My photo-diary of the Buddhist temple, Shanti (“Peace”) Stupa in Leh, Ladakh, India.
View it here:
Or on YouTube:
My photo-diary of the Buddhist temple, Shanti (“Peace”) Stupa in Leh, Ladakh, India.
View it here:
Or on YouTube:
It is Monday, August 3, 2015. We are in Skyu after a long day of trekking and river crossing yesterday. I am feeling relaxed and relieved that we have almost reached the end. The rains continue to downpour on this high altitude desert. And the end of this trek will continue to elude us.
We are thinking about the school girls from yesterday, and whether they will be able to make it out of the village they’re overnighting at. More rains means high waters. It’s still quite a hike for them to Skyu. There is a guide with two young men here with us, who has decided to turn them back around due to the deteriorating trekking conditions.
This is it – the home stretch. We take our time, walking on a flat wide road for 3 hours. No more river crossings. I couldn’t be more thrilled. I take my time collecting pretty stones. There is such an overabundance of eye-catching stones – pink and green, tiny to over-sized. We reach Chilling at around noon, but the adventure is not over yet. We take rest here at a tea tent and have a snack.
We will be crossing the river in this little cable car suspended on ropes and hand-operated pulleys. But we have to wait our turn. There is a large group of trekkers here who is also crossing – one to two people at a time. Soon enough we’ll find out that this group is also aborting their trekking plans early because of the deteriorating trekking conditions. This is where we part ways with our pony man, and we are on our own with our bags. Talk is that the road on the other side is completely blocked.
Usually, we would be able to catch a taxi from here, but not today. So we sit here contemplating what to do next. My vote is to leave the bags here and return. Ravi is against that. So what do you want to do. We start to argue.
It’s hot. I am wondering about the group that’s crossing. What about them. They have a ton of luggage with them. Not enough people to carry it. Their bags are still being crossed over the river. We decide that I will stay and watch our bags on this deserted road next to the river with a mountain of stones behind me.
Ravi goes off toward civilization to see if he can find a donkey or a porter. I’m not sure how long I will be sitting here. At least there is still daylight outside. There is a group of men approaching from where we came from. It’s the guide of the other group with his porters who loaded me up into the cable car. He says, don’t sit next to the rocks. They might slide down. I said, you’re right, I didn’t think of that, and I move across the road closer to the river.
I wait not too much longer when I see Ravi coming with 4 young men. Strange, where did they come from. They were actually headed our way, toward the rope bridge when Ravi ran into them. They are here to work on the road and make some money. Ravi convinces them to help us tow our luggage to the nearest restaurant and homestay. They track back a couple hours just to help us. We will pay them later.
Walking this road, we see how bad the blockages are. Massive boulders, rock slides, mud slides, and wide crevasses in the road. This is a pure obstacle course.
We make it to the restaurant and try to figure out what’s next. Turns out we won’t be getting out of here tonight. Road is blocked. No vehicles can access. We will stay here for the night, and tomorrow we will be trekking some more – to get past the blockages and to finally catch a taxi.
It is the next morning and day 9 of this trek. There is a shortage of porters. Many people are stuck here. We will be towing what we can, but we need someone to help carry our heavy duffel bag. Ravi convinces one of the local men to help us. It will be another long day. Six hours long of nonstop trekking. I step ankle deep in mud. It looked solid. Felt like quicksand. Took my breath away. Now I’m wearing boots plastered with wet and heavy mud. No taxis in sight. I feel like we will be trekking all the way to Leh. Our porter is tired. He wants to quit. It’s too heavy. It’s too far. We bribe him with a raise.
We trek until we reach an area where we finally see taxi-buses, but they won’t take us. They are going into the national park to pick up clients stuck at Chilling. It’s starting to rain. Well what’s there to do. We wait. It’s getting cold and miserable. We are waiting along with the group of trekkers that we met at Skyu at the rope bridge. Their bus shows up. It’s about 4:30 p.m. now. And there we are. The only two suckers about to be left. Maybe we’ll be spending the night here.
