Monday, October 13, 2014

Trek #5: Across the hidden kingdom, and over the Himalayas

“Twelve years before, on a visit to Nepal, I had seen those astonishing snow peaks to the north; to close that distance, to go step by step across the greatest range on earth to somewhere called the Crystal Mountain, was a true pilgrimage, a journey of the heart.” - The Snow Leopard

And that was an American who wrote that. Imagine the grip the Himalayas have, then, in the consciousness of the country they protect and feed. They are our northern frontiers, the source of Asia’s greatest rivers; the barrier that diverts the monsoons to the Indo-Gangetic Plain, and that keeps us from the frigid desert winds of Siberia. Three thousand kilometres south of this great range, in tropical Kerala by the Arabian Sea, children sit by their classrooms overlooking endless paddy fields and are taught these geography lessons, but what capture our imaginations are the myth and the legend.

It is to the snows and the streams here that foot soldiers and emperors alike have retired, to spend their last years in solitude. Siddhartha Gautama was born here in its foothills, and, if you believe the stories, so was Jesus, a disciple of Buddhism, who tried to take it over to the deserts far in the west; before returning to Kashmir and ending his days there, an old man.

When I announced that I was going, many had this question of me, “But what are you going to do there for three months?” I think they knew the answer themselves - it isn’t so much what you do as just being there. The three months extended to four-and-a-half, and had it not been for the possibility of winter snows cutting off my return trek, I would’ve stayed on. 

I’d never trekked before, never slept under the stars. But I also knew that if I really wanted to see the Himalayas, I’d have to go out to the villages between the high passes, that the roads and the comforts of Leh would offer only a pale reflection. I tried a four-day trek and barely made it through, but somehow a week later I found myself on another. And another yet longer one and, towards the end, I even mustered up the courage to have a go at a peak. No matter how physically distressing I found trekking to be, no matter that I told myself “never again” over and over while struggling up scree and along vertiginous precipices - out of breath and terrified - I kept signing up for more.

I even started to wonder about something I hadn’t imagined possible when I first laid eyes on those hundreds of kilometres of menacing peaks between the Indian mainland and Ladakh: is there any chance of trekking all the way back to the plains? The more I thought about it, the more it seemed a fitting end to the journey of a lifetime.

The route I settled on started at Lamayuru, a village a hundred kilometres to the west of Leh, passed through the Zanskar valley to join the Leh-Manali highway near Keylong in Lahaul, then went over the Pir Panjal into Chamba, and ended at McLeod Ganj in the foothills. By road, this is well over eight hundred kilometres; while trekking cut straighter lines through the mountains, it still involved crossing eleven passes over four Himalayan ranges - the Zanskar, the Greater Himalayas, the Pir Panjal, and finally the last of them before the plains, the Dhauladhar - making even valleys separated by a few kilometres seem as if they were continents apart: so different are the weather, the vegetation and the animal life, the people - their appearance, culture and language - even the earth under my boots.

This 39-day walk took me from one of the most isolated and least populated places on earth over to the most populous. From the cold mountain desert of Ladakh to the greener Zanskar valley - so remote that the only access to it in winter is by a hazardous trek in temperatures of thirty-five degrees below zero over the semi-frozen Zanskar river (hence the name chadar, the trek on the blanket over the Zanskar).

From the hidden kingdom in the rainshadow - the domain of the snow leopard and the blue sheep - the walk went up and over the greatest range on earth to its green, windward side; first to the pine trees and the enormous glaciers of the Pir Panjal, before descending into the dense forests of the Chamba valley - home to the leopard, the black bear and the himalayan brown bear.

I then climbed into the clouds one last time, across the pass of the thunder god in the white mountains, to end my trek at the headquarters of the Tibetan government-in-exile, less than thirty kilometres from the wheat fields of the Indo-Gangetic Plain, the region most frequently identified with the most diverse country in the world.

From austere hill-top gompa to the rainy residence of the Dalai Lama; it was a true pilgrimage, a journey of the heart.

A Man Not Quite Marlowe

The first hurdle, discounting my woeful fitness levels, was finding an economical way to do the trek. The Ladakh part (well, mostly), from Lamayuru to Keylong, used to be incredibly popular until road developments on this route tarnished its romance somewhat. Still, the road is on only a small section and this is one of only two trekking routes I could find that would take me to the mainland. It took me two weeks and massive frustrations with rather disorganised trekking agencies in Leh before I finally found someone who would take me.

His little office was in one of the two-feet-wide side-streets, just before a cafe on a canal. The dark paper on the windows were peeling with age and if I had the patience to look for it, I’m sure I could’ve found a blue-bottle fly in the office somewhere. To me, in my desperation, he was the Philip Marlowe of trekking agents. While everything else was seedy about the place, the man himself sat alone behind his desk, ramrod straight. He was tall and had a rather dignified demeanour, in sharp contrast to the scores of agencies on the busier roads where they hung about outside their offices, smoking or gossiping like layabouts.

He suggested that instead of looking to join a group, which was difficult, I trek alone with a guide and try and find home stays on the way. Usually, people do this route with horses and camp, but that is very expensive for just one person. Doing it as a home-stay trek would be much cheaper but the flip side was walking longer hours and carrying heavy loads over a three-week trek. Plus, there were two days (just before and after the pass over the Greater Himalayas) where there were no villages and we would have to risk sleeping out in the open, if we couldn’t find other campers who were willing to let us stay in their tents. All the negatives notwithstanding, I couldn’t see any other option before me, and besides there was a decidedly un-Marlowe-esque, and very Ladakhi, niceness about him, so I signed up.

Looking back, I’m not entirely convinced by him, but at least he got me across. Much like the private eye, he did ask for a deposit, in the slightly desperate manner of one who’s been screwed over several times by trekkers who walk in, make all kinds of arrangements and then disappear, never to be seen again.

The Gompa of the Moon

Our trip would begin with a bus ride from Leh to Lamayuru. When we got to the bus stop at 5 AM there was no light about, no activity. Eventually, we managed to locate a few folks standing in the dark next to a bus. We asked them whether this was the bus to Kargil, to which they said yes, but the doors were not open and so they were standing politely in the cold outside.

My guide, Norboo, has been over the Himalayas and has imbibed some of our impatience, so he banged on the doors with his trekking pole. “‘Sup?” (or Ladakhi equivalent) came a sleepy voice from inside the bus. Norboo explained that the bus was to start at 5 and that it was already 5. In the time-honoured tradition of all Indian public services “So?” came the reply without missing a beat.

Lamayuru has a monastery built on a mass of broken hills with sheer sides, loosely connected at the top, that rise high out of the surrounding village. It’s small and atmospheric, though its fame amongst tourists is perhaps for the “moon land” visible from its entrance - a big patch of hills a little way out, light-yellow coloured; the landscape seems fissured and cratered.

Inside the monastery, I furtively had a request to make of the statues of Milarepa and Marpa. I rarely get stomach bugs but the day before, my last in Leh, I’d eaten something that had deeply unsettled my stomach. It was most likely the carrot cake I had for breakfast, though there is also a body of evidence pointing toward the egg in the chowmein I had for lunch. Whatever it was, it left me unable to eat anything without rushing to the toilet in 5 minutes.

Having been mountain dwellers themselves, these two writer-saints could surely appreciate how difficult it would be to walk in these high altitudes, carrying a backpack weighing 17 kilos (mostly extra clothes, the sleeping bag and the books I’d packed for the long evenings, in anticipation of the month-long trek), while being unable to eat anything?

The walk to Wanla was fabulous. The mountains were of vastly different colours, some patches light, some black, dark-gray, even purple and green too. And in between them all, the vast almost-white moon land. There was one valley with dark mountains on the left and light ones on the right. What causes these dramatic shifts in colour? After we’d walked for an hour or so, we came upon a fairly steep ascent. I’d expected, on reaching the top, to be confronted by pointy peaks, but instead there was a plateau large enough to play cricket on; the mountains surprise you at every corner.

They also demand a lot of energy and I hadn’t had any food at all since the previous night. I was starting to feel faint. So, I took a risk and decided to have a little bite, which gave me enough energy to walk up the Prinkit La - at 3800 metres, not exactly the most fearsome pass in Ladakh; we were up there in another half an hour or so. The walk down the pass was along a narrow path with hills rising immediately on both sides. There was a zigzag trail cut in this path, that you could see for several dozen metres further down… it was like walking on a snake. It was shortly after the snake trail ended that I had my first proper sighting of blue sheep, only a few metres away high to my right. They looked like goats and were brown and white in colour. Why they’re called blue sheep is beyond me.

And then the stomach rumblings hit me. I asked Norboo to walk ahead while I found a convenient rock… not that it was necessary - apart from the blue sheep and any snow leopards stalking them, there wasn’t a soul for miles around. Still, this was where I made a personally significant leap.

I’ve whinged before about Ladakhi toilets (the dry composting toilets in the villages, not the western ones used in Leh) not having hooks on them to hang trousers on. I’d tried for the last three months to convince the Ladakhis of the error of their ways, telling them how a little hook costing virtually nothing would make a huge difference to the toilet experience of the visitor; how men (especially ones not used to squatting over holes in the ground), having certain peculiarities in their anatomy vis-a-vis women, feel much safer taking their trousers completely off when using a Ladakhi toilet, and how a hook to hang trousers on is essential in times like those.

But while they listened politely enough, there was a certain vacancy suggested by their glazed-over eyes that told me that I wasn’t getting through at all, that no one would make a beeline to install hooks in their toilets. It made me a little mad. I understand the need for preserving tradition but only a civilisation on the road to terminal decline turns a deaf ear to someone proposing a theoretically sounder and empirically proven approach. This was probably exactly the sort of thing that happened to the Mayans.

Anyway, in the urgency of the moment, I didn’t have the time to take off my trekking boots, then the trousers and what not, so I had to rely on the Ladakhi trouser-hook-less way. And, you know what, it worked. I didn’t get anything at all on my trousers. In that one instant, squatting behind a rock in the mountains, with the cloudless sky over me and a couple of blue sheep on the hillside behind me, and possibly a snow leopard in the ridges high above, I saw that the Ladakhis were right after all, that the trousers didn’t need to come completely off. It was a perfect moment. I was one with the mountains - I belonged - and everything made sense. It’s amazing how a spot of diarrhoea can change your world view in completely unexpected ways.

Sadly, after my stomach bug faded and I was no longer in such a hurry, I lost the confidence needed for the trousers-on approach and reverted to my trouser-less ways and feelings of bitterness towards whoever designed these toilets without a hook. It was like a lucid dream - or a thought of unprecedented clarity that explained all - but was forgotten soon after, leaving behind only the memory of that moment of perfection, that essence of an all-too-brief enlightenment.

Wanla is a grubby little town. Like all towns are where we have brought our roads and our trucks and our continuous construction and our civilisation.

Day 2 began at 8, following an unpaved road from Wanla to Hanupatta. This road (and another one a little later, around Padum) is the reason why this trek is getting less popular. But I thought it was a lovely walk of five-and-a-half hours. We saw less than 15 vehicles all day, many of them in the first hour, and unpaved roads are not as bad to walk on as asphalt. It follows a blue-green river that has cut a deep gorge in the mountains, and took us under gigantic overhanging rocks and cliff faces several hundred metres tall.

Unlike at Wanla, we found a lovely family to stay with, too. However, they couldn’t yet take us to their house because they were harvesting in their fields; Norboo and I spent the next few hours with them by the silver stream - me perched on a comfortable rock, reading a book, while he lay sleeping in the sun on the rocks by the stream.

Ladakhis have to do most of their work for the year in four short months, and harvest must be a particularly demanding time, but if this was their hardest work for the year - laughing and joking with each other - there’s something we’re doing a little wrong in the corporate world - row upon row of scowling faces, lit up by fluorescent light - yet surrounded by time-saving inventions that have made our lives so comfortable.

Amongst the first things you notice in Ladakh, particularly its villages, is the unrestrained cheerfulness and friendliness of its people. As you huff and puff your way up to a village, you soon come across a pleasant face with the widest smile of absolute benevolence shining down on you. “Jullay,” you mutter. “JOOO-LLLLEEEEEYYYYYY,” comes the roar. “Umm, jullay, jullay.” “Joo-llleeyyyy, jjjoo-lleyy, jullay, ju…” And this continues until you pass each other or someone changes the topic of conversation.

