Yesterday it was very cloudy so I didnít see much during the flight from Sikkim to Delhi. Getting from the Delhi domestic airport to Hotel Metropolis turned out to be a major mission. First there was no pick-up, when the taxi-driver arrived an hour later I realized he has no clue as to where the hotel is. Or who knows, maybe he pretends not to know because heís paid per minute of driving. Surely enough I do get to experience Delhi's rush hour at its best: narrow roads which are too small for two way traffic already, and are further narrowed by parked cars. As if things weren't hectic enough, the monsoon downpour starts instantly, increasing the chaos in the streets even more. I'm in the car enjoying a spectacle and feeling very relaxed (but only because I've been here before, know that I won't have to pay or argue with the taxi driver, and will get to the hotel eventually). Near the central bus station the activity gets even busier, it's brimming with colour, noise and smells. I'm not in the mood to experience this from too close, so I stay in the hotel. Just as the Euro soccer championship starts, the TV dies. At least I get some hours of sleep.
A few hours after midnight I get up, pack my things and after twenty minutes of driving in deserted streets arrive at the domestic airport. I check in and get a right-window seat, hoping to see Tso Moriri and the mountains of Garhwal and Kumaon. Left side seats reveal better views, but I sat there two years ago, and want to see the mountains Iíve read about in Shipton's and Tilmann's books.
Dark clouds gather over Delhi, the first half hour they hide everything. Then, far away to the east, the first peaks rise above the clouds. An impressive massif with many peaks - on of them probably Nanda Devi - appears, further away an even taller mountain dominates the horizon. Could this be Gurla Mandatha, the 7'728m high peak between Nepal, India and Tibet?
The valley of Spiti just below us is hidden by a thin layer of fog which persists until we reach the Indus valley far in the north. I do love the Ladakhi scenery and its stark contrasts, but from the airplane the scene of utter desolation is intimidating. Jagged mountains and mangled layers of rocks rise in an endless succession behind each other. Desert-like valleys look inhospitable, and the grey clouds increase the feeling of an unforgiving harshness. Patches of green cover at the end of some valleys, but they're too far and between to change the overall effect.
After a long curve we descend into the Indus valley, Spituk monastery passes by on the right side and the plane lands safely. Compared to Nepali airstrips this is not very exciting, and I am happy about that.
Due to warm temperatures in Leh, the pilot decided that he cannot take the entire load of luggage. Therefore itís with some anticipation that I wait for my duffel bag as piece by piece is passes by. Mine is the last to come. I donít know if itís the thin air that slows people down, locals as well as tourists. The atmosphere is very relaxed without any pushing or shoving or other sign of hurry Ė what a contrast to Ąmainlandď India.
Wangchuk, last yearís driver, is waiting to pick me up. On the way to the guesthouse we have a pleasant little chat, and I tell him to come tomorrow for a drive to some monasteries. Even though itís the high season and the festival of Hemis will attract even more people, Wangchuk is not very happy about business. There is an influx of taxi drivers, he complains. I stay in Tongspon guesthouse near the center, take a nap and wake up an hour later by a loud discussion of some Israelis who stay in the same guesthouse.
After some shopping I walk up the Shanti Stupa. Exerting yourself in the first day at altitude is a bad idea, but I take my time. The many steep steps at altitude force me to stop a few times, and enjoy the fine views. The main town and the green suburb of Changspa lie below. Dark clouds loom over the barren peaks; it illuminates the ones where the sun breaks through the thick cover, the other ranges are completely black. The fort that overlooks the ancient trading town stands out even more commanding than on nice days.
I go to bed early and set the alarm to midnight: Spain Ė Portugal is a decisive match. I found a restaurant nearby where the owner told me Ąyes, we show all the matches.ď The front-door is locked. I knock, and nobody is there except some kitchen crew who are already sleeping on the floor. But I do get to watch the game with the Tandoori cook and some Tibetan kitchen boys. The entire town is asleep by the time the game is finished. Luckily the stray dogs have better things to do than attack me when I walk back to my hotel at 2 in the morning.
After a relaxing sleep I stroll around the old part of Leh. At noon I meet Wangchuk for some sightseeing in the Indus valley. I have enough time before meeting the group for the Nubra trek, so I could have taken the public bus also. But itís nice to have company, and Wangchuk is a very knowledgeable and good guy.