Ravi gets the group’s guide to squeeze us in at the last minute in this little bus. The porters sit on the floor. Ravi and I share a seat in the back. I am eternally grateful to be in a vehicle out of here. We are in Leh in about an hour. It’s sunny again as if to reflect our uplifted spirits. It turns out that the group we hitchhiked with is staying at a hotel across the street from our homestay. So, it is a small world. We are just a few steps away from our room. I leave my muddy boots outside. They are nearly dry now. Soooooo looking forward toward a shower. Hopefully there is warm water.
And so, we emerged from this trek in one piece. Sitting in the sun feels so much more satisfying after a long journey home.
I hope you enjoyed this story just a little bit. Until next time!
It is Sunday, August 2, 2015, 2 a.m. A loud and urgent knock wakes me up. I am disoriented. There is hardly anyone staying here. Who could it be and have they got the wrong door? Ravi is fast asleep. I wake him up to go see who’s at the door. It is the grounds keeper. He is frantically waking every one up.
It’s been raining all night. Heavy rains are causing streams of water to come down the mountain around the house like a turbulent river. The lady owner is scared. I’m scared. Ravi takes our headlamps and goes with the grounds keeper to see what’s happening. There is nothing that can be done though, other than wait for the rain to subside. We go back to sleep, but I wonder what this will mean for our trek tomorrow.
Our breakfast is prepared by the young woman who served us last night. I have tea and fried bread with jam. We are ready at 7 a.m. as the pony man requested. He shows up at 8 a.m. and loads up the pony. We leave at approximately 8:30 a.m. This will be the longest day yet. We are at lower altitudes now, so it is not as much of a challenge as will be the river and the hot sun.
We are able to keep up with our pony man this morning. We trek together on and off with another group of porters and ponies and donkeys. Later on, the same group of younger porters will adopt us as our pony man doesn’t want much to do with us. We reach our first river crossing which will require us to take off our shoes. I take off my boots and socks and stand there not sure how to proceed. The river is about 100 meters wide here, not too deep, up to our knees.
We see a group crossing from the other side, and the guide from across the river noticing that we’re not sure which way to tackle this crossing, motions to us to move to another spot and start there. We go for it. The river is ice cold. The stones hurt my feet. We make it across, and put our shoes back on. We keep going.
The trail is flat and we are focused on pushing it to the next obstacle. We get to another river crossing, and this one can’t be figured out without guidance. It’s wide. It’s turbulent. Our pony man jumps on a donkey to cross the river. We are left behind. The group of young porters is also crossing, and they give us a hand. Literally, we all hold hands and make it across. The strength of the river just can’t be underestimated. One wrong move, and it will take you down and away.
We keep pushing on to get to Markha as quickly as possible. There is another huge river crossing we encounter. The group of young porters takes us on a shortcut over the mountain. Well, we don’t have to risk drowning, instead we will practice being mountain goats on a non-existent trail on the side of a steep sandy slope. One of the guides “wills” me through this hike. I just follow him, don’t think, and do what he says. Ravi is braving it on his own.
After this, I am pretty sure I have had enough and have earned a night of rest. But, we’re not finished yet. We are met with another river crossing. It is noon and the river is high. There is a group of high school girls lined up for crossing. There used to be a bridge here, but it’s gone. The group’s guide is taking two girls at a time to cross the river. It has worked with a few girls, but it’s getting harder as the river gets higher and he – tired. Before they reach the other side, one girl gets pulled in by the river. She gets pulled out to safety.
The guide returns to get two more girls, tries the same approach, and again, one girl gets pulled in by the river. And although she gets pulled out to safety, it is making the other girls scared. I feel like I’m watching a car wreck in slow motion. Things are getting tense. Ravi and I watch on. We still have to cross too. It is past noon and as the mountain glaciers melt in the sun, the river progressively increases in might and turbulence.