Hospitality towards strangers has always been the Ladakhi way - it is common for villagers to undertake multi-day treks to adjoining villages for bartering goods and for festivals, and it was also on the Silk Route for centuries (impossible to imagine now with the heavily militarised borders). Travellers were traditionally allowed free use of their sparse pastures, until vast trekking groups, their horses laden with supplies for themselves, guides, porters, helpers, cooks and what not (I once saw a solitary trekker travelling with seven horses and five support staff, for a week-long trek) started misusing this hospitality, contributing only litter by way of thanks. So now, the villagers charge camping fees for tents and horses.

Most Ladakhi villages, however, have a system of home stays, where, for a fee, you may spend the night with a family. This too used to be free (or, at least, the villagers would refuse to take any money and the traveller would have to insist) in the initial years when Ladakh was thrown open to tourism, until people like me started coming here in droves. Home stays are the best way to trek in Ladakh, for not only do you have thick walls and a roof over your head in the freezing nights but you also get to see a little of their ways and contribute something back.

Their hospitality beggars belief. Not only is the best room in the house given to you but you’re also quite literally one of the family for the night. You eat in the kitchen with them, where they serve you first before having food themselves, and despite the presence of gawping tourists - some of whom are rudely, and without bothering to ask for permission, quite liberal with the clicking of their cameras; as if the family were just another curiosity, like the surrounding mountains - they go about their normal life as if it were all close friends and family in the house. And when you go to bed at night, they pile blankets on you until you assure them that you’re warm enough.

I think some of this has to do with their sense of community. The folks harvesting in the fields were not all of the same family with whom we were staying. Some were neighbours helping out. “This is our way,” they explained, while taking a break from work over a pot of chang (the local beer). They deliberately stagger their harvests so that several families together can finish harvesting one field, before moving on to another. It’s a small example but is typical of a society that is everything that our city culture is not.

Where we are taught as small children to be competitive, Ladakhis watch their parents work for hours on someone else’s field, for no material gain of their own. Sure, lip service is paid in our schools to the community and to team work but how much of it is sincere given that every child knows that the boy or girl sitting next to them is one they have to beat in the upcoming exams? Out of all the lessons we learn in school, this is perhaps the one that sticks the most, that we carry on to our relationships, workplaces and business dealings as adults. In a subsistence economy like theirs, where they grow everything they need, where they make their own oil and build their houses themselves, they have no need to be competitive. No one else needs to go hungry for them to have a good yield.

And so theirs is a different world view, where they don’t look upon every stranger with the inherent wariness that we do, where even tourists like us with our outlandish clothes and expensive trekking gear are treated with indulgence and good humour - even when we display shocking behaviour (sometimes boneheadedness, like with the cameras, but mostly just ignorance of their ways - like washing in streams that they reserve for drinking).

Day 3 followed the same road to Photoksar. It wasn’t as scenic as the day before, until two hours later when we stepped off the main road to take a trekking trail. It took us through a place that reminded me of the desert cliff of my childhood, that morphed into a vast field of red rocks, each more or less the same size and shape, and that again morphed into something quite similar, except that small green shrubs replaced the red rocks. This place being ideal for an extended break, Norboo told me tales of Buddhist mythology while snowflakes fell lightly on us.

The unpaved road takes a more circuitous route, which has the advantage of a bridge across the stream to our left. On the trail we picked, we had to wade across it. It was swift and cold. Another foot deeper and I’m pretty sure it would’ve bowled me over. The ascent was now steeper to the Sisir La and we walked into the mists, turning our jackets up against the thickening snowfall.

Photoksar - perched against a dramatic hillside, with huge peaks ringed around it - was reached eight-and-a-half hours after we set out. The clouds were low, obscuring most of the mountains and the pass we’d just crossed, and it rained quite heavily - to our luck, just after we reached a tea tent. We were joined by several Ladakhis seeking refuge; we huddled in the cold, exchanging stories and trying to avoid the water sieving through the several holes in the tent.

Day 4 to Skyumpata was supposed to be a hard day. But, perhaps because they were afraid that it would discourage me from the trek altogether, I wasn’t told just how difficult it would be. From the map I had, I knew it was a long way but it also marked the pass we had to cross, the Sengge La, at 4430 metres. In actual fact, it stands at a little over 5000 metres. Photoksar is at 4200 metres or so, and getting to the pass involves climbing up two hills to a pass called Bumitse La, then going up an endless gorge, and - 6 hours later - staring up at a 500-metre-high bit of rock that was the Sengge La. It’s astonishing how these chaps thought this was all just 230 metres above Photoksar (and 30 metres over the Bumitse La).

I later found out that those who camp do this stretch in two-and-a-bit days, rather than the one day we did it in. They do the 6-hour trek from Photoksar to the base of the Sengge La in one day, climb over the Sengge La and camp an hour or two on the other side of the pass, and on the third day reach Lingshed (my destination for the next day). My itinerary was the way it was because there were no villages we could stay in in between. This would give me an easy 3-hour walk the next day to Lingshed, it is true, but that did not help me one bit on this day.

My stomach was back to normal and my appetite had returned with a vengeance. I hadn’t eaten much in the last three days and hunger pangs were now starting to grip me. Norboo told me of this tea tent at the base of the Sengge La, where they might whip us up some instant noodles. This tent was at the base of a reddish hill that we could see as soon as we climbed the Bumitse La. It looked close, but man, the walk up that gorge was interminable. We’d cross one hillside and then another would come up and yet another. All through this, the red hill remained the same size as at the start. It got so dispiriting that at point I gave up on ever reaching the tent and set myself down in a little meadow, reading a book. Norboo had to come back looking for me, wondering what had happened.

After a rest of an hour, and my promised bowl of instant noodles, we set out to climb this pass higher than Mont Blanc.

At 10:30 PM, almost 15 hours after we’d set out in the morning, we were at Skyumpata. The last two hours - just after a surreal conversation with two elderly Frenchmen in a tea tent in the middle of nowhere; with the rain pattering away in the darkness, one of them taught me how to count in Farsi, when I expressed an interest in visiting Iran one day - involved a steep descent from Kiupa La in torch light.

The path was narrow and seemingly made of dirt with god-knows-what holding it all together. There were parts where there was barely space to put one foot down, leaving me wondering whether the path would hold firm or deposit me in a shower of dirt into the valley below. My probing torchlight couldn’t see anything but deep black beyond the edge, with certain sections so steep and slippery that I sometimes had to crawl ignominiously on my butt.

I was reading just the other day that the only safe way to walk on trails like this is to forget the existence of the ledge and walk casually; that to be scared and to lean on the mountain makes it more dangerous; that in certain languages the phrase “to clutch the mountain” means “to die.” But logic couldn’t overwhelm my terror and I clutched the mountain with all my might. All through this, I could see the lights of Upper Skyumpata below me, but with no way to jump two hundred metres across one hill to another, we had to descend all the way down to the river below and then climb up to Upper Skyumpata, where the only villager still up at that late hour charged us 25% more for the stay, seeing as we had no other option.

4430 metres, my ass.

Day 5 to Lingshed was, because of our extended walk the previous day, very short. We ascended the hill beside Upper Skyumpata on to the 4500-metre Margun La. The walk was high, windy, sunny and utterly, magnificently silent - a benign silence, with nothing inhuman about it. Once we got up the hill, much of the walk toward the pass was on a high plateau where hundreds of sheeps and goats grazed. You could envision a monk building a small hut somewhere here and spending years in quiet contemplation.

As we neared the pass, the weather grew cloudy and it started to snow with gusto. The wind was such that I was almost swept off my feet a couple of times. And yet, if anything, the walk was even more fun. By the time we crossed the Margun La (technically, we crossed an unnamed pass to its right, as the Margun La is crossed only when climbing from Lower Skyumpata), I was caked with snow. The sun came out as soon as we started our descent but the snow did not cease. In Kerala, we call it a “fox’s wedding” when it rains and suns simultaneously; though I doubt we have an equivalent phrase for snow and sun. It was an enchanting walk, perhaps the best yet - the quintessential Himalayan walk of my imagination - and I wish the two foxes a very happy married life.

Day 6 was marked as a rest day in the itinerary because the next day was supposed to be especially hard. However, because there was an excursion I wanted to make at Padum, five days later, I put it off. There were two passes to cross and we had longer to walk than campers, who trek up to a tea tent and campsite called Nyertse. But there are no home stays there, so we were to walk another couple of hours to the village of Jingchen.

The first pass, the Sabkang La, at a little less than 4300 metres was relatively easy but you had to climb down before the big pass, the Hanuma La at 4800 metres. Losing all that hard-gained altitude frustrated me no end; we were down to a little less than 4100 metres, staring up at a 730-metre climb without respite. There was a section in the middle that was almost vertical - even if you stood up straight on the path you had to take care not to scrape your nose on rock. It would take an ordinary mortal carrying a 17-kg backpack about 4 hours to climb, but there was beer in the tent at the base of the pass - my first in over a month - so, after a half-hour break, I let out a mighty roar and moved the mountain out of the way with my little finger.

The walk down to Nyertse along a stream deep in a narrow gorge was long and exhausting. At the tea tent, the old man running it told us that instead of going to Jingchen, which was a little out of the way, why not try the two tea houses near the bridge on the Oma Chu? That way, we could save some time the next day, as this bridge was right at the base of the pass for the next day. That seemed like a good plan, so we set off for the Bridge on the Chu Oma.

Darkness was falling and the mountains here lacked any sort of definition. So did the crescent moon up above. Everything was in a blue haze, shimmering and shifting, like something out of an impressionist painting. It couldn’t have been the beer - that was several hours ago. Unfortunately, this also extended to the path; we’d often sink ankle-deep into dust. This dust would sometimes be a layer of only an inch over hard rock or stones, so there was a fair bit of stumbling and cursing too. It was well after dark that we reached the two houses on the Oma Chu.

The trouble with setting as your destination a place with just two houses in it is that if the denizens decide to lock up and go to the Bahamas on vacation, you’re staring at a locked door in the inky darkness. We had no food and, after a 12-hour walk, were a little bit on the hungry side. So, we set out for Jingchen. Unfortunately, we’d come too far down the river and the walk up to Jingchen was along the river, on treacherous trails. After half an hour or so, I asked Norboo where exactly Jingchen was. He pointed to the top of a hill, next to the stars, and said that it was about 15 minutes from that hill top.

I threw in the towel. I’m as much for a meal and a bed as the next man but there's only a certain amount of risk I’m willing to take for the same. And walking along scree, on a broken-in-parts trail that seemed rarely used and was dozens of metres above a rocky and fierce river - all of this in torchlight - sort of crossed the risk threshold for me. We were going back to the locked house.

One of the rooms wasn’t locked and so we let ourselves into that one. Is it breaking and entering if you don’t break anything? They seemed to use that room as a store for dust. We got out our sleeping bags and spread them out on the floor. We had no food and so had the luxury of going straight to bed. As I dozed off, breathing in the dust and wondering whether I’d be woken up in the morning by a kick in the ribs from the outraged owner, I reflected on the fact that this time last year, I was planning a vacation and my criteria included factors such as whether they had a tub in the bathroom, how other guests reviewed the hotel’s restaurant, and whether the staff were friendly.

Day 7 began with much hunger. What I’d presumed was a house, turned out in the full light of day to be a tea house. The owners could only have been in Jingchen and so Norboo went to get them. In the meantime, I wandered around feeling like I could eat a horse. In fact, if one had turned up then, I probably would have.

Presently Norboo appeared with the lad whose family owned the tea house. Decent chap, too. He didn’t seem to mind that we used the room there and charged us only for the food. No chef in a Michelin-starred restaurant has seen his patrons eat with as much relish as he watched me eat the instant noodles he served up. I then had a gigantic plate of rice with vegetables mixed in. The best meal I ever had.

The Parfi La was only at a little over 4000 metres, but as this tea house was at 3500 metres, that still meant a climb of 520 metres, which took us over two hours. We were now in Zanskar.