First we drive to Shey, the ancient capital. It was the seat of the king before he moved it to Leh. Being at the foot of the pass which leads to Nubra and ultimately Central Asia, Leh was a better spot to control the trade. It seems that the seat of the ruler moved quite often, from Basgo to Shey to Leh to Stok. Renovation of the palace is under way and most rooms of the gompa are locked. A large statue is displayed but the atmosphere is not very solemn. I climb the hill behind the compound to get a better view over the valley. The valley floor is stunningly fertile; large patches of grass grow between poplars which contrast sharply with the gentle arid slopes and side alleys that lead up to the barren crags and mountains. When the clouds break, snow-capped 6'000 m peaks are revealed. Various monasteries are built on the hills which overlook the Indus,
One of them, across the Indus at the foot of the high Zanskar range, is Mathok, the only monastery in Ladakh which belongs to the Sakya order. Like the others it was built above the village and fertile fields, but is built on a ridge and not an isolated hill. The monastery is famous for its festival, harvest protection ceremony and corn silos. The top-most room is called Room of Oracles and its floor is covered by inches of corn. Every year more is added to bless the fields, and the story goes this tradition was abandoned once but quickly picked up again after a meager harvest in the following year. Monks recite prayers, and the grim statues which covered by cloth and old weapons tied to the pillars do create an errie atmosphere.
We drive back to Leh on the left side of the river, and enjoy the views of Thikse and Shey. Low hanging clouds move along the mountains, but except for a slight drizzle the weather is fine.
I feel well acclimatized and ready for a short trek on my own. Joel (from www.project-himalaya.com) pointed out an easy trek which takes 2-4 days from Likir to Temisgam, also known as Sham trek. It starts a little to the west of Leh in the village of Likir, and crosses several low passes with pretty villages in between.
For a luxurious start I take Wangchukís jeep instead of going by public bus. After leaving the frugal valley behind weíre in the desert where the tarred road is a long straight black line that disappears on the hrorizon. Ochre and red hills give way to blue sky and white puffy clouds. A perfect day to start trekking. For an hour, the snow of the Zanskar range dominates the scenery to the south, occasionally pockets of green appear in the side valleys to the north and indicate habitation. After climbing a little pass the road descents towards the Indus river. The two rivers have distinctive colours: the magic turquoise of the Indus river ends abruptly when it joins the river coming from south. The brown Zanskar river comes from Padum and winds its way through a narrow canyon. The plateau on which weíve travelled since Leh has ended. Green barley fields contrast against the orange rock, white houses dot the colourful fields. The village of Basgo was once the seat of the the Ladakhi kings. Their fortress is still standing Ė though partly in ruins - and looks like a natural extension of the washed out red soundstone pillars. It remains impressive even to today, imagine what it must have felt like for the traders from Kashmir and Srinagar who came scrambling up the valley to see this magnificent display of strength and power.
Three hours after leaving Leh we drive up a little sidevalley to the north, passing the village of Likir on the way to the monastery. It was built in the 11th century, but burned down, and was reconstructed 200 years ago. At the very end of the valley, high above the village, lies the massive compound where construction of a large outdoor statue of Buddha Sakyamuni is almost finished. In the background rises the 6'000 m high snow-covered range that separates the Indus valley from Nubra valley - the 5'350 m high Likir La would take me there but that's not a trek you can do on your own.
The monks are very busy, either working on the statue itself or whitewashing the outer walls, so Iím on my own. The large assembly hall misses some atmosphere, but the large windows and fine paintings on the wall make it a special place. Nevertheless, the visit to the monastery is shorter than I thought.
Itís around noon, Iím ready to start trekking but need lunch. Thereís a simple restaurant in the village. Wangchuk is very insistent that he doesnít want lunch. While Iím waiting for noodle soup, we talk about our families. He was born in Rudok, a trading post in Western Tibet, fled to Ladakh in 1959 and settled in Choglomosar near Leh where many refugees live. His two youngest children go to school there, another one is in Dharamsala and one even in Bangalore in the far south. The highway there impressed him very much, especially the speed it allows.
As a good-bye present, Wangchuk gives me a copy with important Hindu and Urdu words, and a map. I have to promise a few times to inform him when Iím safely back in Leh. Hoping to find a guesthouse to stay in tonight, I set out on a small trail that leaves the village to the west. I admit that it feel strange at first, walking in an unknown region with a just small backpack - I didnít even take a sleeping bag - and just a little food. Once Iím sure Iím on the right trail I start to feel better and enjoy the walk fully. After the village the trail descends to the creek Likir Topka. The white monastery is visible through blossoming bushes and tall poplar trees. Dark clouds gather over the Zanskar range and rain down over there, but on the north side itís fine.
Houses and fields are spread out, and then the gentle climb to the Pobe La pass (3'550 m) begins. Quite abruptly the vegetation ends and a desolate valleys leads up to the pass. Small rivulets must carry water from snow melt or heavy rain, theyíre dried out and only some tiny patches of grass and yellow flowers cover the hillside. Lizards with a flat head hide under rocks, they seem more like geckos than real lizards. Iím pondering how life is possible here when a hissing noise startles me. 40 meters from me a dog-sized animal looks at me - in an aggressive posture. In the few seconds which remind me of a standoff, I realize itís not a wild dog or wolf but a large fox. It has a spiky nose, bushy tail and a red-brown-black white colour fur. After watching me it slowly walks up the hill, turning around every few meters to watch me. Then it disappears over a ridge and walks down a valley.
Some minutes later Iím on the Pobe La which is marked by a small prayer flag. I look down into a completely barren sidevalley. The kinds of lizards living here are much bigger (20 cm), and have a yellow and red neck. It doesnít run as clumsily as the geckos, its speed makes it look as if it doesnít run but takes jumps instead. I reach the bottom of a north-south valley and am surprised because there is no village. I turn right and walk higher up. Between the trees appear two white-washed houses. So this must be the village Sumdo, it is very small but picturesque. The rich vegetation lowers temperatures instantly. The gurgling creek and the shade make it a very tempting place to stay, but Iíve only walked for two hours. What makes the thought even more enticing is a look ahead. A long, hot climb in a narrow gorge is not what Iím looking for.
After Sumdo the trail continues in a canyon. The barren rock is not as boring as it seems, after some time the different colours and structures appear and make it an interesting walk, if it werenít for the heat. Iím very happy when, after an hour, on the trail it seems to flatten out and Iím very curious to look into the other side from top of today's second pass, the 3'650 m high Charatse La. Itís Ladakh at its best: Huge hills with colourful washouts rise in the dark blue sky where dark monsoon clouds travel to the north, desert-like valley at the bottom and between the arid landscape lie green barley fields and a whitewashed, walled village. The contrast is stunning. The colours are fantastic.
Itís another half hour to the school above the town. School is just finishing. The teacher is Norbu, a 26 year-old local from Yangthang. He left his village at the age of 10, and studied many years in the south; going first to Dharamsala and then for further studies in Chennai. He didnít really know what he was in for when he decided to go to Chennai he tells smilingly: Ąmany people donít even speak Hindiď. Now heís back, and enjoys it; though it is a life completely different.
His family still lives in the village, and runs the guesthouse ĄNorbuď. His younger brother, who also happens to be one of his students, brings me down to the village. Women plant seeds of barley in the green fields. I really enjoy village life, and enjoy it. A dozen houses make up the village which has the appearance of a fortress. Houses are built close to each other and form the outer wall. Narrow alleys lead out to the fields. Inside this wall stands the gompa at the center, the old monastery. Whether the layout was chosen for protection from wind and dust, or invaders, or simply to use all the land for agriculture is something I cannot find out.
I am shown my room, a small building on the roof-top with a big window front facing the Zanskar range. Stunning views and comfortable room with some blankets. Down the valley, along the craggy cliffs, the view goes towards the Indus valley where the river must be, and then high up on its other side up the black rock faces into the snow that tops the Zanskar range. Itís cloudy but rain isnít imminent, nevertheless I stay in the house for the rest of the day.
When dusk sets it around 7 oíclock the family calls me for dinner. In the large but not very lavish living room burns a small fire on the open hearth. Norbu, his younger brother, father, mother and grandfather sit around the fire to enjoy a typical Ladakhi dinner. I doubt that there is much variety in food, and different meals are dictated more by supplies in the different seasons than by taste. There is rice (a food relatively new since it does not grow here), lentils, a salty spinach-like vegetable, and chapatis. It is a simple but very tasty meal, and I really enjoy it.
