Beginners to trekking in Ladakh usually first do the Sham Trek, otherwise known as the Baby Trek. Babies in the rest of the world demonstrate they’ve made a step up by walking across the drawing room. In Ladakh, they’re set down at Likir and arrive 4 days later at Temisgam, walking, in the process, over a pass named Lago La, which translates to “a pass of no consequence.” It really is that useless. A trek made for me, then. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find companions for this trek. The one I did find ones for was the trek from Jingchen to Chilling, also of 4 days, but containing two close-to-5000-metre passes, which elevates it to the status of a trek for children aged 4 to 8.
The mini-van collected the three of us at about 8:30 AM and off we went. It was a ride of about an hour, punctuated by lovely views of the Indus. When the road ended, we were set down by the side of a small stream. Jingchen, it was, and our trek was at a start. This day was described in the itinerary as “a gentle incline of 3 hours.” Right from the start, I knew that this would prove to be an optimistic assessment of my day. I’d been rather enthusiastic with my packing, which resulted in a backpack that weighed about 13 kgs. Perhaps I could’ve dispensed with the change of clothes and the two sweaters. Maybe even the laptop. Anyway, walking on flat ground for 3 hours with a 13-kg pack is no mean task for me, much less on those uneven mountain paths. Also, by my watch’s altimeter, the 3-hour trek did eventually deposit us about 500 metres higher than the altitude we’d started at: “the gentle incline” was a matter of perspective. There were times when we had to cross small streams and walk along boulder-strewn river beds, but what killed me was walking up hills - especially with the backpack. I hadn’t yet mastered the art of taking short steps instead of my longer lowland steps, and so, what with the altitude and my backpack, even small climbs were unbelievably tiring.
Lunch was at this beautiful meadow and I don’t remember what we had save that it was the best lunch I ever had. Rumbak, our halt for the first night, was only half an hour away and I was much relieved to be there. From the side we approached, it didn’t look particularly beautiful - just a few houses perched up on the hillside. But the thing with the Himalayas is that you turn a corner and the sights that await you bear no relation with what you’ve been seeing up till then. So it was with Rumbak, at the base of this green valley, with fields stretching out nearly to the horizon. That it turned up unexpectedly amidst forbiddingly black mountains and up a seemingly inhospitable, barren, narrow, boulder-strewn valley was something I’d get used to in a while. We stayed in a house in the village, in a room with a view across the valley. It had none of the comforts that we city folk are used to but the thick blankets and the great views were more than adequate compensation.
The next day was what is known as an acclimatisation day, where you climb up a high pass and then sleep at a lower alitude, to enable your body to get used to the altitude. Plenty of trekkers on short trips to Ladakh ignore the need for acclimatisation and end up getting very sick (AMS can be fatal). Who it strikes can be rather random, irrespective of age or fitness. In fact, the younger, fitter folk are at higher risk because they end up doing too much too quickly. “They come here, they are heroes for a day, they fall sick, they eat oxygen, they go back in a stretcher,” as my guesthouse owner put it. Rumbak was at 4000 metres approximately and we were to climb up to Stok La, at 4850 metres.
The start of the day didn’t go too well. They put one piece of bread in our lunchbox and that was it, our lunch. We raised a quizzical eyebrow and they came back with, “Well, would you like butter and jam on the bread?” “Why not?” we said. Nearly as soon as the climb started, though, my day got a whole lot better. We spotted a little glacier to our right. It was across a stream and a bit of a climb up, but I was excited. I’d never seen ice that hadn’t come out of a freezer. None of my companions shared my enthusiasm, though. They were all Europeans and Ladakhis and said they’d seen enough snow to last a lifetime. But they did promise to wait for me while I climbed up to it. And it wasn’t a letdown at all, my first experience of snow! I even labelled pictures of some poo that I found on it as “snow-leopard poo” which my gullible lowlander friends on Facebook duly believed, too. The only disappointment was that, later on, we found ourselves walking across little glaciers like that all too often on our trek up Stok La: I could’ve experienced my snow without any of the extra work I did!
The walk was fairly flat for two hours or so but then we came across the ascent to Stok La, which was very, very steep. Since we were walking back to Rumbak at the end of the day, we weren’t carrying our backpacks and I was certainly thankful for that. I still didn’t make it quite to the top - was short by 100 metres or so - as I was a little too slow. But the views from up there were quite something. Rumbak was this little green dot far off, near the horizon, surrounded by mountains after mountains. There’d be one circle of peaks around the valley, behind which there was another circle, and yet another circle: mountains were all the eye could see, with tiny Rumbak in the middle. That is where you can appreciate what life is like in Ladakh, how isolated they are, how cut off from the rest of the world by the most massive mountains imaginable.
It also showed me how idiot trekkers can endanger the life and limb of other travellers. Somewhere near the top of the pass, I accidentally dislodged a stone that rolled all the way down to the base of the mountain. It was terrifying, as I watched it roll down, praying that no one was walking below, picking up other stones on the way, gathering momentum for what seemed like minutes on end. From then on, I kept a wary eye on the paths above me, wondering whether there were others like me somewhere high above. Also, the climb down was far scarier than the climb up. When climbing up, you are far too exhausted to note that the path is only a foot wide and that there’s nothing to break your fall should you slip. When climbing down, though, you note all this and your imagination gets very active - particularly when you see a stone roll about two kilometres straight down.
