Hiking in the Himalayas
Some incomplete memories
29th June — Met in Delhi, took the bus to Manali
30th — Arrived in Manali
1st July — Bus to Leh, departing at 2am, arriving at 9pm
2nd — Leh
3rd — Bus to Likir, began first trek
4th — Trekked to Ang
5th — Bus back to Leh
6th — Jeep to Lamayuru
7th — Began second trek: trekked to Wanla
8th — From Wanla to Ursi
9th — From Ursi, over the Tar La ridge, to Tar
10th — From Tar to Mangyu
11th — From Mangyu to Alchi; bus back to Leh
12th — White-water rafting in the Indus
13th — Leh
14th — Michael flies from Leh to Delhi
15th — Bus to Manali; taxi on to Chandigarh
16th — Day in Chandigarh; bus to Amritsar
17th — Amritsar
18th — Amritsar
19th — Amritsar; night bus to Delhi
20th — Arrived back in Delhi
21st — Sight-seeing in Delhi
22nd — Delhi
I write from the rooftop of a guesthouse in the Tibetan Refugee Colony, overlooking the banks of the Yamuna River.
Today the Beijing Olympics begin – I know this because the market stalls in the usually-frantic alleyway are today boarded up in protest at the Chinese occupation; even the beggar children have vanished in solidarity, leaving the lazy swarm of flies unusually forlorn. Delhi is currently covered by a thick mass of looming cloud, but the discomfort of the summer heat is eased by the firm breeze of the monsoon wind.
From here I look at the birds : the kites (of the feathered variety – a lonely representative of the other sort hangs lifeless in the branches of a nearby tree, in memory of the recently celebrated Independence Day) float in regal circles on the currents of the air, hanging almost motionless in space – until one tires of the view, drops one shoulder and swoops downward in a sudden helix – then catches itself as the water of the river approaches, and with a few powerful strokes of its wings regains the lost altitude – and then resumes its effortless seat upon the winds, now reaching its curved beak down towards what must be a fish, gripped tightly between its talons. (I am awestruck by the sheer number of these creatures: at last count there were more than ten at close range – not much more than twenty metres away – and more distant silhouettes wheeling in the distance). Then there are the crows, doing their utmost to imitate the majestic soaring of the kites : sometimes one will follow a kite in its earthward swoop with such masterly imitation that it is not until it lets out its tell-tale squawk that I realise it is a crow – or until the wind changes, and while the kite calmly tweaks its tail feathers and continues, the crow is left frantically flapping into the breeze. Closer to ground level, a pure white egret skims the surface of the waters, before alighting on a conveniently placed riverbank branch.
On the rooftops around me flutter the prayer flags, faded to a grim grey by the the Delhi air, but still a reminder of the mountain peaks of the Himalayas, which remain strong in my memory.
2nd July (one month previously)
My brother and I sit waiting for breakfast, on the rooftop of a restaurant with a commanding view of the spectacular surrounding scenery; prayer flags flap colourful around us. The rest of our mountaineering team – John, and his twin sister Amy – have yet to arise. The sky is a flawless blue, rimmed with the snow-capped peaks that encircle Leh. This is my first sight of Leh by the light of day. We have spent the last two-and-a-half days winding our way from Delhi – winding through the predictable anarchy of Delhi traffic; winding through the evergreen pine forests surrounding Manali; winding along the winding meanders of the Indus river, after which the subcontinent is named – and it is a relief to no longer be cramped in the back seat of a bus.
We arrived last night and were found two double rooms by a slight woman whose uncertain command of English is made irrelevant by the irresistible power of her bustling hospitality. Fumbling down a dark alley in the direction indicated by a sign promising guesthouses, we discovered a hopeful building and tentatively poked our noses into the doorway – at which a combination of polite smile and sunburnt cheeks immediately whisked us upstairs to fill her last remaining room.
We will spend the next day or so adjusting to the altitude before beginning some gentle trekking.
Our initial trek has turned out to be a solely male affair. Amy failed to recover from an unfortunately timed bout of food poisoning, and – after we had lifted our eyes to the mountains and wondered where our help would come from – persuaded us that she would rather lie peacefully in a guesthouse bed surviving on fruit juice and biscuits than have us loiter around disturbing her recovery.
We took the bus to Likir. A few minutes’ walking, and the newly-laid road (complete with poetical proverbs encouraging safe driving: «Better to be Mister Late than the late Mister») had vanished behind a sand-dune, and we were in utter wilderness: sun glaring down, burning sands gathered around the rocks rising brutally above us, the parched air offering only the occasional respite of a half-hearted breeze. The scenery is – magnificent, yes; breath-taking, certainly; but at the most basic level – …big. Enormous. The towering mountains draw your eye up into the expansive sky; and you feel a sense of your own insignificance. Little wonder that this region is so filled with the apparatus of worship: prayer wheels, prayer flags, prayer walls, prayer beads.
