one more. 8 hours of false ridges with 13 kilos on your back: that is despair. We did have lunch by this very nice little lake that turned up unexpectedly, where, all covered up in balaclavas, we took pictures pretending to be Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in Bolivia. So, it wasn’t all bad.

Nimaling itself was gorgeous: windswept and barren with a small stream running through its heart and a glacier at the head. To one side, the 6400-metre Kang Yatze dominated the view. We had it in our sights on and off for over 2 days, so it was thrilling to be finally at its foot. I climbed the ridge closest to it for a better view, only to find that it was another of those infuriating false ridges. Still, it was around sunset when I did so and the sight of Nimaling below me, more beautiful than ever in golden light, was adequate compensation.

This was the only night on the entire trek when we'd be sleeping in a tent. I had a sleeping bag with me but I foolishly thought I wouldn’t need it. And when it got really cold in the middle of the night, I was simply too lazy to unpack it. When we woke up in the morning, we found our water bottles frozen over, and my walk to the toilet a 100 metres across the windy plains redefined “cold” for me, like the walk the day before had done “despair.” It didn’t help that this toilet was only slightly less disgusting than the one in “Trainspotting.” After this 5:30 AM walk through the wind and the cold, and a wash of the face and the hands in the freezing stream, I simply had to listen to some Elton John back in my tent because I too felt like “a candle in the wind, never knowing who to cling to when the rain set in.” (That said, does a candle really try to cling to anyone in inclement weather?)

Day 5. The first 2 hours was a 450-metre ascent to the top of the 5250-metre Gongmaru La. I expected an unforgettably painful climb filled with desperate gasping, torturous steps and a fervent desire for death. And I wasn’t disappointed. At least there were no false ridges. And then began our long descent to Shang Sumdo. It was incredibly steep and long and I was glad that I wasn’t climbing the Gongmaru La from that side. After a few hours, we came to a very narrow gorge with a frozen stream. It was the most fun we had on the entire trek, sliding down the ice. I definitely enjoyed the sliding bits a lot more than the parts where we had to climb up the sides of the gorge and walk along narrow goats' paths with vertiginous drops to the stream below.

We then came across another of those tents that served beer, so I don’t remember much of the last hour or two to where our van was waiting to take us back. I suppose it was some sort of a path through the mountains along a stream.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Trek #1: Jingchen to Chilling

Beginners to trekking in Ladakh usually first do the Sham Trek, otherwise known as the Baby Trek. Babies in the rest of the world demonstrate they’ve made a step up by walking across the drawing room. In Ladakh, they’re set down at Likir and arrive 4 days later at Temisgam, walking, in the process, over a pass named Lago La, which translates to “a pass of no consequence.” It really is that useless. A trek made for me, then. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find companions for this trek. The one I did find ones for was the trek from Jingchen to Chilling, also of 4 days, but containing two close-to-5000-metre passes, which elevates it to the status of a trek for children aged 4 to 8.

The mini-van collected the three of us at about 8:30 AM and off we went. It was a ride of about an hour, punctuated by lovely views of the Indus. When the road ended, we were set down by the side of a small stream. Jingchen, it was, and our trek was at a start. This day was described in the itinerary as “a gentle incline of 3 hours.” Right from the start, I knew that this would prove to be an optimistic assessment of my day. I’d been rather enthusiastic with my packing, which resulted in a backpack that weighed about 13 kgs. Perhaps I could’ve dispensed with the change of clothes and the two sweaters. Maybe even the laptop. Anyway, walking on flat ground for 3 hours with a 13-kg pack is no mean task for me, much less on those uneven mountain paths. Also, by my watch’s altimeter, the 3-hour trek did eventually deposit us about 500 metres higher than the altitude we’d started at: “the gentle incline” was a matter of perspective. There were times when we had to cross small streams and walk along boulder-strewn river beds, but what killed me was walking up hills - especially with the backpack. I hadn’t yet mastered the art of taking short steps instead of my longer lowland steps, and so, what with the altitude and my backpack, even small climbs were unbelievably tiring.