The young group of porters who helped us along the way is also here. They pitch in to help. They get some rope out and get it stretched across the river to assist in the crossing. The girls are here from a high school in the U.K. with a couple female teachers and one male guardian. The male is a mountain guide back home. He is also getting concerned about the safety of his group.
Ravi gets involved and suggests a way to cross the river by traversing it sideways. It works with some close calls. Some girls are crying. I am almost crying. I still have to cross. The local guide in charge of the crossing is bleeding from his knee now. He slipped in the river and cut it on a rock. He is resting near me and shivering badly.
All the men assisting with the crossing are thoroughly exhausted, but all the girls have crossed now. I am going next after the two lady teachers. They are walking sideways while holding onto the rope. We are spaced apart, and seeing them make it to the shore, I am confident I will be okay. My shoes are on. My day pack on my back. I start off slowly and carefully. There is a man in the middle holding the rope. As I try to pass him, I let go with one hand.
And before I have time to realize what just happened, I am turned around 180 degrees by the force of the river facing the direction she wants to go. The river is up to my thighs. Sandy and turbulent. Immediately, I am on my back, but holding on to the rope. The flow of the river is so strong, she almost pulls off my pants. I hear people talking, frantically trying to help me stand up, but I can’t. I am being pulled out by hands I have never met. I am in shock, but aware enough to be concerned about being naked from the waist down. Everything is happening so fast. But finally, I am on my feet on solid ground.
The girls are so nice, asking me if I need anything and offering me water. My crossing must have been the most dramatic, probably because it was the last, and everyone was watching my slow motion car wreck. The last to cross is one of the porters on a horse with our packs and duffel bag on it. The horse is moving erratically but the porter mounted on top of him gets them across safely. I take off my wet boots, wring out my socks and put it all back on. I will be trekking in my wet boots. But, it is hot, so it is not so awful. Also, I almost died. So, wet socks and shoes are nothing.
We trek along with the girls on a narrow and sandy path at a slow pace for a couple hours. The sun is shining on. The girls will rest in a small village now. Their teachers feel they have suffered enough. I agree. I was done a long time ago today, even before this near death experience. We are another 2-1/2 hours away from Skyu. We will keep going, mostly because we have a pony man who likely wouldn’t wait for us.
After a short break and goodbyes with the girls’ teachers and guides, we move toward Skyu. Unfortunately, we are not done with the river crossings. I just go in with my shoes now. I can’t think, so I don’t. Just keep moving. Up the rocks and down into the river. More rocks. More river. It’s so hot. I am so tired. Maybe even delirious. My body is still walking. We reach Skyu before sunset, ready to collapse.
Next: Skyu to Chilling.
It is Saturday, August 1, 2015, and I am up early. We are packed by 7:30 a.m. I am ready to move ON from here. There is a group of trekkers headed toward Shang Sumdo. They have plenty of porters and ponies and they could accommodate our pack and duffel bag. If we don’t move now, we will be staying at Nimaling for another day and night and I am very much against that. Let’s just go back the way we came from, I say to Ravi. I’d rather do that than stay here again. Ravi finds out from the group that is about to leave for Shang Sumdo that there is a local man who owns a pony. He will be coming back this way and will be heading toward Hankar. He could probably take us. I am very nervous that we’ll be stuck here again. Where is this man, while everyone is leaving. That’s it. Our last chance. Gone.
Here we are. The only ones left. Again. Waiting for this phantom pony man. I am getting steamed that we did not just turn around and take a pony that was here a minute ago. Too bad anger doesn’t heat you up too well because we packed up our tent and standing out in this open field makes your cold. We wait 10, 20, 30 minutes. There is someone coming. In the distance. He is on the other side of the river, and there is a pony next to him. The man parks his pony at the nomad farmer’s place and goes in. I tell Ravi to get over there and talk to the man. I stay by our bags. And wait. Ravi returns. The pony man returning to Hankar has agreed to take our luggage. At a price. Demanding 5,000 rupees to start off, which is 10 times the going rate for a 2 day hike. Well, what can I say, we placed ourselves in this situation. Beggars can’t be choosers. The rate gets reduced. We have a pony.