I am fascinated by the grandfather, he is over 80 years old and still in very good health. Norbu translates some questions for me. His grandfather used to be a trader in his younger days, he brought apricots to Lhasa. Since the apricots that grow in todayís Ladakh arenít of the best quality, he went to Baltistan first to get the better kind. Tibetís capital is 2'000 km away, and he travelled there five times.
Trading formed an important aspect of Ladakhi life. Though it was on the southern feeder of the Silk Route, it was not necessarily this long distance trade of goods for the urban elite that affected the normal peasant. And though the geographical location would have enabled the Ladakhis to act as middlemen, it seems that traders from west Kashmir came themselves all the way to trade. But the local subsistence trade did play a huge role for regular Ladakhis. The people in western Ladakh did not own much cattle, but had vegetables, fruit and corn to offer to the nomads who roamed on the high pastures to the east. They moved on the wind-swept plateau, enduring hot dusty summer and icy winters, living from what their animals, mainly yaks and goats, offered. Most valuable was the wool, out of which the famous pashmina was made, and over which wars were fought. Both parties had something the other didnít, and the trade of apricots, barley, and potatoes for meet, cheese, wool and salt was necessary for both.
However, for some more enterprising individuals like Norbuís grandfather, this barter trade for everyday things was not enough and they participated in a difficult but lucrative long distance trade with Yarkand in the north, or Lhasa to the east. Trading with Tibetís capital was an important economic factor of Ladakh until the 1950s when the Chinese occupation put the century-old tradition to a halt. It is ironic that even though Ąglobalizationď is seen as a todayís progress, the real achievement happened hundreds of years ago when adventurous men went out looking for routes and passes to venture into unknown territory, for the sake of profit and probably not a small portion of adventure. In fact this traditions were stopped by modern humankind, in form of borders, large scale wars (locals conflicts were widespread back then), and modern inventions. Not to romanticize the trade days too much, once the railtracks were laid in the 1940s, some traders didnít walk the old route to Lhasa any longer, and took the train from Manali to Siliguri in the very east of India instead and then from there by horse to Lhasa.
So in many areas humankind didnít progress, quite on the contrary. Thoughts like these and imaginations about the old manís adventures on his trade journeys accompany me into a sound sleep.
When the sun rises I get up and walk around in the village. Though I am up very early, life has already started. The village is like a miniature version of Lo Manthang, the walled in capital of Mustang in Nepal. Each family owns a house, and they are built completely wall to wall, or so close to each other that they are connected by their roofs. The architecture looks very robust, the whitewashed buildings are two to three stories high and very solid, without looking clumsy. Narrow alleys lead to the small doors on the ground floor, some houses have wooden ladders going up to the second floor where the living quarters are. A ghost trap protects the main entrance. The skull of a goat is decorated with a web of colourful strings so that ghosts get caught in it.
The monastery builds the center of the village. The village is too small to support a monk, so a layman takes care and performs the morning and evening ritual and takes care of the shrine. During important festivals and dates in the Tibetan calendar monks from the close-by Rizong or Likir monastery assist in the ceremonies. Especially for older people (whether because they have more time or are more traditionally) the gompa is a central place, they circumambulate it or sit down near the big prayer wheel, turning it occasionally. Grandfather wears the traditional Ladakhi chuba, a long woolen coat, and Nike shoes. Norbuís brother wears jeans and the traditional Ladakhi woolen shoes, both are interesting combinations.
People still live largely self-sufficient; for breakfast we eat chapatis with self-made butter and home-made apricot jam. The large chunk of butter I am served for breakfast shows generosity. Yesterday evening I saw how time-consuming the making of butter is Ė a wooden vessel is tied to the main beam supporting the living room, and a rope is used to swing a stick to churn it.
The women are already in the fields by now; men are working in the house, fetch water or drive the cattle to the hills above the village. Despite the altitude and the long harsh winters, Ladakh is very frugal Ė provided there is water to irrigate the fields. Barley does not need a lot of water, but since it is scarce, it has to be distributed carefully. A small channel brings water from the the creek into the fields. Little branches from the channel bring water into each patch of a barley field. Inside the field there are more and smaller channels. The women are constantly closing and opening the channels, until the small barley sprouts have received the required amount of water. The fields stand out in a bright green and are further accentuated by the sunlight; and channels between them look like silver threads. Blooming rosebuds in pink and white add more colurs to the picturesque scene. Itís very tempting to stay another day, but the weather is so great today that I should go on.