In spite of John’s longing to simply take a compass-bearing and proceed as the crow flies toward our destination, we mostly meandered along the beaten track of hoof-marks and boot-prints. After two hours’ walking, we had arrived at our destination: one of the sudden stripes of verdant greenery that indicate a farmhouse, and a stream. As we approached, we were spotted by a nimble old woman who promised us a camping site, and then, in the blink of a weary eyelid, shimmied up a stone wall and disappeared. Minutes later a boy appeared, and guided us through a field of long grass capped with small golden flowers – grown to feed the cows during winter, we were told – to our campsite, where he watched us set up camp. With great speed, the sun suddenly slipped behind the mountains, and now a multitude of stars gleams brightly overhead as we eat noodles around our campfire.
Amy has sufficiently recovered to be determined that she is not again going to be abandoned in Leh while the rest of us go conquering mountains. I have had my second-hand army boots repaired by the Leh cobbler, after the heel of the sole had begun to flap loose during the second day of our previous trek. We are ready for the travails of a five day trek through the wilderness – an excursion that begins to sound less courageous when one admits that all our baggage is being carried by two donkeys, and our navigation is the responsibility of Sunam, owner of the donkeys and now our guide.
There had been debate about whether we should instead be more true to the intrepid spirit of Himalayan explorers and carry our own bags, but the lack of perfect health of our party has settled the question. And so, having taken a jeep to Lamayuru and then admired the monastery that gives the town its name, we went to negotiate a price for the hire of our pack animals. Trekking in Ladakh, our trusty guide to Ladakhi travelling, had given us an idea of how much we should be paying, and so we approached the donkey-men’s tent with confidence that we would be able to haggle a reasonable price. We sat down, our carefully calculated maximum price firmly in mind, and our determination not to be ripped off firm – and then were astonished to discover that the initial asking price was about two thirds of the amount we had been expecting to be asked.
So we are now a day into our trek from Lamayuru to Alchi, and are camping at Wanla, a village that straddles the banks of a wide and fiercely cold stream.
My Hindi is about as good as Sunam’s English, which makes for slightly limited discussion regarding the intricacies of Ladakhi culture – I was unable, for example, to ask him about the accuracy of my brother’s theory that the number of silver bowls that can be lined up on one’s dining room shelves is a precise indicator of social status. Fortunately, this apparent difficulty in communication has not kept him from doing far more than just loading the donkeys and keeping us from getting too badly lost. He produced some much-appreciated palak chapatti to keep our strength up as we hiked toward the hamlet of Ursi; and when we reached our campsite helped hammer the tent-pegs into the rock-hard ground, before boiling together a concoction of black chai. Ah, chai – the taste of India! Sweet, and spicy, and, for the unprepared English palette, overwhelmingly sickly : there could be no more quintessentially Indian drink.
Here in Ursi there is another beverage to which I have been introduced, again by our irreplaceable travelling companion Sunam. Once our tents had been set up, and we were settling into the small patches of shade provided by the shadow of the frail nearby trees, he communicated that he was going to feed the donkeys. Were we interested? John and Amy politely refused; my brother and I followed him. Sure enough, we were led to the pen where the donkeys were being kept, and watched as their trough was filled with some green leafy vegetable. This was the work of barely a minute, and once finished we were then led into the house of a village woman and encouraged to sit down. Slightly bemused, we did as instructed, and were then presented with a bowl full of chalky-white liquid. Chang, as it is called, is a mildly alcoholic local beverage made from fermented daal. And it is delightfully refreshing.
The trek from Lamayuru to Alchi, going over the Tar La ridge, is a journey of five days. Each of the first two days consists of no more than three hours of trekking, which can be finished before lunch without having to begin at an uncomfortably early hour. The afternoons can then be spent gazing spell-bound at the imposing surrounding scenery, or by napping in the shade while you await the next round of Maggi noodles.
The third day is an entirely different matter. We were up at six and, breakfasted and packed away, on our way within an hour. Undeterred by the decaying body of a recently deceased donkey that lay beside the path that led out of Ursi towards the mountains, we set out boldly upward. And upward. And upward. Meanwhile Amy was beginning to show the strain of having gone too long without a meal she trusted not to make her ill. But although there may have been a moment, after three hours of fairly constant upward walking and with the end of the upward still nowhere close, when I utterly doubted the wisdom of bringing someone on a five-day trek who was still recovering from serious maladjustment to Indian cuisine. Thankfully, with the aid of the energy of Kit-Kats and the sustenance of regular sips of water, we made it – after about five hours – to the ridge of the Tar La.
And while I was admiring the magnificent tableau of surrounding mountain peaks, Sunam had grabbed the goat skull that sat propped next to the ridge-marking prayer-flags, and was posing with our two donkeys for a truly idiosyncratic Himalayan portrait.
Another two hours downhill saw us reach the green valley of the village of Tar, the scene of lambs skipping beside the bubbling stream, and certainly our most picturesque campsite. Today we go from Tar to Mangyu, believing that having overcome the Tar La no journey will be too difficult for us.
the Gladstone Memorial Trust,
and the Donald Robertson Travel Fund,
for their financial encouragement to make this journey;
to our guide
«For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink»