Monday, July 2, 2012

A valley and Two Lakes

July 2, 2012, Delhi

It’s 40-something degrees in Delhi, and the roads are the usual chaos of vehicle fumes, rickshaws, pedestrians, hawkers, beggars and dust. I’m so glad that I’ve only had to spend a day and a half here, in the air-conditioned oasis of the Hairy Porko Hotel in the tourist slum known as Paharganj. After loafing around in the hotel almost all of yesterday, Terri and I dragged ourselves out of the hotel to head to Humayun’s Tomb today, the red-stone prototype for the Taj Mahal. It was beautiful and impressive, but the hammer-like impact of the sun detracted somewhat from the experience. We took the metro and then walked for rather longer than we had anticipated through the affluent neighbourhoods of South Delhi. Walking through Delhi shows the crazy geographic proximity of extreme wealth and abject, miserable poverty. We wandered by the very posh Delhi Public School, which is right next to a huge garbage dump inhabited by hundreds of “sweepers”, the hereditary caste that disposes of other people’s garbage and who live very, very close to their place of work . Some of the quieter residential streets reminded me of Rangoon’s posher neighbourhoods, although with much more litter strewn everywhere. Between the crowds, the pollution, the insane summer heat, the traffic, the interpersonal hassles, the touts, the rubbish, the smell of urine and feces everywhere and the general chaos, I don’t think you could pay me enough money to make me live in Delhi.

Luckily, most of this past month was spent, not in Smelly Delhi but in Lovely Ladakh, doing two beautiful treks and loving every minute of both of them. After a slow, frustrating start, in which we had to abandon not one but two previous plans, we finally got going on the trail three days after our anticipated date, on June 13. Our original plan, a 19-day trek along little-travelled trails from Hemis to Darcha, was impossible to find horsemen for. Plan B, the long-established standard Lamayuru-Darcha trek, suffered the same problem. Horse owners, and even the local donkey-owners of Lamayuru, were reluctant to set off before the Lamayuru Festival, and showed an amazing lack of will to make money by renting out their animals. I don’t think I’ve ever seen this sort of reluctance in any other mountain area in the world. Very strange and very frustrating.

In the end, we decided to do two shorter treks. We started off with the most popular trek in Ladakh, the Markha Valley trek, for a week. Then, after a turn-around day in Leh, we went for 8 days along a higher, wilder, more remote trek from Rumtse to Tso Kar and on to Tso Moriri, two of the high-altitude salt lakes that dot the southeast corner of Ladakh where it merges into the endless plateau of Western Tibet. Both treks greatly exceeded our expectations and left us impressed and often awe-struck at the endless vistas, surrealist colours and sheer natural beauty of this stark, rocky landscape.

Our naught grey mare rolling in relief once Tundup had released her from her load
Our little wind and snow-proof summer home (note the welcome mat!)
The Markha Valley trek was great fun, particularly as there were only a handful of other trekkers doing it in mid-June. Later in the season, it must become unpleasantly crowded in the campgrounds, but we were alone in most of campsites throughout the trek. We drove across the Indus from Leh to the starting point in Zingchen, met Tundup our trusty pony-wallah and set off mid-morning. We had been warned that Tundup might not speak a word of English, so I had brought along my guide-book Ladakhi phrases, but he turned out to speak quite good English, so communication was never an issue. The owner of the horses had insisted, in order to weasel more money from us, that we take no fewer than 4 horses, when 3 or even 2 would have sufficed. Our horses had personality, especially the grey mare who had a terrible attitude and managed to kick most of the other three horses, while kicking and missing at Tundup and myself. The big black mare needed to be in front, while the white gelding was the solid workhorse of the lot, and the little black gelding needed to be led along by Tundup, when he or Terri wasn’t riding it.
One of the many marmots we saw on the Ganda La

The Markha Valley trek is a wonderfully diverse cross-section of the rugged Zanskar Mountains that run south of the Indus. We spent a couple of days climbing up and over the 4950-metre Ganda La pass, past dozens of completely fearless marmots. Despite having been at 3600 metres for five days at this point, both Terri and I found ourselves gasping and out of breath atop the pass, having slept very poorly at 4350 metres the night before, both sure signs of lack of acclimatization. Mercifully, we dropped down over the pass to a lovely campsite at Shingo at 4150 metres, and slept much better this time around. We continued down the valley to join the actual Markha Valley at Skiu the next day at 3300 metres, at which altitude it was distinctly hot, dry and dusty. The Markha Valley is dotted with irrigated green oases that contrast beautifully with the red rock of the gorge walls. There are picturesquely situated gompas (monasteries) and chortens (Buddhist stupas) perched precariously here and there, while in the distance high snowy peaks play peek-a-boo with us along side valleys.

