L and MN left real early in the morning since it was the toughest climb yet of the trek. Wishing them luck and waving goodbye to them, we breakfasted on toast and eggs. An hour later, we left too. Assuming my legs were fine, I started the journey by walking.
A couple of hours later, I chose the horse. The remainder of the group continued to walk which resulted in me moving ahead. You could see the concentration and effort made by the horse to ensure that he or she didn’t topple you off and at the same time go downhill carefully. One of the cooks was guiding the horse and since it was to be a long journey he suggested we keep each other company by talking instead of staying mum.
So in a strange way we had our own little conversation about my life in a city, his life in the hills, how he could recognize each and every mountain etc. To prove it, he pointed a mountain to me and said “that is how we walked the day before.” Of course I couldn’t recognize it. I told him so but he just smiled shyly. He also showed me a few interesting things like the black sand and various other mountains. It was a fascinating journey with a cook and a horse.
About 45 minutes later, we reached the Zanskar River. The only way to cross this river is by sitting in a wooden box. There are a maximum of three people on each side of the river pulling and tugging the box (with people sitting in it, mind you) across the river. The strength required to do so was massive. The men you see pull it, well; I guess the mountain air has some sort of magical powers for those scrawny sized people to be able to pull the box with ease! There was another sort travel mode available too. My horse guide pointed out this triangle sort of thing where only one person could go across and there was no one to pull it but you had to do it on your own. I was stunned because I thought the adventures were supposedly over but I was so wrong.
He looked at me and asked “would you like to travel in that and wait for the others on the other side of the river?” Cheeky man, I tell you! I politely declined saying that I’ll wait for the others first. Dropping me off there, he went to get SK who had begun to struggle again. About 40 minutes later SK appeared and looked calmly at our mode of river crossing. I wasn’t panicking but I definitely found it a bit amusing.
Soon enough the others reached huffing and puffing and also surprised at the way we had to cross the river. It was excitement plus nerves combined. The feeling was indescribable. There were quite a few people waiting to cross the river so we just sat and rested for the lot to go ahead. It was a funny sight actually. Some of the locals were actually swinging on the triangle one! Our unanimous vote went for the wooden box. Safer, you see. Of course, the horses went via a different route. You can’t expect those giant beasts get into a tiny little box that could carry a maximum of two people.
Once everyone baring us crossed over, we sent our tents, sleeping bags etc. with one of the cooks first. Next, SK with a few more luggage items (so that he could help in pulling us across). By this time there were just our cooks on either side to help pull the box and it was easier said than done. Equipment sent my sister and I got in next. Neither of us was scared but I sure was hoping we weren’t heavy for the poor guy doing the pulling. He was an extremely scrawny guy and I was praying that we just flew across!
Once the box moves from the starting point, it sets off easily in a slightly downward slope, stops in the middle for a minute because the rope is extremely long and the guy at the other end has to really tug and pull on the rope in a swift manner. As the loose rope reaches the level where you have to really heave the box it becomes rather hard to do so. You could see the strain on the guys’ hands and the concentration on his face while doing so and all I can do is commend him. We’ve crossed the river safely and my sister and I profusely thank him.
It’s R and SB’s turn next and the whole ritual starts again. Last to remain are RR and the second cook. In the end it was R.R. and the other cook to cross the river. From here on, it’s a 4 km walk until and unless we could procure a lift from a passing vehicle for eight people and their luggage. Our cooks (now guides) asked us to wait for some time hoping to stop a passing truck that happens to be going to the same destination.
Around 20 minutes later, our luck worked. Post lunch we set off on what was to be an extremely bumpy ride. The truck driver warned us, of course, of the bumpiness, considering the whole path wasn’t much of a road. So we braced ourselves and enjoyed bumping along the way. SB, who was sitting right at the entrance of the back of the truck, was literally bouncing up and down like a rubber ball! It was quite comical and we all had a hearty laugh.
Although our journey was now via a truck, it didn’t take anything away from the view. The mountains, the river flowing across the way, the blue sky… a peaceful and warm sight to behold. Few hours later, we reached the familiar Leh market and knew we were now minutes away from the guesthouse, from hot showers, hot teas and a warm bed.
