There is Something a Bit Magical about Ladakh

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December 23rd 2013
Published: January 15th 2014
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I am rather fond of mountains. This fondness has taken me to some beautiful places around the world but had somehow not led me to the Himalayas. The first view from the aeroplane window on the short hop north from Delhi to Leh was cracking and had passengers scrambling over each other to take pictures. It was straight from a geography textbook with hanging glaciers, sharp arêtes, medial and lateral moraines and other such features that Mr Oakes of Edlington School will be proud that I remembered.

You are advised to not do too much for a few days upon arrival at Leh in order to acclimatise to the altitude. Wise advice considering Leh sits at about 3500m and has the highest commercial airport in the world. You don’t have to fly there; the overland routes through the mountains are supposedly spectacular and give you time to acclimatise. But the routes are long; four or five days at least from Delhi. As it was already mid-September and the tourist season in Ladakh is short, June to September, we opted for the flight.

Despite Leh being the place to organise wonderful trekking, mountaineering, white-water rafting, jeep trips, paragliding, etc, it’s also an easy place to do not much for a bit while you acclimatise. There are lots of restaurants with rooftop terraces where it’s hard to concentrate on your dinner and not keep grabbing a camera as Leh palace and monastery loom above you backed by snow-capped mountains. The view down into the streets through the ever-present multicoloured prayer flags strung across the road is also interesting as markets set up on the kerb where monks, nuns, and other traditionally dressed Ladakhis go about their business.

Acclimatisation proceeded as follows: Day 1 we had a little look around Leh. Day 2 we ventured up to Leh Palace. Day 3 we felt ready to go on a bit of a walk - though we were still panting for breath just climbing the two flights of stairs to our room in the guesthouse.

The “bus station” is quite a walk out of central Leh though fortunately all downhill. More of a large car-park full of buses, mini-buses and jeeps than a bus station; it took a lot of asking around before we found a mini-bus to Thikse. A nun chanted mantras the
Pangong TsoPangong TsoPangong Tso

The lake is almost 150km long, lies at almost 4500m above sea level and is 60% in Tibet, 40% in India.
whole way, school kids got on and off, huge sacks of market produce were hauled up and down the steps, it was a really interesting, and friendly, journey.

We jumped off where instructed and were greeted with a quite awe-inspiring sight. I’m not often speechless (not often enough some may say) but the view of Thikse monastery rising up from the valley bottom, pure white against sandy brown earth and pure blue sky, snow-capped mountains in the background, mani-walls and chortens in the foreground; I had to sit down. This was the Tibet I imagined – even though I hadn’t really imagined it for this trip because we were going to India.

The staircases up between the houses soon had us fighting for breath but the increasingly expansive views drove us ever upwards to the monastery at the top. We were surprised to encounter quite a few tourists up there who had come up the back by road and consequently were not gasping for air quite as much as we were. The monastery was interesting to look around but I was more entranced by the view.

The Indus valley provides a ribbon of green through an otherwise grey/brown landscape. Ancient and intricate irrigation systems bring water from the river to the floodplain enabling crops to be grown. At the edges of this agriculture the desert begins. And it is actual desert, of the high-altitude cold type. Being in the rain shadow of the Himalayas means only around 100mm of rain falls here per year. Snow melt on the mountain peaks feeds the streams and rivers which bring sparse life to the otherwise barren valleys.

We ambled the 5km or so to Shey along a dirt road that parallels the main road. The views forward to Shey monastery, back to Thikse monastery, and each side to 6000m Himalayan peaks make it difficult to keep your eyes on the road. Though there was much to see along the road itself. The rural houses in this area are all pretty big with lots of large bay windows. The roofs are generally flat, though covered with a metre thickness of hay to insulate the house from the perishing winter cold. Cows usually roam the gardens providing dung, as well as milk and cheese, which is used for cooking and to heat the

There are lots of rooftop restaurants to enjoy the views while acclimatising to the altitude.
houses in winter – there is no firewood here. Prayer flags flutter between trees, women collect seabuckthorn berries to make delicious and apparently incredibly nutritious juice, men wander past with laden donkeys, and mani walls often line the road. Mani walls are made up of mani stones; rounded rocks which are carved with prayers. Mounds and walls of these stones are everywhere in Ladakh; in villages, in town centres, beside rivers, in remote mountain passes, they can be hundreds of metres long and thousands of years old.

Just past the large brand new looking prayer wheel (only ever pass on the left and spin them clockwise) is the rocky spur on which sits Shey Palace and monastery. They are not as dramatic as Thikse as they blend in a lot more with the landscape and are much more decrepit – though without having Thikse to compare to I would probably say Shey was spectacular. Ruins of an old castle lead up the spur from the monastery and the lung-busting scramble to the top, avoiding getting garrotted by the endless strings of prayer flags, is rewarding for the people like me who always feel the need to get
Thikse MonasteryThikse MonasteryThikse Monastery

The first view when we got off the crowded little public minibus was breathtaking.
to the top of something.

