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Kim in the Indian Himalaya 2003
by Kim Bannister
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Kinnaur bike trip
This wonderful year of Himalayan journeys started with an informal bike trip in Kinnaur, tucked away in the foothills of the Indian Himalaya, with Joel and two adventuresome clients, Corrin and Michael. This was an exploratory trip of sorts, made all the more interesting for the unexpected twists that we encountered along the way (are ALL the Dak bungalows closed in this village, where is that chowkidar?).
Kinnaur is an ancient Buddhist Kingdom with as much Central Asian as Tibetan influence in architecture, dress and religion, and quite different than the Ladakh and Zanskar that we trek in during the summer months. We camped next to intricately carved Kinnauri castles, stayed in Indian Government Public Works Houses ('colonial' rest houses, to me) and colorful (in character more than appearance) semi-deserted Indian 'hotels', ate delicious meals in local 'dhabas' and enjoyed scorching fires inside the windowless 'winter rooms' in a local Kinnaur home, entered through a miniature door in the kitchen. Temba and Largial followed along in the jeep and took us in if we were tired, the ice on the road seemed too treacherous or Joel led us down yet another incredibly precipitous road thousands of feet above the river below. In all, the trip was great fun because of its 'exploratory' nature - the kind that we rarely have on 'vacation' anymore – as well as an intriguing look into the intricate culture of Kinnaur, all well off the tourist track. We finished the trip, appropriately, in the bazaars of Shimla, the same Shimla that Kimpling's Kim romped in during his early years before the start of the 'great search' throughout Hindustan with his Lama.
Zanskar Spring - Boys in the tent
It was wonderful as usual to meet our friends and trekking team in the Tibetan colony in Manali. Temba and his lovely wife, Nyima Lhamo, were as welcoming as usual, and it was great to see their two children growing up. Nyima Lhamo, always the hostess, welcomes us (and all our trekkers) every year with silk Tibetan 'kata' scarves, making every arrival in Manali special. Lobsang and Temba get to work sorting through the trekking gear, stored in Lobsang's apartment before the three of us, with Joel, head to the bazaars of Manali to do the trek shopping, my favorite bit of trek preparation!
This summer's first trek in the Indian Himalayas I've renamed the 'boys-in-the-tent' trek as I spend the next month trekking with eight men, Dave, Steve, Zane, John , Garrett, Joachim, Jack and Joel - things could be worse! We began north of Manali, and immediately encountered a valley of bizarre snow and ice pinnacles and through the valley leading up to the Shingo La pass into Zanskar. John Soos, one of our Canadian trekkers, pretty much summed up the early days of the trek. “Boy, that 'ole Zanskar Traverse seems like ages ago now. But what a truly amazing time we had. Crossing the Shingo La (Death-By-Cold Pass), and those terrifying, steep, narrow, slippery, exposed, shale tracks! Whoa! I thought I'd never overcome my fear of those challenging, God-forsaken, windswept trails. But, we all managed to take a deep breath, say a prayer, and somehow carefully negotiated the paths. Brilliant.” Anyone wanting documentation of this epic trek can refer to Dave, who recorded all our incredible (and not so incredible) moments of the trek on video, and later played them back to us in the fashion of an eight-hour mini-series. No wonder Lobsang drank four bottles of Godfather extra-strong beer and broke the sink!?
There was no lack of comedy on the trek. Dave's brother, Steve, was continuously wandering off the trail, shockingly clad in a sexy, red sarong, and Zane felt obligated to drop his short with a song-n-dance at every bend in the trail. And there are many. The Aloha Brothers (Dave & Steve) and Zane, all living in Jakarta, were here on vacation! Garrett joined right in in true Irish style, John Soos just never stopped, and Jack kept us entertained with stories of canoeing with Grizzly bears in Alaska. Joachim, the only non-native English speaker in the crowd, endured the corruption of his name with good humor, Lobsang dubbed him 'Yogurt', and Garret 'Carrot'.
We met the young Zanskari boy that we sponsor and send to a Zanskari school in Manali, Singge, in his native village of Kargyak en route to Ladakh, and spoiled him with chocolate cake and presents, not that he needed any extras after all the attention that he commanded from our group!
Our historian, John, was following in the footsteps of his Hungarian guru-scholar, “I've continued doing my research on the life and travels of my compatriot, Alexander Csoma de Koros, the Hungarian hermit, mystic scholar who spent time in both Phuktal and Zangla. You may recall how it blew me away, when I unexpectedly encountered his history at these remote places.” We 'discovered' in the dzong (castle/gompa/home of the kings) in the ancient capital of Zangla the room of this renowned Tibetan scholar, and then an un-locked lhakhang (prayer room) stocked with all sorts of incredible Buddha statues, ancient thankas and other unbelievably valuable Buddhist statues and relics.
