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Crossing the Himalaya
A trek from Ladakh to Spiti
by Edwin Gruber, Summer 2001
Edwin and Angela trekked across Ladakh on the 2001 Caravan 6666 trip. For a change you don't have to read about the antics of Joel and Jamie and the team, this article is about Ladakh, not us!
After two visits in 1997 and 98 Ladakh certainly had an incredibly strong attraction on us. Its Buddhist culture, its wonderful people and the colours of the stark yet beautiful landscape drew us back. Also, the challenge of trekking through the high level wilderness from Ladakh to Spiti, partly through an area which is not recorded accurately on any available map, was an added impetus.
So on July 17 we flew to Delhi, after a few hours in a hotel, we thought we would fly on to Leh, but on arrival at the National Airport were told our flight was cancelled and we would spend the next day at the Centaur Hotel near the airport. We took it easy, rested and slept, read and relaxed, returned to the airport early the next morning, took off, but heard from the pilot some 15 minutes later that we had to return to Delhi due to “a slight mechanical problem”. As we landed in Delhi again we saw several fire engines and ambulances on either side of the runway and surmised that maybe the problem had not been as slight as had been made out. Anyway, were safe and a few hours later made it at the third attempt. After a wonderful flight in beautifully clear weather we landed in Leh, where Kunzang, who immediately brought us to Zilzom in Sabu, where we had spent two wonderful summers in previous years, met us.
The next ten days were spent leisurely, we walked to Leh on several occasions, we revisited several monasteries, like Thikse, Hemis and Gotsang, and we went to Alchi, which we had not been able to see on our last visit. We also spent several days with the Zilzom family, walked to the local gompa in Sabu with Wangmo, visited some monks we knew and wherever we went we were invited to tea and biscuits.
I also spent an amazing day at Sankar for the dedication of a wonderful sand mandala. The symbolism of impermanence of everything created is conveyed in a very powerful and meaningful way during the ceremony of breaking the mandala.
Angela spent another day with the Zilzom family while I went for a training walk for the trek and she visited the son-in-law in his new home, where over recent years he had planted thousands of trees at the very edge of the desert. With his unassuming determination to make the desert fertile and to halt its spread, he can be an example to us. Even though the local council had told him as he tried to enlist their help some years ago, that he had no chance of success, he was convinced he could succeed and through his perseverance proved that he was right.
We felt we had had the right preparation for our long 30-day trek across the main ridge of the Himalayas. Thankfully also, the trek started gently. We needed further acclimatization and during the first 4 days we rose slowly and gently up to Gongmaru La at 5175 metres. The weather was mixed, but rising through the dramatic river gorge with its bizarre rock bands and its fascinating pattern of light was wonderful. At Gongmaru La base camp, Lobsang our guide, and Temba, our cook, saw a snow leopard, after we had observed a herd of blue sheep descend at speed past our camp. By the time we had get out of the food tent, it was out of sight. We can continue dreaming that one day we might see one after all.
The pass with its stunning views of Kang Yatse clearly was a first highlight.
The next two days were spent at the high level pastures of Nimaling at 4.750 metres. Two groups of nomadic herders spend their summers there with hundreds of goats, which they drive up different pastures on every single day. Although we had glorious weather, the nights were bitterly cold with sharp frosts and one could only imagine the harshness of life for the nomads in worse weather than we had.
In the afternoon of our rest day I walked to the moraine of Kang Yatse. Over grassy slopes I reached a hugely dramatic lookout point opposite the majestic mountain. The lengthening shadows on the peak gave rise to a series of photos, which show some of the glory of that beautiful peak.
During the following days we ascended a second pass over 5.000 metres, down a dramatic river valley and up towards one of the most dramatic passes during the trek, the Zalung Karpo La. The way up this pass was long and arduous, but we were rewarded with dramatic views back as well as into Zanskar and toward the ranges of snowy mountains we were to reach some 3 weeks later. A long descent brought us to the Sorra valley and one of the most beautiful camp sites on the whole trek.
We woke up to rain and bitter cold, but that soon gave way to warmer and clearer weather with just the occasional shower during the rest of the day. Not too far above us there had been new snow overnight.