Brushing our teeth and washing our faces using the ice cold stream water running near our camps was enough to wake us all up. Toast, eggs and tea helped us with the cold though. Thus nicely fed and warmed up we set off for the steep climb. As we climbed further it started getting colder and tiring. SK who was having knee problems yesterday made the right choice by taking the help of one of the horses. Considering the walk was a bit tough on the knees, it was the best. Following R’s ’50 step’ formula we continued on our way.
For company, apart from us humans that is, we had rabbitsand marmots scampering about and even yaks, although they preferred paying attention to the little of food they could find than us. Soon even our horses caught up with us along with the cooks. Just to show how cheeky they can get, one of them even ran up a hill, yes, RAN up a hill like a mountain goat or something. To top it off nicely, he sat on a stone, covered his face with his cap and promptly dozed off waiting for us to reach him.
We were now reaching Gandala Passfrom where the descent started. The last few steps were really tough. It was difficult to breathe normally what with icy winds blowing across your face making you sniffle. Our guide was waiting for us and kept encouraging as we got there. Finally we made it and the beautiful surrounding was our prize.
We took a 10 minute break and began our journey downhill. The change in view was drastic. It went from mountains and greenery to as if walking through a desert. My sister’s knee was now giving her even more trouble. Finding it a little easier walking downhill than uphill, our guide and I walked off ahead knowing the others will soon catch up with us. As I walked on further, I noticed SK walking instead of on a horse. Catching up to him I asked him, “why did you get off the horse?” knowing very well that walking downhill can worsen his knee pain! The brilliant man says, “I felt good enough to walk so got off the horse and let him go.”The result is that now if either my sister or he required the help of a horse, he/she has probably reached Skiu, our campsite.
Well I continued on my way all the while looking back to ensure I haven’t lost sight of anyone nor have they. Passing through a rocky pathway I twisted my ankles and thus joined the ‘injured party’. Unfortunately I didn’t have a bottle of water with me resulting in me feeling parched. Luckily I had some candy on me. Sucking on that I now limped on. I noticed SK was now having a really hard time walking. He started feeling a bit light headed and fuzzy. I couldn’t help him if he fell or something so I forced him to take a break and sit down on a nearby rock. Walking a few steps ahead I tried to see if I could spot our lunch campsite. I did. But it was still quite a distance away.
I heard voices and turned my head to see my sister and the others catching up to us. Heaving a sigh of relief, I told them about SK and we took a few minutes break. The others had water with them too so we all quenched our thirst and after about five minutes went on our way. Finally we reached the camp and sat down feeling exhausted and thrilled at the same time. RR, Sb and the cook with a horse were there too which surprised me for I thought they would have moved on far earlier. Anyway, today’s lunch consisted of chapattis with jam spread, a mango, chocolates and a cube of cheese. Most of managed to have something from that lot but just like yesterday, SK barely ate anything. We took a longish break of fifteen to twenty minutes and finally left to reach our night camp.
The way from there was tricky and long. Our guide said it would take us at least four hours to get there. Hence just the twenty minutes break at our lunch camp. Five minutes into the walk my sister’s knees were hurting her bad and so we made her get onto a horse for the rest of the way. She was very reluctant at first and quite terrified too. But she managed and I am glad she did. The walk was tough for the rest of us too. SB and RR went off ahead while R and I gave SK moral support as he limped his way on. Our guide gave us just one tip – follow the stream. And so we did. But just as we crossed the stream there were stones all over the place making it very difficult to find the route. So we started looking for horse shoe tracks and footsteps.
We were sure those would lead us somewhere. And it did. We caught up with SB who for some reason was waiting for us. The continued walk was a really long one and we began to wonder if we were on the right track. We didn’t come across another soul for ages and we kept hunting for footprints to guide us through. With my legs beginning the process of giving up, I started muttering nonsensical stuff in my head as an encouragement. We were now desperate to reach the campsite before darkness hits.
Finally we spotted our guide and a helper walking towards us, each holding onto the reins of a horse.
SK got onto one of the horses and I got onto the other. The campsite was still quite far although according to horse trotting standards we reached in half an hour. I dread to think how long it would have taken if we had walked. Once at the camp, we all sat down feeling exhausted whereas the cooks came around handing us mugs of hot tea. We happily lapped them up.
