impressions from

Ladakh - Zanskar Traverse

Zurich - Delhi (12 August 2006)

After a decent flight from Zurich (western vegetarian isn't too exciting, and I sleep only little) we circle above the huge city of Delhi for some time. We get through immigration quickly and meet our pick-up. 32° C at midnight and high humidity turns the short walk to the taxi into a sauna experience. 20 minutes later we're in Paharganj, an area in Delhi with reasonable hotels. Hotel Cottage Yes Please is quite nice, we're trying to get some sleep because in a few hours we have to be in the domestic airport again. Flights to Leh are very booked this time of the year, and who gets there late might see his seat being handed to somebody on the waiting list.

Delhi - Leh (Day 2)

At 3.00 in the morning the wake-up call ends a night with few moments of sound sleep, the heat is just too much. At the airport, quite a few people are waiting in line already. After the foiled attacks in London, security is very tight, leading to rather chaotic scenes. Martin, Andrea and I pass through quite smoothly though.

With some delay the plane takes off, there were communication problems with Leh airport and without an account of the weather situation the pilot wouldn't fly. We're in business class, and enjoy an excellent breakfast: dosa with complimentary great views. After half an hour above the flat Ganges plain the first hills appear, followed by glaciers and snow-covered peaks of what must be Himachal Pradesh. The scenery becomes more arid, and through intensifying clouds and mist the ochre hills and mountains of Zanskar appear. Over the Indus valley the fog gets slightly less dense, and green oases dot the side valleys of the mighty river that features a uncommon brown color. Rain in summer has been an exception until 5 years ago. This summer worst flood in decades has effected large areas of Ladakh. Villages, road, fields were destroyed; worse, people died in collapsing houses. It's still very cloudy, strangely the clouds don't come from the Indian plain but from the north-west. Let's hope the worst is over.

At Leh the temperatures are pleasant. After a nap Martin, Andrea and I go for a short stroll to town to fill up water bottles and buy some organic snacks at Dzoma. Then we go to Ibex restaurant for lunch, followed by some more napping at the guesthouse Shynam before heading for dinner at Summer Harvest. A relaxing first day at this altitude is important.

It seems to be a good group (and as it turned out, it really was): Ger and Daireen are from Ireland, Erin and David from the US, Louise is living in England but originally from Australia and has trekked in the Himalayas many times before. Jeff comes from the US, has done trekking in various other places before, unfortunately he fell sick today but will recover for the trek. My friends Martin and Andrea are also from Switzerland, I always wanted to take them trekking but it never worked out. All the people seem friendly, not fussy, and mentally and physically prepared for the 3-week trek.

Leh - Taktok - Chemrey - Leh  (Day 3)

I slept well, the weather looks good (in fact it's the best day for weeks), so instead of staying in Leh I plan to visit some monasteries in the Indus valley. Taktok is a relatively remote monastery in the north-east, and started as a small gompa built around a cave where Padmasambhava was meditating on his way to Tibet. Wangchuk will drive, and as always the drive up the Indus is great: he is good company and the scenery is stunning. Along poplar trees and through deserts we pass several monasteries that rise on sharp cliffs above the green valley. We head into a northern side-valley where round fields of barley in various greens and yellows dot the wide valley. The steeper the valley gets, the smaller the fields become. From an impressive position the monastery of Chemrey dominates the valley. Shakti village features long mani walls, much larger and longer than the small village would lead you to expect. A ruined fort above the village might be a sign from the past: a pass (Wangu La) crosses into the Shyok valley from where many trails lead to Central Asia and its fabled trade hubs of Yarkand, Khotan, Samarkand; and from there all the way to Europe and China. Did trade routes pass through Shakti and over Wangu La before the Leh/Kardung La route became so important that the capital was shifted to Leh?

Traktok's old monastery at the cave is closed because the abbot, Rimpoche Tsedul Tsedrung(?), has just arrived from Shimla and the entire village flocked to the new gompa to listen to his speech. People have dressed up and listen intently. After an hour we leave the ceremony to visit Chemrey monastery. At the bottom of the hill stand the houses of the monks, at the very top is the chapel which I think is dedicated to Guru Rimpoche (aka Padmasambhava), a large statue of this famous saint is flanked by 10? others that show his different aspects.

During the afternoon, heavy clouds have gathered in the Zanskar range and are dropping fresh snow on the higher peaks. But at least we've seen some sunlight during the day, the last four weeks were either constant rain or thick clouds.

Leh - Basgo (Day 3)

I hear drizzle when wake up me in the night, but at least not caused by problems with altitude or stomach, but "only" barking dogs (too loud even for my earplugs). Keep fingers crossed.

The gentle rain stops after breakfast; the others are off to visit Phyang and Likir. I've seen both places already, and decide to spend the day in Basgo, stay there for the night and then join the others when driving to the start the trek tomorrow morning.

The drive is nice, weather getting better as we leave the Leh valley and are on the open plain before hitting the Indus again. At the junction of the Zanskar river we stop to enjoy the view over Nimmu where the fields stretch from the organ-pipes of the desert all the way down to the Indus river. Far in the west are the fields of Basgo, the village lies below the bright red crags.

In Nimu we meet Lobsang and the rest of the crew. They are a day ahead of us and on their way to Panjila already in order to set up camp and prepare the trek. Military presence in Nimmu is tight, today is India's Indepence Day, and fear of attacks from "Kashmiri" militants is high. (I use brackets because I'm not sure if they really fight for Kashmir, and not their own political or religious gain. That said, I'm not defending the excesses of the Delhi rule in the valley).

It's only a short drive from here to Basgo through the flat valley. The characteristic red cliffs announce the former capital from far away. The ruined fortress towers above the spread-out houses and the green barley fields which stretch down the side valley of the Indus. We stop at a guesthouse along the road, luckily it is booked; price, location, and owner are not great. After few minutes we find a family that is happy to host me for a night - they clear out the best room on the roof and invite me to have tea. The atmosphere is cozy, great views from the glass-fronted room, and a nearby creek drowns out the unpleasant noises from the road.

Across the creek are patches of fields which contrast sharply with the barren hills. Since most of the bridges were washed away, I takes some time to find one, then I cross and stroll along small water channels through the fields of barley and grass. Despite the slight drizzle it's a wonderful walk, cut a little short by increasing rain and a need for a nap.

The large window front makes the room very warm, and soon I'm off to the land of dreams. I wake up an hour later, the weather is much better and I take another short walk. The sun increases the colors; blue sky, white and black clouds, red cliffs, green fields, and white buildings of Basgo's fort and monastery which are currently being restored. Hoopoe, sparrows, brown doves make the only noise. The walnut-sized apricots straight from the tree taste very refreshing.

In the late afternoon I return to the house, enjoy Ladakhi salt tea, play domino with the daughter who visits class 11 in Leh and speaks good English. Hospitality is overwhelming again; I got offered the best room in the house, am invited to join the family in the living room, and everybody is very friendly and nice. The living room is very spacious, the wall behind the oven contains brass and copper pots, china, vessels. Everything is neatly arranged and polished, clearly the housewife's pride. The family seems relatively wealthy, they own many fields, and some cows and goats. Next to the house is a small vegetable garden where  cauliflower, spring onions, spinach is grown. So actually they are probably not rich, but it's just their dignity which makes them seem wealthy - a very clean and nicely decorated house in which an atmosphere and air of satisfaction flows. The way they discuss matters of the day over dinner strikes me as very calm, and dignified. Four generations live in the same house, sharing rooms most of the time and yet not a single angry word or sign of fraction occurs. I wonder when and where arguments arise.

Will the Western way of life roll over them in a few years? I do enjoy Western lifestyle most of the time for myself. But I wonder whether it should really be adopted world wide and become the de-facto standard of living. Do people who were settled in their own culture and were satisfied suddenly become unsatisfied when seeing the propagation of a Western lifestyle constantly, over and over again on TV and radio? Or is it possible to separate the good aspects from the bad ones?

Rice, spinach and kidney beans are a tasty and filling dinner. It's late, almost ten, and I soon fall asleep. A knocking sound wakes me in the middle of the night. I think of a mouse attacking my chocolate, and curse myself for not having closed my bag properly. Then I realize it's water drops, the recent rain has damaged the roof. Luckily it is leaking only a little bit, and no leak is directly above the bed.