That's how Ladakh and Zanskar are, they continuously blow you away with their intense, rugged and unexpected beauty, the happy, innocent faces of the children, the genuine smiles of the nomads as they hand you a bowl of their fresh yak curd topped with tsampa (roasted barley flour) or a glass of chang, the gongs and drums of the Tibetan Buddhist pujas in chilly, butter-lamp lit gompa assembly halls, the fortresses catching the last rays of sunlight atop jagged spires of rock and the wandering monks dressed in burnt-orange and vibrant (if a bit dirty) yellow silk robes.
Hanging colorful strings of Tibetan prayer flags, or 'lung ta', which send out prayers to the world over the Himalayas, and tying our silk 'kata' scarves as offerings to the mountain deities, also previously gifts to us, feels as important in Ladakh and Zanskar as anything in the world.
We had some issues with exposure on the trek (I might have been responsible for the briefings that morning) as we skirted six inch trails teetering over thousand-foot drops into the gorge below, but all made it to the campsite safely for our yearly 'Exposure Party'. I don't think anyone really crawled, did they?
Caravans of the Changthang
The next India trek was Caravans of the Changthang, with Helen and Evan, Beau, Mattias & Helen, Roberta, (and Nic, Richard and Jamie before their climb), which has become a 'classic' trek over the past few summers.
This summer we also saw Tibetan and Ladakhi nomads en route to their summer settlements from over the Himalayas in Tibet with their yaks, sheep and goats, or camped in their yak-wool gurs (tents) on the side of Lake Tso Moriri. Our 'kora' or circumambulation Lake Tso Moriri is a high-light of the trek for anyone. It is a stunningly turquoise brackish lake (that some of us even briefly swam in – very cold!), situated at about 4,500 meters on the Tibetan plateau, and home to flocks of pink-winged Brahmini ducks and Bar-headed geese, as well as many kiang (wild ass), some wolves (which we didn't see), hundreds of marmots and pikas (Himalayan mouse hares), and the occasional Himalayan fox. We ate fresh yogurt from the nomads' yaks, drank chang with them, nibbled on their dried cheese and occasionally visited a gur for some salt-butter tea. All the time keeping an eye out for the ubiquitous mastiff, growling from across the sheep-dung blanketed 'front lawn'.
This trek was a real adventure this year, starting with being (literally) stampeded by six aggressive male Blue Sheep. Apparently we were camped too close to their women and children, and they made a real show out of charging down the mountainside right towards the campsite, leaving a large trail of dust in their wake. (The females and younger sheep, oblivious, continued their mating games and playing on the sheer cliff faces across the stream from us, a show in itself). Joel and the clients crossed several 'new' 5000 meter passes on a new route to Lake Tso Moriri when I went back to Leh to bring Rachael into the fold, and we later forded wide, fast-flowing rivers time and time again (with Beau and Lobsang virtually carrying the rest of us across the rivers, barely holding on as we were swept off our feet by the currents) and crossed the highest pass of the trek, the Parang La leading into Spiti, trekking across a surreal glacial valley of sunken, contouring streams and undulating fields of ice and snow to reach the prayer-flag festooned pass looking down over the dun-hued, scorching ranges and valleys of Spiti.
Mattias got quite sick partway through the trek, and was lovingly nursed to health by Helen and Nic … and then ended up being the strongest team on the trek (with Helen). Throughout the trek, Helen kept time with Lobsang (amazingly), Even communed with the marmots, and Beau, when not keeping us in stitches with his university stories, had his headphones on and a few kilos of CDs in his pack! Roberta was great company, having arrived late and almost not being 'found' in the maze of bazaars in Leh, and had the difficult task of keeping up with the already acclimatized trekkers. We left Evan, who had to return to work early, with our jeep driver, Wangchuck, at the nomad headquarters of Karzok, tearfully. Boys don't cry? (But so did Helen).
We finished this epic trek at Kibber, near the famous Ki Gompa, where Helen and I were escorted by jeep out of range of a Bollywood movie. Is there no sacred spot for Indian film crews in India, even in the far-reaches of the Himalaya?
