By Brett Longley
It was our first visit to Ladakh. We heard about it the year before on a climbing trip in Nepal when we met a young Canadian woman who had been there and fired our imaginations with stories about the strange lunar landscapes and treks to remote areas visited by very few tourists and the Buddhist traditions strongly influenced by their Tibetan neighbours. We flew in from Delhi on a near perfect day with spectacular views of the Himalayas and a breathtaking landing along the Indus valley with mountains towering on each side as we dropped altitude on the approach to a narrow strip of runway at Leh.
The effects of the change in altitude from 700m at Delhi to 3500m at Leh were immediately apparent - every exertion brought breathlessness and we had to continually remind ourselves to slow down. We arrived in September near the end of the tourist season so accommodation was easy to find. We spent three days checking out tour operators and prices for the trek that we proposed to do. Prices varied widely - it pays to shop around. In the end we settled around the middle of the range with a company where the staff seemed to know what they were talking about and were prepared to arrange a trek to suit our needs.
After spending another couple of days acclimatising, we set off for Hemis about 1.5 hours east of Leh where we were to meet our ponyman. Our guide was a young student who was to join us the next day after completing his examinations. Our plan was to spend 11 days walking from Hemis through to Nabu near the Manali-Leh road where we were to meet our driver to return us to Leh. The trek took us over the Gongmaru La to Nimaling and then over the Zalung Karpo La before descending to make our way through the Sorra Canyon and then to Dat village and across a vast desolate plain. We then branched off to cross the Yar La before descending to the village of Lungmoche and then on to Shahang in the Zara valley. We spent the last night of our trek there before crossing the Pangmar La and meeting our driver at the small tent settlement of Narbu.
Riding near Dat
The views from the Gongmaru La were spectacular - across to the snow capped peaks of Kang Yatze (6,400m) and Zuzugung (6,250m) and down into the valley toward Nimaling. The landscape changes dramatically from the steep gorge with huge rock spires reaching into the sky to the broad flat valley with surreal eroded cliffs to the right across the valley as we descended.
After a long slog up the Luntun Chu valley to the Zalung Karpo La (5050m), we were rewarded on one side with more stunning views down into a huge valley that leads to the Jumlam route to Padum in the remote Zanskar valley and on the other side a sawtoothed mountain range of steep jagged ice covered peaks glistening in the afternoon sun. We descended via a steep zigzag path to the valley that leads to the Sorra Canyon.
After a frosty start, we began another brilliant clear day that took us down the valley past the Black Fort on top of a small peak that guards the intersection of three valleys. The Sorra Canyon is something that could come straight out of a Tolkien novel. Great rounded buttresses and pinnacles of pinkish white rock giving way to huge jagged ramparts and peaks towering overhead. It's best seen around midday when the sun shines directly into the canyon.
The next day the canyon gradually broadened into a wide valley and as we neared the village of Dat we passed a huge lato - a Buddhist shrine built in a square about a metre and a half high with mani stones layered over the top. The lato protects the village against drought, flooding and other natural events that can destroy people's livelihoods. In a land where the forces of nature are immediate and the living is precarious, there is often little that people can do when natural disasters strike. Recourse to prayer and the protection of talismans are about the only means they have to mitigate the impacts of natural events. The village is deserted as the people are still up in the summer pastures with the sheep and goats and aren't due to return until the end of November. The 600 year old gompa is run down and in need of repair but has some beautiful wall paintings in the praye room.
Tsering at the lato near Dat
The valley we walk along has widened into a vast flat plain with enormous scree slopes rising up to jagged peaks on one side and huge rolling hills on the other. The trek along it seems never-ending until we turn off into a side valley and mae our way toward Yar La. We had intended to camp the night before crossing the pass, but lack of water forces us to continue over and down to the village of Lungmoche. The days are clear and fine - as are the nights, but the consequence is that the temperature drops well below zero - I wake with frost on the inside of my bivvy bag!
We continue the next day alongside the river bed then branch off to cross a series of small ridges and valleys. These gradually run out into a larger valley running at right angles until we reach the village of Shahang on the banks of the Zara River. We had been warned that this could be difficult to cross, but there was not a drop of water to be seen. We made our way past a series of chortens and as we started up a small side valley that ran into the Zara, we saw a herd of wild horses. Coloured brown and whitish grey, they blend in perfectly with the landscape, but are extremely wary of humans and the nearest we can get to them is about 150m.
Wild horses at Shahang
We've made good progress and are a day ahead of schedule, so we have a rest day before crossing the final pass. Tsering and I go to visit his parents in the village of Jerang where they are looking after the animals in the summer pastures. We walk for about three hours and pass a large area where trees were planted to try and stabilise the soil and provide wood for fuel and for building. The experiment was not successful and all the trees died from the winter cold and the summer drought. The village is well established with several houses, a school, a gompa and a monastery nearby. Most of the villagers live in yak hair tents that they take back with them to Dat where they winter-over.
Woman at Jerang
The next day our last - we make a long traverse up to the Pangma La from which we get a grand view into a huge wide plain leading to the Rupshu valley. We see the jeep arriving as we descend from the pass. We meet at one of several nomad tents scattered around the valley. The owners serve us traditional salt tea and biscuits before we pile into the jeep and return to Leh.