The gorge we descended through and the following gorge up river into the valley of Dat were amongst the most dramatic scenery I have ever encountered. At one spot in the gorge, where we had our lunch, someone had beautifully painted symbols of different religions on the rock with the dedication “peace to all beings”.
The whole valley is uninhabited during summer, the two villages only serve as winter settlements, but as we emerged from the narrow gorge we came across some amazing shrines, decorated with beautifully carved stones, which our guide estimated to be over 500 years old. Throughout the valley there were beautifully kept mani walls with miniature works of art. The Karmapa was going to visit Dat a few weeks after we came through and we could sense the deep relevance of that visit for the local nomadic population. The monastery was opened for us and a lama performed a puja and prayers. To us Westerners living at this altitude in this severe environment seemed a very harsh reality, yet the shrines and mani walls, the gompa and its images conveyed a deep inner sense of meaning, a sense of inner peace and serenity, symbolising something eternal in an impermanent world. Om mani padme hum, the unity and interdependence of all life is comprehensible in this environment, life is experienced fully and directly without all the gadgets of “modern life”, which too often make us forget how interrelated all phenomena are. We could have lingered here, but the trek followed a time scale, which had to be adhered to, and so, on the next morning, we embarked on possibly the toughest stage of the whole trek. Four hours of trekking through desert like landscape with no water brought us to the foot of the next pass, the Tar La. At the top at 4.850 metres, yet again there was a beautiful shrine with carved stones, we added our prayer flags to those already fluttering in the wind, and wished for the happiness of all beings.
The camp in Lungmoche provided the much needed rest after a very hard day.
The next day on our way to Sangtha we were passing along the edge of the mountain vastness of Rupshu. Vast valleys with powerful rivers in a high level desert of stark beauty again made us aware of the harshness of life here. During this day we saw our first kiang, wild horses which move incredibly gracefully through this wilderness. Not dissimilar to Dat, in Sangtha there also is a winter village for the local nomads, who use the warmer summer months to take their animals to higher grazing grounds, which are not accessible in winter. Accordingly the settlement was empty, but we could see the stones marking out the area of the tents with fireplaces, room for the small shrine and entrance. The next day at Narbus we were to see a summer camp built on the same basis.
Just across the river at Sangtha there was an amazing array of stupas and wonderful rock carvings. Both for sunset and sunrise the next morning I paid a prolonged visit to this incredible place.
The next day led us across the Pogmar La (4.880 metres) to the nomadic settlement of Narbus. At an altitude of 4.700 metres the nomads, all Tibetan refugees, eke out a living for the summer months. This summer life was particularly hard, as the spring rains had not materialised, and the only source of water was a trickle out of a rock some twenty minutes’ walk above the camp. We saw several women with heavy buckets and a man with two laden horses bring water to the tents.
Our arrival was a most welcome distraction to the nomads, especially as our guide Lobsang was known among the group and his cousin lived in the settlement. We received visits from several of the nomads, one nomad in particular stayed for a long time. He received education in Dharamsala and revered the Dalai Lama above all others. When I showed him that I was reading a book by the Dalai Lama, he stayed even longer.
Just before nightfall, the herds of animals were driven into the camp from all directions and within minutes there were hundreds of goats, sheep and yaks. The goats were tied together and milked by the women until well after dark. The animals are of course the main wealth of the nomads and their well-being is extremely important. By the time the sun rose in the morning the animals were off again, driven into several different directions to different pastures, the nomads know that overgrazing any pastures is irreparable.
We were invited to the tent of Lobsang’s cousin, who lived there together with her husband and baby. We were immediately offered butter tea and yoghurt, which to my mind does not taste better anywhere else in the world. It had been made overnight from the milk obtained the previous night. Butter tea and yoghurt mixed with tsampa (roasted barley flour) is the staple diet of the nomads. Although the tent was extremely simple, it was homely with a fireplace in the middle and a little shrine with a photo of the Dalai Lama at one end. Apart from carpets, which the family had woven themselves, nothing covered the ground. What made the home special was that there clearly was love and happiness there. However, we had to move on, as a long stage waited for us.
During this next trekking day we crossed the first road since the start of the trek and as we crossed were given a lift in an army truck to Pang, the village where we were to meet our climbing guide. From there we moved upstream through a most dramatic gorge with incredible rock formations.