To give even further time for acclimatisation before attempting a trek, we spent the next two days on a trip to Pangong Tso. The name translates from Tibetan as “long narrow enchanted lake”, a very apt name, though you could add to the end; “that lies at the end of a long uncomfortable journey”. The drive from Leh takes about 5 hours, crossing the Chang La Pass, reputedly the world’s third highest motorable road at 5360m. The road gets more and more bumpy, narrower, and with increasingly perilous drops off of one side of the many hairpins, plus the driver seemed to get faster and more erratic as the journey went on. However, there are some lovely monasteries to see on the way, great mountain vistas, and lots of military. Ladakh borders China and Pakistan, neither of whom are on particularly great terms with India, thus there is a constant military presence in the region. They always seemed friendly whenever we encountered them and it was nice to see them driving school buses in Leh.

When you arrive at the lake it’s best to keep driving past the first cluster of camps and restaurants to the village of Spangmik. Almost all of the houses are open as homestays and will provide you with hearty Ladakhi meals as well as a bed; I recommend choosing the one with the thickest blankets.

All there is to do is wander along the lake shore. I say all there is to do, it is a truly stunning location. Bare mountains constantly changing colour as the sun moves overhead reflecting in the vivid blue lake. The high altitude (the lake lies at about 4500m) and consequent thin air gives the landscape a certain crispness and everything appears much closer than it actually is.

The water is saline as rivers flow in but there is no outlet, only evaporation. Apparently it is completely fishless, the locals getting most of their sustenance from yaks and, nowadays, what can be trucked in from Leh. I asked what people do here during the winter when snow closes the passes and the temperature drops to -30C, the answer; “They sleep”.

Eventually, after almost a week, we decided we were ready for a trek. After setting off it soon turned out
The Indus ValleyThe Indus ValleyThe Indus Valley

A strip of green through the parched land.
that we weren’t. I had big ambitions for some kind of trans-Himalayan epic but I had to remember I wasn’t alone. Recent hikes with Julia hadn’t gone exactly as planned – a bit too far, a bit too much climbing, a bit too little food (after a looong day crossing the Brecon Beacons the promised pub, thoughts of which had kept Julia going for the final few hours, had stopped serving food and we had to dine on crisps and peanuts). The most popular trek in Ladakh is the Markha Valley route. This trek has the unique (for Ladakh) advantage of having homestays in the villages along the way eliminating the need to carry a tent, sleeping bag, food or cooking equipment. The cultural experience of staying with families rather than being in a tent had also been recommended. It is also easy to get to the beginning, easy to get from the end, and if it’s the most popular it must be beautiful.

The guidebook to the Markha Valley trek that we bought in Leh informed us that the trek would take six days from Zingchan to Shang Sumdo. I was confident that we would do it in fewer days given that the “walking time” for the final day in the guidebook was only two hours, and the first day was four and half hours. However, I didn’t factor in delays due to illness; caused by altitude in Julia’s case and food/water in my case.

In the taxi on the way to the start I began to feel a bit odd. This start point was lower than where we had been staying in Leh and I’d had no problems with the altitude while at the much higher Pangong Tso during the previous few days. However, soon after we set off along a relatively flat path up the river I was gasping for breath and felt terrible. I had to stop and rest every few hundred yards. I hadn’t felt like this since I was last over 5000m up a mountain somewhere.

We cut the guidebooks recommended day 1 short and stayed in the village of Rumbak. The homestay was beautiful both outside and in and we were well looked after by the lady and definite master of the house. There was as much tea as we could drink and lots
Collecting Seabuckthorn BerriesCollecting Seabuckthorn BerriesCollecting Seabuckthorn Berries

The juice is lovely, especially in a lassi.
of food. As it got dark we climbed under the multitudes of thick heavy blankets on mattresses spread across the floor and even had our own room (there were actually no other hikers in the entire village). I was then up at least a dozen times to run through the house, headtorch beam lighting the way, to the outside hole in the bottom of the shed. I suppose something I’d eaten on my last morning in Leh hadn’t gone down too well.

Next morning we both felt good. It seemed that I’d got whatever bug I’d picked up out of my system. We set off and soon I was really enjoying the mountain scenery, the clear air, and the sense of being way out in the middle of nowhere. Then Julia started to feel rough. We cut the day short again, this time only travelling a few kilometres to where our guidebook said we should have spent the first night. Described as a hamlet, Yurutse consists of only one large house and a few fields. The same family have occupied it for four generations. Julia went straight to bed around lunchtime and didn’t re-emerge until the following morning.

Next morning again started quite promisingly. We set off up the almost 5000m Ganda La pass. It was a long walk – the timings in the guidebook definitely being correct only for very fit walkers. As we got higher the clouds came down, the wind picked up and it got colder. Soon my knitted yak wool slippers were on my hands as gloves and Julia was wearing everything she’d brought. Just as she started suffering from the altitude it began to snow. Not gentle floating flakes but freezing bullets being whipped directly into our faces. Perhaps masochistically I was loving it. The pass was a real challenge, obviously in terms of the altitude and conditions, but also because it was long and steep. My joyful face didn’t really help matters and I was soon being shouted at “Where is the f**king top of this f**king pass!? DAVIIIIID!!!! I want to go back to Leh!!!”.

Anyway, we made it, and spent the night in the delightful little village of Shingo. Only a few ancient looking houses cling to the cliffs where two steep rocky valleys meet. The sun came out in the afternoon and it was nice to have a shower in a freezing cold stream then sit and gaze up at the mountains on the lookout for snow leopard. I did see lots of urial (a big antelope-like sheep) to go with the blue sheep that we saw earlier along with marmots, woolly hare, mountain weasels, and a massive lammergeier (a big eagley vulture). While trying to learn some Ladakhi later that night with the owners of the homestay I showed them pictures of a snow leopard and asked if they ever see them; “all the time” they answered. Nice to know.

Only on day four did we reach the actual Markha Valley after a pleasant trek downhill to Skyu. Thankfully Julia was completely better but shortly before arriving in Skyu it was my turn to become very ill again. As lovely as all of our homestay hosts had been, and as tasty and plentiful as the food had been, the hygiene standards are not tip-top and we think this must have been why we were getting sick. The very nice lady in Shingo was alternately chopping veg and putting more cow poo into her cooking stove and our stomachs, which we thought were pretty tough, were not tough enough. I had another very early night, once again running to the outhouse quite frequently, though again I felt pretty good in the morning.

At Skyu we called it quits on the Markha Valley trek. It had taken four days to cover what the guidebook suggested would take two. At this rate we would need a fortnight to get all the way round. Instead of turning east up the Markha Valley we turned west to the closest roadhead at Chilling.

Immediately I was having regrets. The Markha Valley was beautiful with a fast-flowing river tumbling over large boulders through green farmland as the soaring peaks of the Zanskar range towered above. There was more life to see here with people going about their business in the cute little villages.

As we reached the mighty Zanskar river the infamous crossing came into view. The bridge is still under construction but there are a few wires strung across. Therefore, the only way to the other side is to get into a metal basket, cling on for life, and be manually hauled across. Don’t look down.

A dramatic walk down the new road carved into the side of the Zanskar gorge led us to Chilling where we boarded a bus for the long bumpy but interesting ride back to Leh.

I was disappointed not to have completed the trek. We felt great on the last day but more than likely the next day one of us would be in a bad state again. We had lost confidence in the food we were being provided and the aromas from the kitchen had started to turn my stomach. The food may have been fine, it could have been the water we were drinking or not washing our hands well enough that was causing the problems. But whatever the issue was, we didn’t think we could face another week of it, especially now the winter seemed to be arriving and there was a higher pass yet to cross.

Our final few days in Leh were spent similarly to the first few. We looked around town, spent time on rooftop terraces, visited the same little shop at least three times a day to refill our water bottles and drink delicious seabuckthorn berry lassies, and did a few flattish hikes, such as up to Stok village. There was also the pleasant distraction of the Leh Festival with its traditional dances and incredibly long self-important speeches by Indian officials. We really grew to love Ladakh, and especially it’s people.

In hindsight (writing this a month of after returning), the trek is still one of my highlights of the whole three month trip. The scenery was wonderful and the experience of staying with local families was a joy. Shame my insides didn’t agree.

Additional photos below
Photos: 35, Displayed: 33


Top of Chang La Pass:  5360mTop of Chang La Pass:  5360m
Top of Chang La Pass: 5360m

Claimed to be the third highest motorable pass in the world. You can't linger long due to the cold as much as the lack of oxygen.
Friendly MarmotsFriendly Marmots
Friendly Marmots

On the road to Pangong Lake.
Pangong TsoPangong Tso
Pangong Tso

The name translates from Tibetan as: Long narrow enchanted lake.
Spangmik, Pangong TsoSpangmik, Pangong Tso
Spangmik, Pangong Tso

One of the most beautiful, and coldest (though only at night) places I've ever stayed.
Yaks at Pangong TsoYaks at Pangong Tso
Yaks at Pangong Tso

The lake has no outlet other than evaporation thus is saline.
Pangong TsoPangong Tso
Pangong Tso

Definitely worth the long uncomfortable drive across the mountains.

7th May 2014

Well-written Blog. I got my packages booked from here and i got it in a great deal
13th July 2015

There is Something a Bit Magical about ladakh

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