After a while I tried to get up and that was when I realized the extent of how bad my legs were hurting. It also meant cutting the trek short and returning back. With some help in the form a massage from L and some muscle spray, my legs did get marginally better. Enough to make the return trip. Continuing further would mean that we had no choice but to complete the entire trek. This was the last spot from where we could, if we had to, return.
I’ll always be thankful to L’s massage for that helped me at least walk a bit the next day. However the difficulty at that moment was walking from our tent to the dinner tent; which was a mere ten steps away. All in all most of us had decided to head back to the guest house the next day except L and M who looked like they skipped all the way to the camp!
Discussing about next day’s journey over dinner, we finalized on L and MN going ahead with the remainder of the trek and the others returning back to the guesthouse. Post dinner, I hopped back our tent with the help of my sister. On the way I just happened to look up at the sky and marvel at all the stars when I saw a white light streak by. For a minute I didn’t understand nor did I register it. It disappeared within a second, from the sky and from my mind. Back inside the tent, I popped a painkiller and we girls chattered a bit. Finally we all lay down in our respective sleeping bags and that’s when I recapped the ‘streaking’ light and wondered – “could that have been a shooting star that I just saw? It might have been! If it was – well, that is one of the best medication to take my mind off the pain.” With that thought, I slept.
While waiting for our guide, we breakfasted on eggs, toast and tea. D, our guide, was already present and sitting there. We just didn’t realize it.
After hurried introductions and some initial bad vibes from our guide we set off to pick up the 8th member of our trekking group, MN and get to the starting point, Spituk, of the trek. The rest of the guide team was ready with the horses and waiting. The cook was ready with our lunches all packed neatly.
With the heat bearing down upon us we began the trek. Talking, laughing, enjoying ourselves, we went on with complete gusto. Since the whole area was barren of trees, the direct sun was a bit killing; though the cool wind made it a decent compromise.
Up in the sky we had encouragement in the form of a ‘muscle’ cloud and down below it was in the form of people screaming with glee while river rafting along the Indus River.
The river gave us company for almost the entire day. Walking along the mountain with the roar and rush of the river below gave a different kind of thrill to oneself. With the wind blowing hard and cold, I soon began to have a runny nose. Not really good when the sun’s hitting you but the wind blows cold! LL, poor girl’s cap flew off her head and played ‘catch me if you can’ with her for a few minutes. She ran to catch it, it flew away further, she ran to catch it again, it flew further away again and so it continued. Eventually the wind gave her a break and she grabbed her cap before it changed its mind.
We stopped near the river bed to lunch on cheese bun sandwiches, a pear and some chocolates. RR even dipped his feet in the river to ease his leg muscles. Post lunch we left to reach our first camp site which was a few hours away.
All hyped on the food, we all walked within our speed limits resulting in some going further ahead than the others. The air gets a bit thinner making you really work your lungs out with every breath you take. Taking breaks whenever required to gulp down some water or much on some chocolates, we reached our campsite by mid-afternoon.
This being my first trek, having to sleep in a tent was exciting for me. Hot water and tea and biscuits awaited us as we got there. As evening neared, the wind got colder. So those hot cups of tea helped us quite a bit. DAY ONE didn’t do much damage in terms of aches for most of us. SK suffered from a bad knee and SB from shoe bites but that’s the lot.
With a stream running near our campsite, it literally felt like we were living right there with nature and enjoying the comforts it provided us. A lovely steaming hot dinner and some laughter around a campfire and DAY ONE was over. With a good night’s sleep remaining, we all were looking forward to tomorrow which was to be a day of climbing. Since we were to leave by 6:30 AM, without further delay we went to sleep.
DAY TWO: – Jingchan to Rumbak to Yurutse
Today’s climb was exhausting. It made us restless every now and then and we stopped to take frequent breaks. Well most of us did. LL and MN zoomed off ahead. The only advantage of the frequent breaks was that you could really admire the scenery. It’s not that you couldn’t otherwise but to be able to stop and actually take a look around with a dazed look is something different altogether.
For example, we saw these prayer flags at various places. This was unusual, you saw them often. But the uniqueness of it was that they were tied from one mountain to another. Tying them from one tree to another or one pole to another or even from one house to another is understandable and you can imagine it. But from one mountain to another… that’s new to me.