Basgo - Alchi - Panjila (Day 4)

Hot sunshine wakes me to a blue sky-ed morning. After a cold shower and chapatti omelets I feel the day has really started.

When the group arrives from Leh, we drive up to the fortress. From up there, the village and its fields look even more picturesque. From the river to the ochre hills lie the green-yellow barley fields, with puffy white clouds floating above the cragged hills. The two temples are quite different, the larger one is being renovated and stands in its own large separate building. Within the complex of the fort is in another room, featuring a large statue that spans over two stories. The paintings on the walls are very old, there's a lot of history contained in this room.

We continue to Alchi monastery which lies in a side-valley to the south. All the fields were harvested already, taking away much charm of the place where one of the few remaining Kashmiri-style paintings can be found. The murals are truly stunning, especially the large mandalas. But lots of tourists and too many shops spoil the atmosphere; I'm glad I stayed in Basgo instead of Alchi.

It will be a long drive to the campsite, and though it is stunning to drive along the Indus, the heat and dusty make it seem even longer. The drive becomes more interesting as the gorge gets more narrow and when we leave the road to Lamayuru the route gets really exciting. Partly because it looks like an area perfect for trekking; colorful cliffs with a grey creek at the bottom evoke thoughts of the next few days. The space between the sheer cliffs and the river becomes more narrow until there's barely room for the road. A monastery atop a hill marks the confluence of two rivers and the opening of the valley. We have reached Wanla, a great village with a fort watching over it. Stacks of hay are spread out to dry behind the white-washed houses. The very end of the valley is marked by high craggy mountains, but before getting close the road ends; we have reached Fanjila. Tents and a herd of horses mark the end of our jeep ride.

Fanjila spreads out along the road, the old part looks very traditional with attached houses climbing up the hills. At the river junction stands a white stupa, our way for tomorrow to Honupata. I don't cross the river, and follow the water channel past the traditional part of the village. The flat spaces are reserved for fields where people are harvesting and cutting barley. Most of it has been spoiled by the rain. A mother and her daughter, owners of the fields from Wanla, have time for a little chat. They finished harvest in their own town, and will be up here for a few days. Most of the men from the village are working elsewhere, and the children are still at school and can't help either. So Nepali laborers are hired to help them in the fields. Some fields are used to grow grass, used as fodder for the cattle during the long winter months.

The door to the small and simple looking monastery is not locked. Behind a glass cage stands one statue, modern-looking thankgas hang on the wall. A single cushion on the floor means there's only one monk taking care of the villagers' spiritual needs.

First dinner of the trek, as always Tenba cooks excellent and with a full stomach I try to fall asleep in the spacious tent. During the day the clouds and wind prevented temperatures from rising too high; it remains warm during the night but as always, the first night in the tent makes it hard to sleep soundly till morning.

Panjila - Honupatta (Day 5)

In the early morning, some clouds linger in the valley. Getting started takes some time on the first day: taking down the tent, figuring out what to put in the day pack, packing the stuff. After having the loads ready for the horses, we enjoy the breakfast buffet with a large variety of bread and eggs. The horses leave while we're at breakfast, half an hour later we're also ready to start the trek. The weather is great, the warm sun brings out the colors from the sheer cliffs. We will walk on the road which is still under construction and wander up the grey creek that seems to end abruptly at the crags that tower like a frontier in front of us. To our left side are brown scree slopes where patches of brightly green grass and pink flowers add small spots of color to the arid landscape. After half an hour we cross the river, pass the farthest point where road workers are pressure-hammering the road out of the rock; and continue up the gorge which is getting more and more narrow. We walk in the pleasant shade above the thundering river, often looking up to the shapes and colors above us. Rock citadels rise hundreds of meters into the dark blue sky.

We cross the river a second time via natural bridge where all the water just disappears in the ground and reappears twenty meters further down. On a wooden bridge we switch sides again, and after passing an exposed part chiseled in the rock face we reach Sumdo, "the confluence of two creeks" where we rest in the shade of a parachute restaurant. They can be found along the more traveled routes all over Ladakh. In the shade of the old parachutes are some chairs and tables, and locals sell tea, coke, biscuits and chocolate.

The Honupatta gorge offers a great walk, we the narrow trail upstream along the wild creek. The cliffs are smoothly washed out high above the current water level. Small trees and bushes grow where the valley floor is not covered by water. It's a few ups and downs before the valley finally opens up and becomes less steep. Trees and isolated fields break the monotony of red cliffs ahead of us. The trail is visible from far away, a fine thin line running halfway between the river and the cliffs. Forest plantation and then isolated barley fields appear, and then we meet some locals on their way down to Fanjila. They just started from Honupatta a few minutes ago, and after passing the village's chorten we enter the village itself. A dozen white-washed houses are built on the hillside above the river and the fields.

A woman sets up her shop outside her house, and we enjoy lunch in her house. I'm very hungry, and some bowls of curry rice later we leave for the campsite which is "just up the valley." On the way out of the village we pass chortens and mani walls, many of them are decorated with piles of horns from blue sheep. These rare animals must live in the Side valleys whose entries are marked by barren rock towers. Even on the most steep and inaccessible hilltop are lhatsos and prayerflags, leaving me wondering who and how climbed up there. It must be shepherds that go up to the hidden pastures with goats and yaks, and maybe even hunt for blue sheep and ibex, though everybody denies hunting.

Some shaky bridges cross the creek, fields are getting sparser and still there are no tents in sight. I was prepared for a short stroll after lunch, and therefore relieved when the camp is suddenly below us on the opposite side of the creek. We camp next to a barley field with fantastic views up to the nearby rock pillars and sheer cliffs. A magnificent view down the valley where we came from shows the intricate canyon system with its top peaks slightly covered by snow.

The first day of walking is always tough, no matter how long it takes, so despite the short day I feel very tired. It's still warm enough to take a bath in the cold creek, a whim which turns into a daily routine for the next three weeks. What a contrast to the last treks where it was so cold in mornings and afternoons that even washing with hot water was a slight torture. After the wash there's time for tea and chips, and a game of Frisbee.

Though still very warm at night (is it the altitude or the season?), I zip up my sleeping bag for the night, and apart from having to unzip, sleep soundly until the next morning. I usually take another day to get used to the noises.

Hanupatta Rest Day (Day 6)

The rising sun illuminates the canyons where we came from, when the sun hits the tent it's the right time to finally get up.

Unfortunately, Andrea has stomach problems, so she and Martin will not accompany us on our little day trip after breakfast. From the right side of the river we have a good view of the Hunapatta village across. There's two side valleys, we take the lower one and walk up to a herder's hut. The simple stone building is used in summer by people moving up the pastures with their flocks of sheep, goats, and few yaks.  Despite the valley still being green, they have moved north-west. A pass higher up seems a good challenge and we climb up the steep gravel slope, where bushes and little flowers grow, lizards (I manage to catch a baby) and birds can be seen. Higher up flowers turn large areas pink towards the top of the pass. On rocks grow colorful lichen. A steep slope goes down the other side, probably too steep to descend. Around us are more crags, and narrow valleys - endless opportunities to explore.

We're ready to return to camp after lunch on the pass. A relaxing afternoon is disturbed by the arrival with a very annoying French group and a brief argument with their western leader.

Honupatta - Sirsir La - Photoskar (Day 7)

For the first half hour my legs feel very heavy on the gentle climb up the valley which opens up more and more. The creeks makes a sharp left bend and we climb higher, snow peaks appear at the horizon, the other "hills" consist of dark red color. Green bushes grow on the slope; marmots, snow pigeons and red-tailed sparrows are the only animals.

We cross a bridge and head towards the left, not crossing the snow peaks which we saw earlier and where's a route leading to Kanji. While waiting for the others, Lobsang catches us with some of us. He's carrying part of the pack-lunch, but seems to have strict orders not hand out anything before official lunch-time. I'm really, really hungry, ad we convince him to hand out a little food. This was the first and last time we got pre-lunch.

I'm glad to have eaten something on the way to lunch spot below the pass. A wide barren valley opens up, revealing creeks and rock pinnacles. Then we climb up the last meters up to the 4'820 m high Sirsir La. The view opens up even more, and reveals a fine panoramic view over the eastern part of the pass. Red sand dunes, green cliffs, rock spirals and black mountains with snow on the sides. Except for a few yaks and a herders' tent it looks very deserted and inhospitable.

