The breathtaking Himalayan landscape from a hotel window in Leh, Ladakh.
Ladakh, to me, is a state of mind, not a mere destination. This home-truth kicked in during an eight-day ‘moderate to difficult’ September trek through the unforgiving landscape of the Markha Valley, along with two friends and nine strangers, mainly Bangaloreans.
What do I recall of my first trek ever? The dizzying glimpse of snow-meringue peaks as we fly into Leh, the capital, at an altitude of 3,505 metres. The acclimatisation routine over 36 hours at the scenic Oriental Guest House at Changspa. The awareness of jettisoning urban routines as we move on, step by step, breath by breath, brushing aside thoughts of HAPE (high altitude pulmonary oedema).
Puff-puff... pant-pant... trying my mountain legs, as Norboo ~ who is very helpful ~ carries my backpack
From the Spituk valley, we — six men and six women, accompanied by our intrepid, fleet-heeled Ladakhi guide Norboo — take an abandoned jeep track alongside the flowing Indus and tag behind mountain ponies saddled with provisions and our baggage. We face gusty winds, a hard drizzle, and the sun ablaze amidst a stark yet mystic terrain. Wind-sculpted craggy peaks summon higher powers to mind. In the rare atmosphere, one watches with disbelief as the rock formations morph moodily from mauve to violet to copper-blue.
After two long days on foot, the body signals weariness beyond denial. We cross narrow paths that sweep through the Hemis National Park (home to the rare snow leopard), sip tea at parachute-tent restaurants, where local women vend Maggi noodles, roasted barley with apricot kernel, and even hand-knitted sweaters.
We sight blue sheep, shaggy yaks and marmots en route to the Ganda La pass at 4,970 metres. By the third morning, I find myself astride Ta (Ladakhi for horse), led by Tenzing, a smiling teenager.
With young Tenzing, who led the horse named Ta.
The single house in Yurutse village on Day 2
Local sights and insights
Destinations, locations, maps blur en route. Mental shorthand replaces these. Pale lavender two-sleeper tents. Double-layer sleeping bags fit for the Siachen glacier. Bio-breaks in deep-hole Ladakhi toilets or in the shadow of a rock. No baths for eight days.
It’s Spituk to two-house Jingchen. Jingchen to Gandala La base camp via Rumbek village. Over Ganda La pass with its stunning view of towering Stok Kangri to the east, the ashen Zanskar range topped with snow to the west. Stumbling on to Skyu, with its single monastery amidst barley fields. Past autumn-rich willows and rare poplars in the untamed Markha valley, fording its river on horseback. On, on and on again to Thachungtse, where Hankar herdsmen spend their summers in stone dwellings. Beyond it lies the Gongmaru La pass at 5,200 metres, and blue lake waters leading to the Nimaling pasture.
Siddhartha, who spent some years at high school in Bangalore.
Siddhartha, a young Ladakhi who spent eight years at a monastery, shares local insights. He points to the grazing tzu, crossbred from the yak and the local cow. He identifies brown chukor birds that scurry across the slopes. He stops at wild roses, like tiny pomegranates on their bush. He handpicks sweet-sour seabuckthorn berries, the base of Leh Berry juice. Out pops a glimpse of courting rituals: of how a young woman woos her Ladakhi man by arriving at his dwelling with a copper jug of chhang, the local barley brew. She weeps until he allows her family in to begin negotiations. Can this be true?
Buddhism imbues our trail. At our first ‘mane’ wall, we learn to circumambulate clockwise around the mounded stones, some inscribed with “Om Mane Padme Om”, which travellers can add to. The stupa-like chortens at village heads are revered lama relics. At Ganda La, we add to the fluttering prayer flags and, led by Norboo, collectively chant “Ki ki so so largala” thrice so that winds disperse our positive energies to the universe!
Riding to Thachungtse on the fifth afternoon, I shiver in the drizzle that soaks the cap through. Tenzing hands me a hailstone. Within minutes, a gentle snow begins to fall, icing over all colour on the trail.
Our morale ebbs as we make it to the camp. In the large, blue dining tent, we fish out dry clothing: a pair of woollen socks, a thermal vest, rain-proof pants. We turn quick-change artists in a corner.
The sleeping bags are soaked through, reports Siddhartha. Accompanying a horseman, he backtracks to the nearest village for blankets and razais for the night. No news of him for hours. Norboo sets out in search of him. The minutes seem like hours, even days. The temperature drops to minus 3 degrees Celsius. Sonam, our cook, conjures up a warm dinner, even kheer, to boost our spirits. But our stomachs are knotted with fear.
We relax when Siddhartha and Norboo turn up, still smiling, bearing warmth — and hope!
A fellow trekker, who fashions precision-machined components in Bangalore, takes charge.
Two brave souls opt for the lavender tents, as a dozen of us huddle in the dining one. Our day packs hold down its sides.
We toss and turn on damp ground sheets under blankets. All night, we take turns to knock the snow off the tent top. Some say their last prayers; some will the nightmare away. Intuitively, I guess that tomorrow will bring a reprieve.
Ta looks for food at Thajungtse, where we were snowed in
Can an army helicopter rescue us, asks one. But we don’t really have an emergency at hand, argues another. Besides, there are no radio signals at Thachungtse, not even a mobile network. The nearest motorable road is at least two days away.
Return to warmth
At daybreak, we turn back from Gongmaru La. We allow the ponies to lead us towards home-stays at Markha, then Skyu. Serpentine mountain paths are now treacherous rivers of slush from the melting snow. I send a prayer skywards as a rein-less Ta heads down a slope, clutching onto the saddleback for balance and concentrating on the peaks, the serrated, smoky clouds.
Dismounting as the slippery path narrows, I freeze with fear. Siddhartha comes to the rescue, takes my hands and step by slow step, we crab-crawl sideways past the worst bends. How long did that take? Perhaps just minutes, but it feels like a lifetime.
The gleaming copper vessels of a warm, welcoming Markha Valley homestay kitchen
In the warm home-stay kitchens, gleaming with copper utensils, the mood turns upbeat. We look forward, not back. I try some staple local fare — roasted, powdered barley or tsampa, into which Norboo stirs some sugar. At Markha, we dance to Ladakhi songs in the kitchen. Whirling around a Skyu campfire, we play antakshari, while Sonam surprises us with pizzas off his kerosene stove!
In reverse gear, we journey to Chilling, far away from Shang Sumdo or Martselang, originally the last lap of our trek.
A jeep awaits us across the raging Zanskar river. No bridge in sight. Winch-and-pulley drawn, a primitive cable car — which resembled a wooden crate draped in aluminium sheet — takes us across, two at a time.
On terra firma, I realise I’m no natural-born trekker. Nor would I ask for a second chance in Markha. Yet, I must respond to the call of Ladakh. Mainly because of its incandescent landscapes, its ever-giving people. Should I try the Nubra desert at 3,500 metres next? Only if I can walk no more than four hours a day, if I can pause to daydream on this lonely planet, perhaps fashion a haiku. For Ladakh is now a state of mind.
(This article was originally published in The Hindu Business Line 'Life' supplement on November 28, 2008)