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A Season in Heaven

Ladakh 2003

By Joel Schone

“O let the sun beat down on my face – the stars to fill my dreams”
Robert Plant, ‘Kashmir’

Carnival. A riot of colours, smells, faces and laughter. Campsites lazy in the afternoon sun as our trekkers relax, drink tea and review their day. From 19 to 54, 30 of them, from Switzerland, Germany, the USA, Great Britain, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, Brazil and Canada.

Sore footed and sun dizzy through long days in a landscape that we became part of as the days merged into one long moment. All of us at times found it hard, as in life, there were highs and lows; but all of us, I can say, loved it. It was a summer full of wonderful encounters both physical and spiritual as our trekkers explored the remote Tibetan kingdoms we love. From the walk into Kibber at the end of 'Caravan' to the lush green forests of the Kulu valley-eyes drinking it all in after weeks in high Asia. Emerging from the gorges of Panji at the end of our Zanskar treks to be jeeped away to cold beer and Tandoori in Leh. We toasted ourselves and studied our weather beaten faces in the bathroom mirrors; did I really just walk across the Himalaya?

2003 puts us up there with the finest trek operators in Asia; years of hard work, trekking and study. Our style of trek, our unique routes, and our unrivalled knowledge of the culture, geography, and history of the remote Tibetan kingdoms we love. We run special treks, and this summer we were blessed as usual with special people that joined us.

Passes – count them, 30 crossings in all; desert passes, snow passes. Passes where all the winds of Asia tore at our faces as we scanned the snowy horizons of Tartary as the early explorers did; passes we sunbathed and lunched on, and passes we hurried over. A 4 am start on the first one, the Shingo La, we hurried down with storm clouds on our heels. But away in the forests of Manali, Tenpas’ wife, Nyima Lhamo, had done Pujas for us every day since we left and we came down safe. On the last one above Korzok, Malc and I strung our prayer flags and watched the afternoon autumn sun on Tso Moriri, that turquoise expanse of water at 4600m on the Changthang that is truly the jewel in Project Himalaya's crown.

To live is to learn and to learn is to live. As Singge, the Zanskari boy we sponsor has learned to be a little boy again this year, along with mastering Hindi and some English, so we learnt more. Kim discovered the 'Derelict' palace above Zangla in Zanskar is in fact being renovated, and we took our trekkers into the high chamber where Alexander Csoma de Koros, the first European Tibetan scholar, spent a 19th century winter. Leading Ladakhi Scholar Sadiq Wahid had me hushed as he talked me through some intricate Tibetan history.

It was also a summer for wildlife – blue sheep stampeding our camp in clouds of dust. Wolves waking us up with their howling at Tso Kar. A brief glimpse of a big cat on the ridge above Tso Moriri had us scrambling for binoculars, and Tibetan antelope facing down Malc and I on a windswept pass as dusk fell. And of course that magical moment we look forward to every year as we stalk our first Kyang, pawing the ground and snorting derision at us, as our first bear encounter had the villagers of Nerak snorting. Until the digital cameras came out, that is.

 

“Talk of days when dates slip away, and all will be revealed”
Robert Plant, ‘Kashmir’

Long days, but so many joys. Walking into Kargyak, and seeing Singge, the boy we sponsor, home for the holidays. Instead of a cunning and fearful survivor, a sweet and kind boy. In a life of broken promises, one I managed to keep. Our friend Dolma in Purne of course, wide smile at the prospect of another group for her beer and hot showers. And of course, our trekkers. Beau returning for the third time, virtually carrying Helen and Kim over the Parang Chu in flood, and reducing Kim to hysterical laughter with his end of trek speech.

John Soos, at last in Zanskar after 4 years of talking, was freaking out in excitement to be on the trail of his fellow Hungarian Alexander Csoma de Koros . Helen and Evan, met at Gokyo in Nepal in 2000, made it, delighting us with a bag of blue cheese they carried through the heat of Delhi, and Evans’ shouting match with a very aggressive marmot was a moment to remember! David filmed every moment of his trek then in the fall invited Lobsang to trek Annapurna in Nepal with him. The last I saw of him he was cruising the bars of Thamel with a very cute Irish girl!

Joachim, the only non English speaker, was polite to the last despite being called everything from Jock to Yogurt. Matthias was decimated by a tummy bug but thanks to Nic and Kim's diagnostic skills rallied, recovered and he and Helen flew over the Parang La. Garrett dosed his bug with rum in true emerald isle style, then topped out on Stok Kangri with Lobsang, one of three 6000m successes for him this year. Nic was given the dubious accolade of ‘like Tibetan woman, too much talking’ by the crew, and went on with Jamie and Richard to a frenzy of 6000m peaks.