There are two routes to continue, one goes directly to Hemis Shukpachen over a low pass (Sarmanchan La, 3'750 m) to the west; the other way takes a long detour to Rizong monastery in the south. Though I didnít feel particularly strong yesterday I take the longer way, not worrying too much about yesterday since it was just my third day at altitude and Iíll acclimatize well. I pack up, say good-bye to the host family which made me feel like a real guest and not a paying customer, and start down the valley. From higher up it looked a little intimidating Ė just barren steep rock faces Ė but once Iím at the valley floor itís very fertile and the brook called Wuleh Tokpo gives the gorge an idyllic appearance. Thorny bushes are blooming in red, white and pink. Willow trees with green leaves, and dark coloured junipers attract many birds. In addition to the sparrows and magpies thereís crows, swallows and a little orange-black coloured ones. The reddish crags are topped by fluffy white clouds, a great scene that remains all the way down to Rizong.
Only one building appears on the way down, a house between a little forest on the left side of the river where one nun is living. Iím not sure whether to take a little side-valley now or if Rizong is further down Ė the nun waves and points further down. Some rockslide areas later I hit the road Ė an unexpected and unpleasant surprise. Iím not sure about the trail any longer, and with some relief see the side valley to Rizong five minutes further down. A barren valley twists and turns a few times before the main valley opens up and displays the picturesque Rizong gompa. It stands at the end of the valley, its countless buildings look impressive and are spread out like an amphitheatre. The construction of a new monastic school at the foot of the monastery distracts visually from the great old buildings, but itís good to see such big investment in education. A maze of stairs go up to the white buildings, by coincidence the first major building is the (old) school where a friend of the Yangthang teach, Norbu, is teaching English and Math. Sonam studies history in Chandigarh Ė the capital of Punjub Ė but got sick of it and has taken a break he said laughingly, adding that this might be a very long break from studying. The monastery of Rizong is well-known for its discipline. 22 young monks are taught philosophy and classical Tibetan, in addition to Sonamís subjects. Unlike in regular government or private schools, science is not part of the curriculum. Sonam wishes it would be added soon, so that Tibetan philosophy will be easier to understand for students. Science and philosophy donít contradict each other in Buddhism, he explains.
Itís hard to get moving again: another cup of tea, a longer conversation and some more shade would be good reasons to stay longer. But Sonam has to help students with homework, and I should get going otherwise I wonít get to the next village in daylight. Before setting out, I visit the monastery. A Zanskari family on a pilgrimage is waiting in the cool courtyard for the keeper of the key. I wait with them and get to see some rooms which are usually closed. The old large assembly hall contains statues and a silver chorten but the missing cushions for monks make it seem too clean and unused. The wall painting shows the history of Buddhism from the very beginning, how it makes it to Ladakh and into the Gelug lineage I canít decipher. One could probably be spend a day or week in front of it, I only have two minutes. In a separate rooms are the seats and instruments for the daily ceremonies, and the Kandur and Tanjur books of the Tibetan canon. A small room is the private chapel of the abbot, it is a well-lit and decorated room with fine statues.
Sonam explains me the way: itís quite easy, I just have to take the trail northwards from the monastery, and then be careful not to miss the first branch into the left valley, if I continued straight I would end up in Yangtang again.
Itís a very desolate valley, and it feels good to be on my own. This feeling of comfortable solitude is destroyed when I catch up with a large German group. Some of them are nice, others not. But thereís not much choice and I squeeze between the fastest of them. As soon as the trail gets steeper Iím reminded by my body that I havenít had lunch yet. After a liter of water, some glucose pills and a cereal bar I continue.
The trail goes up washed out hills and is barely visible at times, but far ahead I can spot a dip in the crest Ė that must be the xxx pass. The view back offers endless distorted hills and ridges Ė a lunar landscape. The view ahead is similar, if it werenít for the prayerflags at the pass which comes closer and closer. Just twenty minutes later, roughly 90 minutes after leaving the monastery, I traverse a steep last hillside and find myself on the top of xxx La. The pass separates the barren Rizong valley from the fertile Hemis Shakpachen. The Rizong side is utter desolation, ochre and red hills seem like dunes, the only change is the snow of the Ladakh range which rises high in the far distance. The Hemis side is dominated by the wide-spread green fields, resembling a green carpet that was laid between the arid hills. As usual, I let out a loud Ąsoso lha gyal lhoď when reaching a pass Ė the traditional Tibetan phrase. A German whom I passed on the way up seems eager to start an argument. I manage to ignore him, but do waste brain capacity on the way down asking myself whatís wrong with that guy.