This will be a long trekking day, but we are descending in altitude. So, in theory, trekking is easier. Honestly, I’ve never considered any part of it easy. We leave Nimaling (4,800m) at 9:20 a.m. and we will arrive at Umlung (3,880m) at 4:30 p.m. We will go from freezing temperatures to hot scorching desert sun.
My nose and hands were sunburned on the first day. Today, the desert sun makes the skin on my hands bubble. The skin on my nose is fried to a crisp. In Nimaling I was wishing for the sun to come out from behind the clouds. In Hankar, I was wishing for the sun to hide.
We reach Hankar at approximately 2:30 p.m. We stop here to rest and have something light to eat. The Hankar home stay is run by the village women. We meet Zoe who is volunteering at the home stay. She is an American blonde in her 20s from Washington state. She tells us there are 15 families in this village. Their income is from tourism 3 months out of year. For the remainder of the year, they are self sufficient. Men are pony men, and the women take turns running the home stay. There are 10 children in a local school which goes up to grade 5. Afterwards the children are sent to school in Leh.
Zoe and a local woman take our orders. Three young children are curious about our presence. A 2 year old red cheeked boy with a runny nose and a couple fingers in his mouth is with 2 older girls. One of the girls wants to see my cell phone and eagerly swipes through the photos I took. There is also a European mountaineer here taking a break. He is headed in the opposite direction. In about an hour of rest, we get going again, heading toward Umlung. We will be there very soon. Altitude is much lower and I can breathe more easily but the trek is still challenging.
We reach Umlung at approximately 4:30 p.m. Our pony man reaches before us. Our things are here. He is gone. We sit and rest on plastic chairs underneath a canopy in the front yard of the home stay. I am tired, but feeling better that we are closer to our destination. One more hiking day, and we’re “home” or so I imagine.
My hands are quite burned but I will take care of that after the trek. There is no pain. There are two 1 to 2 inch spots on each hand that look raw. We have to hike up an incline to get to our room. One of the women picks up my pack which Ravi has been carrying and puts it on one shoulder as if it were filled with weightless down. Every time, I am impressed by the strength and stamina of both the men and the women here. A young woman and her mother prepare our Ladakhi dinner of lentils, steamed bread, and mint tea.
We rest for the night and are planning on being ready at 7 a.m. as our pony man requested. I walk around the compound just a bit before the sun goes down, mostly to find the outhouse for when I need it. It’s much tougher to get oriented with just your headlamp when you don’t know where you’re going. Looking toward Markha, the view is amazing. What an awesome “back” yard.
Next: Umlung to Markha to Skyu.
It is still Friday, July 31, 2015. We are making our way back from Kangyatse base camp to Nimaling. It’s a hard trek back, just as it was on the way to the base camp. It is a more relaxed hike though because we know we will arrive relatively early and we aren’t being chased by a storm. You just have to remember to keep moving because no amount of rest is enough rest. The body will never feel as it does at lower altitude.
But, if you try to set aside your fatigue for just a moment, you may be able to imprint your body and mind with a deep cellular memory of the surrounding beauty, peace, and silence – for years to come or a lifetime.
And don’t forget the little things, but only if they make you feel more peaceful and beautiful on the inside like when you witness a growing heart.
We return to Nimaling from base camp by 11:30 a.m. This will be day 3 at Nimaling, and I am ready to move on. But we won’t be moving on today because it is already too late in the day. In addition, we need to find a group who is going our way and who has a pony we can rent to carry our gear.
I don’t feel well when I return. Nausea. This is the third day at 4,800m. Most likely the high altitude is responsible. I am taking my diamox. We hang out at the restaurant because that’s where the action is at. A French-speaking Swiss lady trekker arrives. I guess that she is in her 50s. She says she’s done other long walks but with the Markha Valley trek she is in over her head. It’s a tough trek and the high altitude can’t be underestimated. You never know what it will do to you.