These seven days had given me an appreciation for why this place is called the hidden kingdom. We’d crossed eight passes to get there. In winter most of these are impassable, which is why the locals take to walking on the river we would soon come across - the Zanskar - for trading butter and other commodities. Given how swift, wide and deep the river is, it is literally a trek (two days, with no sleep and minimal breaks) over thin ice. The walk to Hanamur from the top of the pass should’ve taken only a couple of hours but so knackered and listless was I that it took over three-and-a-half.

Hanamur was the prettiest village yet. It occupies a big plateau a few dozen metres over the Zanskar, with large fields, gorgeous white “beaches” along the river (where I lazed with a book in celebration of completing the hardest week of the trek) and a thick clump of trees that is the closest I’d seen to woods in my 3-months-and-a-bit here.

Some of the more baffling bits were the concrete building under construction that I was told is a school - which seems a bit excessive given that all of four families live in the village - and a small area of land with a wall around it that they call a park. Bureaucrats work in mysterious ways. Over on the other side of the Himalayas are sprawling concrete jungles with hardly a leaf in sight, but here in these mountains where I had to trek for six hours to get to a village with four families staying in it, they’ve thought it fit to spend money on a wall and a gate around a bit of land no different from the hectares that surround it...

On Ladakh's People

Day 8 began with a bowl of tsampa - barley made into paste with tea. It’s supposedly very healthy and is all that the Ladakhis eat when trekking. But it’s rather hard for tourists to eat and so they usually give us chapatis, butter and jam for breakfast. I find tsampa more edible. “Taste bhi, health bhi,” said Norboo with a smile - he’d laughed for 15 minutes when I told him of Maggi’s advertising line.

The little boy at the last home stay was a bit of a brat and, as we started, I asked him whether he had been similar as a child. No, he said, he was quieter. “But lazy,” he added after a moment’s reflection. He told me how his days as a child in Zanskar, before the roads and the tourist boom, when it was still cut off from the Indian mainland, were “hard but happy.”

They use animal dung for cooking and for warmth in the harsh winters; the children would wander the mountains with a basket on their back, returning home only when it was full. It would take hours before their task was done. He feels that children now have more luxuries and less hardships, but that on the whole they were better off in his time. There was no competition for better grades - they didn’t even have the concept of grades - no pressures heaped on them to aim for a “big future” and they even learnt about life a little; the land they lived on, and how to survive on it.

Ladakhis (with a written script in classical Tibetan, all but indecipherable to everyone but scholars and monks) are mostly illiterate, have little knowledge of world affairs or quantum physics and you probably wouldn’t be able to discuss film noir with them. By our standards, they would qualify as ignorant. But the thing is, ignorance is one of their “three poisons” (hatred and desire being the others); they just define it differently from us. I’m on shaky ground here, but I’ll still give it a go.

For them, to be ignorant is to the unaware of the interdependence of all life, of the oneness of the universe that is their Buddhist creed. In the rainshadow of the Himalayas, theirs is one of the most hostile environments in the world. They have little water, little arable land, a short growing season, and they live in the midst of mountains that make even small journeys arduous (and even those are possible only in the summers when snow recedes from the high passes).

To solve the problem of water, they have painstakingly built canals - extending for kilometres - from the glaciers high up to irrigate their fields. You only have to see these canals to appreciate the enormity of what they’ve achieved. As for land, they’ve come up with their own social norms to prevent the splitting up of the little land they have and to limit population. These include practises like polyandry and polygamy - they are not set in stone but merely whatever works for the circumstances in question - that we, copying from Western ideals of individual rights and general prissiness in relationships sexual, have, in our wisdom, outlawed. They’ve responded to their isolation with near complete self sufficiency, needing to trade only for salt, tea and luxuries.

They have little vegetation in the cold desert they live in so they use animal dung for fuel, and human waste - from their dry, composting toilets - for fertiliser. With nothing wasted, they have no need for landfills and live in pristine villages. (If you do see garbage, you can be sure a tourist’s been in the vicinity recently.) The animals they use are yaks and such like that are comfortable grazing several thousands of feet higher than the villages, up near the snow line, where sparse shrubs do grow. These animals also supply them milk, help plough their fields and are sheared for clothes. They grow hardy crops like barley and potato that can survive at these altitudes, with houses made of stones and with bricks made from mud - both readily available in the mountains.

They’re a people without a formal education, and yet they’ve studied their environment to its minutest degree, fabricating over the centuries a society so completely in tune to it, so independent of the rest of the world, that it puts our excesses to shame. And they’ve been able to pass this knowledge on from generation to generation, for hundreds of years.

We spend so much money and decades in studies and yet, at the end of it all, we’re mostly specialists with no idea of the whole. I have a “modern education,” come from a largely agricultural state, with plentiful water and fertile land; and yet, if you gave me a piece of land and asked me to survive on it, I wouldn’t have a clue. My education, managed by a central board, is no different from what a kid in, say, Punjab would have - thousands of kilometres away and with a completely different climate. By necessity, therefore, it is a board generalisation that leaves no scope for local knowledge. All we’ve been trained for, all it is possible to train us for with this model, is to sit behind a desk. So, who’s the more ignorant?

This sense of balance pervades everything in their society. There’s no poverty in their villages and the differences between rich and poor aren’t anywhere along our lines - some own more land and animals than others, which is pretty much all I could notice.

When I first came to Leh and took taxi rides to nearby places, I was astonished to see lone women asking for rides on the highway, even if it was me in the front seat and a male taxi driver. I’ve never seen this anywhere else in India, and for good reason. There aren’t any noticeable differences in roles between men and women in their society - out on the farms, I’d see both of them doing the same work, side by side. On my first trek, the guide was a woman, who saw that I was carrying too much in my backpack and making heavy work of the passes. On the steepest section of the highest pass, when I thought I was on the verge of passing out, she - half my size and weight - almost by force took the backpack off me and carried it up, as if it weighed nothing at all.

There are many establishments that are solely run by women and the restaurant I frequented the most was named after the wife. If you hailed them in the street, there’s none at all of the wariness I’m used to - they’re relaxed, polite and confident. Whenever we’d arrive at a village in the evening and ask for a room, the first person we’d speak to - whether man or woman - took the decision about whether we could stay or not; always a yes, even if she was alone in the house.

If you see nothing unusual in any of this, and say that all this is as it should be, then you’ve spent your life in very different places than I have.

Zanskar

It was a short walk to Pishu, only four-and-a-half hours away, and it was my first real day of walking by a river. After all my treks along furious little streams, it felt restful to walk beside a stately river. We took an hour’s break for lunch, just 20 minutes or so from Pishu: me reading my book on the rocks by the river, while he slept.

A cold wind swept by in a while and a big raindrop landed with a “plop” on Norboo’s head, waking him up. The rain held off; for the rain gods knew that I had a jacket in my backpack. After I reached Pishu, I left my bag in the house and went for a walk. When I was at the furthest point of my walk, several minutes from any shelter, they let out a malicious whoop and the heavens opened up. It was a fair cop.

Pishu is a larger village than Hanamur but doesn't look nearly as prosperous. Norboo told me that it is so because they don’t have a stream flowing through it for agriculture. Long ago, a travelling Lama arrived in their village, very sick and near death. When he saw the plight of their barren village, he told them to cremate him in the slopes up the village. A spring will form there, he said. But the villagers didn’t see why they had to listen to this crackpot who’d just arrived at their village and so, when he died, cremated him down by the river. And, naturally, at that spot completely useless to the villagers, water started to gush up from beneath the earth. Realising their folly, they spread his ashes over their fields. And ever since then, they’ve been relying on the morning dew for their agriculture, which is said to be heavier here than anywhere else.

Pishu had another of those “parks” down by the river. You can see it - a matchbox on a green, sprawling riverside - as you come down from the mountains. There are no houses immediately near it and the children have far more land to play on in their immediate vicinity anyway. I wonder what the Ladakhis, so economical with everything, think about this complete waste of money, land and time.

For once, I got to pick the house to stay in. There was this one on the very edge of the plateau the village was on, overlooking the fields and the river. The owner let us stay there and so now I sit by a window with sweeping views, writing what you read, as the bright day slowly fades to twilight.

Day 9 began heavily overcast. It had rained overnight and there was fresh snow on the peaks around Pishu. This suited us just fine as we had a long walk to Padum, in what Lonely Planet refers to as “the stark, sun-blasted Padum Valley.” But there were no more hills to climb, and the unpaved road that began at Pishu allowed us to cover the ground quickly and reach Padum in about 6 hours - despite it being perhaps the longest walk on the itinerary as per my map.

The relatively easy last two days had given me rest enough to start to appreciate that this valley was different from Ladakh, that it was even more beautiful. Maybe it’s just that after three months in Ladakh, I was simply welcoming a change in scenery, or maybe it was that the greener Zanskar valley and the big river winding through it reminded me of my homeland, Kerala.

The mountains were now darker, sleeker and more snow-capped. And yet, there were no passes to cross anymore. The Zanskar was flowing through an ever-widening valley and unlike Ladakh, where villages are perched precariously on shaggy hillsides, here they are on plateaus a little way above the river, with seemingly larger fields. Little white beaches and thick clumps of trees dot the path and while there was usually a stiff breeze about, there was never the biting cold of, say, Photoksar.

Zanskar was welcoming with warm hospitality us who’d negotiated for a week with its mighty guardians.

Day 10 was my postponed rest day from Day 6. I couldn’t have picked a worse town to spend it in. I’ve never heard anyone speak fondly about it and no one’s going to hear me speak fondly of it, either. This dusty town with unfriendly people is right out of a Sergio Leone movie. There have been relatively recent riots here between the Muslim and the Buddhist communities (leading to a Buddhist boycott of Muslim businesses) that adds that bit of tension (perhaps imagined) to an already unappealing place. The contrast couldn’t be starker with the pristine Zanskari villages I walked past, just an hour or two across the river.

Nothing is without redemption, though, and Padum’s is that it has the most eye-catching backdrop of all the villages I’d seen in my many months in the land of high passes. Forming a semi-circle around it, in the south, are the most imposing mountains I’d seen on the trip yet - I was approaching the Greater Himalayas and this was a hint of things to come - their peaks glacier-laden and mostly obscured by thick clouds. In the direction I approached, though, is a vast plain through which the Zanskar wound quietly. Padum could be seen from several hours away, a patch of green after kilometres of brown, at the base of implacable black topped by swirling white. Padum is best viewed from a distance.

The day began with heavy showers and a biting wind that made me happy that I’d picked that day for a rest - at least, I could stay indoors. The showers eased by afternoon when I took a shared taxi to Sani, a village ten kilometres to the west of Padum. The reason I’d given up the rest day in that punishing first week was so that I could visit this village, Norboo’s hometown.

It has the oldest stupa in Zanskar, said to be built 2300 years ago by Ashoka; and it was with considerable anticipation that I stepped off the vehicle. Norboo wasn’t around but his father was, who with typical Ladakhi (well, technically Zanskari, but the two valleys have similar enough culture to be used interchangeably) hospitality volunteered to show me around. He took me to the monastery that housed the stupa. It was locked but the stupa is at its back, surrounded by high walls - we walked up on to the walls to have a look. When I told Norboo’s father how happy I was to see this monument built by the most important emperor in India’s history, he decided that I shouldn’t leave without having a closer look.

The monk is a friend of his and he roused him for the keys. A small door at the back of the monastery let me into the tiny courtyard where the stupa shares space with a big tree. I was able to walk all around it, even to touch it and send my respects back through time. It was as near to a religious experience as I’m capable of having.

Much later, I would find out that the stupa was built not by Ashoka but by Kanishka, who was no doubt a lovely chap, but not a hero to me in the way Ashoka is.

After the stupa, Norboo’s father took me to his house for a cup of tea and then to the holy lake that has a giant statue of Padmasambhava watching over it. Also known as Guru Rinpoche, he is revered for taking Buddhism to Tibet in the 8th century AD. The cave in which he meditated for five years, with his footsteps still in it, was in the mountains on the opposite side of the river. It would take a while to get to it and since I had a long walk back to Padum, this was something for another time.

