So then, my second trek…
It surprised me somewhat how quickly I signed up for this one, given that I’d whinged and groaned my way through the first. I’d thought then that I’d throw up merely at the sight of a backpack but here I was, in about a week, in the mountains again with one that weighed more or less the same. Melville was wrong then; it’s not the sea that calls to us but the mountains.
And I was smarter this time. On the last trek, everyone was much fitter and more experienced than I was, leading to very embarrassing situations where I’d reach the top of a pass about half an hour after everyone else and where the guide practically held my hand like I were a 5-year-old. So, this time, I made enquiries about my companions. Two of them were 10 years younger than me and experienced trekkers. Not so good. But the third was about my age and relying on “muscle memory” to get her through the trek. That sounded promising: it sounded like I’d have company at the rear. I signed right up.
The first day of the trek, from Chilling to Skiu, along the Markha river, was exactly the same route as the last day of my first trek. But it was in the opposite direction, so it was a whole different 180 degrees. It began inauspiciously enough, when a porter cut her finger very badly on the trolley across the Zanskar. We had a vet in our midst and she expertly bandaged up her finger (only noting that animals are easier to treat, their inability to talk and complain being a huge plus) before sending her back to Leh, to get it looked at in a hospital. I’d hated the last day of my previous trek but I enjoyed myself this time round despite the fact that the walk was uphill and that it rained a bit. Ladakh is a desert but it’s a law of nature that if I have a bit of a cold and am outdoors, it will rain. Still, I suppose it kept the heat away. The walk this first day was fairly short, only three hours or so. And I was pleased to note that my back muscles were in better shape to handle my backpack. I didn’t feel like the straps would burrow into my shoulder blades leaving permanent marks as much.
At dinner that evening, I would get an inkling of the disaster that would befall the good people of the Markha valley over the next 5 days. My companions were English and I’ve never seen any group of people eat as much. The villagers couldn’t cook fast enough to feed them. On that first day, at supper, our guide had cooked us these delicious momos. After my fellow trekkers were fed their three helpings, she went in and got her little plate. She placed it on the ground in front of us and then went in to take care of some business or the other. Despite the fact that they’d eaten about 36 momos each, they thought this plate was for us too. There were four of us and only 6 momos on that plate, so there were heated debates on how they would be split up. This took some time so, thankfully, she was back before we did anything that could never be undone. After a long, hard day of taking caring of us in the mountains and then cooking us our dinner, I wonder how she’d have reacted if she’d come back to find her dinner polished off by the four of us. To be fair, she’d probably have handled it with typical Ladakhi stoicism and not said a word.
The second day, from Skiu to the village of Markha, was a very long, flat and boring 8-hour walk along the Markha valley. The itinerary had painted vivid images of a “beautiful, green valley,” but meh… I’m from Kerala, I’ve seen greener. And towards the end, my backpack started to make its presence felt, so I was very happy to see a tea tent selling beer. I’d read somewhere that alcohol is bad for you at high altitudes but I think that’s puritanical rubbish. That beer was just great and for the next two hours, I felt no pain whatsoever.
Day 3 began a little later than usual. Markha was our guide’s hometown and we’d stayed at her house; she was understandably a little bleary-eyed when we started our walk to Hanker. It was, to our delight, a walk of less than 3 hours, I think, so we decided to walk a little further to Upper Hanker, so as to shorten our fourth day. The last bit was very steep and the views of an old fort or monastery up on the ridges were exceptional but there was nothing further to report.
Day 4, to the high-altitude plains of Nimaling, was to be our toughest day, so my companions fortified themselves appropriately. I imagine the villagers are, to this day, shaking their heads sadly at their severely depleted food stores and on a diet of one roti and half a cup of tea a day.
Nimaling is at 4800 metres or so. The climb was steady and hard and I think it took us over 8 hours to reach the camps. It was cold and windy, and it was snowing lightly at places. The altitude made it hard to breath, and with the biting wind all the layers of clothing we had on still wasn’t enough protection. Despair is a word that is often used lightly but I think I now know what it is. Despair is fighting exhaustion and cold and using your last reserves of energy to somehow or the other reach the top of the hill that you’ve set your sights on… and discovering on reaching there that it's only a false ridge and that there's another hilltop impossibly high further ahead of you… and then climbing to the top of that one and finding out that it was just yet another false ridge… and one more… and yet one more. 8 hours of false ridges with 13 kilos on your back: that is despair. We did have lunch by this very nice little lake that turned up unexpectedly, where, all covered up in balaclavas, we took pictures pretending to be Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in Bolivia. So, it wasn’t all bad.
Nimaling itself was gorgeous: windswept and barren with a small stream running through its heart and a glacier at the head. To one side, the 6400-metre Kang Yatze dominated the view. We had it in our sights on and off for over 2 days, so it was thrilling to be finally at its foot. I climbed the ridge closest to it for a better view, only to find that it was another of those infuriating false ridges. Still, it was around sunset when I did so and the sight of Nimaling below me, more beautiful than ever in golden light, was adequate compensation.
This was the only night on the entire trek when we'd be sleeping in a tent. I had a sleeping bag with me but I foolishly thought I wouldn’t need it. And when it got really cold in the middle of the night, I was simply too lazy to unpack it. When we woke up in the morning, we found our water bottles frozen over, and my walk to the toilet a 100 metres across the windy plains redefined “cold” for me, like the walk the day before had done “despair.” It didn’t help that this toilet was only slightly less disgusting than the one in “Trainspotting.” After this 5:30 AM walk through the wind and the cold, and a wash of the face and the hands in the freezing stream, I simply had to listen to some Elton John back in my tent because I too felt like “a candle in the wind, never knowing who to cling to when the rain set in.” (That said, does a candle really try to cling to anyone in inclement weather?)
Day 5. The first 2 hours was a 450-metre ascent to the top of the 5250-metre Gongmaru La. I expected an unforgettably painful climb filled with desperate gasping, torturous steps and a fervent desire for death. And I wasn’t disappointed. At least there were no false ridges. And then began our long descent to Shang Sumdo. It was incredibly steep and long and I was glad that I wasn’t climbing the Gongmaru La from that side. After a few hours, we came to a very narrow gorge with a frozen stream. It was the most fun we had on the entire trek, sliding down the ice. I definitely enjoyed the sliding bits a lot more than the parts where we had to climb up the sides of the gorge and walk along narrow goats' paths with vertiginous drops to the stream below.
We then came across another of those tents that served beer, so I don’t remember much of the last hour or two to where our van was waiting to take us back. I suppose it was some sort of a path through the mountains along a stream.