SK, with his bad knee, started to limp real bad now. So my sister and I gave him company and we trudged along with the breaks in between, munching on fruits and chocolates etc. Today’s lunch consisted of a boiled egg, a banana, cheese sandwich, chocolates and some dried fruits.
Following a tip given by R, we would walk 50 to 100 steps, take a minute or so break, walk another 50 to 100 steps and take another break and so on. It actually helped us from gasping with the low oxygen levels. It helped most of us but SK was now not only struggling with his knee but his want for breaks were coming sooner. This resulted in us slowing down quite a bit but we gave him words of encouragement and helped him along the way. Our guide (yes, we had a ‘guide’) had gone off ahead and was patiently waiting for us. R and my sister went off ahead to send him to give SK a pep talk. Thankfully it worked and we reached Rumbak, where R and my sister were waiting. We sat there and lunched on the sandwiches and eggs.
Since we were a bit slow, getting to the campsite was delayed. Walking ahead and sending words of encouragement to SK, we soon reached our campsite, Yurutse. With a view of Yaks and mountains guiding us and giving us their own version of encouragement, DAY TWO of our trek was done. LL and MN were already there. SK was so happy to see our campsite that he ran the last few steps towards it. I went at the same pace and reached soon enough. RR, huffed and puffed his way to the site and went straight to the dinning tent and promptly lay down. Sitting out there and enjoying the view for a few minutes we too entered the dinning tent and had our mugs of hot tea and biscuits trying to drive away the day’s exhaustion.
My toes began to hurt a bit so as a precaution I massaged it and applied some balm for the next day’s trek was to be a really steep ascent AND a really long descent. In other words, a long, long day. Since dinner was quite a while away, we all went to our individual tents and to enjoy some well-deserved rest which is when I realized my sister was in pain. Her knees began to ache and were causing her a lot of trouble. Her knees started to ache all of sudden and she was finding it very difficult. Since SK was having the same problem, I asked him and R for help. With the advice of applying some balm and a pain killer, I went back to our tent.
Dinner was served and we had some piping hot vegetable soup which was a blessing for at night the temperatures really drop making you wanting to cuddle into your sleeping bags. Some hot parathas along with the soup filled our tummies and warmed us. We sat chit chatting about the day to while away time. Soon it was time for bed and waking up to the next day’s ascent and descent.
My first journey on the Rajdhani Express, our second vacation of the year and we were heading to Ladakh (North India), India, for a four day trek with five other people. On the 18th of July, 2008, we commenced our holiday by leaving for Delhi from Mumbai’s Mumbai Central station.
We were a group of seven people: – my sister, two of her colleagues, L and R, their friends/relatives, S, RV, SG (who would be meeting us at Delhi airport) and yours truly. None of us (except my sister and I) knew each other very well so a train journey was the perfect way to get acquainted with each other over hot soup and some yummy dinner. Talks about Kung Fu Panda – the movie, and martial arts in general seemed to take priority before hitting the bed.
DAY 2:- The Day We Reached Delhi
Around 9:30 AM we were at Delhi station. Since our flight to Leh was early next morning, we pre-booked a hotel to dump our luggage for the day. Having varied plans to spend our day we soon went our separate ways. My sister and I met with her friend, MB who is a thorough gentleman. You don’t expect too many men in India to open doors for you let alone let you enter a place first! I was mistaken.
My sister and I were starving. We hadn’t eaten anything since we reached and were eager to fill our growling stomachs. However MB had other plans. Trying to find a good place to eat turned into a mini tour around Delhi. Finally we got to the restaurant. Although the wait for a table made us turn right back and wail at MB to take us elsewhere. He did.
Finally we were satiated. The ‘I’ll pay the bill, no I’ll pay the bill’ argument was an excuse to avoid the killing heat outside. But we eventually had to leave so instead we stuck to sitting in his air-conditioned car and got out only if it was absolutely necessary. After yet another mini tour of Delhi, we finally decided to go watch a movie, The Dark Knight. The movie was brilliant! Heath Ledger’s (May his soul rest in peace) acting as the joker gave me goose bumps. He sure made jokers a bit distasteful for me for quite a while.
Later MB burned a bigger hole in his pocket (yes, he won the earlier debate) by also paying for dinner, at Nirulas’.
