Monday, August 4, 2014

Trek #3: Likir to Alchi, via Tar La

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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