A straight line in the hillside marks the way to the pass, it's steep but the views offers a god excuse to stop often. Dust devils go dozens of meters in the air, and mark the pass. When we arrive, it is calm and rather hot. The new part of the panorama that gets revealed is Singe La (the next pass) and that large peak resembles a lion and gave the pass its name. The peak must be around 6'000 m high, small glaciers cling to the black cliffs and the clouds give the scenery a slightly sinister mood. A valley branches off to the left, somewhere there must be Photaskar.

Two ways lead down the pass, Martin and I take the short-cut and slide down the steep gravel slope. Tripping not advised, the trail runs on narrow ridges quickly down to a fairly level ground where a good trail takes us to a mani wall and a chorten. From here we see the green fields of Photoskar and then the village itself. Just behind the houses rise the steep cliffs of the Zanskar range, a stunning contrast. From the right comes a creek, also muddy from recent rain. A bridge brings us to the campground next to the river. It was a long day in mostly hot weather, and after putting up the tent it feels wonderful to lie down for a few moments.

A cup of hot chocolate revives some of my energy, and Ger joins me for a short stroll to the village. The barley fields, white houses and reddish cliffs look fantastic in the late afternoon light and we prolong our walk down to the river. On the bridge's other side stands a traditional mill, and when we peak into it suddenly an old, dusty villager appears in its doorway. After a short talk further up we meet a group of elder women, first they are very shy but become very active when seeing themselves on the display of the camera. When another younger woman appears, who though without knowledge of English manages to translate my Tibetan into Ladakhi, the older ones become even more active and even dance with Ger.

The sun is setting, and the views up the valley are stunning; the silver creek meandering through fields of green where the hairs on ears are finely accentuated.

Just as the sun disappears behind the ridge, and we're almost at camp, out of nowhere half a dozen flock of sheep appear and are driven down to the village. Maybe we're lucky and meet them tomorrow morning on their way up.

But for now I'm very tired, especially after the additional side trip through Photoskar. A great, tiring day of trekking.

Photaskar - Bumiktse La - Senge La Camp (Day 8)

The village has quite a different appearance in the back light of the morning sun. The fields are of a light green, the gorges behind the houses just shady silhouettes in the slight morning haze. Smoke curls up from the flat roofs. Goats herds, each about a dozen animals, are being driven to pastures by women and young girls and boys. The animals are kept outside the village in high stone-walled compounds which we pass on the way to the settlement. What I took for dilapidated houses yesterday are in fact greenhouses with small vegetable gardens where mustard, salad and onions are grown.

The village seems deserted, but then we met half a dozen villagers working near the little rivulet that goes through the village. They are not washing gold are they? No, they are concerned with food for the winter. Bags full of barley corns are cleaned in the water, and spread out nearby to dry in the sun. Afterwards it is brought down to the mill where it is ground into tsampa, barley flour. Despite rice rations handed out to every village by the government, tsampa remains the staple diet in Ladakh. Since it cannot be used for baking bread, people mix the flour with salt tea and butter - the meal for almost every day in every year.

We cross the river and start our walk towards Singe La. From across the scenery is fantastic: to the left rise the high dark mountains, below us are the houses which stand atop of organ-pipes, and in between spread out the green fields which cover the entire valley up to steep reddish canyon walls at the very right.

Crossing some flat valleys, today's pass appears before us. Bumiktse La is just a short walk up a little ridge, and an easy trail leads up to it. Parts of the valley are wet and muddy, many yaks and goats graze in the green valley. Lots of  marmots and pika can be seen and heard whistling to warn the others about the intruders.

A strange haze appeared on the blue sky in the early morning, indicating a weather change. Now that we've reached the pass all blue color is gone, and thick clouds appear on the overcast sky. Luckily from Bumiktse La we can see tomorrow's pass, the Singe La, with the large peak to the right of it, so camp can't be far away. We reach it by crossing a wide stream barefoot, and passing a dead, foul-smelling horse. The black clouds are full of rain, and you can literally see the downpour approaching us from all sides. It's just another small river-crossing and I'm at the campsite, put up my tent and wash in the river just before a heavy downpour. Rain stops after dinner and stars come out.

Senga La Camp - Singe La - Yulchung (Day 9)

Hard rain on the tent wakes me during the night. The morning looks a little brighter, although Singge La is hidden in low-hanging clouds, good weather is moving in from the north. Any hope that the weather from the north will win is dashed ten minutes after starting our walk. Hard rain sets in. I'm happy to have packed the good (and expensive) rain-gear which - thanks to the umbrella - barely gets wet. At first it's a gentle climb up the wide valley, through a patchwork of low juniper bushes. Marmots come out of their holes and watch us pass them. The face of the pass looms as black scree slope against dark clouds. The last bit goes steeply up, I take the short-cut for the first part but switch to the regular, less steep trail. I'm not in as good a shape as I should be. Maybe my expectations are too high, Singe La is around 5'000 m high (some say 4'900 m, others 5'050 m) and therefore feeling tired is actually natural.

Before enjoying the views on top of Sengge La, the cold wind forces me to put on more clothes. The pass seems to separate the weather, while in the north where we came from it's still very cloudy, the southern side features blue sky with some wandering clouds. Far down in the valley green fields stand out from the rugged landscape and the sheer cliffs of Zanskar. It's an intimidating and curious sight. In the next days we will wander in and finally up those gorges and to the hidden passes that take us into the heart of Zanskar.

But first we must reach today's campsite at Yulchung - a village (or actually "small country" if translated correctly) that doesn't see many trekkers despite its proximity to Lingshed. We descend on a scree slope with several kinds of small flowers. To our left rise orange cliffs, to our right black rock faces covered by snow.

Passing the little creek where people usually camp on their way up, we're on a very small path that follows high above the river and have lunch further down. Rain and wind have formed bizarre figures in the rock and even left mansized holes in the sheer walls. Some of caves are used by people, a large one serves as a meditation cave for lamas. Very narrow side valleys drain the massif into the creek that flows in the Zanskar river some hours further down. 

It's no use hurrying since the trail is partially destroyed further down. The horseman are repairing it before we can proceed. Even after the fix, it's hard to imagine how they got the horses to cross the difficult parts. The slope drops steeply, and the stone plates which they used to fix the trail do not look too stable. Anyway, the caravan is ahead of us now; the silhouettes of horses against the backdrop of the Zanskar range looks fantastic.

Nothing indicates human presence except the trail that descends down the rock-strewn and hot gorge. 

After a bend suddenly the barley fields and houses of Yulchung appear. More fields and houses are built in the amphitheatric valley. What an oasis at 4'000 meters. The "small land" is a jewel. Both its scenery and the people are outstanding. The villagers are very friendly, the few kids who are not off to school in Lingshed are shy and reserved at first. The local health worker who opens the monastery to show me around is knowledgeable and speaks good English. He tells me that the village had its own king before, however the former palace is in ruins now because the royal family broke up. Some moved to Nyerak, the village across the Zanskar, some moved to other places.

Today 70 people live in the 10 houses that constitute Yulchung. The gompa was partially renovated and is administered by Lingshed gompa. On special occasions a monk or lama is sent for to conduct ceremonies. Old thangkas and a three-dimensional mandala are the most noticeable artifacts, apart from several statues which have mostly been brought from Tibet and look quite old.

The setting sun turns the valley into a basket of yellow and green, with white houses standing out and a majestic, rugged cliffs forming the boundaries. It's a great evening scene, the vastness of the landscape is increased by the puffy clouds in the clear sky. 

Yulchung - Nyerak (Day 10)

Orange clouds float in the light blue sky in the early morning, then the cliffs turn from silhouettes to structured and intricate system of canyons and colors, finally the gentle hillsides catch the soft light.

I leave late and pass a family working the field with two yaks and a wooden plough. The yaks are not too disobedient, and only an occasional sharp yell is necessary to keep them moving and steer them. Reddish-color Ladakhi tea and tsampa stand next to the field. The daughter invites us for breakfast but we decline. I'm surprised how many young people return from places like Jammu during summer holiday. These days it is common for children to leave the village for education, and most of those I talk to want to return to their village once they finish their studies. But they can't imagine working as farmers and would like come back and work as teachers, doctors or engineers. Since it is unlikely that a large "service industry" will spring up in those villages, I question whether they can really return. What will happen to the villages then? Will the decrease of population lead to mono-culture where only city-life is admired? Is this loss of diversity just something I personally feel sad about, or does it negatively impact the lives of Ladakhis? In Switzerland the same thing has happened and is happening - remote villages are overaged and disappear, and with it the culture that have persisted for so long. It never concerned me much at home, so maybe I'm a hypocrite who just needs foreign culture to spice up my holidays.

