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Joel's Zanskar Traverse: A Tribute
'In all but name Tibet starts at the Rohtang'
Joel's favourite area... Alison planned to lead the trek but can't, so Jamie is taking over.
Naturally this is Joel's writing.
Note that although we try to follow the itinerary here, at times local trail, river or weather conditions may make a deviation necessary; rivers may be impassible, snow blocks passes, and landslides wipe out trails. The trekking itinerary and campsites may also vary slightly depending on our trekkers' acclimatization rates.
Day 4 - Drive Keylong 3110m
An early breakfast and on the road by eight, or possibly earlier, as road conditions vary a lot on the Rohtang; its only a little pass as the Himalaya goes, at 3978m (or 13048 ft) but the range it crosses, the Pir Panjal, gets the worst of the monsoon, and icy blasts and storms still catch the unwary - and along with that in July the pass still attracts tourists whose cars can block our way! The road winds up slowly, through stunning forests and lush green pastures, waterfalls crashing down sheer granite faces - it was John Keay who said 'Spring always seems present in the Pir Panjal' - he also points out that crossing the Rohtang is the most abrupt change on the face of the earth; after three hours driving, we are witness to this, as we climb out and look down into Lahaul; the road winds down across stony hillsides and ahead are the unexplored 6000m plus peaks of the Lahaul massif; to the right the road to Spiti, only opened (and still closed a lot by storms) in 1993, and to the left the Chandra valley sweeps beneath the hanging glaciers of the Pir Panjal to meet the Chenab. We drop to the collection of Dhabas (roadside cafes) where we lunch before driving on. This next section trekkers normally rotate through the left hand seats - the views of peaks and glaciers are stunning. By mid afternoon we are in our hotel in Keylong, settling in for the night and getting used to the thin clear mountain air. Over a huge Indian meal, Joel will go over the next few days, and talk over some altitude issues.
Day 6 - Trek Zanskar Sumdo 3940m
We head across old glacial rocks and past side streams to our camp at the base of the valley that leads up to the main Himalayan barrier - make sure you have your sandals today, as we have to negotiate several side streams. It takes about three hours to reach our camp, but this is a pretty valley, there is no rush, and most trekkers feel the elevation, and need no excuse to go slow. Camp, 'Zanskar Sumdo' (literally, 'The junction for Zanskar') is a series of clearings at the base of an old moraine, with snow peaks peering over the hilltops all around. We normally have lunch on arrival, and then spend the afternoon climbing high above the camp for even better views. We have tomorrow here, so unpack and settle in. Over dinner Joel will talk over the options for our acclimatization day.
Day 7 - Zanskar Sumdo 3940m
Breakfast in the sun, and then we are heading off for our walk. Several options, but the most attractive is to head west on the trail that leads to some remote passes to the Miyar glacier, a trail we are exploring in 2009. The trail leads through some lovely pastures and small lakes, crossing some icy glacial side streams, with some great views of the peaks. We carry lunch and can make a full day of it, but most trekkers have preferred to be back in camp for lunch. Again over dinner Joel with Lobsang will talk over our next day on the trail.
Day 8 - Trek Ramjak 4400m / Chumik Nakpo
And now we head up...crossing the Darcha river first, normally just by the bridge, but sometimes we have to ford a couple of streams before the bridge. Then straight up the steep hillside ahead, slowly making the 200m to the top, with views back across the Pir Panjal, a perfect excuse to stop and rest. We progress slowly higher today, the trail contouring high above the valley then dropping to some (blessed!) green pasture where we can top up our water bottles before climbing to our feet to make more elevation. We lunch in a pretty clearing, and after seven hours walking reach one of many camps that we use; it all depends on how we are acclimatizing. We aim at being in camp by three at the latest, to settle in and get ready for crossing the Himalaya!
Day 9 - Cross the Himalaya via Shingo La 5000m to Lakong 4329m
We have to move early today as the snowcap on the pass can be hard for our horses later; so we aim to be on the trail by five at the latest. Have all your gear for the day laid out ready the night before; headtorch to avoid that fumbling, down jacket, gloves, sunglasses - all covered in the briefing. The trail climbs gently away from camp - look out for the side streams crossing the trail, they can be frozen at this hour - until at seven we rest together, drink and snack at a wonderful viewpoint, looking back to the mountains of the Pir Panjal. Then we cross the first glacial ice, walking on old snow, then more rubble. At this point of 4700m our kitchen crew normally overtake us, dressed in all their 'Tibetan-bandit-snowboard-chic' as one trekker called it, closely followed by our horse team, banging and clattering with cheerful shouts and laughter. Now we have a steep 100m climb on a sandy trail opposite the old glacier - then we reach the lake that marks the plateau the pass sits on - look north and you will see the fluttering prayer flags on the pass. Then we are on top, taking in the true Himalayan views, and pity Andrew Wilson, the first Brit to cross in 1849 - he was so obnoxious to his porters that they abandoned him here and he slept out on the pass! Our crew always make a point of being together for a few moments here with us - putting up our prayer flags, and shouting their thanks to the Gods to all the winds of Asia.