The Swiss lady’s guides put her on a horse when she was feeling worn out. The lady trekker is headed toward Kongmaru La pass tomorrow, and that is a steep climb plus the highest point of the trek. I think that being on a horse is not much easier though. With narrow paths and slippery slopes, I’d rather be on my own two feet.
In the next day or two, I will witness a donkey slip and almost tumble a few hundred feet into the river together with our gear. It didn’t happen, but there is always a chance that whatever you are carrying will be damaged. Maybe you will never see it again. You have to be okay with that. But so long as I return in one piece, all is well by me.
The Swiss lady says to me, you don’t look well. I say, yeah, not well. She is very sweet and soft spoken. We all have our reasons for undertaking these treks. She says she is walking to leave some things behind. She leaves us with a package of her biscuits and goes to rest in her tent. Later on we see her again, and she is in need of some batteries. Batteries are in high demand in the mountains. We have more than we need. She offers to pay us, but biscuits for batteries seems like a fair trade.
Evening approaches fast and it is still uncertain as to how we’ll move on from Nimaling. Several groups are here with plenty of ponies, but each group is headed toward Shang Sumdo, the direction which we came from.
Next: Nimaling to Umlung.
Today is Friday, July 31, 2015 and we are at Kangyatse base camp. After the rain storm and the hail beat us up the night before, I am ready to greet a brand new day. Ravi reminds me that there was a dusting of snow all around us last night too. Our things are still damp from being caught off guard by the rain, and I am ready for some sunshine. Lucky for us, the sun is out, and it is very pleasant on our little deserted – what I call – island. We take our damp things out of the tent to dry in the sun. We spread them out far on the periphery like the base camp is our own backyard as far as the eye can see. Pants here. A sleeping bag way over there – on a nice large boulder.
I take a little hike around the area, maybe a mile out or so, to see what else is out here. It’s hard to keep track of distance. Very quickly our tent is no longer visible to me. It’s just the sun, the river, and the mountains all around. Really, so serene. I mentioned in my previous post, that there is no one here, not even an animal. Ravi reminded me though of what I saw on the way here – a partially chewed-on baby yak or sheep thigh bone. According to Ravi, the predator was possibly a snow leopard. There is life here – just not so readily visible.
These Himalayan regions are sacred to the locals, and it is difficult to not feel a heightened sense of belonging to something greater here.
You may say, there is not much here, and yet, there is SO much here. Sometimes, we need to leave our four concrete walls behind to really witness the beauty of our true home.
When I become overwhelmed or lost in the nonsense of everyday things which take us away from our balance and serenity, I try to notice beauty in little things. They could be right underneath your feet.
The river created obstacles for us every step of the way on this trek. She can be deep and devouring. Turbulent and muddy. Or calm and sweet. Watching sunlight play with smooth pebbles in clearest water can make one feel surprisingly fulfilled for no reason.
As I watch the river from many different angles off her bank, I see yaks heading our way over the ridge and into the base camp. They are here to graze. I am relaxing, enjoying the sunshine very much, when I hear Ravi yell, hey! Who could he be yelling at. Hey, he’s eating my sleeping bag! One of the yaks got a taste of Ravi’s sleeping bag which we laid out on the boulder. Ravi runs over to the yak to chase the animal away and comes back hugging his coveted sleeping bag. There is no damage, just some harmless licking. Ha ha.
It is mid-morning and we are all packed up and ready to go back to Nimaling. Our porter is late. The weather is still holding up but we are getting anxious. It rained as early as noon the other day. There is no way to contact the porter. There is no cell phone reception here. At last, we see our porter on the horizon. But he is here without his horse. He can’t find his horse. I said, what. Oh, the horse is out and about. I have to laugh. Of course, there are no fences here. And the horse will return when she’s ready.