I might have stayed longer on the pass with different company, but leave early. Itís a steep descent down a loose scree slope. I take short cuts and am almost able to jump down the soft slope. People with less sure-footedness might have a harder time, especially after bad weather washed out the trail.
When I reach the first green field after the gorge, I assume I have arrived at the village. I do feel quite exhausted, due to the heat and the sparse food Iíve had so far. There are a few guesthouse signs but whenever I follow them nobody knows where the hotel is. I guess end of June is at the start of the season, and most tourists will arrive in July or August. The sun is beating down and I must have been walking up the widespread village for almost an hour when I meet some young girls and ask them about a guesthouse. They take me past a campsite to a house behind it which really does take guests for a moderate fee of 100 rupees. On the roof is a large room with half a dozen mattresses along the wall and its windows. A long window front giving a good view down the valley, and makes the room very cozy. Iím the only guest and very happy about this luxurious accommodations. Though feeling very tired now, but manage to keep my social mood for a chat with the girls and some pictures. Then I crash down on the carpets, drink two liters of water and after a wash with lukewarm water in the garden I try to take a nap. I cannot fall asleep, but feel relaxed anyway. A Ladakhi girl is staying as a guest in a separate room. She quickly strikes me as very educated, and tells me sheís studying political science in Chandigarh. Sheís specialized in constitutions, esp. of UK, USA, Switzerland and India. I know enough about the Swiss constitution and history not to make a total fool out of myself, but Iím amazed about her knowledge and motivation to learn about these things. She grew up in another village in Ladakh, has left Ladakh for higher studies and rarely comes back. This summer she is visiting her father who is the headmaster of the school.
After a stroll through the fields I climb up a hill above the village to enjoy the effects of the setting sun. The fields are turned in to an intense green where people work until late in the evening. When they go home, I also pack my camera and head back to the guesthouse, eagerly waiting for dinner. The father of the woman who runs the guesthouse brings me a big bowl of rice, green vegetables and dal (lentils). I donít want to disturb the family and eat in my room, enjoying the steaming hot food even though temperatures outside are quite warm. Itís already 9.30 when I slowly doze off.
The song of several birds in the garden wakes me up early. Breakfast, chapatis with spicy green vegetables, is a delicious start for a short walking day. The map and description leave a little bit too much of interpretation, but I meet some kids on the outskirt and an old couple that point me into the right direction. The trail continues westwards, first through a grassy meadow and then I reach a hillside with many chortens to my left. I continue on the trail passing a forest of gnarly cedars (or large junipers) on my right. It is probably those trees that gave the village its name, xxx.
The village appears in local history books because it could have cost Jamyang Namgyal his kingdom. Ruling Ladakh in the early 17th century, he started the building of roads and water channels to increase agriculture. One of the workers was digging an irrigation near Hemis Shakpachen, when a man-sized lizard crawled out of a cave. He killed it with his spade, not knowing that it was a naga, an earth-spirit. As a punishment, the king fell sick, and none of his lamas or doctors could help. Therefore the famous lama Dhanmatsang from the Bringungpa sect, who was meditating in a cave near Mount Kailash, was invited to drive the evil spirit away. The lama succeeded, and the king offered his kingdom as a reward. The lama declined, but they agreed that the king should initiate the construction of several monasteries. Additionally, the king handed over Lamayuru monastery to the lama, and decided that the monastery is exempt from taxes and has its own jurisdiction. Criminals who managed to make it to Lamayuru were basically free. Lamayuru soon got the name Tharpa Ling, meaning Place of freedom. Iíve come to know about the lizard story only at home, but it would be interesting to see if people still remember the place of the lizardís cave.
