Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Ten days in Ladakh

(There are a lot of photos in this post. Please open individual photos for a look at the detail if it's not apparent already in your browser. I've tried to keep the layout neat, but of course, it's going to appear different on different devices - sorry!)

Being at altitude is an experience, heightened, though it may not seem so at the time. On reflection, sensory memories of the Himalayas seem exhilarated.

flora in the Karzok valley

After being bombarded by friends telling me they planned to make a Himalayan journey in the not too distant future, I contrived a journey for a large group, trekking together for days through the mountains, with a tribe of children running around and enough adults that there’d be someone interesting to talk to any time.

flora in the Karzok valley

Ultimately, the boys and I were joined by a cousin and her son. Perhaps this was a good thing – the larger the group, the greater likelihood of someone taking ill. One guide told us of a recent Australian school class visit – seven of the group were hospitalised during their travels, throwing their entire trip into chaos. We all suffered altitude sickness to some extent – headaches, nausea, lethargy, sleepiness, throwing up – though not so much that anyone was hospitalised or sent home, and decreasingly so over time until by the end of the first week, we were pretty much acclimatised. One kid’s throwing up / diahorrea was due to a local bug, but probably intensified by the altitude – he had a rough 24 hours.

We were well looked after
 Because we’d never been at altitude before, and because we were a group of mostly children, the tour we planned was pretty tame. We flew to Ladakh, a district of Jammu and Kashmir state in the north west of India, and based ourselves in Leh, spending half our nights at a hotel there, and the other half out in tents. We moved between locations in a bus, and even when we were trekking, a support van drove from destination to destination, and a support crew almost as large as our group ensured we were well looked after at every stage. 

The weather was easy too – early July in Ladakh, days peak at around 30. Night time temperatures drop with altitude, but we were never pressed by the cold. Mostly sunny days, though often cloudy as well. The wind could pick up from nowhere at the drop of a hat, and set you chasing after it, then disappear just as quickly, across a high pass and into a deep valley. Or roll off a snow-peaked range like an avalanche of air, smash heavy across an alpine pasture, run rough through the gullies, and dissipate over a lake, the moment the sun drops behind the crags.

Our first two days were in and around Leh, to ensure we could handle the altitude before moving away from the hospital. Then three nights camping in the ranges west of Leh, with a day of rafting, two days of walking and a day of monasteries, before returning for a night in Leh, to clean up. We then drove a day in the opposite direction, and spent two nights beside Tso Moriri, amongst the ‘nomadic’ people and walking along the lake shore, before driving back to Leh. A day bicycling along the south side of the Indus, and then flying out the next morning. Hardly the toughest of trips.
our guide had a Masters degree in Indian history

Jammu and Kashmir is a closed military zone, held by India and at its fringes site of numerous brief conflicts with Pakistan and China. Without going into detail, the locals would prefer if they all (ie. Indian, Pakistani and Chinese military and regimes) would just go away. Even after almost seventy years as part of India, the locals still refer to ‘Indians’ as outsiders, another kind of foreigner and afforded the same status.

the horse probably never even went to school
 So there’s military stuff everywhere, none of which appears in photographs here, since taking photos of military stuff is forbidden. One of the boys counted more than 200 army trucks pass us on the road during our time moving between locations. More positively, after floods in 2009/10 destroyed almost all the bridges over the main rivers and their feeders, the military installed temporary bridges in the following years. In almost every instance those bridges remain in place, in many places over (or under – it was a big flood) the wreckage of the earlier bridge.
a temporary bridge on a temporary bridge
The old town of Leh, an ancient capital, has been pressed up against the rising ground to its north, as the military presence between it (and along) the Indus continues to expand. Parts of the town have a backpacker ambience, filled with the loud voices of recently de-mobilised Israeli military conscripts. It’s a lively, healthy, young part of town, with tour offices offering every kind of tour, adventure and experience – mountain bike down a goat track from a Himalayan peak, take a motorcycle tour across some of the world’s most amazing landscapes, trek with guide and horses into the highlands, climb some of the world’s highest peaks, climb nature’s most untamed rock faces, live amongst the nomadic mountain herders, and so on.

overlooking Leh from the old palace site
Distinguishing Leh to its credit, and contrasting it with another mountain town, McLeodganje, which I wrote about earlier (see: Dalai Lama Inc.), is the absence of cigarettes and alcohol on the streets. No billboards, no ads, no smokers, no drinkers in the bars (instead, knock back a 600ml bottle of apricot juice for about $2, yeah!). It’s fantastic. When I interviewed locals about how this came about, some gave credit to the town’s women’s committee for banning smoking tobacco and alcoholic drinks, and disposable plastic bags as well, others gave credit to the Dalai Lama, whose presence and importance is everywhere felt throughout the region. On balance, more credit to the women. Needless to say, cigarettes and alcohol are still around, can still be procured, and are still consumed, discretely, by local men and some groups of tourists. We were advised repeatedly not to drink on our first days in Ladakh, and ultimately stuck to that advice throughout the journey.