A small monastery, or rather gompa ("isolated place"), stands high above the gorge at the southern ridge. One minute after passing the chorten that marks the village's exit, all houses are out of sight and we seem to be in the middle of nowhere again. A narrow trail traverses the slope which is to steep to see the river below us. Narrow canyons lead away from us, only shades make the little valleys visible. A repeated cry - of a young eagle in its nest? - echoes through the gorge. We drop into a side valley on whose grassy plains yaks and mules are grazing. Then we climb up the Chocho Guru la, "pass of the brother with bended back". The views down into the valley system of Zanskar are breathtaking: gorges that look like deep cuts in the stone appear surreal, as if somebody had first broken the land by hand and sliced it with a knife. Across us lie the light green fields of Nyerak where a dozen houses stand at the edges of green fields. Getting there won't be easy, a long way down and up again in the hot sun wait for us.

A steep descent brings us to the Zanskar river whose brown waters eat away at the narrow gorge that confines it. The horses are just crossing the rickety bridge that spans the river at a narrow spot, with the river ten meters below. All of the animals and crew cross safely. In winter, the frozen river is much, much lower and the Chadar route the only way from Ladakh to Zanskar. We rest some minutes near the bridge, and push on.

A zig zag trail goes up to the village. After passing a strange looking lhatso, built from blue sheep horn, we stop at a large white chorten for lunch. The little shade offers a welcome break from the fierce sun that has been burning down relentlessly since early morning. A last climb before camp. My legs feel fine, I'm in good shape now, but the sun makes it hard to walk, heart beating, sweat flowing. After climbing the barren slope with lizards as the only diversion from the heat, finally the first field appears. While the golden ears are gently moving in the wind the steep canyon walls behind them display not any sign of life.

Several small trails lead to the distributed village. Women working in the fields point out the right trail. It is still hot, and each occasional breeze is a relief. I pass a very tempting pool on the way up, wondering whether I'll have enough motivation to visit it after settling down at camp. Luckily no test of will is necessary, five minutes later I reach the campsite and find a similar pool nearby. It looks deceptive, the water temperature are freezing, but not cold enough to decrease my initial eagerness: I enjoy a quick swim, and then lie on the grass to dry in the hot sun. Half an hour later it's so hot that I consider a second plunge, but finally laziness wins and I take a siesta.

Afterwards I take stroll through the widespread fields where women and children are harvesting peas. I stay at a group of chortens from where the views of Chocho Gurmu La and Singe La, our route over the last two days, are splendid. The cliffs seem to change color and shape every time a cloud moves over the sun. Rose hip bushes separate the fields, some parts are used to grow tall grass and flowers, others are used for barley or peas. The panoramic view from further away is stunning. above the green pea fields and yellow barley fields rise the rock faces, the village's whitewashed houses have a fort-like appearance and the monastery stands above the village. Clouds, white, grey and black, gather above the red cliff that leads to tomorrow's pass. Sand-dunes with bushes and conifers grow in the gullies between the washed-out hillsides. Chortens are built very high up, probably all the way to the 5'000 Takti La though the pass itself isn't visible from here. Despite the many different and conflicting aspects, the landscape is very harmonious.

A walk through the village reveals that the dozen large houses are connected to each other, in a intricate maze of courtyards and roofs. Mani walls (or better mani piles) are numerous, and many of the inscribed stones look quite recently made. An impressive pile of those stones lie above the monastery that overlooks the village. The altar room is simple and features a statue of Chenrezig and a three-dimensional mandala. It's the second mandala I see here (after Yulchung), and since I haven't seen many others in the Himalayas (except in Potala in Lhasa), they might be a special local custom. Like in Yulchung, no permanent monk resides in the village itself. From the courtyard the views over the valley are nice, especially in the evening light.

It was another great day and we crossed from Ladakh into Zanskar.

Nierak - Takti La - Bear Valley Camp (Day 11)

We're ready early to leave for a tough day of hiking. The horseman who spent the night up in the pastures to guard the horses against wolves, is driving the pack animals down while we have breakfast.

It is not very hot yet, and with stomachs full pancakes, chapatis and omelettes we're quickly gaining ground and rest above the gompa and look back over the village's green plateau against the backdrop of the mountains we've crossed the last three days.

It's a constant 1'200 m climb, with some false passes thrown in between, until we reach Takti La. The pass itself sits atop of a gently sloped plateau with views toward north and south. To be quite honest, the view does not justify the effort it took us to get there. The panorama is limited, and does not reveal anything new. All of us are all rather tired after the long walk of the last  hours, but Andrea and Ger find energy to walk up another slope to reach 5'000 meters. After lunch we drop most of the altitude very quickly in a steep descent, but have to gain some of it to climb a mini-pass. Martin and Andrea arrive while I'm resting. We don't want to wait for Lobsang, therefore descend into the second narrow gorge and are happy to see horse shit as re-assurance we're on the right "track". There's no trail down the wild creek, we stumble across rocks and boulders that lie scattered along its bank. Washed out rocks stands like organ pipes in the valley. Rock cairns appear and we follow them down, crossing the creek a few times until the valley becomes more level and lush scenery greets us. Willows, rose hip, flowers and tall grass are a wonderful change, especially after the slog in the morning up the barren slope.

We meet no bears (though it's not hard to imagine them living here), and sadly no other animals either. I'm wondering how far the campsite is, or if we managed to pass it without noticing it. I thought I saw a tent from higher up, was it just imagination? Leaving the riverbed and climbing up to a little plateau, we're relieved to see the dining tent just below us. We descend through the organ-pipes and through thorny bushes - not the wisest short-cut but I'm eager for: 1. a wash in the creek, 2. pakora and chips for snacks, and 3. a rest in my tent. Actually, the priorities are different.

Everybody is tired and enjoys the warm afternoon before lunch. A fire was lit to scar away the bears, and the dancing flames shine through the tent as I fall asleep.

Bear Valley Camp - Phargunsa (Day 12)

We walk down along the creek, following in the small and sometimes hard to detect trail that crosses the river several times. Willows grow along the water, the walls of the valleys are barren rock. The gorge narrows to a width of a few feet, the water gushes through the smooth channel and there's no choice but taking off shoes and wade through the cold water. Then the walls seem to close above us, we can't see the sky and for a few meters walk through the natural tunnel. Quite spectacular, and harmless since the water level is not high and therefore the current not strong. As long as one avoids stepping on slippery rocks and doesn't get dizzy by the water, there's no risk of stumbling.

After another half hour in the valley bottom we climb up a loose slope. A shaky trail has been built by piling slabs of rock in the most precarious places. The crew went ahead to check out the trail, so we rest at the river bend and enjoy the views. At first I think I'm crazy because the river suddenly flows in a different direction. It take some time to realize we're above the confluence of rivers from two different valleys, and the combined river flows in the direction we can't look into. The trail is safe, and we continue with another traverse of a precarious and unfixed barren scree slope with the river thundering far below. Some minutes later, we cross the fast flowing river, again without problems.

Just as we've crossed, the horses overtake us and we follow in their tracks. They scramble up the steep trail, send rocks down and create little clouds of dust. Even the precarious spot where boulders are piled on top of trunks spanning a wide gap in the track that was chiseled out of the vertical rock face does not scare the horses. Then down over a rock where it's impossible to belief that horses can take such huge step downwards. The resilience and flexibility of these animals is amazing. The drivers are very attentative and know which horse might face which problem at which spot, and are ready to help out. Another narrow gorge and tunnel, Lobsang wades upstream through waist-deep water; we take the zig zag trail steeply up the cliff and avoid the water.

A nice and wide valley with isolated willow trees awaits us on the other side. Steep cliffs and rock pillars rise above the barren flanks of yellow stone. Fresh bear drops lies in the middle of the path, but since the horses went ahead any bear would have fled already. Animal tracks crisscross the slope across the river, but sadly tracks is all we see of them into this remote valley. At lunch spot Kim beliefs to have a heard a bear splashing through the river. We look for it Joel sees some prints on the other side of the creek, but no sign of the bear. They can be quite aggressive when surprised, and avoiding them is a good idea.

Our campsite is on top of a plateau above the creek, and we face rock pillars that look like judges down on us. It's another hot afternoon, towards sunset I go down to the river, sit comfortably on a rock, legs stretched on a tree-trunk in the river. I'm completely at ease, it's one of those rare moments where everything feels right, the mind is not really thinking anything, and all you want is to be alone and prolong the moment for as a long as possible. The rushing of the river doesn't completely drown out the sound of wind in the leaves, and sometimes a gentle breeze makes me shiver in a pleasant way.

Dinner is great, for starters we enjoy wine (which I skip) and cheese, followed by the regular soup, then dal baht with spinach, plus pleasant conversation for desert with Indian sweets and Swiss cookies.

Despite the short distance it felt a more rewarding trekking day than yesterday. We walked barely three hours, but covered a variety of terrain, waded through the river, and spent a great afternoon at this isolated spot.

Phargunsa - Namtse La - Zangla (Day 13)

There's no sight of the horses before breakfast, or during breakfast, or after breakfast. We pack and walk up to little dip in the crest, and meet the horses on they way who were not successful in finding them. They must have wandered far off during the night in search for grass. We cross the little pass that is marked by three chortens made out of stacked branches and blue sheep horns on top. A strange monument, I've never seen anything similar before. The valley sees very few visitors, even herders don't seem to come here often during summer. We drop down into a similar valley where the sun hasn't risen above the steep walls yet. This gives us an hour of cool temperatures. On the way was more bear droppings, but it looked quite old.

The opening of the valley into gentle pastures is marked by two doksahs, primitive rock shelters that are occupied for some days by people from Zangla who come up here in summer. They bring their sheep and yak up to the pastures on the gentle hillsides. The steep slopes above the canyon are covered by green bushes and grass, I'm eagerly looking for bharal and ibex, but in vain. There's some tracks in the barren hillside, indicating that wildlife does come down to the river to drink, but that's all. Red-tailed birds hide in the rose hip bushes, ravens use the upwind on the slope to scan the hillside for food. As the willow trees get less and the creek becomes smaller, we leave the valley for more open space and climb up the hillside in the south. The open space with rolling hills is quite a contrast to the last few days. Dark and yellow bushes cover the ground, far at the horizon is the Zanskar range with patches of snow. We're surrounded by gentle hills. Ascending in little gullies between the hills is not a steep climb, but a long walk that offers not much variety. As we climb higher more mountains are revealed, and the black rock of Singe peak acts as a signpost. It is quite impressive to see the distance and terrain we covered in the last few days.

The pass hardly feels like one, it's just a dip between two of the many hills here. Namtse, "top of the sky", will lead to a steep drop of almost 1'000 meters. The first part offers a short-cut, then we enter an impressive gorge. Between steep cliffs that shoot high into the sky we follow the creek westwards In summer the flood has ripped parts of the valley walls down and carried huge boulders down. Therefore the trail is precarious at some spots where walking on the rubble isn't possible. So we slide down, trying to not to slip while steering the direction away from the edge and watching for falling stones from higher up.

It's an interesting hike down, not that easy but with good views. As we bend around a corner a different landscape lies at our feet: The Zanskar plain. After a week in gorges and on high passes I have almost forgotten that other, more gentle forms of scenery exist. The eyes rest on the wide piece of flat land. The wide valley of Padum, created by glaciers and the Zanskar river a long time ago is completely flat, the wide brown river runs through a large area of green grass. At the doksahs near the river some people from Zangla stay here with their goats, mules and dzos because the grazing is excellent. In winter they return to their village. The fort of Zangla looks very close, built atop a steep hill it overlooks the valley. Wind picks up as we walk upstream on a wide gravel bed, fighting against the wind.

This was a bad summer for farmers, first the torrential rain followed by a locust plague. As we walk through the grass, dozens of grasshoppers jump up with every step we take, it's quite disgusting. Finally I catch up with the horsemen who suddenly stopped, the entire caravan has come to a halt. We're in a muddy part with little rivulets, definitely not the campsite. Then I see the reason for the halt. A horse got stuck in a deep mud hole and is sinking quickly in the quicksand. The horse gets unloaded, but by now it has sunk with both hind legs, and more worrisome, has stopped fighting against its fate. To see it lying so still and not panicking is a bizarre sight. The horsemen act very cool, grab the horse by its head, but it doesn't come out and sinks even deeper. It's heart-breaking to see the horse suffering. Then they grab it by the front legs, hit it gently and the horse manages to get out. Calmly it waits to be loaded and walks the last five minutes to camp as if nothing had happened.

The scene will repeat itself half an hour later with another victim. Ger sinks into the mud, luckily Louise reacts quickly and avoids a more serious accident than just muddy shoes and pants.

The campsite is excellent. Tents are spread out on the wide grassy area, with small water channels nearby and a spring for a decent wash. The views towards Zangla where the fort towers above the village are fine, the village lies at the bottom of the fort. Wind picks up further and turns into a storm, the toilet tent is almost blown away, the dining tent fares better.

After sunset the views down the river reveal silhouettes of cragged mountains that stand out against the blue sky and the illuminated white and grey clouds.

Zangla Rest Day (Day 14)

I haven't slept that well in some time. Usually I wake up at the slightest noise and rarely sleep through till breakfast, but this night I was the only one not to hear the horse with a bell that was grazing just in front of our tents.

The wind has died down, it's a nice sunny day for a walk. It's a good place for a restday, there's plenty of grass for the horses and for us interesting day hikes. Andrea and I start early before it gets too hot, our goal is the nunnery and the fort of Zangla. It's a long walk across the pebble-covered plain. Distances are deceptive, but then we see the nunnery above us and climb up to it. Nobody seems to be there, then we hear the prayers from a separate building.

When a nun sees us she invites us into the sunny room where a puja is just going on. 8 nuns of various ages sit on the carpet near the window and recite texts from heart. A young nun whose expressions show her energy and feeling during the recital leaves a strong impression on me. The highest-ranking nun sits in the middle and hands out the key to the caretaker so she can get nice cups for our Ladakhi tea. After half an hour the prayer stops, we're offered chapati and have time for conversation. A group of Japanese tourists bursts in at the very moment, and we gladly take up the nun's offer of showing us around. Narrow corridors connect the buildings of the gompa, and the nun opens and unlocks the door at the end of the corridor.

The nunnery is 500 years old, and the main room does indeed look old. Just above the door are white paintings on black background, a technique that is quite rare. The two side walls feature paintings of various deities and historic figures. At the front wall are statues of Avalokiteshvara (Buddha of Compassion)and other protector deities. The statues and thangkas of the protector deities are covered by cloth, and are unveilled at special occasions only.

After a short chat we leave the pleasant place, and head towards the village. The village is empty and doesn't have much charm. Passing some mani walls with fine carvings, we climb up to the fort that stands on a crag in front of an even steeper mountain face. Countless chortens and more mani walls were erected below the fortress. What must this place have looked like in its hay-days? Who has walked up this trail? It must have been servants, villagers, but also emissaries, and kings and queens from neighbouring states. Which armies tried to invade, and were defeated? Some of the history is known, like that fact that the king showed the Dogra invaders the complicated way to the Indus valley via the Jumlam, from where they attacked Ladakh - in exchange of various favours. And that one of the first tibetologists, Körös, stayed in the fort for several months, studying the language, history and culture. But most other facts will probably never emerge. Rain has damaged the fort  substantially, therefore the main door is locked.

We walk back via the fields below the village on pebble-strewn path that winds itself through fields of peas, grass and flowers, with the wide valley in the background and the nunnery on the hillside. Colourful butterflies get carried away by the wind, birds sing in the rosehip bushes. It's a wonderful afternoon, though the walk on the rock-covered plain to get to campsite is uneventful and a little dull.

Despite the strong wind we play a fine game of frisbee. Then the usual but still highly appreciated routine of pakora for afternoon snacks, a nap, then soup and great dinner. Ger and Daireen will leave tomorrow, and take the jeep to Padum and Leh. Their "replacement" who were supposed to join us here for the rest of the trek won't be able to come: one is seriously sick and the other will bring here back to Leh.

Zangla - Hanumal (Day 15)

My mood during trekking is closely related to the weather. The overcast sky does not make the walk on the barren plain any more interesting. We first walk on the road that is under construction and will in some years be the first road that connects Zanskar with Ladakh, even in winter because it does not go over passes. I'm glad to reach the bridge where we cross over to Pishu and leave the road behind. I'm not sure whether the recent rain has turned the village of Pishu into its sorry state, of it was always like this. Instead of white-washed houses, brick walls and construction sites dominate the village. I leave quickly.