Lunch was at this beautiful meadow and I don’t remember what we had save that it was the best lunch I ever had. Rumbak, our halt for the first night, was only half an hour away and I was much relieved to be there. From the side we approached, it didn’t look particularly beautiful - just a few houses perched up on the hillside. But the thing with the Himalayas is that you turn a corner and the sights that await you bear no relation with what you’ve been seeing up till then. So it was with Rumbak, at the base of this green valley, with fields stretching out nearly to the horizon. That it turned up unexpectedly amidst forbiddingly black mountains and up a seemingly inhospitable, barren, narrow, boulder-strewn valley was something I’d get used to in a while. We stayed in a house in the village, in a room with a view across the valley. It had none of the comforts that we city folk are used to but the thick blankets and the great views were more than adequate compensation.

The next day was what is known as an acclimatisation day, where you climb up a high pass and then sleep at a lower alitude, to enable your body to get used to the altitude. Plenty of trekkers on short trips to Ladakh ignore the need for acclimatisation and end up getting very sick (AMS can be fatal). Who it strikes can be rather random, irrespective of age or fitness. In fact, the younger, fitter folk are at higher risk because they end up doing too much too quickly. “They come here, they are heroes for a day, they fall sick, they eat oxygen, they go back in a stretcher,” as my guesthouse owner put it. Rumbak was at 4000 metres approximately and we were to climb up to Stok La, at 4850 metres.

The start of the day didn’t go too well. They put one piece of bread in our lunchbox and that was it, our lunch. We raised a quizzical eyebrow and they came back with, “Well, would you like butter and jam on the bread?” “Why not?” we said. Nearly as soon as the climb started, though, my day got a whole lot better. We spotted a little glacier to our right. It was across a stream and a bit of a climb up, but I was excited. I’d never seen ice that hadn’t come out of a freezer. None of my companions shared my enthusiasm, though. They were all Europeans and Ladakhis and said they’d seen enough snow to last a lifetime. But they did promise to wait for me while I climbed up to it. And it wasn’t a letdown at all, my first experience of snow! I even labelled pictures of some poo that I found on it as “snow-leopard poo” which my gullible lowlander friends on Facebook duly believed, too. The only disappointment was that, later on, we found ourselves walking across little glaciers like that all too often on our trek up Stok La: I could’ve experienced my snow without any of the extra work I did!

The walk was fairly flat for two hours or so but then we came across the ascent to Stok La, which was very, very steep. Since we were walking back to Rumbak at the end of the day, we weren’t carrying our backpacks and I was certainly thankful for that. I still didn’t make it quite to the top - was short by 100 metres or so - as I was a little too slow. But the views from up there were quite something. Rumbak was this little green dot far off, near the horizon, surrounded by mountains after mountains. There’d be one circle of peaks around the valley, behind which there was another circle, and yet another circle: mountains were all the eye could see, with tiny Rumbak in the middle. That is where you can appreciate what life is like in Ladakh, how isolated they are, how cut off from the rest of the world by the most massive mountains imaginable.

It also showed me how idiot trekkers can endanger the life and limb of other travellers. Somewhere near the top of the pass, I accidentally dislodged a stone that rolled all the way down to the base of the mountain. It was terrifying, as I watched it roll down, praying that no one was walking below, picking up other stones on the way, gathering momentum for what seemed like minutes on end. From then on, I kept a wary eye on the paths above me, wondering whether there were others like me somewhere high above. Also, the climb down was far scarier than the climb up. When climbing up, you are far too exhausted to note that the path is only a foot wide and that there’s nothing to break your fall should you slip. When climbing down, though, you note all this and your imagination gets very active - particularly when you see a stone roll about two kilometres straight down.

We were back in Rumbak by the middle of the afternoon, and began our short hike to the Yurutse. Our original plan was to sleep in Rumbak but we had a climb up Kanda La (4950 metres) (with our backpacks on) the next day, and our guide, perhaps noting how I made hard work of the climb up Stok La, decided that perhaps we should cut short the next day by walking right up to the village at the base of the pass. This part of the trek had a path so narrow that, at times, it wasn’t wide enough to put both your feet down side-by-side. It was high up a hill, with a river winding its way down below, and would sometimes disappear altogether, leaving me to scramble on hands and feet (ok, an exaggeration) along the hillside, trying not to look down. That was just me, though. The guide had a song on her lips and she looked like she was out picking daisies or whatever it is that Ladakhis do for recreation.