Hangkar Fort
After camping in an idyllic isolated meadow called Hamourja, we continued to wend our way along the valley floor to the village of Markha, where we camped beside the river and endured some serious winds that knocked down Tundup’s precarious parachute tent, breaking its central pole. For the rest of the two treks, his tent kept getting shorter and less stable as the pole broke again and again. I have a new tent for this summer, a very strong winter tent made by Crux, and it proved its worth again and again by staying virtually motionless in the most howling of Himalayan gusts. Markha is the metropolis of the valley, with at least 50 houses (most of them empty), a telephone office, a medical centre (closed) and a very picturesque gompa. From this point onwards we left the flat, hot valley floor behind and climbed more steeply uphill. We slept in beautiful Tachutse, watching a herd of bharal (blue sleep) play far above us on the skyline, having walked through the wonderfully situated hamlet of Hangkar with its ruined fortress perched, Walt Disney-like, atop a vertiginous crag. The rock faces beside the river grew ever more vertical and sculpted as we gained altitude and looked (to my untrained eye) like a fantastic place for serious rock climbers to come and explore.
Kang Yatse rising above Nyimaling

Heading up to the Kongmaru La

The impressive striped gorges leading down to Shang Sumdo

From Tachutse, we started to climb in earnest up to the high-altitude pastures of Nyimaling, where we put up our tent and then walked up to the snowline on the impressive glaciated peak of Kang Yatse (6400 metres) which had dominated our views for the previous two days. It’s a very pretty peak, with a skiable face on the west and a dramatic cliff separating the main and subsidiary peaks. The landscape had changed entirely, opening up from the confines of the canyon into vast grasslands that were a relief to the eye. We slept comfortably that night at 4850 metres, and trotted over the final 400 vertical metres in an hour and 45 minutes to the top of the 5250-metre Kongmaru La. The views from the top back down the Markha Valley were epic, with endless layers of steep rock faces overlaying each other all the way to the horizon. We paused for breath, cookies and photos, and then trotted down the much steeper northern face of the pass towards the road at Shang Sumdo. The downhill proved to make for very interesting walking, as we descended steeply into a narrow gorge threaded by a path that sometimes seemed more canyoning than walking, with dozens of stream crossings. Terri rode the horse to keep her feet dry, but I put on my Teva sandals and got wet. We finally emerged onto a new jeep road, had a bite to eat and drink, and were whisked off by jeep back to the sybaritic comforts of Leh: big, soft beds, mango lassis, tandoori chicken and morning pancakes.
Dining well on the trail!  Check out those professional-looking chapatis!
Not that we didn’t eat well on the trail, mind you. We cooked for ourselves, and with the horses there to carry extra weight, we bought a pressure cooker and a chapati skillet and spent many a happy afternoon creating great meals: curried lentils, stews with dumplings, pancakes, omelettes, soups, cups of bouillon, chapattis and much more. We brought along lots of potatoes, onions, carrots, flour, eggs and other heavy, bulky items that, had we been carrying everything on our own backs, we would not have brought. It certainly makes a difference living off delicious real food, rather than instant noodles and dehydrated meals as has been the case in the past. We even brought along a bottle of duty-free Glenfiddich and made a point of having a wee dram (or as they call it in India, a peg; or, thanks to Terri’s Kiwi accent, a “pig” or a “piglet”) in the late afternoon. We tended to go to bed very full of great food, and to have great breakfasts of oatmeal or eggs or pancakes to start the day. Since we had bought food originally for 20 days of trekking, we had ample quantities (or, in the case of oatmeal, grossly over-ample quantities) of most things, and we seemed to eat until we were ready to explode. The strange thing is that, despite the fact that we usually only walked 4 or 5 hours a day, not carrying heavy luggage, and that we ate gluttonously, we seemed to lose weight quite quickly. Altitude, even though we were well acclimatized by the end of the Markha trek, is hard on a metabolism, and produces dramatic weight loss, both of belly fat (good) and of leg muscle (not so very good). I expect to look very skeletal by the end of the summer’s mountaineering!