The walk through the fields outside the village increase my mood a little. Wide fields of ripe barley cover the level ground, white chortens rise out of the golden fields and red barren slopes rise in the background. Not only kids but virtually everybody asks for sweets and money; on the one hand understandable if hordes of trekkers pass by, on the other hand it is annoying.

After the fields the trail follows the Zanksar upstream; sometimes right along the bank, sometimes a little above it. All in all, it's quite a "flat walk" compared to previous days, and I must admit, a little boring. I don't enjoy it very much; seeing roadworkers across the river blasting the road doesn't help to create a feeling of trekking in a remote area of the Himalayas.

At least it promises to be a short day; Hanumil is a little hamlet of two or three houses above the river with a nice campsite. It's much prettier than Pishu, and camping right under willow trees shortly after noon promises a long, lazy and enjoyable afternoon. The sun comes out after all, and despite the wind Martin and I play a great game of frisbee for most of the afternoon.

Hanumal - Parfi La - Snertse (Day 16)

My throat still hurts rather badly, it's hard to get rid of a cold up here. The cloudy sky isn't an incentive to start early either. The walk is similar to yesterday's at first; along the river slowly climber higher with a rather monotonous scenery. After a climb to a precipicious rest point the views promise to get better. 

We leave the Zanskar river, branch off to the west and climb up towards the 3'950 m high Parfi La. My cold makes it a rather tedious climb, and when I reach the pass a cold wind forbids a long stay. A short glimpse is enough to reveal the walk after lunch: another climb up a steep slope.

The trail to get down to the creek called "oma chu" (milk water) used to be very bad, it seems to have been fixed and though it is quite steep and tripping or slipping has to be avoided at all costs, the trail itself is fine. After an hour of descending my knees hurt, and I rest at the simple hut that serves as a restaurant and shop. Well, after Joel buying the last cans of tuna fish the shop probably has to close becaise it ran out of supplies, but it seems to be the end of the season anyway. While we have lunch a few raindrops fall, no serious rain but enough to get started quickly.

After crossing the bridge the second or third of today's climb starts. It's a rather long one, but once atop the views are spectacular: the trail bends around a ridge and then traverses a steep hillside. Turning around, I see the Parfi La and the zig-zag trail we took to descend. The horses arrive, and manage the risky part of the trail without problems. I let them pass me and see them stop at the next creek where level tent spaces indicate we're not the first ones to camp here.

Snertse - Hanuma La - Lingshed (Day 17)

The reddish steep crags rise into the dark blue sky. Our caravan looks very small indeed, like ants. Despite good sleep my throat still isn't better, it burns and I can hardly swallow. Maybe it's the great sunshine, or maybe the prospect of an exhilarating walk, but despite the throat I feel very good. Hot ginger and honey water in the morning eased the pain temporarily. Andrea isn't feeling better, and will ride part of the way.

The rain has washed away most of the trails and it takes a little bit of route-finding in the first half hour. Steep climbs along the creek for awhile. When the trail flattens out there's still some tricky spots, like crossing an ice bridge that thaws, and a little bit of rock-climbing for short-cuts rather than out of necessity. There are great views down the valley where we came from. 

When the steep canyons end we haven't reached the pass yet that is just a little below 5'000 m. The trail becomes even more level, and rolling hills rather than steep slopes are ahead of us. The white of water, black rocks in the riverbed and red valley walls are simple but effective play of colours. We pass a destroyed hut, pass some grazing yaks and trod slowly uphill. To be honest, the yaks have quite an intimidating posture, and for a Martin and I are ready to run if necessary. It's a long walk until we finally see the prayerflags flattering in wind, and even longer to reach them, with a throbbing heart, burning muscles and worst, a very dry throat. 

On the way up I assumed this would be a great pass, since red mountain flanks and glaciered peaks were visible from further down. Still I'm not quite prepared for the scenery that opens up from the Hanumil La. The barley fields of Lingshed lie like in a bowl, white-washed houses in between the yellow fields, above tower steeps cliffs and snow-covered peaks. To the left are round hills, probably remains of glaciers, with good pastures. On the horizon far to the right, above canyons that deep inside the earth, a triangular summit of pure white is the most prominent mountain - though it looks like Kang Yaze it is definitely not. We stay for a long time at the pass, marvelling at the scenery.

Little lines cut across and traverse the many hillsides that lie between us and the clusters of houses that mark the monastery, and our campsite. So before getting to the center of the village that looks to temptingly close, we have to descend steeply to the creek, climb up a hill, and then walk all the way to the village. That we have to contour some more hills is not visible from high above, but adds to the long walk that awaits us after climbing the pass. 

A long and steep descent, loosing all the hard-earned altitude, only to climb up again afterwards. It takes us almost as long to get from the pass to Lingshed than it took us from Snertse to the pass. Enjoying the views of the wide green fields and large village, plus the elaborate water channels, is a good distraction in the last hour. A wolf-trap indicates the village, but unlike the one above Zangla Doksa there are no bones of young sheep visible. 

Passing houses and walking through fields, we reach the monastery and with heavy legs I count every additional step we have to take to get to the campground. How good it feels to sit down and stretch the legs. Even the kitchen crew is a little tired, they admit. But for them the workday hasn't really started yet; setting up kitchen, cooking snacks and dinner, while I enjoy the well-deserved rest. 

Young novices from the monastery have a break and help us putting up tents. When one of them asks me for sweets, I scold him and tell him (half-seriously) if he's not ashamed to act like a beggar, being a lama. Later the monk tells Lobsang I called him a beggar, and Lobsang laughs for awhile. 

Lingshed Rest Day (Day 18)

Bad night with strange dreams and lots of coughing. After one liter of hot water with lemon, ginger and honey I start to feel better but decide to take it easy today, and reduce the planned excursions.

There's lots of clouds in the sky, and when the sun finally breaks through it creates a strangely faded orange glow on the hillsides. The clouds prevail, and there's still only little blue-coloured sky when I walk up to the monastery to attend the morning ceremony at 6.30. The monastery was founded some 500 years ago and belongs - like most monasteries in Ladakh - to the Gelugpa sect. It is one of the largest monasteries in the area, and the heli pad indicates visits by the Dalai Lama. Joel has sponsored a puja in the morning and one in the afternoon in rememberance of friends and family.

Only the older monks appear for the ritual, novices serve tea and, one hour into the ceremony, tsampa for breakfast. The sun defies the clouds, and enough light comes in through the open door and the glass-front above to reveal the beautiful assembly hall's paintings and statues. The paintings around the upper part show historic figures, part of them being covered by old thangkas.

The prayers started slowly, and are picking up intensity and strength. Occasionally they are interrupted by cymbals, bells and drums. It might appear rather monotonous, but in a way it is very relaxing to sit there and just listen and watch. It's a good time to remember the last few days and daydream, and think about loved ones at home. After nearly two hours the ceremony comes to an end.

After a spicy post-breakfast / pre-lunch instant noodle soup I walk down to the main village and stop often in barley fields where people, mostly entire families, are harvesting. Though the number of unharvested fields is large, nobody seems unduly worried or in a hurry. They are ready to take a break or have their lunch, and invite me to sit down and join them, or at least stay for a chat once they realize I speak a little Tibetan. 

Despite being on the main route, the atmosphere in Lingshed is quite different from Pimo or other villages on the main trail. Is it because the village community is larger and thus the experience with ignorant tourists is more evenly distributed and makes it easier for local people to deal with it? Or is it because most tourists stay at the campsite and don't have the time or energy to walk down to the village, and those who are probably wise enough not to hand out balons or sweets.

One family is taking a break from cutting grass for winter, and prepare their lunch. They invite me to have some gyathuk, a thick soup with dough conch-shells, potatoes and spinach. They all live together in same house, the old grandmother, the attractive mother with her child and her husband. Her nun sister sometimes lives with them, sometimes in a monastery. The nun's name is Tsewang, she's in her mid-thirties and became a nun ten years ago. Her English is quite good, so we speak in whatever language we get our message across most easily. She enjoys being a nun, and also likes living in remote Lingshed. Nevertheless, she says, Leh is a great place and she likes it for shopping and eating. Eating?, I ask. Yes, she loves the variety of food she can't get here, like fruit such as bananas or apricots. Once again it hits me in the face: how spoiled are we in the west?