Yurutse is this village with just one house in it. It makes 9-family Rumbak look like a metropolis in comparison. It astounds me just to think about it, what their life is like, particularly in the winter when the temperatures drop to -35 Celsius, living alone like that, hours from anyone else. And it is also at the crossroads of many treks, so there were about 10 other trekkers already there by the time we reached. There wasn’t enough room for all of us in the house, so the only single members of the bunch - an Englishman and I - got bumped out into two tents outside. Which, I suppose, is still preferable to sleeping with three other people in one room. That was my first night in a tent, though, and I couldn’t sleep well. Thought the floor was at an angle. I dreamt fitfully of snow leopards, to the sound of barking dogs and braying donkeys (who have put in a performance at 2:30 AM precisely in every village I’ve trekked to).

The third day without a shower began early. I had my habitual brush and washing of face in a stream with a glacier a few feet upstream. By now I’d gotten used to the cold a bit and had stopped wondering whether my fingers had fallen off. Going to the loo was trickier. It was 5:30 AM and the house had not woken up yet, meaning that I was locked out. I could, of course, consider going out in the open but it was so cold and windy that I was worried about the effects of taking my pants off out there. What if my privates receded so far inside that they never came back out? Still, needs must and I scouted about for half an hour, trying to find an appropriately sheltered spot. None presented itself to me, so I was back at the house and banging insistently on the door. A groggy face opened the door and I let myself in without so much as a “jullay.”

A word about the composting toilets prevalent in Ladakh at this juncture. They’re essentially 10-foot-deep holes in the ground and have lots of loose dirt and manure lying about, with a shovel handy for throwing down earth after you’re done with business, which then is used to fertilise fields (animal dung, on the other hand, is used in place of firewood). On the whole, it’s very clean and dry, with no smell apart from that of manure. Not bad at all. The one criticism I have is that they don’t have hooks in there for trousers, which is an invention that has been around for thousands of years in other parts of the world. I did a survey and the women in the company reported no difficulties in using the toilet with the trousers on. Men, being anatomically slightly different, could get smelly stuff on their trousers and on the whole preferred to take them off before getting the job done. But, due to the complete absence of hooks, we had to leave them lying around on the dusty ground with the result that we looked like we’d just rolled down a hillside every time we came out of the loo.

This particular loo, in addition to not having hooks, also did not have a latch on the door. I like to take my time, usually going in with an improving book, but the absence of latches meant that I was out in 45 seconds flat. My attitude contrasted with that of the girl who refused to use the lock even when available, saying she’d rather be interrupted in the toilet by someone than take the risk of being locked inside a Ladakhi toilet. Different strokes for different bloke(ette)s.

If I thought the loo was hard, the climb up Kanda La was something else. This was at 4950 metres, and unlike Stok La the previous day, this had to be completed, for our destination lay on the other side of the pass. And I was carrying my backpack too. I couldn’t get enough air. I was gasping and going purple. So concerned was the guide that she offered to carry my backpack. Three times she asked and three times, like Julius Caesar, I refused, taking longer with each refusal. In the end, though, just when I was about to pass out, she took the pack off my back as if it were a pack of feathers and carried it for half an hour. She’s about half my size so it was a little humiliating, but what the hell, at least I lived to tell this tale. In the end, I did make it… after everyone else, granted. It was snow covered and had fantastic views, including of a 7000-metre twin peak way off in the distance. The climb down, to Shingo on the other side, was 3 hours or so but after the exertions of the climb up, it was barely noticeable.

Shingo is this little town of 2 or three families that seemed as if it was cut into the rock, LOTR style. Not much of a night life, admittedly, but absolutely stunning on first sight. Day 4, being just a downward walk up to the crossing on the Zanskar river, near Chilling, wasn’t very eventful. We hit a small town named Skiu with a monastery dominating it, in a couple hours, and in a further two hours along the Markha river, we hit the river crossing where our taxi was waiting to take us back to Leh. It should’ve been a nice, soothing walk back but it was at a lower altitude than the previous three days and it was very hot. Besides, after four days of subsisting almost entirely on bread, butter and jam, we were all already visualising the dinner menu in our minds and we walked faster than we should have. At least I did, and found my feet all blistered and cut up on reaching back home. The river crossing, being a manual trolley across a ferocious river should’ve been scary but after 4 days of goats paths along ridges, it wasn’t particularly.

The beer and the chicken at dinner was just great.