Nor is pork available in Leh. Despite being an overwhelmingly bhuddist region, all the butchers are muslim. Historically the region has been hemmed in (and often ruled) by muslim territories. So, there’s a business opportunity for some enterprising Ladakhi – open up the pork trade into the mountains.

Enough! Back to Leh.

Photos from even a few decades ago show a very different town, with vastly fewer buildings, and expansive agricultural activity. Some gardens still grow among the buildings, along the waterways, and some government agricultural facilities remain walled bastions against the sprawl of small, unregulated building, but today Leh is a jumble. The centre of town is undergoing a makeover, with two main shopping streets now vehicle free (and filled with locals sitting on the ground amongst piles of building materials selling their produce), and surrounding streets jam-packed with vehicles moving at walking pace and lucky to be moving at all when the school buses are on their routes. Bizarrely, school buses are driven by soldiers! (no photos…)

Above the town, the ancient palace, given scant regard by local guides – just something to walk past – is modelled on the Dalai Lama’s traditional home in Lhasa Tibet, has nothing of interest inside and is pretty dull on the outside. The Lama’s actual Leh residence is closer to the river, behind a large open field used for public prayer meetings, and surrounded by a thick wall of trees. Down from the palace, on the first piece of flat ground, the ruler’s old polo ground is now a carpark all but one day of the year, when used as originally intended.

301, 302, 303 .....
A more picturesque location and one with better views over the town and the Indus valley is had at the Shanti Stupa. Six hundred plus steps up – prep for our impending trek – and with ice-cream and prayer room at the top – choose your own medicine. The Indian tourists all seem to have found a way to drive to the top – are they still entitled to an ice-cream? At night, the stupa is lit up like a beacon, with multi-coloured lights.

Even though Leh was a hub on ancient trade routes between the sub-continent and places north (to what are today Tibet, China, Afghanistan and so on), even today it’s still cut off by road for months of the year. Much infrastructure has been installed in recent years, in particular serving the needs of the military along the Indus valley, simultaneously opening up many previously isolated villages. On our ‘baby trek’ (as I found it described in one guide book), most of our route was mimicked by single lane blacktop or graded gravel. Only on one section did our support vehicle return to the highway on the valley floor and drive back up to meet us again. 

Of course, this is not the case everywhere in the region. Many places are still off the roadmap, and the more adventurous can do things the way they should be done, with local guides and a mule or horse train. We met one amazing American family, making their way down towards civilisation after a seven day trek over a high mountain pass. If we head up that way again, we’ll be more adventurous too, but not this first time.

The roads though, are not for the faint-hearted, often narrow, often with heavily-laden, swaying, colourful trucks travelling in the other direction, sometimes kilometres above the valley floor, when all that’s needed to ensure a sudden end to all aboard is a drop of a few tens of metres. Cheery roadsigns encourage drivers to stay on the road: “Drive slowly, enjoy the scenery. Drive fast, join the scenery”, for just one of many examples.

Of course, if you’re really brave you could join the road construction crews. Many of them live, together with families, small children, etc., in lean-tos on the roadside wherever they happen to be working – perched perhaps on a metre-wide berm above a chasm with rushing water below, with cooking and washing tools, clothes-washing and so on lined along the roadside.
home from work, or work from home?

Everywhere are stupas and prayer wheels. In towns, villages, built into the walls of houses, in the middle of the road. Pass on the left, and if there’s a wheel to turn, turn it with your right hand as you pass. Large, often colourful, festooned with flags, cylindrical stone structures sit in the middle (or what then becomes the middle) of the road, and traffic passes on either side. Fortunately for Ladakh’s travelling bhuddists, Indians drive on the left. Else, imagine the chaos at every road side stupa, as the traffic negotiates twice crossing over.
Yangthang in the afternoon sun
Yangthang village square
Yangthang village sits on a ridge above the Indus valley, in the Ladakh range. Mostly deserted when we visit – it’s summer, and the young people are away, working in the tourist industry or elsewhere, earning some money. The village has a few families, a school, agriculture, is a location for the occasional dispensation of government services, has a village-sized hydro-electric plant, and like every village in these accessible parts, rough facilities to accommodate ‘trekkers’, even fakes like us. Fields are cropped and elsewhere grazed. At the bottom of the ridge, beside a creek that presumably becomes a raging torrent for parts of the year, a water-driven mill with an ingenious primitive automation system grinds barley even while the few locals around work their lands and animals.
village hydro

look mum!
It’s beautiful here, away from the excitement of Leh. A different kind of excitement inhabits, haunts this place, the sheer sides rising behind you at every turn, like a monstrous ghostly form silhouette on the sky behind. “I’m so small!” The landscape is mostly barren, yet here and there green bursts out on the small patches of flat land, or in the depths of mountain gullies, and often people live there. Our trek takes us from patch of green to patch of green, typically over a pass in between. On our first day of walking, the Sermanchan La pass takes us to 3800m.
The walking is hard work. You need breaks, you need water. Different people have different styles – most plod along, but I find it easiest to work in bursts, to do shorter, faster stretches, and rest for longer. And so I tend to be at the back, running up behind the main group then dropping off again. Stopping for a photo. Or picking up any one else who’s fallen off. The paths aren’t rigidly defined, and we occasionally see others, following a route similar to ours, above and below, in front and behind, us, with and without guides. Trailblazers we are definitely not.

from the schoolyard
walking up Hemis Shukpachan's green valley to the pass
The village of Hemis Shukpachan is more established than YangThang. Here there are people, children, even a couple of makeshift roadside ‘stores’ with two minute noodles, cheap biscuits. The village is on the grid, has a proper school with yards, sports facilities (a 
volleyball net and a flat dirt space for kicking footballs), many more houses, expansive lands around. But still so rural that the livestock make their own way home along the rough paths between houses and yards. The village seems to have profited well from the passing tourist trade. Sadly, it has squandered much of its good fortune on an enormous golden statue of bhudda overlooking the valley it heads.
ambushed by outlaws at the pass
one of the locals out for a walk

The walk from Hemis to Temisgang is our longest – a gentle walk uphill through fields more and more barren, and over one pass into a steep valley, switchbacks to the valley floor, then along its course, staying at the same level as the valley drops away, under rockfaces, until we climb again, more switchbacks, to a high point at 4070m and pass through Meptek La into a third valley. The rest of the day is walking downhill, the descent regular, past the village of Ang and on following the course of a creek rushing and growing and forming itself into a river.
crossing the second pass

and down down down to Ang
Almost every Ladakhj will tell you the best apricots in Ladakh are grown in their valley. I’m inclined to believe them – all the apricots I sampled were excellent. We were lucky to be at the market in Leh, as the small apricots, the ones with some red on the skin, came in. The ones that the season lasts about a day, that ripen so quickly half are squashed by the time you get back to the house (well, half the ones that weren’t eaten!). In addition to my kilo of fresh ones, I bought another kilo of dried apricots. Not dried in a factory, just laid out and dried, dried really hard, so you have to hold them in your mouth for a minute and let some moisture work its way in before you can chew. Months later, and I’m still enjoying the last few, and apricot jam from jars so local they’re not labelled at all. The locals make similar claims for their apples, but they weren’t in season for us.

this style of painting is only permitted inside the temple (this in the new temple)

old temple walls
ancient wall art mimicked with statues
view from the top overlooking one valley
Once, long long ago, the kingdom of Ladakh was two kingdoms, until ultimately the kingdom based around Temisgang, with its castle high on the ridge that overlooks the union of two rivers and two rich green valleys, and once home to a famed, now near mythical golden throne, fell to the other and the kingdoms became one (and the throne plundered for the first of many times). Some castle walls and structures remain, and on top an old temple, filled with ancient artefacts, is operated by a single monk, chanting on his own as he feels obliged, and communicating with his brethren by sms and app when not chanting, drumming, incensing, from his lofty peak atop the old kingdom of no more. The guide points out grilles on the windows, necessary these days, he says, to prevent plunderers taking further spoils from the treasures of the ancient repository.
interior decorating