Argali near Tso Kar

Kiang near the last pass
Our second trek turned out, by coincidence, to be with Tundup and the same horses. This time, for a change of scenery, we opted for a more high-altitude wide-open landscape. Seven years ago, when my sisters and I bicycled through Ladakh, we always regretted that we did not make it to the lovely lakes of Tso Kar and Tso Moriri, so Terri and I decided to put this regret behind. We caught a lift up to the village of Rumtse, met up with Tundup and the four horses, strapped on the luggage (now carried in two nifty tin trunks that Terri bought in order to reduce the chaos involved in packing our food and cooking gear in burlap sacks), and set off uphill. Rumtse, at 4150 metres, is by far the lowest point on the trek, which traverses a series of 5000+ metre passes on its way to the lakes. By now we felt much better at altitude, and walked easily uphill towards the first pass. The second day of the trek we crossed two big passes (5150 and 5230 metres), and I definitely felt the thin air on the second ascent, although I slept well at 5050 metres that night. On the third day, we crossed a third pass at 5300 metres, and then descended towards the beautiful blue patch of Tso Kar lake. On the way down, we scared up a large herd of argali (bighorn sheep) and watched how effortlessly they bounded uphill away from us. Terri watched them thinking “I bet they’d make great eating!”, as her carnivorous instincts overcame her vegetarian trekking diet. As we descended, Tundup told us that we would see “zebras”, and this puzzled us until we saw the first one, and realized that he meant the kiang, or Tibetan wild ass, an equid that bears a striking resemblance, other than colouring, to a zebra. We spent most of the rest of the trek admiring kiang and trying to take pictures of them, difficult as they tended to keep a lot of distance between them and us. 

Newborn foal and mother near Tso Kar
At Tso Kar we celebrated Terri’s birthday by visiting a nearby tourist camp and having a slap-up dinner of Italian food. The next day, as we trudged across the endless windswept plains around Tso Kar, I realized that I had eaten something that disagreed with me, and spent the next 24 hours feeling very sorry for myself, and not appreciating the tremendous views across the plains to the salty shores of the lake and to the high, snowy peaks beyond. We did see lots of kiang, a herd of argali and what Tundup thought was a wolf (it was difficult to see as it was far away and moving quickly). The next day I was better, and thoroughly enjoyed the last 4 days of the trek as we barely saw another human being while walking through endless high-altitude meadows full of horned larks, Tibetan snowfinches, robin accentors, kiang, marmots, pikas and voles. Every valley seemed to present prettier vistas than the last one, and the final pass, at 5450 metres the highest point of the trek, was fantastic, a huge open bowl ringed by 6000-metre peaks on one side, and a steep descent to the vast azure expanse of Tso Moriri on the other.

Contemplating eternity on the shore of Tso Moriri
It was a shock to the system to emerge from this Alpine idyll into the dismal end-of-the-road dump that is Korzog, the only settlement of any size on the shores of Tso Moriri. We gave our tins, cooking pots and leftover food to Tundup in gratitude for his stalwart service over the past two and a half weeks, checked into a tourist camp, bathed and slept and ate disappointingly, and then walked out of town along the shores of the lake to a secluded shaley beach that provided amazing views across the impossible blue of the lake to the riot of pastel colours that made up the opposite shore. We sat there, sketching and writing and trying to absorb the beauty and sublime setting, conscious that our trekking days had come to an end.

The jeep ride back to Leh, like all experiences in a vehicle in India, was more to be survived than enjoyed, although we figured out where all the nomads of southeastern Ladakh were while we were trekking through empty grasslands. They were grazing their flocks along the jeep road, looking very picturesque as they moved camp, yaks carrying their tents, hundreds of sheep grazing along slowly, and the nomad families themselves riding their horses. We dropped eventually down to the Indus and drove recklessly and dangerously along the road back to Leh. A day of complete sloth in Leh, and it was time for a flight here to the hellfires of a Delhi summer.

The view across Tso Moriri
Overall, the month in India has been a tremendous experience, for my seeing new areas (Lamayuru, Markha and Tso Moriri were all new places for me), acclimatizing for Peak Lenin and Muztagh Ata (my primary objectives for the rest of the summer) and for spending wonderfully fun, companionable time in nature with Terri, seeing wonderful animals and birds, eating well and getting into shape after the laziness and middle-aged spread of this past school year. I don’t know when or if I’ll be back to India again, but if this is adieu, it’s been a great send-off.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Back on the Roof of the World

Leh, Tuesday June 12

Up at the Shanti Stupa overlooking Leh
I am back in Leh, the capital of the northernmost bit of India (Ladakh) for the first time in 7 years.  In 2005 my sisters and I cycled from Manali to Leh, around a few of the scenic bits of Ladakh and then out to Srinagar.  This time I'm here with Terri, hiking instead of biking.