The cloud cover has dissolved, and the sun increases the colours of the splendid scenery: the two passes (one from Yangthang, the other from Rizong) that lead to this fertile valley stand out against the sky, the green fields contrast sharply with ochre hills and the white-washed houses fit nicely in. A last view back reveals the pass I descended yesterday and the village with its green fields. Ahead of me lies desert, and two trails. One goes a little to the left, the other one continues straight. To the south are gently curved hills, to the right red crags. Half an hour outside the village the trail branches, I continue straight and soon see a lonely white-washed chorten on the horizon. The view from there reveals a deep canyon in bizarre colours, each hill featuring his own tones. Some are grey, others white, red, yellow, and even green. ĄJust acrossď the valley, a zig zag trail climbs to another pass, Lago La, 3'750 m. Tiny dots are moving up there like ants, probably the German group. To the south lies the dark Zanskar range whose black flanks are covered by snow. I take a break at the chorten, rest and enjoy the views.
A few cows are on the hills, I wonder what they possibly feed on. They cannot give a lot of milk, thus the more I appreciate that also this morning I was given a large chunk of fine tasting fresh butter was served. I just realize now what is most stunning about Ladakh Ė it is not the mountains, it is not the monasteries, it is not the spectacular scenery with its contrasts Ė it really is the people who make this such a fascinating place. Hospitality can be found elsewhere too, but this kind of sincere generosity towards a stranger is something Iíve never experienced before. It leaves me speechless, and is a very humbling experience. Somehow it feels strange because all I can do for a return is being appreciative, attentative and respectful. My thoughts wander around that during the half hour walk to the foot of the pass.
Itís steep and precipitous, but not as long of a climb as it looked like. A small path looks as if chiseled in the rock face, and winds itself up the slope. A refreshingly cool wind makes the prayerflags flatter on top of the pass. Looking back, even the pass from Yangtang to Hemis (Sarmanchen La) is visible. Another group from Hemis has just arrived at the chorten, their pack horses descent rapidly. From here to Ang takes about an hour, the trail goes down into the gully. I continue on a little path that goes along the crest for a few minutes to get views from Zanskar range. The trail continues along the ridge and I assume it goes to Temesgam, but I donít want to try it out, and get back to the main trail that goes gently down in a westerly direction. The trail descends between ochre and red hills, the melting snow has washed the slopes off and they are completely bare. After half an hour the first white building appears, one of the houses of Ang.
The desert ends abruptly: yellow fields are spread over a large area, poplars and large willow trees grow along the Dangdong Kola. Aimlessly, I wander through the fields of barley and yellow flowers, enjoying the freedom of travelling alone and having plenty of time. An old woman is working in a field, picking some special leaves of grass. She says itís tsa (which means grass) and I assume itís animal fodder for winter days, but Iím not sure. There is a monastery she says and points to a slightly elevated house, but itís locked and finding the key keeper will probably be difficult. So I continue downstream along the creek.
Between willow trees are a few parachute tents: places to rest, get a tea and maybe even some food. Three old women wave and I change my mind and hop on some boulders over the creek. Itís a funny company, the 30 year old owner, her mother and her grandmother run the Ąrestaurantď which seems to be frequented by locals more than by tourists. Two nuns from the nunnery below Rizong are chatting with them. They have the salted tea, chang (barley beer), soft drinks and are in a upbeat xxx mood. I just have a black tea, but start to feel hungry and since I probably wonít have such a great company again, order my lunch. My basic Tibetan isnít good enough to follow their conversation (even if it hadnít been in their Ladahi dialect), but manage to have a little small-talk. Ten minutes later the horsemen I saw descending the xxx pass stop for a quick break: they have some chang and tsampa, the barley flour. Words and laughter are flying back and forth, an outburst of joy resides for fifteen minutes. Grandmother even starts to dance with the caravan leader. After the short break they continue, and it gets quiet again. The women are now quite insistent and poses for some pictures, take a resolute stand and insist that I donít take a portrait but vertical head-to-toe shot. I cannot really argue against that. Thatís remarkable about the Ladakhi people, they are not subserviently nice and friendly but down to earth and very solid, willing and able to get their point across without being rude.
Iím ready to leave, prepare 30 rupees for tea and soup, but she returns 10 rupees saying Ąyou didnít have milk or sugar in your tea, so it wasnít tea really and you shouldnít pay for itď.