Day 11 was a longish day to Mune, along a dirt road for vehicles. It was cold and rained for most of the day, with clouds so low that we had to stoop to avoid scraping our heads on them. We stopped at Barden Monastery, perched on a lone hill by the river, where a friend of Norboo’s was in charge. He made us lunch and when, on the way out, an elderly monk appreciated Norboo’s trekking pole, Norboo gave it to him. To buy a new one in Leh would cost him more than a day’s wages and, more than that, he used it all the time and we still had half the trek remaining. When I asked him about it, he replied, “Oh, I’ll manage. He needs it more than I do.”

Even in Leh, where we’ve (almost) successfully managed to turn them into money-minded cousins of ours, this decency and generosity still survives. In a shop I frequented, I saw a huge trekking map of Ladakh that would cost Rs 1500 if bought new from a bookstore. This one was second-hand and I asked her how much it was for. She couldn’t find a price tag on it and, anyway, someone had given it away (presumably another chap who’d tried to cross its “4430 metre” pass), so she gave it to me for free. Just like that. 

Day 12 to Anmu was the last day on the road. It had rained heavily in the night and the road was glistening as we set out in the morning. It was as if it was putting on its best behaviour to bid us farewell. And it had good reason to be sentimental, for we were the only ones actually walking on it. Most of the travellers we encountered on it took the jeep straight from Padum to Anmu.

Day 13 & 14 (Cha on the first day and then onward to Phuktal Monastery) were comfortable walks of two hours each day. We were on a trail high above the blue Tsarap. The Tsarap meets with the Stod a little downstream of Padum to form the Zanskar; where the Zanskar was wide, slow and green in parts and brown in others, the Tsarap is narrow, blue, swift and clear - with each of those attributes getting more pronounced the further upstream we walked. As we neared Phuktal, I couldn’t tell whether I was seeing the rocks below the water or the reflection of the mountains up above.

Norboo hadn’t wanted to walk on this trail, preferring to cross the river at Cha, over to Purne on the other bank and walk to Phuktal on that side. It was longer and, Phuktal being lower than Cha, also involved a higher climb to the monastery. Besides, this was a detour we were taking off the main trail to Keylong and so would be retracing our steps on the Purne side of the river anyway, so I insisted on sticking to the Cha trail.

Apparently, the Cha trail is riskier because of the potential for landslides, both onto the trail and also for the trail to slide down into the river below. But unlike risks such as walking on 6-inch ledges, landslides are not a risk that is immediately obvious and therefore does not grip the soul in the same way. So I stuck to my guns and went for the shorter walk. The river was a long way down, it is true, and there were parts where we had to hurry along, not looking safe enough for us to rest our weights on, but those apart, I have been on much scarier trails on other treks.

And so, my soul could sing and dance all the way through, at the shortness of the two-hour walks on both the days, the two-day rest that was coming up in Phuktal and an equally short walk on the way to Purne, to rejoin the trail to Keylong. That was 5 days of comfort, and my lungs joined in the rejoicing and so did my shoulders and my back, and also my hips and my upper thighs, not forgetting my feet and toes. These were the days of heaven.

Day 15 & 16 were spent doing nothing. When I first told the agency that I wanted to spend three nights in Phuktal, the question they wanted answered was a variation of the one I was asked by my friends and family when I informed them that I was going to Ladakh for three months, “But what are you going to do there for three nights?” My answers must've sounded enigmatic to them, for they seemed to assume that I was on some sort of religious quest - to try and become the next Buddha, for instance. So Norboo was astonished when I showed no inclination whatsoever towards the monastery in my almost-three-full-days there. Sure, I went up once to have a look, out of politeness, but that was pretty much it.

The monastery, I have to admit, is majestically perched in and around a cave atop sandstone cliffs falling to the river, with the hill continuing further on up and beyond the cave. Buddhist monasteries tend to be functional rather than eye catching, which I suppose is the way it should be, but for philistine travellers like me it tends to get monotonous after a while.

Phuktal is a glorious exception. It is stunning when viewed from down by the river, it is stunning when inside it, and it is stunning when viewed from the hilltop above it; though it’s when you climb the hill above the monastery and walk towards the lone tree standing bang on top of the cave that you have the best view, in my opinion. There’s something about the sight of its many buildings defying gravity up on the nearly vertical cliffside that makes you want to stand and stare for hours.

The cave with the holy spring is quite large, even housing a couple of small rooms. Just below its mouth is the main temple, lined with frescoes, with an old library over its roof. And if you’re up to clambering up a wooden ladder, you could visit the tiny cave that was the residence of the founder of the monastery, one wall - the only large one - covered with a fresco.

I acknowledge all this but I still didn’t quite see the point in going up and down all through my three days there. When I pointed out to Norboo that the views were just as good from the guesthouse by the river, he didn’t seem to understand. He would stand there gaping. Why is it so difficult for people to grasp (much less, appreciate) my capacity for doing nothing at all?

Anyway, I wasn’t completely slothful. After my monastery visit and the hike to the tree, and a brief detour to the monastic school (where the teachers were having laptop troubles and had enlisted my help), it was time for laundry. I had been going through village after village asking for “laundry services.” When he saw me harassing the villagers this way, Norboo stepped in, “Don’t you know how to wash your own clothes?” “Of course I do, but there’s no washing machine here.”

So, the afternoon was reserved for teaching me clothes washing. I had no idea how back breaking this work is, especially the rinsing bit. I even sprained my wrist a little, my first injury on this entire Ladakh trip. I was done two hours later and turned to the watching monks with satisfaction, “Clothespins?” There weren’t any, so I spent the afternoon keeping a hawk-like eye on my clothes and haring down the hillside whenever a strong gust blew them off the line.

In the evening, after dinner, I was invited to watch a debate between the little monks who study in the school below the monastery. This intrigued me enough to walk up again. In the morning, their mischievous faces had smiled at me from inside the main temple, where they were praying. They were curious about the scruffy stranger, unwashed and unshaved for two weeks, with uncombed hair and mud-splattered clothes, and beckoned me inside. I felt much too out of place to take advantage of their invitation but I was curious about them, too. It seemed to me a difficult life, to be sent away from your home to a monastery, when practically still a baby.

There was an answer, after a fashion, in a documentary I watched in Leh, called “Yangsi,” during the Buddhist Film Festival. Shot over 15 years, it chronicles the life of a boy identified as the reincarnation of a revered Rinpoche. His honoured parents were happy to give him up to the care of the monks when he was about 4. His interviews are very frank: he discusses the hubris that comes with being worshipped even as a child, until he felt the weight of responsibilities; and admitted to the mistakes he continues to make to this day.

It’s a testament to his teachers that the unruly boy shown early in the documentary grows up into a poised and likeable young man, despite the near-constant attention he’s had to put up with. On one of his world tours, he’d asked by a girl in Colorado the very question I had in my mind, “Wouldn’t you have preferred to grow up as an ordinary man?” To which the teenager replies, “I don’t mean to criticise you but, you know, I don’t think it is that easy to be an ordinary man either.”

We walked by torchlight to the monastery. Not really the safest of places to walk in the dark, these layered constructions built on cliffs. There are many openings in the floor you could disappear into; some there for stairs, some just because. And then there’s the balconies with 6-inch high parapets… I wondered what their fire-safety procedures are; there weren’t any diagrams about which rock-cut staircase to scamper down or which ledge to assemble on, in case of conflagration.

The debate was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Three little monks were seated on the floor, in the middle of the temple, while six were standing facing them. It was in Tibetan, so Norboo couldn’t translate. The six standing would sing-speak in unison and then take one lunge forward as a sort of stomp and clap, and the three sitting would respond verbally. Sometimes, (it seemed) the responses were deemed inadequate by the 6 standing and they’d walk all the way back to the door, like a bowler to his run-up, and then rush toward the three seated, shouting “Che! Che! Che!” with mounting urgency until the emphatic final step and hand clap. Sometimes, during the conversation, they'd substitute the “Che!” with another phrase beginning with “Oh” that I can’t quite recall. The older monks would join in now and then, seated along the sides, as much to encourage the debate as anything, though occasionally a couple would engage in heated debate across the room.

As the debate got livelier the littler monks sitting by the side would either get sleepy or restless - playing or fighting with each other. For the most part, they were allowed to be by the older monks, though one of the kids bringing a huge stick down on to the head of his neighbour earned him words of mild rebuke and confiscation of the stick.

Norboo was starting to get bored, so we went and sat in the lovely cave that is the monks’ kitchen. We were given their local bread and some butter tea from the giant pot being stirred on the fire, as we squeezed inside the cave. Walking back to the guesthouse half an hour later, we were beside and above the river, so as to keep the stupas and the mani walls to our right. There was a full moon dangling right over a V in the mountains; it couldn’t bring out the brilliant blue of the river the way the sun can but the softer light was much better at highlighting its contours. 

I did nothing but read the next day. These indeed were the days of heaven!

Day 17 was supposed to be to Purne but it was quite close, and we reached there in an hour and twenty minutes, so we continued on to Tangtse. Up until Purne, it had been a downhill walk along the Tsarap but beyond that it was all uphill. We were walking up the Kargiakh now and the first hour included a steep climb up a hill, my first such for days. The Kargiakh was very different from the blue-green I’d been walking along; it was silver at parts, grey at others, and altogether smaller - just an angry stream in places - than the Tsarap.

A little less than 6 hours later we came across a bridge just a foot or two wide; two planks were laid out, with wide, flat stones between them to make a walkway, and no handrail. Not too long ago, I would’ve been going across it on my hands and knees but I managed to walk upright. The Himalayas were curing me of my vertigo. And there it was, on the other side of the river, the village of Tangtse. It hadn’t been an easy walk but we’d managed to reduce considerably our walk for the next day, the final one before we began our ascent of the Greater Himalayas.

There were spiders in this house. Not as big as the one Woody Allen killed in “Annie Hall” but big enough to make me uncomfortable. I’ve never understood the point of spiders, with their grotesque misshapen little heads and eight ugly, spindly legs spreading out radially. We mammals have heads and whole bodies and yet are comfortable walking on two or four legs. What’s the deal with spiders?

Just before I went to bed, one disappeared somewhere in the vicinity of my trousers. I fidgeted about in bed for the next hour, wondering where it had gone to. What was that I felt on my knee just now: was it just the fabric of my trousers or an evil eight-legged creature? We were sharing our room with the grandfather of the house, and he came in in a while, chanting mantras. It was oddly soothing, in a tone of voice as if he were telling stories, and I soon fell asleep.

Day 18 found me woken up by his chants. There was no hurry to leave, so I lay in my blankets for an hour or more, watching the pale mountains opposite. It was a walk of only two-and-a-half hours to Kargiakh, the last village before the Greater Himalayas - my goodbye, therefore, to Ladakh and Zanskar and its people from the centuries past. And it was here that I stayed in the most atmospheric of all the houses yet.

It was a sprawling endeavour that felt like it was cut into a cave: many different levels, accessible by rough rock steps each of different heights and lengths (when I was let into the house, it took me longer to climb up to my room than on any hill on that day’s walk); long passageways turning hither and thither, lined by cold stone… And the best cook of the trip too. When she gave me an egg for dinner - my first in three weeks of tsampa, rice and dal - I almost cried.

My laptop battery was out and I wanted to recharge, as the next few days would be out in the wilderness. The house had a solar-powered battery, which ran the lights and a power plug that didn’t seem to work. The school building had working power plugs, I was told. It was, naturally, on the highest spot of the highest hill in the vicinity. The teacher there was only too happy to let me in; like the monks in Phuktal, he had laptop issues too and the trouble in Zanskar is, to get those fixed, they have to go all the way to Padum.

So, there I sat in the middle of the night, with the wind howling outside and things dropping on the metal roof of the school, trying to fix three laptops while mine lay charging beneath a giant map of Europe. (The one constant on this trip - in places where I’ve seen maps, usually there are two, one of India and one of Europe, sometimes in Spanish or German.)

By 10:30, the battery was done charging and I closed up the school and went to the building a hundred metres or so below the school, where the teacher was presiding over a parent-teacher meeting. I gave him the keys and he warned me to be careful walking down to the village: “The hill is full of ditches. You don’t want to fall in one.” That, I didn’t. It wouldn’t do to walk so many days and then break my crown while going up a hill to fetch a pail of ions.

The hillside was a complete nightmare. There were canals everywhere, and as warned, also ditches a-plenty. I’ve written admiringly of their canals, but they’re a pain in the dark. There was no moon and my torch wasn’t enough to help me pick a path all the way down. With a sort of unerring instinct for the slipperiest path and the widest point of the canal, it seemingly took me hours to make it down to the house, clutching my torch in one hand, and the laptop and charger in the other.

Day 19 began early. We were supposed to camp at Lakhang, before going over the Greater Himalayas the next day. But I wanted to see if we could go over the pass too in the same day - we were not adequately supplied to camp comfortably. We left a little before seven; a minor miracle for me, given my extreme loathing for the early hours and the cold. Within a few minutes, we could see Gomburanjon, the mighty mountain that signals the end of the Zanskar valley. It was visible the day before, too, on the way to Kargiakh but not from the village itself.

It’s an impressive sight, this mountain that stands bang in the middle of the valley, signalling its end; a marker for our species: “Here ends your domain. And here begins the Greater Himalayas. You may pass but you may not linger.” The change in topography was dramatic behind it: up till then, the Zanskar mountains with its green valley and lightly snowcapped peaks; but from Gomburanjon on, the mountains were white.

Just before the mountain, there was a small shepherd’s hut with three women in it. Yaks like to graze high up from the villages, so every village has a summer camp where the villagers take turns to watch over the animals that are let loose there all summer. We’d been walking two-and-a-half hours and were hungry, so we asked them whether we could use their stove. They did and, with typical Ladakhi hospitality, also made us tea and gave us some of the fresh yak cheese they were making there in the hut.

As soon as we passed the Gomburanjon, it started snowing, as if the mountain were guarding Zanskar and its people, keeping them from the snow and the wind. It was only eleven-thirty - we reached the camp a little after noon but I didn’t want to continue any further that day. We still had a long climb to the Shingo La, and I didn’t want to get caught in a blizzard up there. We would spend the night in Lakhang.

The tea tent owner there allowed me to sleep inside the tent. I was taking a mid-afternoon snooze, with heavy snow falling outside, when a tremendous tumult outside jolted me awake. Twenty Nepali workers were in the tent, asking for food and shelter. I resented their presence that woke me up, their lack of manners and their loud ways, so I continued laying on the bench. They didn’t ask me to get up; those that could fit in, came inside, while the rest waited in the snow outside. It took me a full half an hour before I felt ashamed of myself and took my sleeping bag off the bench, to make space for more of them.

Later that night, I was told their story. Their summer work was over and they were heading back to the mainland from Padum. Their employer had refused to pay their way back, so they took the cheapest option available, which was over the Shingo La. A road, under construction to Zanskar, was there to take them to Manali and beyond just two hours after the pass. They’d shared a van from Padum to Enmu - reaching there at 11 the previous night - and walked without rest all the way to Lakhang.

This was three days of trekking as per my itinerary. They didn’t have warm clothes or good shoes; just a blanket and sandals for their feet. They’d walked for twenty hours without a break. Even then, they practically had to be restrained from going any further that evening. A vehicle would come for them on the other side of the pass at 8 AM and they wanted to leave immediately.

Most of the Ladakhis in the tent didn't seem to care particularly for them - they have a reputation for light fingers - but a guide from Leh for another group that was also camping there that night pointed out to them that it would be very cold up on the pass at night, and besides, they had time to make it to their pick-up point by 8, if they left very early in the morning.

“But we were told there’s no snow up there.”
“Oh? What do you call that white thing falling down over there?”

Just the previous year, a few of them had frozen to death on the pass, pulling a similar stunt. In the event, they were persuaded to wait in the tent till 2 AM and then leave for the pass. They had no sleeping bags, so they sat huddled on the benches in their light clothes, each with a blanket draped around the shoulders. Those of the party who couldn’t fit inside the tent were taking shelter in an abandoned hut a little higher up.

Since there was no space in the tent any longer, Norboo pitched our little tent. It was just enough for two and I went off to sleep, watching the thermometer on my watch dip below zero and listening to the wind outside, still ashamed about my behaviour towards them.

Day 20 to Zanskar Sumdo was supposed to be a 5-hour day, as per my itinerary. It turned out to be another of the days when the agency had applied some creativity to the schedule. But I hadn’t known this, so I got ready late, waiting for it to warm up a bit. But Norboo knew just how long a day it would be and, miffed at my delays, left by himself when I wasn’t looking. By the time I was ready and packed, I couldn’t find him around.

Norboo has many fine qualities but being a patient guide to an inexperienced trekker, or even an efficient planner, wasn’t one of them. Very often, on the difficult upward bits, he’d be ahead of me by minutes, sometimes out of sight, making me miss the faint trails and take the less optimal routes up. And though my trip was supposed to be “all expenses included” and despite the fact that we’d spent one night in Jingchen without a home stay, he’d claimed to be out of money at the guesthouse in Phuktal, forcing me to pitch in.

On this day, it was three hours before I saw him again, on the other side of a stream, just before the final ascent. Let me take a detour for a second to describe the differences between the Ladakhi way of crossing streams and the trekker way. The Ladakhi, with backpack and all, jumps graceful as a gazelle from one stone to another, until they hit the other bank. It’s quite astonishing watching them: sometimes the rocks are far apart, sometimes they’re the large enough for just one foot, and almost always they aren’t very stable.

With one type of trekker, this is an entire big-budget production. First, the guide has to make three trips across the river: once for his or her own backpack, and then a return trip for the trekker’s backpack. The trekker, now unencumbered by anything that would alter his or her centre of gravity, proceeds on a series of tests: grass is thrown up in the air to gauge windspeed; twenty minutes is spent studying the rocks from various angles, to ascertain sections of instability; limbering exercises - perhaps even a little yoga - are performed. And with a roar, the giant run-up commences, ending almost always with the trekker in the stream.

I have a less flamboyant approach. I carry sandals with me that I change to and wade across the stream. But this takes time, so I prefer to hunt for sections where the rocks are close together. To help with the instability, I use my trekking pole as a third leg.

On this occasion, Norboo had left ahead with my trekking pole, making my search for an optimal path torturously long. It was way too cold for me to consider wading. Several minutes of walking up and down the stream later, I finally found a spot that took me across, albeit after a few hair-raising moments. And what do I find on the other banks, hitherto hidden from my sight? Norboo lying calmly in the shade of a rock, watching me. That was quite literally the last straw and I let loose a stream of invective. In Ladakhi culture, it’s considered very rude to lose your temper and so Norboo was doubly offended.

The ascent wasn’t particularly difficult, and I reached the top a little after one in the afternoon, about four hours after I’d started in the morning. It was very cold and windy up top. There was even a small patch of snow to negotiate. It wasn’t very wide but it was deep and with the gradient at the top of the pass, it was difficult to cross. Several times, I’d slip or slide down more than I actually went up. The views up at the pass were astonishing. To our left and right were enormous glaciers and on the other side of the pass was a little lake that formed the head of the stream that flowed down from there. And there was that feeling of magic, on being atop a pass on the Greater Himalayas.

The climb down was a different story. It was very long, along a stony path by the river. After a few hours, we switched to the road under construction higher up, but even that got better only a couple of hours before our destination. It was well after dark, after ten hours of walking, that we reached the camp at Zanskar Sumdo.

The tea house there had a store room where they had a stone bench set against the far wall, amongst the most massive pile of odds and ends I’ve ever seen. It took a couple minutes just to get to the bench from the door. The other group we’d met at Lakhang was also there, with their friendly guide. Their trek was at an end and were heading back to Leh the next day. I suggested to Norboo that he join them, which he did. Relations were strained after I’d yelled at him and I was in no mood to try and repair them - there was a road to follow now - and I preferred to walk alone.

I set up my sleeping bag on the bench, but in the dreadful cold I also needed the blanket the lady who ran the tea shop handed me. About half an hour after I’d crawled inside the bag, two blokes came into the room. One was Ladakhi, the other was from Jammu. There were just two stone benches in the room, perpendicular to each other and set against the walls. It looked like the Ladakhi was a regular tenant, with the other guy a recent addition.

“Who’s this in my bed?” he wanted to know. “Musafir hai,” said the Ladakhi. Not feeling particularly like conversation, I kept my eyes tightly shut. For the next few minutes there was much clanging as the Ladakhi proceeded to make space on the floor for his companion. There were barrels, suitcases and what not piled from floor to ceiling but he somehow managed the feat. There was now space for a sleeping bag on the floor just below me.

When the man from Jammu gratefully crawled into his sleeping bag, the Ladakhi turned to his own bed on the bench perpendicular to mine. He discovered that someone had stolen his blanket. I hoped to god that I wasn’t using his - I probably wasn’t; he would’ve noticed. At that moment, when my ears had just stopped ringing from all the noise of moving furniture, a terrific uproar ensued in the tea house we were adjacent to.

The Ladakhi sighed and explained to the man from Jammu that it was almost a nightly event. The husband of one of the families nearby liked a drink now and then, and his wife wasn’t too happy about it. What the Ladakhi couldn’t understand was why they couldn’t fight in their own house. He saw no reason why they had to walk all the way to this tea house and fight here. The fight was long and bitter. The chief point of debate seemed to be about what the woman had or had not called the man’s mother. She claimed to have called her nothing. But the man said, “We all heard what you called her.” “Well, if you all heard it, what did I call her?” “Hey, that’s my mother we’re talking about!” On and on it went.

The Ladakhi was upset. Here he was, after a long and tiring day of work, coming home to his little bed, where all he was asking for was a little rest… and the entire blithering neighbourhood had turned up causing rackets. He was the most foul-mouthed Ladakhi I’d ever encountered, and described in explicit detail what he’d do to this couple if they went on with their daily rackets. (I found out the next morning from the bleary-eyed young mother who runs the tea shop that it was nearing 1 AM when she’d finally pacified the couple and took them home.) He’d really give them something to cry about.

And now, even his blanket was stolen. This wasn’t the first time. The cap of his raincoat was stolen just last week. What kind of a half-arsed thief, he wanted to know, steals just the cap of a raincoat and leaves the rest behind? If you’re going to steal something, do a proper job of it and steal the whole thing, instead of leaving most of it behind - completely useless to its rightful owner.

It was in this surreal atmosphere that I went off to sleep - my last in Ladakh.

The Road

Day 21 to Jispa would see me cross over to Himachal’s Lahaul, though I don’t know precisely where I did so; there were no signs anywhere. Walking on asphalt, I was able to walk quickly - much too quickly, my blistered feet would tell me later. About three hours into my walk, the road from Zanskar Sumdo joined another at an innocuous-looking bend. That road didn’t look like much - just a narrow mountain road like any other - but all the signs were pointing the other way, as if the road I was on wasn’t of any significance. It was only when I got on it and saw the sign that said that Leh was 350-odd kilometres away that I realised where I was. There it was, after 21 days; the Leh-Manali highway, maybe the most iconic of all roads in India.

Since stories are all that gives meaning to my existence, I’m not ashamed to say that it was the sight of this road, after those weeks in the mountains, that helped me understand “Once Upon a Time in the West.” I’d seen it several years ago but its elegiac tone had always puzzled me. It has a villain as black-hearted as any I’ve seen on celluloid, and yet his death near the railroad under construction was shot mournfully, as if it represented the passing away of a way of life. I’d thought then that perhaps Leone meant to say that the baby-blue eyes of Henry Fonda could never possibly have been that bad, but it wasn’t that at all…

The road has always held incredible romance for me, taking me beyond the horizons of my mind and helping me escape the prisons I sometimes put myself into. I just never looked at it from the point of view of the places and the people I was travelling to. What do I bring them? In a place like Ladakh, all the road seems to be doing is weaning them away from their self sufficiency and plugging them into our consumer economy - one-way streets to subtler forms of colonialism. Where earlier they had to grow a year’s supply of food in four months, or risk starvation in winter, there are now roads and aircraft to bring them supplies - so long as they have the money to pay for them. They are a new market to be tapped.

In many of the houses I stayed on my trek, there are only old people left - the young have left to make a living in Leh or over the Himalayas - destroying their traditional large families and their livelihood off the land. Especially in Leh, you can see evidence of this money-at-any-cost attitude, like with the guesthouse owner who wanted his guest to go over one of the highest passes in the world, in her second day in Ladakh, simply because it worked better financially for him. That she could get seriously sick - she was already unwell, as is normal for visitors in their first few days - seemingly wasn’t a consideration, and the scowl on his face when she refused wouldn’t have been out of place in fluorescent light, deep in a concrete-and-glass building.

So why do the Ladakhis stand for this? Because, as a friend put it, we tend to be attracted to the shinier things. And our way of life is infinitely shinier than theirs - especially the superficial bits they see of the rich tourists who visit them. There are undeniable advantages to city life, like healthcare for instance. (That said, with their unpolluted environs, complete lack of stress, and plentiful exercise, they probably don’t have anywhere near the ailments that we do.) But they haven’t seen how unsafe our cities are or our shrinking forests or the sewage pumping into our rivers and our seas, so they don’t know the cost of this lifestyle yet. One of the drawbacks of not being well versed with events around the world, I suppose.

I watched this documentary called “The Economics of Happiness” the week before I left Leh. I’m paraphrasing but there was this comment in there about the way we measure economic growth and our obsession with GDP. Every oil spill, every epidemic, every time we buy a bottle of water because we’ve polluted all our water sources, money exchanges hands and we’ve contributed to GDP growth. But the Ladakhis with their primitive ways of living in balance with nature, in virtually crime-free villages, owning houses much larger than we can afford, and having much more leisure time than we could dream of, manage all of this without much money exchanging hands… and so there are beggars in the traffic lights of Bangalore who contribute more to the figures of our economy.

Once on a trip outside of Leh, a new village was pointed out to me, built in the middle of the desert. They have no water sources at all, so they have to wait every morning for a water tanker. From living in painstakingly constructed villages supplied by plentiful glacier melt, to waiting by the roadside with a bucket in hand; from being masters of their lives to being slaves to a swirling global economy, at the mercy of bureaucrats and businessmen who couldn’t point Ladakh out on a map - that’s the price of development.

Lahaul

Day 22 was a walk of twenty-two kilometres to Keylong, the capital of Lahaul. Walking quickly on the tarred road the previous day had hurt me in ways that twenty days on mountain trails had not. My knees were hurting and my feet were starting to get blistered. The way was mostly downhill but it was high above a river, so there were frequent uphill sections. To balance out the pain, though, was the greenery.

Lahaul has two Himalayan ranges to its south and is therefore still in relative rainshadow. But it does get more rain than Ladakh and Zanskar. After four months in the desert, to walk by trees was a very welcome change. Jispa itself had been a sight for sore eyes, with its endless fields and wide banks by the river, all ringed by snow-clad peaks. As I neared Keylong, the river fell far away below; a bridge over a seemingly bottomless gorge had to be crossed to get to the town. It isn’t a particularly attractive town - certainly compared to Jispa - but it has a laid-back charm to it. In any case, I wasn’t planning on doing anything save resting and eating.

Days 23, 24 & 25 were indeed spent eating vast quantities of food. After three weeks of tsampa, rice and dal, here was some food to dig into!

I also had to make arrangements for the rest of my trek. I didn’t really know too much about the route, except that I had to take the Kugti Pass across the Pir Panjal into the Chamba valley.

There were only two agencies I could find in town and neither inspired a great deal of confidence. Out of the two, one had an owner who’d take me himself but he’d last gone over the pass only in 2006. The other couldn’t even offer me that little experience - it seems most trekkers who go to Keylong opt either for treks in Zanskar or for peak climbing - so I went with the former. He would take me all the way to McLeod Ganj.

There would be three passes to cross - the Kugti Pass, the Kala Pass and the Indrahar Pass - on this trek of ten days. No horses would go on this route, an indication of how difficult it was, and this time I needed to hire a porter - there were no home stays and we needed to carry fuel and food for over a week. There was one other route possible that would be shorter, taking the Kali Cho Pass; and my guide had done it just last year. At 4850 metres, it was 250 metres shorter than the Kugti Pass too, but I’d read that it was more difficult. Besides, I wasn’t sure I wanted to trek over a pass named after the bloodthirsty goddess of destruction.

Day 26 was along the Leh-Manali Highway for eight kilometres before I took the road for Udaipur in the Pattan Valley. Fifteen kilometres on this road saw me at the turning for the village of Rape (that’s pronounced Raa-pey). My guide was waiting for me there with a porter. Porters were hard to find; it was the lucrative potato-harvesting season in Keylong. Many broken promises and a sleepless night for my guide later, he still had not found one at the moment I set out for Rape in the morning. We planned to split the load between us; it was with a few extra kilos in my bag that I’d left for Rape - and it was hard going. I was happy that he’d found a porter.

Jeevan was his name, a lad of just twenty-two but to see him with his load filled me with awe. His pack weighed close to forty kilos and it had none of the fancy straps my bag did to distribute weight all over my back and hips. All it had was a strap over the forehead; all the weight would be borne by his neck. Forget for a minute that his neck was carrying such a weight for hours on end; what impressed me most was how steady he must keep his head on those steep and uneven mountain trails.

He was a pleasure to have around; quiet, pleasant and hard working. Being the eldest, he'd shouldered the responsibility for his brothers and sisters. Now that the last of them was sent away to a good college, his life is his own but he doesn't quite know what to do with it. In order to raise money for his siblings, he'd taken odd jobs since a child and didn't have the time to study. Now, at twenty-two, he already talks like an old man, feeling he doesn't have what it takes to study English - an essential skill for a guide in those mountains where so many trekkers are European.

We were to camp at a temple just above the village. The trail took us through woods, skirting a lake, until we hit a ridge; from there, it was a drop down to the stream in the valley on the other side. It turned out that we’d missed the temple altogether, the first sign that my guide had not done his homework. Still, we had to descend down to the river the next day and this was on the way; we set camp there.

It rained lightly through the night and it was cold, but it was a joy to have a tent to myself. Most of my stays up till then had been in houses - I can recall only once before in all my time in Ladakh that I had a tent to myself - and it was a novel feeling to be high up on a ridge, with just canvas separating me from the elements but keeping me warm and cosy all the same.

Day 27 began with a descent to the river below and a hairy crossing over a bridge that was just two iron beams and flat stones left loosely lying on them; had it been just the two planks, I would’ve managed fine but the rocks they’d scattered carelessly on top kept me wondering which step would send me skittering into the river.

We were to stop at a temple at 3800 metres. This would mean a climb of 1.3 kilometres, the next day, to cross the pass and a descent of a kilometre after that - an incredibly tough day but there were no other campsites with access to water higher up.

The walk to the temple was, in itself, as hard to do as many passes I'd done before. It was steep beyond belief with several places where I had to scramble up with my hands. It wasn't particularly dangerous - that would come the next day - but at the end of the relatively short four-and-a-half-hour day I was knackered.

At the temple, the locals had built a shelter for those trekking over to Manimahesh Lake for a popular pilgrimage, and we had warm lodging for the night with no need to set up the tents.

The Reluctant Pass

Day 28 was the big day. It began early, at 6:30 or so, though we should probably have started much earlier. There was an icy stream to be crossed, too wide for boulder hopping and too cold to wade, so Jeevan did some civil engineering. He threw the biggest boulders he could find into the river, sometimes adding a smaller rock beneath them for stability, and presto, we had a bridge in ten minutes.

The climb immediately after this told me what kind of a day I was in for. If I'd found the last day tough, just these first two hours were in an entirely different league. There was no path, no respite. After we got to the top of that bit, the path evened out for a little while before continuing over a moraine. There was a glacier underneath but it wasn't visible through the many layers of earth that had been deposited over time; it was now a field of boulders that stretched for a kilometre or two. Only the odd crack in the ground, small puddles now and then, and most tellingly, the sound of water tunnelling through beneath our feet gave any indication of the true nature of what we were walking on.

This bit didn't have the element of danger that the earlier hill, with its chances of slipping and falling into the ravine had - at least not in an obvious way, though I did wonder occasionally about the thickness of the ice we were on and about the size of the cavities below - but it was a more physically demanding section, as the only way across was to clamber over giant boulders, one after the other.

Then we came across patches of hard-packed snow. Unlike soft snow, these are slippery as hell and I lost count of the number of times I fell - not one was a gentle fall; one minute you're upright, the next, the angle of your footstep being infinitesimally wrong, you're flat on the ground.

I could now see that the valley we were on turned to the right, before ascending sharply towards the pass (still invisible). From that point on, though, that way was all glacier with giant crevasses on them. So, we switched to walking up the mountains on the right of the valley - a path much steeper and more exposed to the sun than the valley, and hence snow doesn't stick to it. Aside from the steepness, the other downside to the route we took was that it would take us way to the right of the pass, giving us a horizontal traverse through the snows near the top.

But before we got there, we had to negotiate a part of the glacier. Unlike the other ones which were flat (and still caused me so much trouble), this one was uphill. It took me forever to cross it; I slipped and fell several times but what truly gave me pause was the sound of water flowing everywhere; there were huge cavities in the glacier.

At one point, I came across a little cave in the snow. When I glanced inside, it was cavernous with icicles hanging down from a roof that wasn't more than a foot thick. It was this beautiful thing, reminiscent of the Fortress of Solitude, that scared me the most that day - I was walking over depths like these with bare inches of ice to hold my weight; while Jeevan and the guide walked lightly, I was plodding along at a snail's pace over ground that really needed to be covered quickly for safety.

Parts of the climb after the ice patch felt like I was scaling a rock wall. By now, it was mid-afternoon and the snow on the mountaintops were starting to melt, leading to rockslides now and then; a perfectly round rock the size of three cricket balls hurtled between the guide and me, at unbelievable speed. On the other side of the valley, the mountainside doesn't get as much sun as the side we were on and is completely covered by snow. The almost continuous rumble of snowslides wafted over.

Even though it was all mostly rock, there were parts where water had frozen over into treacherously slippery ice, hard to spot. Even Jeevan, so sure-footed, slipped on one patch and had an enormous fall. How he didn't manage to injure his neck, carrying all those kilos on that one strap around his forehead, or not roll down that slope, I don't know.

At about two in the afternoon, we reached a point two hundred metres below the pass. There was a ledge wide enough to pitch our tent, with an overhanging rock to give us some protection against falling rocks. There was the tiniest of streams, too, from where we could gather water (though not later, or in the morning, when it would be frozen over). This wasn't by any means an ideal place to camp - the cold up there had to be experienced to be believed - but we didn't have the time to cross the pass and for the long descent afterwards.

And so, I sat on the ledge in the evening, staring up at the pass now so close to me. Despite its nearness, the barrier was formidable, a white wall perpendicular to the direction I was facing, with several mini-peaks in them, and no path visible through the snow. Even in the fading light, I could see that it was snowing heavily up there - bad news for our crossing the next day.

I've peed in many places but I can't recall any as dramatic as the one I stood on then, hundreds of metres above the glaciered valley. There was a video I've watched of the Angel Falls, so high that the water turns to mist before it hits the bottom. Well, this was like that.

Day 29 began a little late. The three of us had spent the night huddled in one tent. We waited till after eight to open the tent flaps and were showered by ice. The good news was that the weather was clear.

We climbed for an hour on rocks slippery with overnight ice that had not yet melted. And then came the moment I'd known was coming all along. The guide told me that it would be impossible to continue. Our path would take us a few hundred metres to the right of the pass, almost as high but we still needed to traverse the mountainside from right to left before we could cross.

This bit was under snow round the year but there's usually a path cut through it by the shepherds. With all the recent snow up there, the path was obliterated and the guide didn't have the confidence to take us across safely; he said it would take hours to cut a new path and, even then, he couldn't be sure of its stability. Any slip there would be fatal - it had the usual gradient of the tops of mountains and there was nothing to break the fall.

It's possible that he was telling the truth but he had been working up to this moment since we began the trek. He usually goes on mountaineering expeditions, where his clients are much more experienced than me. With me, the going was slow, and though I didn't ask for much help, walking with an inexperienced trekker entails a lot of extra work - finding easier (but longer) paths, the long days that the slower walking ensures - didn't seem to be quite to his liking.

He'd spent more time clicking his tongue and pointing out the deficiencies of my trekking style than actually helping me; every once in a while, he'd wait back for me to ask if I really wanted to do this, that I may not be up to it. He hadn't had those reservations when I paid him the money at the start, even when I told him that I was inexperienced.