And down; snowfields and more rubble, then a real trail zig zagging down. There may be some old glacial ice to negotiate and as ever look to Lobsang to find the correct way; we rock hop some streams, then relax and lunch in our first meadows. Look across the valley and you will see the black dots that are the yaks of the Kargyak villagers grazing in their high pastures. After lunch the trail is an easy one hour to our camp in the riverside pastures known as 'Lakong' or 'Gateway' for the door into Zanskar. The views from this camp are totally sublime - we have crossed the Himalaya and are in Zanskar!
Day 10 - Trek Kargyak 4050m
Today is a classic Himalayan trekking day as we cross the Kargyak Chu and wend our way among the rocks that litter the slopes of the Gumbarajon, literally 'Natural Gompa' soaring high above the pastures that the Kargyak villagers move their flocks up to when summer arrives. After resting by a crystal clear stream that flows from this granite monolith, we meet the first of the Doksas (summer camps) where we are normally offered fresh yoghurt as the newborn yaks crash around us - do not venture to close to these cute creatures if their mothers are on hand!
We progress on across the high pastures, and at around noon Lobsang will lay out our lunch; crisp salads, cheese, fresh baked bread and fruit. If it is a warm day, a post lunch siesta is always in order! Moving on across this classic high Asian landscape, stopping to watch the afternoon light on the Gumbarajon, we pass piles of rocks, Mani walls, marked with the Buddhist mantra, 'Om mani padme hum', and soon we reach our first chorten. These line our route across the Buddhist land we traverse - originally in the early days of Buddhism in India, they were burial mounds, later developing, in a religion with no art tradition, into a representation of the seated Buddha, or even the upturned begging bowl of a monk. Then we crest a rise and there is Kargyak in all its summer greens and gold's spreading down to our camp on the banks of the Kargyak Chu. As we move through the narrow lanes of the village, we may be joined by Singge, the boy we sponsor, home for the holidays. Our camp has views back to the Gumbarajon in the upper valley, and although a lovely spot, the winds gusting down from the Main Himalayan range can snatch a pre pegged tent from the hand of an unwary trekker and end up in the river - so take care! Normally we give school supplies to the village children we have come to know over the years, so expect a horde of delightful waifs with your afternoon tea.
Day 11 - Trek Tetha 3870
Today we try and get away early as this section can be incredibly hot with little shade. We head down to recross the Kargyak Chu to Karu, from where we can see our home for the night, Tetha. To walk through the barley fields and along stonewalled lanes in the late afternoon is a delight - villagers busy in the fields, calling their hellos to us. All in, it is, by our route, a full day to our camp, and we should arrive by four, perfect to enjoy the afternoon light in this wonderful spot where we spread out among the threshing circles below the village. There is a 'king' in the village who sometimes calls himself the 'King of Zanskar' and bears an amazing resemblance to the famous travel writer, Eric Newby, in fact his son studies in London, and works in an outdoor shop - we regularly deliver his letters to the King; the family actually rule (or did) the stretch of territory between Tetha and Kargyak. As always, the village children will descend on us in the evening, most of them simply content to watch the foreigners go about their evening chores.
Day 11 - Trek Purne 3820m
Along trails lined with chortens, high above the river, today is three or perhaps four hours if you dawdle (and feel free to) with a junction Joel will remind you to look out for, less then an hour before Purne, the trail descends to the river, we normally post one of our guys there...trekkers in their daydreaming mode sometimes cruise past and have to be rescued! Purne sits on a plateau above the confluence of the Tsarap and Kargyak chu, with two extended families living in classic old tumbledown houses spread among poplar and willow trees - and despite being a bit of a bottleneck, one of the few places we will encounter other trek groups, is a delightful spot. Our old friend Dolma runs the village shop, and she knows our groups of old; she has a shower room and for the princely sum of 50rs you can get a bucket of hot water to enjoy, and of course, she has beer. The energetic can scramble up to the prayer flags on the outcrop high above the camp...or simply settle down with a book.