The road which connects Temisgoan to Leh has recently been extended to Ang. With some climbing I find a trail next to the road along the gurgling irrigation channel and avoid the road. The village is large, and the houses spread from the start of the valley all the down down to the Indus river. It takes me a long time to get to ĄTimosgan downtownď where I can do some shopping and get mineral water. Finding a guesthouse is more difficult than I assumed, thereís only one sign and they only offer a campsite. I ask a kid about guesthouses and she takes me to a neighbour who has an empty room. Itís below the monastery and overlooks some fields, apricot, walnut and apple trees, luxurious trees for the farmers. Ití still well above 3'000 meters here.
The old women of town meet in front of the house. Two of them are spinning wool with an ingenious construction which allows them to handle five spindles at once. The other women turn their prayerwheels, seemingly being able to mutter the Ąo mani pade humď at the same time as having a conversation. Old men seem to be a minority in Ladakh.
The houses here are much larger than in any of the previous villages, some of the households own motorbikes and one even has a car. At first the road and vehicles come as a culture shock but then again itís still a very traditional, tranquil Ladakhi town. Nevertheless, staying in Ang would have been more idyllic.
Below the large prayer wheel there a good views into a large sidevalley that is also very fertile. No wonder this was once the capital of Ąlower Ladakhď, together with Basgo. The fort lies in ruins, only two small parts of the towers remain standing on a commanding position. The town is famous for it gave the name to the ĄTreaty of Temisgamď, in 1864. It declared the relations (trade- and religiouswise) between Ladakh and Tibet, after Ladakh sided with Bhutan on a religious dispute with Lhasa. It was probably not a philosphical argument but rather a way of demonstrating against being bullied around by the powerful Tibetan empire. Lhasa reacted, sent a powerful army to Ladakh and was held up by a Muslim army from Kashmir. Ladakh lost its autonomy, the king had to convert to Islam, and all trade of pashm was exclusively to be done by Kashmiri merchants. However, the religious life of normal people doesnít seem to have changed, most of them remained Buddhists.
I do not visit the monastery, and walk around the lower part of town instead. The yellow flowers, tall poplars and sheer cliffs is a memorable sight. From my window I can see on neighbours' roofs and have conversation with some small children, their English is very good considering theyíre only in class 2. Iím surprised to see no solar panels, but thereís a generator further down which generates enough electricity for the entire village.
Tingmosgang is nice but to really enjoy a tranquil day I should have stayed in Ang. Continuing further west to Khalsi would be an option, but Iím afraid it would be an unsuitable end for fantastic three days:
Iíve seen a scenery of Ladakh which I havenít known before Ė Zanskar and Tso Moriri where Iíve been before are either more confined or much more open. Also the fertility of western Ladakh is stunning. The people I have met were outstanding. Travelling in a group fine, but when youíre on your own youíre forced to get in touch with local people, and I will remember this interaction longer than the views of the fantastic scenery.
Though the family I stayed with was nice, Timosgang is not such a lovely village as the others and I will take the bus back today. I get up early and stroll through the fields on this beautiful morning. The sun drives the nightís chill away quickly, turns the barley fields into a soft green and the yellow fields into a bright contrast to the dark blue sky. The rugged layers of the mountains are accentuated by the shadows thrown by the sun. I wait for the bus near the big prayer wheel, and there are some free seats. A colourful crowd is inside the bus: farmers, kids, women on their way to Leh. Itís a bit cramped and the stereo is blurring high-pitched (Kashmiri?) folk pop songs. But itís not as uncomfortable as I feared, and I fully enjoy the ride.
The contrast between habitation and desert is stunning; then after some twists in the road weíre at the Indus valley. The grey slow moving river comes as a surprise, it is not the fast flowing gurgling river I would have expected but then again it has already made a way of 150 km since its start at Mount Kailash, and has been tamed since then. Though we havenít lost much altitude, the agricultural season is a few weeks ahead. Wheat is already a foot high and the ears move in the gentle breeze. The road leads eastwards but doesnít follow the river all the way, in steep curves it sometimes moves away from it and joins it later.
After a long ride on a plateau the wide Indus valley near Leh appears on the horizon. The ride was much less strenuous than assumed, and though Iím not stingy Iíd have to think twice if I really want to pay the ten-fold price for a jeep the next time. Of course the taxi allows for frequent stops and little excursions. Since the bus took only 4 hours I have the entire rest of the day to relax in the garden of Tongspon guesthouse.
Carsten Nebel, 30 March 2005