All that said, I couldn't disregard his advice and put all our lives in danger, so I agreed to go back. It was crushing, to walk all this way and not be able to complete my journey. The way back took six hours and was every bit as difficult, with even more rockfalls, but I barely noticed.

It was September 23rd, the autumn equinox; the earth hung balanced in space, but my prospects had turned wintry.

A la is a Buddhist deity, the protector of a high pass, who may or may not let you through. This pass was not for me. But sometimes... they say neither yes nor no, merely "come back tomorrow."

Day 30 saw me rise early at 3:30 AM to have another crack at the pass. Had I gone mad? No, but I'd gotten incredibly lucky. Very few groups cross the Kugti Pass - and almost all of them tackle it from the other side, for the ascent there is shorter. In my four days yet on the pass, I hadn't seen a soul. But guess what I saw when I returned to the temple with my tail between my legs? A large group of six with three guides and eleven porters. The coincidence was almost unbelievable. It was as if the gods were conspiring to give me another chance.

When this group heard about my failure and about my trek from Ladakh, they were gracious enough to invite me along. I still don't quite know why I said yes, for in terror and difficulty I had seen no pass its equal... and I hadn't even crossed over to the other side, which was reputed to be tougher. But I did agree to go along.

It was the day after the autumn equinox; the Himalayas had plunged into winter but my prospects looked a hell of a lot brighter.

This was a group of IRS officers, like Kevin Costner's Untouchables, and had all the appearance of government officials too. They'd never trekked before but there was a mix-up at the agency they'd done the booking at and were told that this trek was easily done by beginners. Their itinerary described "pleasant walks to ancient temples," "a more difficult day of walking on moraine and scree," "gorgeous views of the Pir Panjal from atop the Kugti Pass," and a "descent into alpine forests." They had no idea what they were letting themselves into. They'd found the first day - the walk to the temple - harder than they'd expected and asked the guide whether the following days would be tougher; if so, they wanted to go back. He wanted the trek completed and so he lied.

We started two hours earlier than I did the previous day and so were at the same point we'd given up at, at about noon. The group needed a lot of help to negotiate the tougher bits and our walking pace was slow. But these guides were also vastly better ones than the one I'd hired and they seemed to know the optimal paths. At every place I'd been stretched to near breaking point, they seemed to find an alternate easier route - had I walked with these guys the previous day, I think I'd have been faster by at least an hour. Where I'd walked on patch after patch of ice the previous day, with them I walked on only one, the last one before the ascent on the mountain - and even then, they were able to take us on a path across that glacier that seemed a lot less slippery.

Even the last traverse from right to left beneath the pass, they negotiated with efficiency and calm. There was no path there so they cut footholds in the snow for us. Footholds or no, there was no margin for error there and so they lead each of us by hand across the trickier bits. All of us were frightened nearly out of our minds. In some places, the snow was shin deep, in others only millimetres. Deeper snow gripped but the shallower bits were slippery - and a slip there was best not contemplated. It was slow going, but we made it in a couple of hours and were up at the pass, at five thousand one hundred metres, a little after two in the afternoon.

If we'd thought the worst was over, we were in for disappointment. At the pass and on the other side, it was snowing heavily. We couldn't descend straight down - the path down had crevasse-ridden glaciers - so we climbed to a spot a hundred metres above the pass and climbed down from there.

This climb, from left to right, was along a sheer rock face, just below the very top of those ridges there. I'm not being melodramatic when I say that I thought I'd die up there. It wasn't a path, just a few footholds on a cliff. The snow was driving hard, making even those few places of safety wet and slippery. There was no visibility beyond twenty metres; this didn't affect our climb but it gave the impression of an endless walk in milky white, no destination in sight.

At one place, we had to climb ten metres straight up, with just toeholds in the rock and one guide above and another below us for safety - I'm sure seasoned rock climbers wouldn't have had a problem with it but seasoned we were not; we were amateurs without safety gear dangling five kilometres over sea level in tremendous cold, trying to find grip on wet granite. We had a long climb still before our descent and I saw no hope in hell of getting through it without a mistake. The IRS officers would admit later that they had their loved ones flashing before their eyes right through.

But we all did make it through, even if it seemed against the odds to us then. I guess there was nothing left to do but knuckle down and try and get it done with, one way or the other. Terror gave way to absolute focus, the elements were all my mind had time for; rock, snow and water - as far as the eye could see and as much as the soul could grasp.  Eventually, two hours after we'd reached the top of the pass, we began our descent.

The descent, with the rocks as slippery as they were, wasn't much easier but at least there was the sense that we were heading toward safety. One of the group slipped, and rolled twice down the mountain before a large rock halted him. He was lucky - had it happened up on the barren upper slopes, he wouldn't have had a hope. Inch by inch, we descended into the fog, until three hundreds metres below the very top, the fog gave way.

The Pir Panjal revealed itself to us with a bleakness so immense that it was awe-inspiring. On this side of the pass, the glacier was much larger than on the Lahaul side; the mountains were white from tip to toe, with the odd black of granite showing through. It was a world of stark monochrome, the most majestic vista of black-and-white I've set eyes on.

An hour later, we descended to a ridge perpendicular to the pass we'd just crossed; we'd walk on top as it descended gradually into the valley still shrouded in fog - a walkway on a ghostly sea of white. Another hour and the fog had lifted to show the Chamba valley as a dark-green triangle far ahead. The sun also filtered through, the orange of its setting spread by the clouds over half the sky, like in a child's watercolours.

It was well after dark that we reached the campsite. I'd been walking the last ninety minutes in the glow of others' lamps, my torch's battery having given out. It had been sixteen hours since we set out in the morning.

Day 31 began with much recriminations. The IRS officers were upset that this trek had been foisted on them. I could sympathise with them but had no one save myself to blame for my participation. After all, this is what the guide book I'd been lugging around had to say of it: "While the Kugti Pass is the most regularly crossed pass over the Pir Panjal between Bharmour and Lahaul, it is by no means easy! Even the Gaddi shepherds regard the pass with caution and will not lead their flocks across until the weather is clear and settled. Although the route over the pass is not technically demanding, trekkers should be sure-footed, not afraid of the occasional rock scramble, and physically prepared for a long day."

I'd just assumed that, having trekked in Ladakh for so many months, I'd be able to handle it. I had also brushed away the objections of the villagers whom I'd met on the way, when they told me it was too late to cross the pass: there was too much snow and the weather was uncertain. Surprisingly - and I should perhaps have this looked into - I didn't give any of this a second thought even after crossing the pass. I was just happy that I could continue my quest.

My companions had a short trekking day but I wanted to get to Kugti village as soon as possible - I'd already lost two days (this was my fourth day on that one mountain, come to think of it) - and so I got directions from the guides and set off on my own, on this longish walk of nine hours.

There were thunderstorms around and the paths were all muddy and slippery but after the last three days, there was nothing there that I couldn't handle. I was worried only about black bears, which the villagers of Chamba feared very much, though they do have a cute story about an old man from Keylong, who crossed the Kugti pass barefoot not too long ago. He got lost on the way, though, and was led to safety by a black bear; it would walk ahead but wait for him whenever he was too far behind. I wasn't lost and I was really hoping to not come across any bears.

There was a temple on a hillside on the way that was a marker for the weather too. On one side, there had been heavy rain and on the other, once I passed the temple, there was no evidence of even a drop spilled. The descent had been akin to a geography lesson: first I crossed the snowline, then a portion of bare rock, then shrubs, then pine trees, and finally thick, green forests. It had been months of desert and it was delightful to be back in forests.

I was in the Chamba valley!

Chamba

Day 32 was mostly along a tarred road, the trail having ended about six kilometres after Kugti village. In times past, this walk to Bharmour wasn't easy - hence the name of the village, which I'm told derives from a Sanskrit phrase meaning "a walk that will leave you in terrible shape." They needn't rush to get the name changed, though, for that fate is still reserved for those who trek from Lahaul over the pass that bears its name.

I'd spent the last night in the attic of a lovely wooden house. It was well after dark that I'd reached Kugti and I didn't know how to go about asking for a home stay. So I loitered about in front of the house I liked best and eventually its owner came out asking me if I wanted a place to stay. Wood is what all the houses here are built of and I rather prefer that over stone.

I reached Bharmour in six hours or so and checked myself into the best hotel they had - an ageing building with magnificent views over the valley. Bharmour is poised on the edge of a valley so deep that the river is just a blue thread, sometimes missed, through the dark green of the apple orchards and the woods below. But despite its obvious charms, and its good connectivity to the mainland, it isn't frequented particularly by tourists. I seemed to be the only tourist in town. I had the hotel all to myself, and the roles of manager, chef, receptionist, housekeeping staff, and grocery boy were all played by one slightly grouchy guy.

A second tourist arrived while I was having lunch, in the shape of a German. When next they update the dictionary, obnoxious tourist should have his photo and name next to it. I was just digging into my chapati and chicken curry, my first in over a week, when he burst into the restaurant and confronted me, complaining that all the restaurants in town were closed.

"It's off-season here."
"You seem to be doing well for yourself," indicating my full plate of spicy chicken.
"Well..."
"Where's the menu?"
"There's no menu. They're understaffed; you'll have to make do with what he can make."
"That's preposterous! I want palak paneer! I didn't come here to eat what he wants me to eat. I came here to eat what I want to eat! And I want palak paneer!"
From the side, the chef-cum-bouncer piped in, in Hindi, "Could you please ask him to leave?"
"What did he say?"
"It looks like they're out of food."
"What? No food in this entire town?"
"No, just here."
"This is preposterous! It says restaurant outside; is it one or not?"
"Look, I'm just a tourist here myself."
"I have been to far more isolated places than this, places you couldn't even find on a map. But I've never been to a town like this. It's preposterous! I am leaving for Dalhousie!"

And he burst out the door, the wheels on his trolley sparking on the asphalt outside. I don't work for the tourism board, so I didn't give a shit and went back to my chicken.

Days 33 & 34 were spent organising the last segment of my trek, over the Indrahar Pass, to cross the one mountain range left to the south: the Dhauladhar - the white mountains.

After over a month of dealing with so many companies who I'm ambivalent about, I finally found one who were a pleasure to deal with, Anna Adventures & Tours. And so they're the only ones I'm linking to in this blog. They helped me out with everything conceivable, from my stay to getting me dinner to inviting me for their evening drinks with the lads to giving me an unofficial tour of the town. They were even nice to that other guy, despite them having no hope in hell of getting any business out of him.

I spent my two days there lazing and wandering around the Chaurasia temples (meaning eighty-four, though I counted only a couple dozen) and hiking to another temple three kilometres above town, with views all the way back to the Kugti Pass. True to form, there was a little cloud bang over the pass and nowhere else.

Day 35 was the first day of my Indrahar trek. The trek begins at a village called Lamu, over thirty-five kilometres away from Bharmour by road, but I'd walked every inch of the way from Ladakh and I didn't want to take a vehicle now. So the guide, Hem, and I set out for Lamu in the morning by foot. We took shortcuts, of course, but it was still a long walk. Just after Bharmour we crossed this forest with Deodar trees so ancient that you could smell time on them.

We paused for lunch two kilometres before the upward turn for Lamu, in a gorgeous wooden shack; we ate the best bowl of instant noodles I've ever eaten in a room at its back, overlooking the roofs of two other wooden houses - themselves overlooking thick trees that hid the stream from us. I could've spent forever there, in that room that also had a local sleeping peacefully in one corner. The porter joined us here. I was carrying the same pack I'd been carrying from Ladakh - with my clothes, books and sleeping bag, but food, stove and tents also needed carrying.

Lamu was an uphill hike of a few kilometres away from the turn, so we spent the night in the bus stop off the road. There was a pump for water nearby and the friendly nightwatchman of that forest reserve sat by me, as we watched the day turn to night.

Day 36 was a long hike to Kuarsi village. Apparently, this village is also named for the difficulty of getting there: "a walk only for fit and unmarried young men." Of course, now there's a proper trail cut in the mountains but even that is just a metre or so wide on the side of a cliff, with a drop so enormous that even the locals get vertigo. It must have been one terrifying trek in the days before this path was cut. The guide and the porter expected me to get scared too, but I wasn't. The Himalayas had cured me of my vertigo... at least where solid paths are present.