Curt was so studious of the flora we thought we lost him, and Steve, with David dubbed the ‘Aloha twins’, sarong clad was so studious of the women we wished we could lose him! Jack Sherifkin, far from the academic corridors of the NYC library, collapsed in a heap of steaming khaki every night, but always got there, and was dubbed ‘Grizzly Jack’ for his naked bathing and Alaskan tales.

Zane Dickey, terrifying his roommate John with his waking happens, was, well, just Zany! Roberta from the US had the disadvantage of joining a well proven team halfway through the trek; hunted down in the bazaars of Leh in true ‘great game’ style by Kim, she effortlessly fitted in and enjoyed every moment of her short trip.

Canadians (6 this year) are warming to the Himalaya and Tom and Maryann gave us sage back woods advice when confronted with bears. "Get out of here!".

Proving our trips are truly multi generational, Tom and Tom, gap year students, played ruthless monopoly, and showed their true colours when we were night-bound on a pass; Tom H with his good humour and Tom C for coming out to look for his friend. Although Tom C horrified Kim with his music taste, and of course Tom H, poor boy, had his head plaited by the girls; and Tom Cs comment after climbing Stok Kangri? "The best thing since I lost my virginity!" (Tom? Fibs?).

Gary, 'W' Campbell was deeply appreciative of our efforts, as was my dear brother Jason, companion from childhood adventures, university parties, and along with siblings Jeff and Jamie, Himalayan treks. Along with Erica for part of the trip, his dry quips were memorable. From the Monjo school in the Everest region in 2000 came Erica with her natural cures; how could you turn down a massage from those ET hands!! Only for an oh so brief two weeks, but she got to meet, and trek with the Monjo teacher from 2001 - Kim Bannister.

As an epilogue the 'Bailey group' in the Markha valley, with Champagne and birthdays, were wonderful company, and very appreciative. Joined by Malc Southern, told at 40 he could never do any heavy exercise, the operation that gave him titanium hips and part of his spine was so delicate, was set for a 6000m peak, and as we climbed it we watched the glittering snow of the Himalayan barrier stretch away to Nepal. An enchanting moment.

The crew, as ever, totally professional, Lobsang always there, be it bears, lost trekkers or hard passes; Tenpa and Punchok producing an incredible array of dishes, and of course Tsarap, with the eternal bidi; 'this is possible' as we again ask the impossible of the horse team. One of many reasons people come back is our crew, our friends. The moment when Beau or Don greet them again and share old memories. The moment our jeep drivers Wangchuk or Largyal greet us at journeys end. Moments to cherish.

And Kim, like her Kipling namesake diving into Asiatic disorder, but making order of it. Despite her at times illogical co-leader, coffee pot in one hand, account book in the other, smiling into the kitchen tent after nursing sick trekkers through a long day with 'can I do anything?' Smoothing male egos, defusing tension, she was always there, shopping in Manali and meeting trekkers at midnight. The success of the summer was hers. To watch Kim's love of life reflected in the shining eyes of a nomad woman as they compare bangles is to live.

Now, in the Tibetan settlement of Ro in Nepal’s Manaslu region, I talk the afternoon away with the lama in the village gompa and discovered the people of this valley, Nubri, came from Western Tibet in the 16th century. The first Lama was called Tashi Namgyal and his son, Singge, was named for the famous king of Ladakh, as they were descended from them. Echoes of a common Tibet throughout. Harvest sounds and scenes fill the air, and at this time of ending I feel my old age in the air, and pause at every prayer wheel to spin it and pray forgiveness for bad things I have done.

I walk through the warm autumn Street and bend to a pile of sun warmed barley. It’s an old ritual. I dip my hand deep into it and watch the barley – life – dribble through my fingers. Our season of enchantment in the Himalaya, with these remote Buddhist kingdoms, is made up of so many moments like this, from end to end of our home in the Himalaya.

A Zanskar rose crumbles pink and delicate in my hand, so fleeting, like life and love in these places. Kim's shriek of delight as she sees Singge. It develops into one special moment for us all, a beacon calling us back. An impulse of delight.

A place of dreams, a place to feel at home.

 

“My Shangri la beneath the summer moon; I will return again – as soon as the dust blows hot in June…”
Robert Plant, ‘Kashmir’

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