After crossing the Thelegung La (4.990 metres), we spent 3 days walking down a beautiful river valley to Tso Moriri. Angela spent her 50th birthday here and Temba, the cook, produced a marvellous birthday cake with icing, which tasted better than many a cake we had had at home.
Ever since we had first visited Tso Moriri, a magical lake situated in this remote mountain wilderness at about 4.600 metres, I had wanted to return. Previously we had only really had a glimpse of its beauty, as we had only spent some hours along its shores. This time we were to spend just over a week there, and circumambulate the whole lake.
The area is now designated a nature reserve and the WWF is doing some work there, which Rinchen, the local President of the Snow Leopard Society, told us was not too effective, as it did not take into account the needs of the people who live on the lake’s shores. The only village by the lake, Karzok, is rather run down and reflects the harshness of life here, particularly during the winter months. In the summer tourists bring some money, but the sprawling and rather filthy campsite in the village clearly shows that it cannot cope with larger numbers of tourists.
The main inhabitants of the area are nomads who bring their herds up here during the summer and use the lake’s shore and pastures above the lake alongside rivers as grazing areas. They are totally aware that by overgrazing any particular area they would cut their own vital supplies, so they move on constantly. All along the lake we could see signs of nomadic settlements, but during our time there we only came across 1 group with a rather large herd of some cattle, sheep and goats.
The northern and southern ends, the narrow sides from which 2 large rivers feed the lake which has no outlet, are particularly interesting, as in the swampy areas there is a wealth of wildlife. We saw hundreds of barheaded geese, which are a threatened species, because their natural habitat is shrinking, many ducks, waders, divers and smaller birds, and on many occasions we lingered to watch them through our binoculars. We saw wolves’ tracks in the sand, but were not lucky (or unlucky) enough to see one. Both on arrival and departure of the lake we saw kiang at the southern end and I really was struck by the beauty and grace of these animals.
Our first view as we traversed a rocky escarpment on the lake southern tip was dramatic, with the peak we were going to attempt some days later clearly visible. Straight after arriving at the camp, we had a thunderstorm and some heavy rain, but the views when it cleared just before sunset will be unforgettable.
The next day was a well-deserved rest day, which we used to wash clothes, read, go for little walks and for a swim. We did not stay in the water long, because it was rather cold, but a swim at this altitude was quite an experience.
The next day, when we traversed most of the south-western side of the lake, really made us aware of its size. It took us 8 hours to reach Karzok, we arrived in a rainstorm, were exhausted, and, to top it all, did not feel too well. We ate little, had a very early night and thankfully felt a lot better the next morning. We were ready to embark on one of the most beautiful parts of the trek:
After two hours on the jeep track to Karzok from the road head, we crossed, most of us in bare feet, the feeder streams into the northern end of the lake. Geese, ducks, waders, the reflections of the sunlight on the water, the sand dunes all conspired to give this stretch the feeling of magic. We lingered long, took lots of photos, and then were surprised by another heavy downpour just before we reached our camp on the eastern shore of the lake. However, the sun re-emerged quickly and the play of light and shade on the lake towards the setting sun were exquisite.
The next morning we set off further along the eastern shore, but the aim for those of us who wanted to climb the peak was to find the valley from which the peak might be approached. After two failed attempts we found the right valley and set off towards base camp in the latter part of the afternoon. At base camp just above 5000 metres it was cold and uncomfortable, but the climb in the morning up a steep river valley was exciting and brought us to a high camp with wonderful views over the lake and a whole vista of snow capped mountains towards the south-west. We were at nearly 5700 metres, higher than I had ever been, let alone slept, and I was surprised how well I slept during the night. We left well before daybreak and those early morning hours at altitude always are special, the intense light, the vivid colours and the amazing views which got more spectacular as we climbed, made this an overwhelming experience. Yes, it was hard, the air was very thin (less than 50% of the oxygen at sea-level) and I was slow, but I was feeling well and healthy, without even the headache that one comes to expect at really high altitudes. We were obviously very well acclimatized by now.