Or, rather, trying to hike.  We've been here in Ladakh for 4 days trying to arrange some long-distance treks back across the Himalayas, but until today, we've had no luck.  But let's start at the beginning of the story.

Another year of teaching came to a halt just over a week ago, and I left for Geneva airport the morning after our staff end-of-year dinner, having been up most of the night packing up my apartment for the summer.  I headed to the airport laden down with my backpack, full of hiking gear, and my ski bag, full of mountaineering gear for the second part of the summer vacation.  A long flight to Delhi, a long nap, and I was ready to face India for the fourth time.  Delhi was its usual steaming, polluted self, but I found a decent hotel in the tourist slum of Paharganj (the inelegantly named Hari Piorko, hereafter known as the Hairy Porko), with quiet rooms, comfy beds and (best of all) an aquarium set into the wall of every room.

A shikara on Nageen Lake, Srinagar
Terri and I being paddled across the lake on a shikara

Terri flew in from Bali that evening, and the next morning found us at Delhi airport again, boarding a Kingfisher Airlines flight for Srinagar.  It seems ironic that on an airplane owned by a brewery, they don't serve alcohol.  We flew through heavy pre-monsoon turbulence and landed in a howling gale.  I managed to find our way back to the same part of Nageen Lake that Audie, Saakje and I stayed on in 2005, and we settled in for 2 wonderfully relaxing nights on a houseboat.  It was easy to sit at the stern, reading or sketching the elegant shikara boats being paddled by, watching kingfishers and moorhens on the water, and gazing across the lake to the old Mughal fort topping a nearby hill.

A 2000-year-old Kushan Buddha near Mulbekh
All good things must come to an end, and our brief stay in Srinagar was followed by a 2-day marathon of discomfort as we bumped and ground our way to Leh in a hideously uncomfortable jeep.  The weather was poor, with rain on the Zoji La (the pass across the actual Himalaya range) and clouds and showers the rest of the way.  The Indian government is pouring lots of effort and money into paving the entire Srinagar-Leh road, but so far the main effects have been a lot of piles of sand and rock being pushed around lethargically by emaciated Bihari road workers, inbetween bouts of staring vacantly into the middle distance.  The road is full of diesel-belching trucks as it was in 2005, but a new feature is the hordes of middle-class Indian tourists from the plains riding the road on motorcycles.  It was nice to stop off and see the ancient Kushan-era Buddha carved into a rock face at Mulbekh, but the best part of the trip was the fact that it finally ended in Leh.  It was far more fun, stimulating, engaging and comfortable to cycle this road than to bounce along its potholes in a vehicle.  

Stok Kangri, the tallest peak near Leh; I climbed it in 2005                                           The Zanskar Range seen from Leh
It was strange to be back in Leh, having spent quite a lot of time there in 2005.  Most of the restaurants and guesthouses are the same, but it's taken me a few days to dig my memories of them out of the archives.  The setting of Leh is stunning, and looks more impressive this year since it's earlier in the summer, resulting in much, much more snow on the surrounding mountains.  Leh sits above the north bank of the Indus, with 5700-metre mountains to the north (the Ladakh Range) and 6000-metre mountains to the south (the Zanskar Range).  On a clear day (and there have been few of those so far), the views from a high vantage point like the Shanti Stupa are stunning.  

Terri spinning the prayer wheels at Lamayuru Monastery
The reason for this trip back to Ladakh is to do some trekking; in 2005 there wasn't much opportunity for that, as we had the bicycles, so we thought that this year we'd be free and easy and would walk all the way back nearly to Manali.  Little did we reckon on how difficult it would be to find horsemen and donkeymen willing to rent out their animals' services to carry our food.  We have had to abandon our ambitious initial trek (from Hemis to Darcha), and even the old fall-back from Lamayuru to Darcha foundered because there were no equids to be had in Lamayuru.  Lamayuru itself is a pleasant enough village, with a wonderful monastery and lovely surroundings, but it was frustrating not to have any luck in finding four-legged transport.  
A chukar partridge; the hillsides teem with them

We've finally pared down our ambitions to a tame 8-day walk up the Markha Valley, and have convinced a horseman to rent us no fewer than 4 horses (!) to carry our gear for us.  We leave tomorrow, and not a day too soon; 4 days of kicking our heels here in Leh and in lovely Lamayuru was too long!

So off we go tomorrow, hoping for less rain and snow, and for the passes to be clear of snow.  I'll keep you posted on developments!