Sky High Treks and Tours
Lamayuru to Chiling
By Brett Longley   
In the year 2000, eight enthusiastic New Zealanders set off for five weeks trekking in Ladakh. The plan was to do a shorter 'test' trek to see how everyone would handle the altitude, then follow on with a longer two week trek. It was the first time in Ladakh for most of the group and we didn't want to risk anyone getting altitude sickness in remote areas with no access to medical care. Our guide - Tsering Norboo - suggested a five day trek from Lamayuru to Chiling. Both are accessible by road and the trek includes two major passes, so everyone would have a chance to see how they went.
The 12th Century Wooden Buddha
The 12th Century Wooden Buddha
We had some problems right from the start. After arriving in Delhi, the party split up - some flying direct to Leh, some going by road to Manali and then through the Himalayas to Leh. The group that travelled by road made it as far as Darcha before being turned back by washouts and slips caused by heavy rain. The only feasible alternative was to continue by road and make a long detour through Jammu and Srinagar then to Kargil and then Leh. It added an extra 5 days to the trip, but eventually everyone made it to Leh.

Because of the delay in arriving, we were forced to cut a day out of the first trek and two days out of the second. For this reason, instead of starting at Lamayuru, we drove to Phanjilla which would have been our second stop. It's late August and the harvest is underway with the local people cutting the barley by hand and tying it into bundles to dry. The ponies and ponymen arrive late in the afternoon. The next day we set off up the valley. It's the first day and its hot, so we take it slowly and stop often for a break. We pass through a couple of villages and stop briefly for tea and a rest.

The ponymen misunderstand our guide's directions and we end up camping further up the valley than we intended. We're about 800m above our starting point and one of our party appears to be suffering some mild symptoms of altitude. This is always a risk - going too high too fast. Its deceptive because walking along the valley doesn't seem like we're climbing, but it's easy to forget that we started at 3500m and even at a slow rate of ascent we can gain more than the recommended maximum of 300m in a day.

The group at Konzke La
The group at Konzke La
The next day we're faced with the first pass. We make our way up the river bed toward the head of the valley then off onto a spur and zigzag our way up to the Konzke La at 4,900m. We stop at the top for a break and some photos, then start our descent to Sumdah Chenmo. The landscape is spectacular - huge jagged rock pinnacles towering up on our right and mountains on the left with intense colours in the rocks - green, red, orange, black, grey - often in gigantic zigzags of colour up and down the ridges along the valley.

It's an easy walk down and we reach our next campsite by mid-afternoon. There's a narrow canyon off the main valley - we walk up a short distance with walls rising sheer for hundreds of meters. The next day we continue along the valley through the village of Sumdah Chenmo where the gompa was rebuilt after the destruction of an earlier one. On the original site there are still the remains of two wooden Buddhas. We continue to the confluence of two streams - one leading to the Stakspi La and then to Alchi - the other is our route where we climb out of the stream and up a steep zigzag path to the Pagal La at 4200m. The views back to the Konzke La and across to the mountains either side of the valley are stunning - rocky spires and deep canyons with intense colours in the rock. We make a long traverse around to a camp site high in the valley.

The next day is warm and fine as we start on the steep climb to the Dundunchen La at 4,700m. The views are stupendous - toward the Zanskar Valley and across to the Zanskar Range and the snowy peak of Stok Kangri. We make another long traverse around to a ridge before we begin the descent to Chiling.
The trail from Dundunchen La to Chiling
The trail from Dundunchen La to Chiling
It's a long steep trek down to the gorge where the trail becomes even steeper. There's no shade and the heat is intense. We find a grove of trees near the river where we rest for lunch before continuing on to reach Chiling by mid-afternoon. The bus is waiting to take us back to Leh, but before we leave we visit the cable car across the swollen muddy Zanskar river. It's a primitive but effective arrangement - a wicker basket that moves under the weight of its two occupants to the mid point of the crossing about 6-8 meters above the swirling water where two operators on the opposite bank then haul it the rest of the way over.