The desserts were tempting but I was craving for proper food. Post dinner, we shared a fruit shake kinda thing of which my sister and I took a teeny weensy bite and made poor MB eat the rest. Having enjoyed every second spent that day; MB dropped us off at the hotel at around 11 P.M.
The others had returned to their respective rooms by then and were waiting for time to pass by. Our flight was around 5:30 A.M. so with groggy faces we left for the airport and were joined by SB.
Day 3:-Reached Leh
One glance at the view as we touched down at Leh airport drove our sleep deprivation right away. The sight around the place was stunning. It was quiet, peaceful and surrounded by mountains. You’re hit with this cold wind which was a drastic change from the Delhi heat. But we ensured we had a jacket on us before leaving Delhi.
The owners and the cook of the guesthouse, Mahey, which we were staying at, were soft spoken, kind people. Having noticed that L spoke the same language, they were thrilled to the core. We were soon allotted our rooms and after refreshing ourselves, we breakfasted sitting in the garden area of the guesthouse.
The guys went off to sleep so we girls went out for a short walk around the area enjoying the cool breeze. Almost instantly we were subjected to plenty of tall Poplar (Populus) trees.
We also saw these tiny white cotton kinds of flakes floating around though we never came around to knowing the name of it. It felt a bit like it was snowing. After a short walk we headed back towards Mahey from another route and saw these guesthouses with beautiful handmade woodwork on them. It looked so different from the houses and buildings you see in cities. There were lots of yaks and donkeys lolling about in their own little world. It was quite a refreshing change.
In the evening we visited the market which was a 15 minute walk from the guesthouse. The market was really small having just one ATM in the whole area. But obviously there was a crowd hanging around there waiting their turn to pull out money.
Most of the restaurants were roof tops with large chocolaty mountains as a backdrop. We decided to grab a bite at the market and contemplated where to go. We zoned in on The Little Italy. By now it’s evening and getting cold so we preferred some hot tea to warm our hands and throats too. L’s mint tea looked like it had the entire Leh market’s mint stock put into her glass. Some piping hot spring rolls, hot cups of tea, mountains as the view… life was indeed beautiful.
After an hour or so we were back at the guesthouse talking till dinnertime. The cook of the guesthouse, Raj, made a scrumptious meal of dal, rice, chapattis and vegetables which were grown in their own backyard. Needless to say whenever we ate at the guesthouse we had fresh ‘home grown’ vegetables. It was the perfect way to end the day.
Waking up to birds’ chirping is definitely better than waking up to cars and buses honking. Actually there is no comparison. Birds’ chirping was definitely better. Plus the early morning misty view was added bonus. After a breakfast of hot toast and tea, we went to the market since R wanted to get his broken spectacles fixed and also visited the LehPalace.
We came across a shop that said ‘Dentist cum Optician’. We looked at RV and grinned. Deciding to take the safe route of some scotch tape and thread, he skipped the shop. As we continued further we came across a Prayer wheel. Well actually prayer wheels. They are cylindrical wheels that people turn while chanting a mantra or a wish. The ones that we saw was a long line of dome shaped ones like drums.
Purchase done we set off for Leh Palace. Leh Palace is built in a way that it overlooks the town of Leh. Of course the palace is almost in ruins but it is being restored by the Archaeological Survey of India. The path to the palace was interesting with its twists and turns through lanes of houses. At times we would get stuck but help was always around. For example, there was a drum which said ‘WAY TO PALACE’ along with an arrow sign on it. That’s right. A drum. I’m not kidding. I have a picture of it too. People sure are thoughtful.
There weren’t any smooth roads as such. A bit of a rocky climb to it. My poor sis wore slippers not remembering we were climbing to the palace and at one point she almost gave up because it hurt her feet to walk in slippers on rocks! But with a little encouragement and help from us, she continued with it.
The view from the palace was stunning. You could almost see the entire market which speaks in itself as to how small the place must be! The best part is that with all the restoration effort, they hadn’t changed the structure at all. They made sure to keep everything intact without destroying anything. With an entrance fee of 5 INR, we explored the palace. The view of oodles of greenery, tall mountains surrounding it and lots of yaks grazing around peacefully made it an absolute picture perfect.