After about 4 hours, having ascended along the snout of a beautiful glacier for the last one of these, we had reached the point on the glacier, where we had to enter it in order to reach the summit ridge. My altimeter read 6305 metres, there was no cloud in the sky and the air seemed to have a clarity rarely witnessed in Europe. Jamie, our guide on the mountain was sure he could discern Nanda Devi, India’s highest mountain, in the distance. If it was, it must have been about 250 kilometres away. I took no time to make my decision to stop there and enjoy what I had achieved. I was higher than any peak in Europe, Africa or North America and felt I really wanted to celebrate this achievement and enjoy the glorious views while I could, feeling well and not too exhausted. So while the rest of the group ascended further, I left my prayer flags between some boulders, took numerous photos and when I started getting a bit cold I started my descent, slowly, appreciating the unique landscape and wondering whether I would ever return to this incredible area.
The rest of the group made it to the summit ridge, but not the peak and came back disappointed, but I felt I had achieved a great mountain ambition, I had climbed to above 6000 metres. After a few hours rest at high camp, I retuned to the lake with Rinchen, tired, but very happy.
A relaxing rest day on the shore of Tso Moriri followed. As we sat by the lake it was so completely still that we could see an almost perfect reflection of the surrounding mountains in it, until, some time mid afternoon, a wind came up from the West and the picture of the lake changed dramatically, with millions of sparks reflecting the setting sun on the waves.
I have been to very few places, which I have found so outstandingly beautiful as this lake. Nature is still undisturbed, the vastness shows us the perspective in which our lives occur, life is at peace.
We had another day of trekking along the lake, and this last stretch was possibly the most beautiful of them all. It was long, in places without a path, across dramatic headland and along the lake. We went for a last swim in the lake and then walked towards our camp in the marshland of the south-eastern end. Again we saw kiang, both in the evening and the following morning and were again impressed by their grace and beauty.
During the following days we moved into an area, which is not properly mapped. We were now approaching the main ridge of the Himalayas and leaving Ladakh. Snow-covered peaks were getting more frequent and we forged a route between mighty peaks, following a river valley upwards for 3 full days. At one stage we had to ford the river, which needed a bit of help from Lobsang, our strong Tibetan guide. The vegetation became increasingly sparse, horses found it more difficult to find grass during the overnight stays, and during the last night in that valley, near the foot of the Parang La, the highest pass we had to cross, there was no grass at all and the horses had the fodder the ponymen had brought from their nosebags.
We were at over 5100 metres, Parang La in all its glory was straight ahead and we were crossing it from north to south. The northern side was completely glaciated and the ascent on to glacier was the most difficult task, as the stream we had to cross was frozen over, the rocks slippery and the ice rock hard. By the time the sun rose we were high up on the glacier, taking in the glorious views and enjoying the last flat ascent to the pass. At over 5600 metres we left our last prayer flags and felt we had achieved the hardest part of the trek. We did not think it possible that the rest of that day was going to be much harder than the ascent. First we dropped 1300 height metres through most dramatic rock formations on a difficult path into a wonderful narrow river gorge. And to complete the day we had to leave that gorge through a gully and rise 400 height metres to reach our camp on a high green plateau. Our last camp; after 30 days it felt quite strange to know we would eat in a restaurant the next day and sleep in a bed the next night.
However, even the last day of this marvellous trek finished with a bang. We descended into the same river valley we had left through the gully the previous evening and, in order to reach our final destination, the village of Kibber, had to climb out of it one last time, no less steeply than the previous day. Kibber, reputedly the highest permanently inhabited village in the world, was beautiful, but we stayed for only a short time before we transferred into the jeeps which were to bring us to Manali across the last Himalayan pass, the Rothang. Although the jeep ride through the high level desert of Spiti was adventurous and stunning, it was not the same as walking.
We arrived in Manali very late at night.
30 days, which we will never forget were over. We had crossed the main ridge of the Himalayas without mishaps or difficulties. We had been incredibly remote, in the thirty days we had only crossed two roads and met very few human, of whom more were locals and nomads than fellow trekkers. It was difficult straight afterwards to get back into the routine of my job, but now, several months later, I feel I am really beginning to reap the rewards of having gained a wider, greater and more open perspective on many aspects of my life. I know, God willing, I will seek out wilderness again to be alone with myself and the grandeur of nature, and to gain strength to be and share with those around me.