So the porter takes on both the pack and the heavy duffel bag and with some handy rope work gets the load situated on his back. He carries exactly what the horse carried on the way here. I am amazed by the strength and stamina of the locals here. They are not muscular people, but strong and resilient, and not affected by the high altitude.
Next: Kangyatse base camp to Nimaling to Umlung.
It is Thursday, July 30, 2015. I am up at 5:30 a.m. No need for an alarm clock. I check the status of my facial swelling in the mirror: minimal. I put my contacts in. The year before, during the Goechala trek – my first one – my eyes were so swollen, I had to pry them open to get the contacts in. I take 125mg diamox.
Here, it’s not so easy to go to the bathroom. It requires some planning, like get your shoes on, lace them up so that the laces don’t get muddy, put your jacket on, and grab some toilet paper. I am ready to walk 400m to the outhouse. Darn. Someone beat me to it. I wait my turn watching the target. The toilet seems to be vacant. Success. I return to the tent with a runny nose. It is icy cold outside and both Ravi and I have colds. Skies are partially overcast.
Today, we will have breakfast, pack up, and wait for the home stay keeper to take care of his departing customers. The keeper and his horse will help get our stuff over to Kangyatse base camp. We will make only a slight gain in altitude from 4,800m at Nimaling to 5,200m at Kangyatse base camp, but the terrain is more rocky and breathing is more difficult. It’s a slow 2 hour or so trek.
There has been talk about how unusually rainy it’s been in Markha Valley. In a way, I am glad to be leaving Nimaling. The weather here just isn’t nice. Maybe base camp will be different. The hike is tough. It’s difficult to go fast. Your own lungs hold you back. We left ahead of our porter with his horse. He catches up with us. They always do. This is a walk in the park for the locals – well, it is definitely easier for them than it is for us.
We see the base camp from up above. There is a river we’ll need to cross. It doesn’t seem very deep. The porter takes off his shoes and, guiding his horse, walks right through this icy cold water barefoot over the river bed unevenly lined with stones of various sizes. We watch him drop off our things. And that’s how it’s done.
We look for a way to cross the river without having to take off our shoes. We go one way, the river is shallow but wide and peppered with little stones jut below the water’s surface. We go another way, it is more narrow there but much deeper with big uneven boulders requiring big jumps and good balance.
We make it across the river. It is as if we have reached an island. There is no one here for miles. Our porter is gone. There are signs of previous trekkers and mountaineers though – wrappers, juice boxes, batteries, coke bottles – humans leaving their mark. Mt Kangyatse is a just a little bit closer. We look for a good spot to pitch the tent. Before we get to decide on our spot, it starts to rain. And hard. We try to hurry to get the tent up so that our packs don’t get wet. It’s hopeless. Now it’s hailing. Ravi is doing most of the work.
My fingers are frozen. My face hurts from the hail. My jacket is soaked. This dreadful weather. We throw our things inside the tent and crawl in exhausted. Aspirin. Nap. It’s only early afternoon. The rain stops but the sun won’t be coming out. Everything is damp. I crawl out to move around. I encourage Ravi to come out too.
The ground is wet and covered with snow all around. The river is gushing but it’s full of sediment. I walk higher up the river to find cleaner water. I find a spot and we fill up our water bottles. We use water purifying tablets just in case. We brought some precooked and prepackaged rice meals with us. We decide to heat up our dinner on our little gas stove but first we have to get it to light. Everything is a challenge.
We are here because Ravi is planning on ascending Mt Kangyatse. I think we are both discouraged by this weather. I don’t say anything, but I don’t think it’s a good idea because of the weather. This place is also so remote and so eerie without other people around. Not even an animal. Except for that partially chewed-on yak thigh bone I came across up on the hill. According to Ravi, the attacker could have been a snow leopard. Ravi decides not to take on Kangyatse and honestly I am relieved.
Next: Kangyatse base camp to Nimaling.