By Brett Longley
Tso Moriri is one of two high altitude lakes in the Rupshu region of Ladakh - the other is Tso Kar. The region has supported a salt industry in previous times, but there’s little evidence of this left now. It was mid-August in 2000 and a party of eight New Zealanders left Leh to trek from Pang on the Leh-Manali road through to Tso Moriri and then to Tso Kar where we were to meet a jeep to take us back to Leh.
The trip from Leh to Pang takes around 5 hours depending on road conditions. We drive along the Indus Valley heading east to Upshi and then branch off toward the south. As we pass through Rumtse the landscape changes dramatically. Huge slices of rock rise up from the valley floor in evidence of the massive forces at work where the Indian plate meets Asia. The collision has upended huge layers of rock that are eroded to form huge slices like layers of a cake.
We cross the Taglang La at 5,300m (reputed to be the second highest motorable road in the world after Khardung La at 5,600m between the Indus valley and the Nubra valley) and stop briefly for a few photos. Its snowing and there’s not much to see apart from the tea stall, concrete urinals and road construction trucks. Twenty kilometers of unpaved road with hairpin bends takes us down to the valley and on to Pang. It’s an army camp and road builders depot on a barren and dusty part of the river terrace. We set up camp and inspect the meagre offerings at the tea stalls and tent restaurants. A game of hacky sack quickly attracts the local kids and keeps them entertained trying their skills.
The next day we begin the trek. We descend into the river bed which is wide and bordered in parts by scree slopes and high cliffs eroded into fantastic shapes. We meet a nomad family living in their black yak hair tent. The children are curious about us and take time out from their tasks looking after the goats and sheep to see what we’re doing. The going is easy and we make good progress to the point where we branch off up a small side stream and into another valley as we climb steadily to our campsite at Takthago.
On the second day we continue up the valley before branching off to a ridge that leads us to the top of Thelekong La. While the pass isn’t particularly high, we have good views back along the trail and through to the next valley. The next two days are fairly straightforward as we make our way along the valley to Manechan where we turn off toward Kumtso. The landscape is mostly wide flat river valleys with huge rolling hills on either side. We make a long trek up the valley with a few stream crossings before it opens out into an enormous semi-circular plain surrounded by mountains. We cross a series of low ridges and river beds before we reach the lake. Kumtso is a small shallow lake fed by streams from the surrounding hills but with no outlet. This is typical of many of the high altitude lakes in this region and basically means that whatever goes into the lake stays there. The ecosystems are very fragile so great care must be taken not to pollute the water or damage any of the surroundings.
We have a rest day at the lake – some of us go for a short trek up on to the surrounding peaks to take advantage of the views and others go looking for marine fossils. The area was under the sea in remote geological time and erosion sometimes reveal traces of this ancient past. That evening we celebrate the birthday of one of our party – the cook manages to produce a birthday cake complete with candles and icing! We retrace our steps the next day to Manechan and then continue down the valley heading for Tso Moriri. The gorge narrows before suddenly opening into a huge flood plain and we can see the lake as a blue strip below the mountains.
We continue around the western side of the valley until Kyangdam appears as a green promontory at the southern end of the lake. We set up camp here on a grassy meadow that contrasts with the intense blue of the lake and the brown and grey hills and mountains behind. The next day we set off around the edge of the lake toward the village of Korzok. The day is very hot so we take a brief dip to cool off – its refreshing as long as you don’t linger. At around nine degrees, the water looks far more appealing than it feels! The approach to Korzok is marked by long mani walls that seem to stretch for kilometers. The village is situated near the head of the lake where a stream flows into it and is large enough to have a gompa with around 25 monks and nuns and several houses. We set up camp and decide to have another rest day the following day.
Camp at Kyangdam
Two of us climb up to a ridge behind the village that leads in a series of steps to a peak at about 5,600m where you can see right along the length of the lake (about 28km) and over to the mountains bordering Tibet. There’s hardly a breath of wind and the lake is like glass with the clouds reflected like a mirror. The next day we set off on a long climb toward the Yalung Nyau La at 5,400m and then descend to camp at Gyama. The trail then leads across two low passes and through two long valleys where we see several nomad tents and yak herds. Many are refugees from Tibet who have settled in Ladakh and trade cheese and pashmina wool. We camp at Rajung and celebrate another birthday – this time with a yak dung fire, brandy and dancing. The highlight is when the ponymen perform a chicken dance with elbows flapping like wings and the celebration ends only when the brandy is finished and the fire burns out!
Nomads at Rajung
The next day is out last – it’s a short trek down the valley and over a low ridge to our final campsite at Nuruchan. The jeeps arrive that evening and take us back to Leh the following day. We stop briefly along the way to visit Tso Kar – a small lake of brilliant blue surrounded by sparkling white salt deposits and intensely coloured red, orange, yellow and green grasses and sedges and reeds. Some of the salt traders in Tibet moved here a few decades ago after the Chinese invaded and forced the local traders out, but the trade ceased relatively quickly after the border with Tibet was closed.
We also pass through the Puga valley where there’s geothermal activity and the remains of an attempt to establish a sulphur mining operation. After crossing the Indus river at Mahe bridge we make our way back to Leh and the first shower for two weeks!