My last trek in Ladakh was our Remote Zanskar trek with Beau (again), Tom & Tom, Gary, Tom & MaryAnn, Curt, Erica, Jason. (This was the BEAR trek for those waiting for a good adventure story …). This trek started again over the Shingo La, but veered off at Zangla into a wonderful, narrow canyon with ochre, sun-kissed walls, blooming pink Zanskar roses and a stream bubbling down the center of it. A difficult climb brought us to the pass into bear country the following day, after all of us getting a bit … lost … and dehydrated en route to camp. Nothing serious, yet. The next rainy, cloud-shrouded morning, after cresting the first small pass to a wooded-stream and boulder-strewn hillsides of rich, red dirt and low shrubs and trees, we had our 'bear sighting'. Lobsang sighted the Himalayan brown bear first, and beckoned me to come, and soon we were all assembled, cameras out, watching to see what our bear would do. He (or she) was obviously a bit agitated, but became a bit aggressive as I suggested to Beau and Tom that we might stand up taller to seem more intimidating to the bear. This is NOT what you do to Himalayan Brown bears, apparently, although I can't remember if you are really supposed to do this with ANY bears.
So, with the advice of Tom from Canada who works in the forest service, we legged it down-valley, through the river, sticks in hand (it seemed safer; Lobsang had a plan that we were never quite clear on) only to encounter more bears, and, we realized, really big ones, watching us from up on the bank across the river. This time we kept our cameras in our daypacks, and trekked/jogged across precipitous sandy trails high above the river, through narrow, contoured rock passageways in the valley, now turned into a narrow gorge, back through the river time and again, over and under snow-bridges that covered the trail and the river, and finally emerged into a beautiful, narrow valley of green saplings and rocky river banks, and found that we were following a trail of increasingly fresh BEAR SCAT. (We checked for berries carefully). So making 'scare-the-bear' noises and trying to keep track of our big group of trekkers, we kept going, looking for a good, bear-free campsite. This was our first year trekking through this valley, so it was essentially an exploratory trek.
A bit further and a bit higher brought us to the first of two impressive and extremely difficult passes (because of the altitude), and the wind started blowing and the snow/sleet started falling as we neared the top of the first (or second depending on the order of the trekkers) pass. By this time the horses had caught us up, and several of us followed them down the other side of the pass, still taking the wrong trail down the valley in the poor visibility, but discovering our mistake not long afterwards. We arrived at our campsite in the village below just before sunset (which was at 7:30 or so this time of year). The rest of the group, including Joel and Lobsang, still hadn't arrived after dark, so Tom and Tom and I headed two hours back up the mountain with a local guide (without soles on his shoes) to find them with only small headlamps for light. There was no moon or stars that night, so it was eerie heading back up to the pass in the silent, black night, but we finally found our errant trekkers far above, having finished off a jar of peanut butter and now in better spirits, being led down the mountain by Beau's small, fading flashlight. So all ended well, and we headed back down to our own Tibetan gur (dining tent, in this case) for dinner and a few pecks of Indian Army rum. This day was an adventure-of-adventures, not to be forgotten soon!
We connected with the Ladakh – Zanskar traverse trail after a truly breath-taking trail over yet another few passes, past idyllic Ladakhi villages with billowing fields of barley and corn, incredible rock faces and surrounded by mountain peaks on all sides, and all decided that this must be one of the most beautiful trails in all of the Himalaya.
This was a special trek for me because I got to meet and trek with Erica, who had taught in Monjo the year before I did, and became a great friend, along with re-supplying us with goodies from the US and acting as resident 'Aruvedic' healer. She even left us with an American Indian 'dream catcher' for the tent – a more appropriate gift for the Indian Himalaya treks couldn't be imagined! I also met Joel's brother, Jason, who had a hard time with the altitude but managed to keep us in stitches throughout the trek anyways with his stories of life in Britain. Team Schone! And introduced us to our theme song of the summer, “Kashmir”, best in the live version turned up in our gur! Tom & Tom, in their 'gap' year from school in England, were full of enthusiasm, interested in everything, and kept the gur lively with games and music, led in this endeavor by the seasoned Beau from 'his' corner of the gur (this is his third summer trekking with us, and he spend two months this year, fully enjoying every day of it!). Tom and Maryann, on their first trip to Asia, were an incomparable team in terms of pulling the group together, helping out (Tom led the rescue mission on our moonless night from Nyarak) in any way they could, and were just generally great company throughout. Curt was also full of intriguing stories (what a life he's had!), but hardly had time to tell them all as he constantly had his head to the ground picking samples of flowers and plants, and Gary, with his good humor, knowledge of Asia (he lives in HK) and trekking experience in countries such as Bhutan, was so great to have along.
After the trek, I stayed at a wonderful guest house in Leh in a big, new room with windows on all sides, green trees surrounding me and a gurgling canal below. I spent a week or so exploring the many shops in the bazaar, and finding all sorts of Central Asian treasures. Leh is magical at the end of the summer when many of the tourist head back to Delhi, and before all the Tibetans pack up their stalls and return to Manali, Goa or Delhi. Sunny mornings, warm days for long walks and cool evenings of Tandoori and cold beers.