Barley is the staple diet, in addition to that people grow potatoes, turnip, radish and carrots. But for fruit it is definitely too high, what a contract to the Indus valley where people barely know what to do with all their apricots. In summer the nuns help their families on the fields. In winter they have time for their studies, and married women can take care of the house then without the assistance of the nuns. But being housewife is also very interesting and boring, Tsewang says; preparing food, taking care of cattle, weaving clothes. While mother and nun extend the chat, grandmother and husband are soon back to work. Their dresses are nice, like everybody else they carry a small bag matching their clothes in which they throw all the worthwhile things they find during their work, like flowers, peas, herbs.

Their house is a little further down, "the small one" they say is big enough for their 12 member family. I ask them who owns the fancy-looking house next to it and they laugh, resisting the temptation to talk bad about their neighbours I think.

It is to a large part for those moments that I come back again and again to the Himalayas. Despite all the difference between us there is still a solid common ground and understanding that makes talking, listening, learning something new so interesting, and leaves lasting impressions.

After arriving back at camp I'm ready for a nap, recovering from a cold takes quite some time during a trek. Towards evening I visit the monastery for Joel's afternoon puja. Compared to the morning ceremony, the one in the evening is taken "lightly" by the monks. Money is split between them, no instruments are used, and instead of sitting in the assembly hall they gather in the glass-covered veranda. To me it still feels like a genuine ceremony, but others not so familiar with it and with a different image of Tibetan Buddhism might be surprised by the informal behaviour of the monks. 

From the helipad I watch the setting sun. The sun is actually gone behind ridges already, but its rays manage to lighten up a house and chorten while most of the valley lies in shade already. Even the rock-faces towards Hanumal La are retreating into darkness. What a wonderful play of colours. I feel somewhat sentimental having to leave this beautiful place tomorrow.

I thought I might go down to the nunnery in the evening to take up the invitation for dinner, but it's far down and I don't want to excert myself. The high fever of last night was a warning which I'd better heed, there are still some passes ahead of us.

Lingshed - Murgum La - Kiupa La - Singe La Base (Day 19)

I do feel sad to leave Lingshed after one rest day already. The clouds break up on our way up to the chortens as we head eastwards and look back into the amphitheatre where barley fields stand out against the dark red rock and the yellow hills covered by green bushes. Partridge can be heard, pika run around the rocks. I've said good-bye to Linghsed yesterday during the sunset, and don't feel too nostalgic when looking back from an unnamed pass.

We traverse to the first pass of the morning, the Mirgin La (aka Murgum La), from where we have a fine view south into Zanskar and a lively debate breaks out about our previous route and the passes. It's a scenic walk down to the pretty "village" of Skiumpata, if the two houses can really be called a village. Up the valley are more fields, belonging to Gongma. The fields are a fine contrast to the cliffs which rise behind them. An hour climb takes us zig-zagging up a steep hillside to our third pass, the Kiupa La. This translates to "the pass which makes you throw up", apparantly because of its steepness.

Puffy white clouds in the blue sky form the perfect settings for the colourful prayerflags that flatter in the wind from the chorten atop the pass; red stands for fire, blue for space, white for water, yellow for earth, green for air. Snowy ranges to the south, open space towards the north and the craggy cliffs in the east will be our companion for the rest of the afternoon. After lunch at the pass we contour along the hillsides, a constant gentle climb with great views of our past route: Singe La is hidden by a rock formation, but the steep gorge we descended to Yulchung is right behind the ridge ahead of us. After half an hour a wide valley opens below us, and lets us see down to the pretty Yulchung where we stayed a week ago. Further away, across the Zanskar gorge, are the willow trees of Nyerak, and the slope leading to the Takti La. It's a perfect afternoon with a gentle breeze, warm sunshine, and great views that evoke fond memories from the last two weeks. Colourful low bushes add extra colour to the scenery, marmots lazily retreat into their holes next to the bushes when they see me coming. The chubby animals are smart enough to realize that I'm a very slow and very lazy hiker today, and no threat.

I feel as if I could go on forever like this, but after reaching campsite at the foot of Singe La I realize that I do feel tired. And after the first cup of hot chocolate and bowl of potatoe chips I'm not willing to move.

In late afternoon the sun turns out the complicated rock formations to our left. Dark clouds on the horizon add to the dramatic scene. A light drizzle lulls me into sleep.

Singe La Base - Singe La - Photaskar (Day 20)

As it turns out, the drizzle didn't stop after I've fallen asleep, it increases. The noise, and to a lesser amount ill premonition, wake me a few times during the night. We pack in the morning under a cloudy sky, the sun almost breaking through.

On the way up to the pass, Yulchung and Nyerak appear below us through the mist. But hopes of sunshine are dashed, the closer we get to Singe La the more clouds move in. The slight drizzle turns into sleet and heavy snowflakes. The weather is even worse than on our way up from the other side two weeks ago, but nothing compared to Louise's epic day in deep snow some years ago. It looks as if Singe La has something against her, and since we're in the same group, against us. We're nice and don't hold her personally responsible :)

I head quickly down the other side, still fairly dry thanks to the silly looking umbrella. The long-awaited break at the parachute tent turns into a non-event: the owners left already so no more tea or biscuits. A father with his son on their way back to Nyerak are cooking tea in the dripping tent, and they offer to share their tea. After this short rest I continue down in the hard rain. Umbrella, raingear and walkman help to shut out the elements, though there's no protection against the stench from the decaying horse, and I'm down at the river where Kim and Lhakpa are waiting with lunch. It was a very muddy and slippery walk the last two hours. I cursed more than once. Rain has decreased but I don't feel like sitting around. Instead I jump across the creek which is much lower than before (luckily no taking-off shoes required), and follow the kitchen crew. They are not at full speed and I catch up with them.

Bumiktse La's yellow ridge is visible from far away, and gets closer much quicker than I hoped for. We stop for a few biscuits when the rain decreases. The slight drizzle makes it easier to enjoy the walk, or maybe the mind is looking for something interesting after hours of dull walking, and for the first time during the day I realize that the rain has transfored the lichen on the rocks into bright colours and also turned out the colours of the pebbles on the ground. When it rains the big scenery becomes dull, but the micro-scenery is often getting more interesting.

The village of Photoskar and its field are close now. On the long last stretch to the campsite marmots enjoy the brief break from the rain, and behave quite bold. I manage to get close for pictures; Phuntsok runs after one that has strayed too far from its hole and hops clumsily towards it. Just as Phuntsok tries to grab the cat-sized marmot, it dives into the security of its hole.

The weather seems to have confused other animals as well. A flock of long-legged egrets circles a few times above us before disappearing down the valley. Villagers from Photoskar come down the slopes with their sheep and goat. Their clothes are wet and heavy from sleet and rain, but they don't have much choice and must use every precious day before the long winter arrives.

When the horses' bells ring from the hillsides, we're relieved and put up the tents in increasing rain. An hour later I sit comfortably in my tent. Rain doesn't stop, but my things are dry, the tent seems to hold and after all it becomes a very comfortable lazy afternoon. Lying in the sleeping bag, munching Swiss chocolate and reading Mark Twain, the day doesn't seem so bad in retrospect.

Our group gets smaller: Louise has to leave tomorrow, it was great to have her on the trek. Let's hope the weather gets better for her return tomorrow. We're in no hurry, and have at least one extra day to sit out bad conditions.

Photoskar Rest Day (Day 21)

There's no sound in the middle of the night, did the rain finally stop? I open the tent, and a sheet of snow falls off it. But snow is better than rain, and a quick check reveals that everything in my tent is still dry.

Thick clouds in the morning remain. Heavy and wet snowflakes continue to fall for most of the day. Rivulets starts to emerge, and some serious trench-digging is necessary to ensure a dry pre-breakfast nap until noon. The clouds lift a little, but hope vanishes when the sun' disappears in clouds. 

After hours in the tent, I have to go for a walk despite the rain and though it's a short stroll it is very enjoyable. The rain has turned the pebbles along the riverbed into shining colours. The green, red, black and white pebbles make for interesting still lives.

