Thursday, October 16, 2008

On the Markha Valley Trail: Sun burns and a Snow Storm

Day 6: Thachungtse to Kongmaru La Base camp

Being prepared (aaah – I refer to the mental make-up here) can make all the difference to a difficult day and it did to yesterday. The stretch from Thachungtse to Kongmaru La base camp (the base camp comes after crossing the pass at 5200 meters) could have easily contended with day 2 for the ‘most toughest day’ spot. Not that it didn’t. But the going was made easier simply because we knew what lay ahead. And we prodded along slowly but steadily to that end.

The actual stop on this stretch is usually at Nimaling – a meadowland half way before the pass. But instead our guide thought we should take the pass the same day to make out last day easier. I was frustrated. Out in the middle of nowhere I had nothing but my guide’s word to make an informed decision. I know I make it sound like a life and death decision – but it was an important decision. Anyway, we had a horse with us again – so we decided to cross the pass.

Nimaling was pretty – a green clearing cradled in the valley, but not spectacular. But it is also one of the coldest spots on the entire trail. An Indian trekker we met on the route mentioned that if it rained in Leh for two days together, Nimaling would see snow. And our luck (or lack of it), we got to see some as well.

What was spectacular was the view of Kang Yatse which crept in behind us as we hiked the pass. We were huffing and puffing our way up from Nimaling, took a break at the flat land that breaks the climb, to turn around and see the KangYatse towering over us, as if it had sneaked behind to shout boo-hoo! It was a breathtaking moment. Once on the pass, we were greeted with a welcoming snowfall. Though it hurt and felt a bit like ice rather than snow. None of us were dressed appropriately (talk about lack of etiquettes :)) – but it was a downhill climb and we somehow made it to the base.

The smokin mokin Kang Yatse

We were the only ones in the camp and I loved it for that. It rained endlessly through the night and today when we woke up, we could see the mountain tops that we had passed by yesterday covered with snow – not capped but like the sprinkling of icing sugar on a cake. We were happy that that part was behind us.

The team at Kongmaru La as we set off for our last day trek to Shamsumdo

Day 7: Kongmaru La base to Shamsumgdo

We just finished dinner and admired the clear night sky for the last time. For the last time, M and I laid out our tent, aired our sleeping bags. It is hard to believe that five days ago I was doubting our chances at finishing the trail. And here we are, in the end. I am happy we did it, sad it is over.

Our last day of setting the tent ritual

Today’s landscape was one of the prettiest – an interplay of pinkish rust and green throughout. A change from the barren browns of the initial days and the greens of the small villages we crossed. These mountains are fascinting. And walking through the heart of this ranges for the last 7 days, an experience. And each day has been different. In some places, they have the gnarled appearance of an old man's hands - all wrinkled and veins popping out. Sometimes, they are sharply cut with a metallic sheen, as if shaped by a diamond-cutter. Sometimes, they are smooth slopes of small infinite pieces of gravel creating varying hues as if from a painter's brush. Some have the look of clay, all ready to curmble to the lightest of touch.

Me on the pink and green trail

I worry that I may not remember every single sight of the last few days. Already, the scenes are overlapping from their compartmentalized days they are supposed to neatly fall into. But as long as I can bring back some, if not all of the images, call upon some breathtaking moments and of course, incredible maggis......

And of course, there will always be the photos! :)

On the Markha Valley Trail: Dark Clouds, A Drizzle and Hot Pakoras

Day 5: Markha to Thachungtse

I dozed for three hours this evening and am still all ready to go back to bed – once I finish this quick write-up.

Today’s trail was gentle – a bit of ascent, a bit of descent. The skies are cloudy and I hope it doesn’t rain – which it exactly does. Our initial itinerary had this broken down into 2 days with a stop in Hankar. Can’t imagine why, especially as we managed the bit to Hankar in three hours.

Another 'Mani' wall - that is the wall where the pile up slabs with a buddhist prayer, found near stupas

The prayer slabs on the wall

An old lady adn her grandson we saw on the trail. She actually came and asked me money for the photos I took.

Two river crossings and five hours later we are at Thachungtse by 2 in the afternoon. We encountered a light drizzle on the way – so me and M hurry with our tents. Our troublesome cook has suddenly turned friendly and made pakoras. Hot pakoras in the rains… we are in heaven in heaven.

With nothing to do, we decide on a quick evening nap – only to be woken up by the rains. It’s not heavy, but from within the tent it seems like a storm raging upon us. However… sleep overtakes. Until dinner and a write-up waits…

It is still drizzling outside. The camp looks beautiful with the last of the sunlight fading away, and star making their entrance. And us surrounded by dark mountains, nestled in V between their slopes, with lighted tents dotting the landscape.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

On the Markha Valley Trail: A Pass and Some Plains

Day 3: Over the Ganda La Pass to Skiu via Shingo

I want to say we woke up after a log like sleep after a long day, but sadly was not the case. I kept tossing around and waking up breathless to find my heart racing like mad. Deep breathing brought no results. I was sure I had AMS. My other friend had breathlessness and headache and the other friend didn’t sleep at all.

The campsite at Ganda La base

So we were the Bright Brady Bunch next day morning! However, we had learnt something the previous day and slowed our pace to match our breathing. And tackling the pass first thing in the day was a plus. M was on a horse and we were all ok. After the pass was a whole day of descent – I don’t think we relished any other stretch as we did this one.

Nestling a cup of tea and a bowl of maggi at Shingo, we relished the cross over of the pass. And also had one of the most interesting conversations in the trail with a frenchman. He was solo trekking with no guide or horses and living of t-stalls and the homestays, all through the trail. I was very impressed. He talked about he saw the Taj from afar to avoid the “tourists” (:), his trip to Pangong by bus and how Leh was too hippy. The last bit came as a surprise, as we may have mistaken him off as one (interesting to realize that so far, my definition of hippy was a foriegner dressed in hare rama kind of clothes!). He also chatted about the nuke deal and surrounding drama and the Jammu problem. I was surprised by how much he was tuned into the going-ons in India. Philosophy prof, we ended our chat by wondering if 2 months vacations were good for kids or not.

Evening was interesting – the entrance to Skiu was like a scene out of Indiana Jones (and the Last Crusader – the only one I have seen), a shower in a solar shower which was of course not working and a night under the most star-dusty skies I have ever seen...

Ibex heads welcoming us as into Shingo

Day 4: Skiu to Markha

Finally! A night of solid sleep and none of the breathlessness. We have been hitting the sleeping bags by 9 and waking up by 6.30. A schedule I haven’t seen in ages. I am lovin' it.

Today’s route was to be on flat plains. We were looking forward to that. Barely 20 minutes after beginning – we ran into an old woman – a really old wrinkled woman. Our guide who dedicatedly greets every passing by guide, fellow Ladakhi or tea-stall owner chatted up with her. We learned that she was going to Markha from Skiu – our “trek” for the day. She had this frayed, old, teeny weeny backpack – the one which teenagers carry around for carrying absolutely nothing. She was on her way to either get her knees checked or get her spects fixed (that was lost in translation). But she was going to wobbly walk her way to it.

I was amazed, amazed at the way of life in this unconnected region. I wonder what life would have been to grow up in a place like this, to have grown up with weekends spend rambling in mountains and wilderness. Like Heidi. Like Gerald Durrell. Like our guide here.

Canyon like rock faces on the way to Markha