Other monasteries, more easily accessed, host busloads of tourists. The region is of interest to Chinese, whose ancestors made their pilgrimages to the birthplace of bhuddism through these valleys more than a millennium ago. The old monastery rooms at Alchi are impressive, but so are the crowds!
temple brat
Heading east up the Indus valley, past Leh, towards the high altitude lakes, as the walls close in, everywhere evidence of the power and immensity of the water that ran through this valley in the floods a few years ago. High water marks are 50-60m above the current water levels, and below those marks, damage is immense. The road is gone for kilometres at a time. All the bridges are gone. Presumably any buildings are gone…. Much of the river bed is a wide, flat expanse, covered in rocks of approximately 20-50cm in diameter – presumably all the rocks in the river, and those falling in as land features and cliffs were swept away, avalanches and so on, were smashed together down to these roughly similar sizes – few boulders stand out amongst the rubble.
After climbing for hours up the course of the Indus, we turn and head south, still uphill, but into a broader, flatter valley. Here are the herds of the nomads, goats (think pashmina), sheep, cows, horses, the occasional yak. Anywhere we’re travelling, the nomads do most of their nomading by ute. Perhaps further into the mountains, the trails are still so rough they use the horses to move their households around, but pretty much all the horse trains we see are for the authentic experience of trekkers. On the other hand, the nomads still set up house the same way: pitching a roof over a low set of stone walls, often with a sunken dirt floor inside, giving the small mountain people plenty of room to stand and move around.
This valley too is home to a large community of Tibetan refugees, most of them living similar nomadic lives to the indigenous nomads. They arrived in the wake of the Chinese occupation of Tibet, and remain in this sparsely populated region with the blessing of India’s central government, maintaining their culture and contact with other Tibetan communities. At one point, we pass a large boarding school attended by both local Tibetans and others from as far away as Nepal.
spot the lake
We pass a small lake, Tazang Tso, so still, so reflective that we almost miss it completely. The kids laugh themselves silly shouting ‘Alan’ at the three or four marmots we see, and take a few nice photos of the bird and other wildlife.
'Alan, Alan...'


Our campsite at Tso Moriri is a kilometre back from the lakeshore, in an ‘ecologically sensible’ location. Unlike pretty much every other campsite, hotel or even the lakeside village itself. Concern for the environment at this national park seems markedly lower than pretty much anywhere else in Ladakh. Nomads set up a sheep dip a few hundred metres further up the creek from us, with run off straight into the creek we use for water. We find another source…. Sadly, if someone doesn’t get a grip soon, the broader eco-system and the benefits tourism brings the locals, will all be spoiled.
At 4550m, the lake (23km long and as much as 8km wide in places), shores and surrounds are incredibly scenic – the snow-capped mountains reflected on the lake surface, the rocks piled up around its edges, a great variety of birdlife easy to spot in the stark surrounds. Because it has no run-off, the water, cold cold water, is salty. The boys fling an endless supply of hand-sized flat rocks skipping across the surface.

Up the Korzok river the nomads are doing their thing, grazing their herds in the shadow of the mountains, searching for a missing horse, working on solving the intricacies of a mobile phone (even up here, there’s service if you’ve the right provider – I don’t). Just constantly taken aback by the scenery. How long does that last? More than the ten days we spent in Ladakh.
no-one home
all cowboys need a pink mobile phone

All kinds of odds and ends turn up on the shores of the lake while we’re there. Sole European trekkers, doing the hard yards; similarly, an American family pushing across a high pass on foot, supported by a team of horses; aging Indian motorcyclists clubbing together on ageless Indian motorcycles; Indian professional twenty-somethings rekindling the party spirit of their uni years, setting up a mini-rave upstream from us; and a few couples, doing the India thing, and others.

A more southerly route back to Leh takes us over Tanglang La, which at 5325m is the second-highest pass you can drive over anywhere in the world – woohoo and stop to take a picture. The road from the east climbs a desolate landscape. West of the pass, we pause for a moment to let the boys throw snowballs scraped from some months-old snow wedged into the mountain side. The descent is awesome – it’s just so far down, the kind of scale you get from an aeroplane. Needless to say, we all consider screaming, plummeting to our deaths.

As evening rolls in, we pull into Leh for a third and final stint at the hotel. One more day in and around town, then early out of the airport the following morning. We hire bicycles transported to the south side of the Indus, away from the action, and spend a couple of hours riding along the relatively flat valley floor. I must be acclimatising – after two days up at 4500m+, I could ride all day now at 3500m+. Others though have other preferences for the afternoon. After lunch, we take a walk from the hotel to the far end of the market and back, looking on the way out, buying on the way back.

Early morning, the airport check-in is a mess. Riots have been running for days in the Kashmir valley, 150km, one religion and one wholly different political situation away. Nevertheless, we’ve been told to report to the terminal early, as it seems have all the other passengers, and the long queue we form twists in the early morning sun for 45 minutes before the terminal security clearance for our flight even opens. Inside, it’s very Indian, chaos, but ultimately everything somehow working out. Our flight leaves a half hour late, and we arrive back in Delhi, satisfied, sated, strangely elated.

Our trip was coordinated by Himalaya River Runners of New Delhi, with all local support (guides and support crew, equipment and vehicles, emergency gear, good advice) provided by Adventure Tours of Leh. Reasonable cost, responsible businesses. The trip was appropriate to a group of our composition and experience.
"worked for me"
"worked for me too"

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Ric, very entertaining read, brightened up my lunch hour! I think we too would opt for the fake trekker status also. Yangthang looks eerily grand in a weird way.