Day 17 - Trek Sumdo (Karmafu) 3780m
Incredible as it seems, six years have passed since we first explored this remote valley; and we have never seen any other trekking groups in this strange 'lost world' we enter when we cross the pass today. It is a long day, crossing the high plateau of central Zanskar with superb views; we then turn away from Zanskar to ascend steeply past a wolf trap maintained by the Zangla villagers to the pass at 4430m, the desert like Namtse La. Then we descend through poplar and willow forest below a series of wind formed crags before climbing a small col marked by blue sheep horns, from where we can see the perfect camp, a plateau above a bend in the river; after setting up camp the crystal clear stream is perfect for a swim.
Day 18 - Trek Bear valley camp 3980m
A shorter day today, following this remote valley; the trail is not always the best, so do make sure you have firm footing before you scan the valley sides for ibex; we have several exposed trails to negotiate, and an ice bridge to climb over or go under; the valley is rightly called a 'lost world' for both the weirdness of the rock formations and the wildlife. By early afternoon we should be in camp, again perfect for a swim in the beautiful rock pools near the camp.
Day 19 - Trek Neraks 3710m
The ascent starts immediately after breakfast as we climb gently to a river junction rock hopping across streams. After an hour the steep climbing starts in earnest, first to a small pass, or rather saddle at 4000m, where we rest and look across the most amazing valley; dropping steeply below us to the left - to the right is our trail that traverses the top of the valley, crossing a stream with the last water before the pass, and beginning the climb in earnest towards the 4800m Takti La. As always with Himalayan passes, the idea is to go slow and easy, stop and take in the views, have a drink, take a picture. Soon you turn a final corner and you see the prayer flags on the horizon with a spectacular panorama ahead, including our next few passes. If it is not too windy, we will lunch on top and string our prayer flags - then down! Its over 1000m to our camp in Neraks, and again, take it slow to look after those knees and ankles. If Anything the view gets more spectacular as we descend, looking down into the Zanskar gorge far below. After some seven hours on the trail Neraks with its surrounding barley fields come into sight, and soon we are in camp at this lovely village.
Day 20 - Trek Yelchung 3900m
Another day, another pass or two. We descend first to the Zanskar river which we cross by a classic bridge; trekkers spent one sunny afternoon in 2004 judging the drop by dropping rocks into it! Then up again; a tight gully normally sprinkled with the vivid pink Zanskar rose, you can see the top shortly after you start the climb, and a while after we start Tenpa, Punsok and co. normally overtake us, sweating off last nights rum! After so many days on the trail, the 500m climb is not too tough, and from the top of the pass, the 3850m Cho Cho kauri la, we can see the trail switch backing around corners towards Yelchung; we lunch on a small plateau with amazing views back towards the Zanskar gorge, then will be in camp early afternoon. The village is one of the loveliest in Ladakh, the name meaning 'small kingdom' presumably because of its isolation. As we descend into the village, to the right you can see the old monastery, which is worth a diversion; the new one is near our camp on a grassy platform in the village.
Day 21 - Trek Singge valley camp 4430m
Today we ascend to the 5000m Singge La (Singge meaning 'lion') on good trails; after the first hour the pass comes into sight, a classic saddle far above. After two hours we reach the collection of rocky clearings known as Singge base camp. From here we rock hop an icy stream, then climb steeply until just over an hour puts us on top, a beautiful pass on which the monks from Lingshed monastery built a chorten some years ago. The horses normally pass us on top, then descend ahead of us in a beautiful camp far below.
Day 22 - Trek Photoksar 4200m
An easier day today, with a trail that meanders along above the valley bottom, slowly making gentle elevation until we reach the small 4400m Bumiktse La; shortly after we begin the descent the beautiful village of Photoksar, probably one of the most photographed in the Himalaya, comes into sight and we descend opposite to a small camp upstream of the village.
Day 23 - Trek Honupatta 3960m
We are coming to the end of our summer journey, ascending our last pass, the 4950m Sirsir La, another beautiful viewpoint across this lovely kingdom in the sky. After we reach the pass we descend slowly to the long spread out village of Honupatta; soon a road will be making its way up here, so time to enjoy the peace of a Himalayan valley. The villagers are old friends and will visit us to sell us beer, coke and rum. This is our last night with the horsemen, so time for tips and a goodbye to this superb team.
Day 24 - drive to Leh 3500m
The road is slowly making its way up the valley, but we still have a two hour walk through pretty scenery and deep gorges that one day will now be a popular jeep trip - from our pick up point it is four hours drive back to Leh, our welcoming hotel, the Shaynam, hot showers and dinner.
Day 28 - Delhi & depart
Up early for a spectacular flight across the Himalaya. Goodbye for now!
See you again in the Himalaya soon!