In Kuarsi, we stayed in another of those terrific Himachali wooden houses; relatives of Hem. There was a festival in the temple there that night, so the entire village was gathered there, singing devotional songs and enquiring about the stranger. I got admiring looks when I said that I'd come from Ladakh, especially when I told them that I'd been over the Kugti Pass. This had been a feature since I arrived in Himachal; I was in the unfamiliar position of getting a lot of respect for accomplishments physical, sometimes from complete strangers who'd walk up to me on the road to shake my hand.

Day 37 was an eleven-hour day. The pass, at 4400 metres, wasn't particularly high but the Chamba valley is rather low-altitude - on my first day, I'd hit a low of just 1700 metres, meaning that I needed to gain 2.7 kilometres in the three days since. This was the toughest of those three days. We gained an overall altitude of over a kilometre but it was an up-and-down path with significant descents too and so it was far harder than that suggests.

Hem and the porter were just great. For the most part, they'd walk ahead but never too far and they seemed to know when I'd need help, for they'd then hang back to give me a hand. After five weeks of trekking with guides who by and far seemed to regard us leaden-footed lowlanders with something approaching contempt, it was refreshing being with them.

At about the halfway point of the day, we had to cross a glacier to the other side of the valley. Hem went over to investigate and found that it was only two inches thick at one point. If it broke when we were on it, the two banks of ice would collapse to close the gap, with us in between. The alternative was to scale a thirty-metre rock. There was no way I could do it myself; Hem would help me but still the thought of scrambling up there without any ropes or whatever safety equipment it is that they normally use in situations like this was deeply unpleasant - though less unpleasant than getting caught in between tons of ice.

It was an unrelenting day's walk, not frightening like Kugti, but much more demanding physically. It was just before dark that we reached the final campsite before the pass, Chatta Parao. We spent the night in a warm and comfortable cave. A few hours after I'd dozed off, dirt fell down on my head in a steady trickle waking me up. Hem told me it was nothing to worry about and asked me to go back to sleep. In the morning, he'd tell me that a brown bear was on top of the cave, pulling out herbs - hence the falling dirt. He'd told me nothing then so as not to alarm me.

Day 38 was just as hard an ascent as the previous day, except that there weren't any descents at all. The Dhauladhar may not be as high as the other Himalayan ranges but they're steeper and almost entirely granite - unlike, say, the sand of Ladakh, which grips more. It took six hours before we stood on top of the pass. The last bit was quite literally a hundred-metre high wall of rock; though well-meaning Gaddis had carved steps into it over time.

As we walked up, a bank of clouds overtook us from behind; by the time we reached the top a solid carpet of clouds lay between us and the Pir Panjal, as if inviting us for a pleasant walk over to the darker range. They looked so imposing in the distance that I could scarcely believe I'd managed to cross them.

The Indrahar is famed as the pass where you can see all of heaven and earth - all the way to the plains, a local had promised me. But it's also a pass named after the thunder god, and all we could see on top was a bank of clouds all the way to the horizon. Glimpsing the plains wasn't for me that day but I didn't mind. Thirty-eight days after I'd set out from Ladakh, I'd crossed the last of the ranges. No more passes stood between me and my home in the plains. The Himalayas had let me through.

In the conditions I climbed it, the Indrahar, while strenuous, seemed an innocuous enough pass, but nameplates littered the mountainside of people (even locals) lost or frozen to death - a sign that the fickle weather is what makes all the difference there.

The climb down was even steeper than the climb up but there were stone steps cut into that side of the mountains and even helpful arrows now and then. It was still a long climb down and this time we were descending into the clouds; I could feel pin-pricks of water condensing on my skin. It wasn't until thirteen hours had passed since we started out that we set up camp in the dark. We'd aimed for the campsite called Laka Got but it was too far and we had to settle for a less optimal spot half an hour before it.

The City

Day 39 began cold. The tent had been pitched on too much of a slope for sleeping comfortably and I was eager to get started.

I could see the light-grey wall of the Dhauladhar rising vertically out of the ground, the jagged tops of the range and the pass razor-sharp in the early-morning light. It was a formidable sight - the Himalayas warning the plains folk of what lay ahead, if they chose to venture further. But the glittering mountains also held promise of the boundless riches they protected. The sight lasted only an hour, before a fog bank rolled in.

The walk down to the McLeod Ganj bus stand was six hours or so and a complete breeze compared to the trekking of the days past. Many travellers to McLeod Ganj try to walk up to the pass (and go back the same way) as a sort of mini-trek, though most only go to the camp of Triund, a third of the way in from the higher camp where we'd started the day. Given its lure for tourists, the government maintains the trail pretty well up to Triund.

It was a surreal sight to see so many people, after weeks on trails meeting less people than I could count on my fingers; roughly one group every couple minutes - Triund had already seemed very crowded to me when I'd passed through it in the morning, and I'd imagine it looked like a railway station by the afternoon. Everyone had one question of me: "How much farther to the top?" (Meaning Triund, not the top of the pass.) Their expressions when told something like "four hours" were a sight to behold.

I'd already been imagining my shower and my dinner. And a nice warm bed, after having had little sleep the previous night. Down in McLeod Ganj, there were no rooms to be found though. Apparently, it was some sort of an extended weekend and half of India was there. Left with no option, I took a shared jeep to Dharamshala (from the crowded confines of which I could study the four-kilometre-long queue of cars waiting to get into McLeod Ganj) and from there the rickety local buses to the Gaggal Airport, thence to Pathankot, and yet another connection to Amritsar.

On the ride from Gaggal to Pathankot, I was sitting by the driver, with the plains looming up in front of me through the windshield. It was a sight that defied belief to see the wheat fields of the plains rolling by less than thirty kilometres from trek end; for the first time in three months, there were no peaks in my view.

I reached Amritsar a little before midnight and walked to the first hotel in my Lonely Planet guide to ask for a room. I was already practising my rate-negotiation skills. Which was wasted. There was no room. For the next two hours, I walked amidst barking dogs and the drunk, from hotel to hotel. Every single one, from the tiniest shack to the gleamiest five-star were full. It turned out that the other half of India not in McLeod Ganj were in Amritsar.

Around two in the morning, I gave up and tried booking a room online. I found one but on reaching there they told me they couldn't honour my booking. Completely unapologetic about it, too. So, I went to the safest place I could think of, the central railway station, to wait the night out.

It wasn't until the next afternoon, thanks to the efforts of a friend I'd made in Leh, that I found a room in this city of the Golden Temple, a sight of unparalleled serenity floating in its pool of nectar. By that time, I hadn't slept in over fifty hours. Dishonoured room bookings; railway clerks (despite having no one else to attend to in the middle of the night) being rude to and refusing to answer questions from a tired and upset backpacker, badly in need of a shower and sleep, simply because that was the job of a different counter at the other end of the station; people arguing, veins popping, in the streets... the contrast couldn't be starker from the mountain people I'd just left behind. Civilisation was welcoming the prodigal with open arms.

Later, even the people of Amritsar were mystified about the rush of that weekend. There were many theories: the five-day weekend, the lessening of the summer heat, the marriage season, even the floods of Jammu & Kashmir perhaps having diverted their visitors to Himachal and Amritsar. It was probably a combination of all of them.

Whatever, the one question uppermost in my mind, as I waited the night out on the street in front of the station was, if all of India was staying in hotels, maybe I could find some empty private residence to break into? After all, I'd already done something similar earlier in this trek when there was no one in one village we'd walked to. But city people don't take that sort of behaviour with the grace that villagers do, so, in the end, I added one more to the list of places I'd never spent a night in. Up till this trip to the mountains, the list had one entry: "room with bed." But I'm now the proud owner of a list that includes tents, breaking and entry, attics, caves, the winter snows just below a high pass, store rooms, bus stops and now, the traditional home of vagrants everywhere, the central railway station.

It was an interesting trip of many firsts.

Why I Trekked

It’s the silence. As a child, I would lock myself up for hours in the bathroom, to get away from the noise, to be alone, to be unwatched. That’s exactly what trekking in the Himalayas is like, except that it’s a little grander than locking yourself up in the toilet. You’re completely cut off from all your distractions: there’s no news feed informing you of conflict in the middle east, only to draw your attention away thirty seconds later, to the latest update of your favourite smartphone line, only to take your mind off that, yet again, with news of a football match played on another contingent. It’s exhausting, all that flitting about - you’re informed of everything and yet retain nothing - and you no longer know how to pay attention.

It isn’t, of course, just some of the ill effects of technology that the mountains are a cure for - after all, people have been escaping there for millennia. In every culture I know of, there's the tradition of the pilgrimage. I’d assumed up till now that it was something to do with religion; that it was all about the gods, and that the hardships you endure on the way were just part of your homage to them. Now that I’ve been on one myself I know that it’s the reverse - the gods are just an excuse for the walking.

There’s something about walking to a distant place, many weeks away, that distils your thoughts and rids of you of the past and the future. The evening’s too far for you to be counting down to bed and the world familiar’s too remote to be thinking of home. There’s less separate strands in your head, allowing you time for each, untangling them before moving on to the next. And sometimes, you think of nothing at all: your whole being’s centred on the now, on that one footstep, on that one breath. Meditation-lite, perhaps, for those disinclined towards bodhi trees.

And all that’s without bargaining for the landscape: in my case, the Himalayas. Apart from the trite notion that those forbidding walls of granite and ice kept my thoughts contained… caged from soaring too high… there’s the simple fact that there must be few landscapes on earth with the grandeur of the Himalayas. If any place could drive into me how trivial are the thoughts that constantly demand my attention, that’d be these mountains.

Why I Travel

Should I be able to see the glint of snow on the mountains two hundred kilometres to the north east? I can’t - the permanent fog around Amritsar ensures that - but even if I could, those would just be the outermost of the sentries. Further hundreds of kilometres of rock, mist and glacier lie between them and a land jealously protected by the most imposing guardians on the planet. With the advent of the bulldozer, though, Time has formed eddies and pools in those valleys; where you may view the past, the present, and the various stages in between; it’s a matter only of how many passes you’re prepared to put between yourself and the road.

I suppose there's nothing there that I couldn't have read about, but reading always leaves questions about the perspective and the motives of the writer. Being there was another matter altogether, an experience of such force that I was unprepared for it. All I'd expected of the trip was some time alone in the mountains. I wasn't there for people, and yet they're what defines this trip for me - for everything about them is an eloquent argument against applying one model of development, adopting one set of values, and applying it indiscriminately all over the world in the name of the “global village.” The globe will never be a village; its lands, and therefore its people, will always be incompatibly diverse.


Reading back, though, I think I’ve been a little too effusive in my praise for the ways of ancient Ladakh. The simple fact is, it’s in the globalised world that I was raised and, sitting here in the din of the city, I’m far more comfortable than I was up in the high passes, with its cold winds and the brightest map of the Milky Way I’ve ever seen. There’s simply no way back for many of us.

And it isn't as if turning back the clock, even if it were possible, would cure all our ills. The book I quoted at the start of this post paints a picture of a hard people living in grimy villages and taking a heavy toll on their environment. In the latter part of my trek through the villages of Himachal, I didn't see the people there showing as much sensitivity toward their surroundings as the Ladakhis either. Even compared to other rural lifestyles within the same mountains, the way of life they've evolved is pretty special.

The history we're taught tells us that village life was (and still is) less than idyllic in many places; a horrific feudal system giving large sections of the population even less value than we give our machines. Paraphrasing Ambedkar, the purpose of human existence is to cultivate the mind; and our inventions give us the leisure time needed to do so. As great a man as he was - and he was speaking largely from the context of the caste system - our life in the cities show that while they indeed save us "from the life of a brute," they have not given us more leisure time. And more than that, how far do we allow them to cut us off from the earth, from the physical side of our existence?

All that this trip has done, then, is to make me doubtful where previously there were no questions. Most of my longer vacations have done that - from Spain and Germany to Arunachal; every single time, I've come back dissatisfied with aspects of my life back home.

Travel makes me less certain of things. And that can only be a good thing.

I think.