In spite of the cool breeze the sun did get to us. Back at the market, we stopped to grab something to drink and cool ourselves. With that done, we returned to the guesthouse via a different route. On the way we passed the Shanti Stupa, a large white looking dome which to reach required strength to climb more than 500 steps. Not easy steps, mind you. Neither of us except for SB wanted to take that risk before the trek even begun. Off he went climbing and stopping every few steps to catch his breath. Of course all that climbing resulted in blisters on his feet and he limped all the way back to the guesthouse.
Before leaving in the morning, we asked Raj to make some Momos, a type of dumplings, for us. So when we returned to the guesthouse he was busy preparing them. After a wash and some relaxed time, we feasted on them. That was my first ever try at Momos and I loved it! It was absolutely lip smacking delicious.
DAY 6:-Khardung LaandNubraValley
The day after we returned from our trek we were exhausted and pretty much spent the day idling and a round of the market. Today we went to the Khardung La and the Nubra Valley.
Since the drive to Khardung La which was around 40 KM away from Leh was a long and an extremely tricky one, we left at 7 AM. The person who took us also helped get the required permits to get to Nubra Valley and also did an outstanding job of driving there. The skills required to drive on that narrow path is something extraordinary. It is only when you look out of the window that you realize how close to the edge of the road you really are. One mistake and you topple down a steep descent filled with rocks.
In spite of the ‘rocky road’, we made it to the pass by 9:30 AM. The wind was icy cold, but the people around were ever so warm that you really don’t pay attention to the cold. At a height of 18, 380 feet, Khardung La, where La means Pass, is considered the highest motorable road in the world. Standing there, I had no doubts about it. Although it is being debated whether it indeed is the highest motorable road or not. The view around the place was breathtaking! Snow-capped mountains, non-snow capped mountains, the snow glistening with the sun rays kissing it made it a place that you wouldn’t mind staying a long while. But having to actually get there is all thanks to the engineers who helped build this road. Some (eighteen) even lost their lives doing so. The road is so brittle that it has to be re-laid often and it is also closed during the winter for it is just too darn difficult to drive there.
After spending a few minutes photographing the place, we stood about enjoying the scenery. Glancing about I saw this little bit of a mountain covered with snow close enough to touch it and I was thrilled. Now I have touched snow. Played in it too. But I don’t remember it. I was too young. So the thought of being able to do so again and this time REMEMBER it made me happier than ever. For a minute I enjoyed it. And then I got clobbered by it in the form of snow balls. Do I regret it? Heck no!
After our mini snow fight, we bought some souvenirs, breakfasted on hot noodles and set off for Nubra Valley.
As we went further down towards the valley, we saw plenty of little streams flowing down the mountains. That was the ice melting which made it trickier to drive. But then we had a star driver who drove smoothly as I mentioned earlier. Although in some places a hole of some sort was drilled in the road so that the water passed through it rather than on the road and making it slippery. It was quite a long journey and each turn would give a different view of the same mountains. We even saw this huge thing which at first sight could make you think its sand or even the ground itself. But if you concentrated on it for a minute you’ll notice that it’s water.
At Khardung La it was really cold and you saw mostly snow capped mountains but as you move closer to the Nubra valley it’s just mountains, mountains and more mountains with a tinge of greenery added here and there, a big river running along and sand. At an altitude of 10, 000 feet, it looks like a desert with tons of mountains around.
Before heading right down to the valley, we drove into the town for lunch. Once we leave the valley, it was impossible to stop over anywhere and it would be too late. So after a quick lunch we continued our journey. At the main valley you got to see bits of everything. Mountains (of course), sand, trees, water, gorgeous blue sky, a few camels too lazy to move and few tourists.
The camels were double humped ones and looked pretty sleepy and didn’t just feel like getting up. None of us wanted to ride a camel so we just took a few photographs. But the view was something that can only be described as awesome.
The ride back was a four to five hour journey so we didn’t stay for long. Driving on those roads is tricky enough during the day. Having to do so when it’s dark is something neither of us wanted to risk. The whole way my eyes were on the driver’s arms concentrating on the steering wheel. He made the drive look like a piece of cake although it definitely wasn’t. Around four the driver took a well-deserved break for a few minutes for some tea. We commended his driving skills all the time and truly appreciated him driving us back and forth safely.
We reached the guesthouse at 7:30 PM. Some food tucked into our tummies a few minutes later; there was nothing else to do except sleep and bid Ladakh a peaceful goodbye the next day.