The wet ground attracts many birds, white-winged redstart, white wagtail, and a sparrow-sized bird with a yellow head, and a flock of several Common Redshank (not that I know much about birds, but Joel brought the book "Birds and Mammals of Ladakh" whose bird-section makes for a good read on a rainy afternoon. The mammal section is more interesting and highly recommended). 

There's rumours of people not being able to cross passes. We just have to wait and see what the conditions will be tomorrow. 

Photoskar - Sirsir La - Hanupatta (Day 22)

After breakfast the hills and mountains become visible, and are covered in snow. Fog and mist float in and out of the their faces and collect before dissolving in the blue sky. The fields and village get the sun, quite a different picture than some days ago.

From the chorten the views are spectacular, snow and rock dominates the scenery except for the terraced green and yellow fields of barley.

The nearby mani wall is home to a family of pika. They seem very eager to warm up on the stones and then get something to eat, making them much less careful than usual. I get quite close for a picture of an older one. When waiting for a young one to reappear for the mani stones, I suddenly feel something tucking at the bottom of my pants. I look down, and am astonished. A pika is tearing and nibbling at my muddy trekking pants. The sound of my camera's shutter doesn't scare it away, neither do gently movements. Finally I get it to move away, and follow the others on the way to the pass. Sirsir La rises like a white wall out of the ochre valley. The snow has mostly melted until the foot of the pass, making the ground wet and muddy. 

Marmots are enjoying the sunrays after two days of nasty weather, and not careful. The young enjoy boxing matches and walk far away from their holes to nibble on some bushes. At another hole a pair disappears when I get too close. After waiting a minute right in front of the hole without moving, the braver appears from the tunnel, looks at me and gets out of its hole. The other one is more skeptical but follows reluctantly. Only when I move to get away are they surprised and disappear deep into their hole.

I'm just ahead of the horses that are quickly going up the muddy path that cuts through the white fairytale landscape. During the climb to the pass the muddy trail turns into a mudbath, a difficult ascent without walking sticks. Not very tiring, but much concentration is required to avoid a slip. I am surprised how quickly we are on top. The last two weeks have done wonders to our leg muscles. 

The wind is howling, it's quite cold but a fantastic place to be and take in the grand scenery around us. Singi La lies in deep snow, the steep mountains which were barren two weeks ago are not completely covered in snow. Nothing reminds me of the colourful rock landscape, it's like a different route I've never taken before. This makes it easier to accept the fact that we can't return via the Shilla valley. The gorge is filled with much water, rockslides might occur. I am playing with the thought of going expedition-style with Lobsang, but the prospect of a very, very wet camp just across the valley stops me in the end. We'll return to Lamayuru via a well-trodden route.

The horses don't seem to have a problem with these conditions. They walk quickly down the other side, breaking a nice trail for me.

Lunch at the first snow-free spot sounds like a good idea, and then down to Honupatta. The snow intensifies the landscape in a strange way, and I enjoy the walk in the white surroundings. At the bridge the snow has melted already, catapulting me in very different world. t feels like desert again, with the molded rock pinnacles to the left and the first fields of Honupatta ahead of me. We camp at the same spot like last time. The routine "put up tent, lay out stuff, wash clothes, wash yourself" is done quickly. What now?

Lobsang mentioned that  he saw ibex in a sidevalley two weeks ago. I walk high up into the valley, but don't spot any animals. When the shades become longer, I turn back and enjoy the leftover pakoras at camp.

Honupata - Wanla (Day 23)

To make the walk back a little more interesting, I leave the main trail at the village and walk through the barley at the river. Great scenery, yellow fields with a deep blue sky above. Rows of trees separate the fields, the few houses stand slightly elevated above them. Birds and lizards warm up on trees and stones. A peaceful morning, I take it easy and enjoy the best time of the day.

After the village it's a gentle walk down to the beginning of the gorge. Rock faces reach high into the sky. It's cold in the narrow spots where the sun hasn't reached the bottom of the valley yet. Not many people are on the trail; Nepali roadworkers carry heavy metal parts of a bridge to the village (and are so bewildered when I great them with "ramro cha?", they're confused and it takes some seconds until they answer "ramro cha"). 

After Sumdo we soon hit the road, where rain has led to rockfall and parts of the road are covered by large and small boulders. Walking on or along roads make the way always seem longer than it really is, so even tough it's is probably just an hour to Fanjila it feels never-ending, and my feet hurt a little. It's actually a nice walk in the somewhat wider valley.

A quick lunch at Fanjila where we get details about the deadly accident. The brother of the restaurant owner wanted to assist our driver Wangchuk, but our driver didn't want to take him. Anyway, he insisted and came, and got out of the car near the bridge. A few moment later a single small boulder came down from the hillside and hit his head. Our driver brought him back to the village, but nothing could be done to safe him. 

The road to Wanla is not used by cars often, which makes the walk to the large village a little more enjoyable. The valley opens up more, fields appear on both sides of the river and the further down we get the more houses appear. When the old monastery appears on a hill to the right, I'm glad to know we've arrived. After three hours on the road the feet hurt, not being used to such terrain.

We find a lovely campsite near the river. Next to the housewife's well-kept garden, on a patch of harvested barley, we put up our tents in the afternoon. Later we walk up to the monastery that was being renovated recently. The mural paintings are very nice, the same goes for the large-sized statue of Avalokiteshvara. The gompa reminds me of Alchi, and later I find out it really was constructed around the same time, this means one thousand years ago. 

The sun disappears behind the hills, and illuminates the side-valley that leads to Shilla. The hills disappear in the backlight and shade, while the river is a silver serpent crawling down its it bed - a great sight.

Lying on the haystack at camp is a good time and place to think of the last weeks, and the beauty of trekking in general and Ladakh in particular. 

Tomorrow we'll just have a short walk to Lamayuru, so the trek feels like finished.  

Wanla - Lamayuru (Day 24)

The walk towards Shilla gorge takes us up a sidevalley that is covered by bushes and trees along the creek. At a chorten we enter a tiny, dry valley to our right that doesn't really look like it leads anywhere, let alone contains a trail. It climbs gently at first, becomes quite steep in other parts and the lack of wind makes it quite a hot walk.

Mentally I finished the trek yesterday, making every step seem quite an excertion. Then we reach the last pass of our trek, the low, 3'720 m high Prinkiti La. It's hard to see where we came from, it must be from somewhere near the snow-covered peak. On the other side lies a wide valley to our left, with a valley the right that's the exit to Lamayuru. Soon we reach the first fields and see the characteristic moon landscape of yellow sediments. Colourful red-violet rock and snow-peaks of the Ladakh range add more colours to the scene.

When we reach the sandstone of the former lake and turn around the corner at three chortens, the impressive monastery of Lamayuru rises in front of us. It is built on top of a steep hillside, with parts of the old town lower on the hill, and green fields near the river. 

The main assembly hall is built around a cave where the important Buddhist scholar Naropa is said to have meditated in the 11th century. In the 16th century a Ladakhi ruler was so grateful to the head lama for some services that he declared the monastery a sanctuary. If a criminal managed to reach it, he was not prosecuted. These days, unlike many of the other monasteries during this trek, Lamayuru has a large community of monks and a school for novices. The annual festivals draw large crowds. In the evenings, it's a quiet place and good time to visit.

Last dinner, and tip-ceremony plus a lottery with small handouts. The old horseman who got teased most by the crew (and who liked it least) is lucky and gets first pick. I'm glad for him, and hope that my boots will fit him.

Lamayuru - Leh (Day 25)

Wangchuk and another driver arrived yesterday evening. We leave in the morning, and reach Leh much faster I thought. It was a nice relaxed drive, and we even saw - from far far away anyway- the first (and only) blue sheep during our visit. In Leh it's great to take a hot shower, relax on a bed, and go to a restaurant for a regular dinner.

I spend the next day being lazy.

Leh - Delhi - Zurich (Day 27 / 28)

Security is extremely tight at Leh airport, no handluggage at all is allowed. We manage to get window seats, and enjoy a fantastic flight with views over Rupshu. The white lake of Tso Kar, the blue waters of Tso Moriri, and almost the entire route from my 2002 trek to Tso Moriri is clearly visible - a great bye-bye from Ladakh.

We'll have 1 1/2 days in Delhi. Thanks to the metro we spend a very relaxed shopping and eating  tour in the one city which I've never really liked before, but I really enjoy it this time. Then, in the very early morning of the 10 September 2006 we leave India and arrive in Zurich, a little tired but already thinking about the next trip in the Himalayas..