We were back in Rumbak by the middle of the afternoon, and began our short hike to the Yurutse. Our original plan was to sleep in Rumbak but we had a climb up Kanda La (4950 metres) (with our backpacks on) the next day, and our guide, perhaps noting how I made hard work of the climb up Stok La, decided that perhaps we should cut short the next day by walking right up to the village at the base of the pass. This part of the trek had a path so narrow that, at times, it wasn’t wide enough to put both your feet down side-by-side. It was high up a hill, with a river winding its way down below, and would sometimes disappear altogether, leaving me to scramble on hands and feet (ok, an exaggeration) along the hillside, trying not to look down. That was just me, though. The guide had a song on her lips and she looked like she was out picking daisies or whatever it is that Ladakhis do for recreation.
Yurutse is this village with just one house in it. It makes 9-family Rumbak look like a metropolis in comparison. It astounds me just to think about it, what their life is like, particularly in the winter when the temperatures drop to -35 Celsius, living alone like that, hours from anyone else. And it is also at the crossroads of many treks, so there were about 10 other trekkers already there by the time we reached. There wasn’t enough room for all of us in the house, so the only single members of the bunch - an Englishman and I - got bumped out into two tents outside. Which, I suppose, is still preferable to sleeping with three other people in one room. That was my first night in a tent, though, and I couldn’t sleep well. Thought the floor was at an angle. I dreamt fitfully of snow leopards, to the sound of barking dogs and braying donkeys (who have put in a performance at 2:30 AM precisely in every village I’ve trekked to).
The third day without a shower began early. I had my habitual brush and washing of face in a stream with a glacier a few feet upstream. By now I’d gotten used to the cold a bit and had stopped wondering whether my fingers had fallen off. Going to the loo was trickier. It was 5:30 AM and the house had not woken up yet, meaning that I was locked out. I could, of course, consider going out in the open but it was so cold and windy that I was worried about the effects of taking my pants off out there. What if my privates receded so far inside that they never came back out? Still, needs must and I scouted about for half an hour, trying to find an appropriately sheltered spot. None presented itself to me, so I was back at the house and banging insistently on the door. A groggy face opened the door and I let myself in without so much as a “jullay.”
A word about the composting toilets prevalent in Ladakh at this juncture. They’re essentially 10-foot-deep holes in the ground and have lots of loose dirt and manure lying about, with a shovel handy for throwing down earth after you’re done with business, which then is used to fertilise fields (animal dung, on the other hand, is used in place of firewood). On the whole, it’s very clean and dry, with no smell apart from that of manure. Not bad at all. The one criticism I have is that they don’t have hooks in there for trousers, which is an invention that has been around for thousands of years in other parts of the world. I did a survey and the women in the company reported no difficulties in using the toilet with the trousers on. Men, being anatomically slightly different, could get smelly stuff on their trousers and on the whole preferred to take them off before getting the job done. But, due to the complete absence of hooks, we had to leave them lying around on the dusty ground with the result that we looked like we’d just rolled down a hillside every time we came out of the loo.
This particular loo, in addition to not having hooks, also did not have a latch on the door. I like to take my time, usually going in with an improving book, but the absence of latches meant that I was out in 45 seconds flat. My attitude contrasted with that of the girl who refused to use the lock even when available, saying she’d rather be interrupted in the toilet by someone than take the risk of being locked inside a Ladakhi toilet. Different strokes for different bloke(ette)s.
If I thought the loo was hard, the climb up Kanda La was something else. This was at 4950 metres, and unlike Stok La the previous day, this had to be completed, for our destination lay on the other side of the pass. And I was carrying my backpack too. I couldn’t get enough air. I was gasping and going purple. So concerned was the guide that she offered to carry my backpack. Three times she asked and three times, like Julius Caesar, I refused, taking longer with each refusal. In the end, though, just when I was about to pass out, she took the pack off my back as if it were a pack of feathers and carried it for half an hour. She’s about half my size so it was a little humiliating, but what the hell, at least I lived to tell this tale. In the end, I did make it… after everyone else, granted. It was snow covered and had fantastic views, including of a 7000-metre twin peak way off in the distance. The climb down, to Shingo on the other side, was 3 hours or so but after the exertions of the climb up, it was barely noticeable.
Shingo is this little town of 2 or three families that seemed as if it was cut into the rock, LOTR style. Not much of a night life, admittedly, but absolutely stunning on first sight. Day 4, being just a downward walk up to the crossing on the Zanskar river, near Chilling, wasn’t very eventful. We hit a small town named Skiu with a monastery dominating it, in a couple hours, and in a further two hours along the Markha river, we hit the river crossing where our taxi was waiting to take us back to Leh. It should’ve been a nice, soothing walk back but it was at a lower altitude than the previous three days and it was very hot. Besides, after four days of subsisting almost entirely on bread, butter and jam, we were all already visualising the dinner menu in our minds and we walked faster than we should have. At least I did, and found my feet all blistered and cut up on reaching back home. The river crossing, being a manual trolley across a ferocious river should’ve been scary but after 4 days of goats paths along ridges, it wasn’t particularly.
The beer and the chicken at dinner was just great.