Kargil to Yüldo
Two more days on the road. The drive out of Kargil is so much more pleasant than the drive to Kargil the day before. The road is getting worse, but the scenery is more interesting. We drive along the Suru river south. Many villages lie next to the river and people are busy harvesting barley. The number of fields is enormous, I wonder how so few people can cultivate so many fields. Then I see the first tractor since I've been here and I know how they can do it.
But in most villages, farming is how it's been for hundreds of years: husbandry season starts in May, after all the snow from winter has melted. A horse or cow drags a wooden plough and natural fertilisers are put on the ground. Men and women usually do the same work throughout the year, only the physically demanding ploughing is done only by men, while women plant the seeds. Depending on the climate, the harvesting season begins in early August or September. The ears are cut with a small sickle and laid on top of each other in a special way to protect the wheat from birds. Threshing is done by having cows or mules walk over the ears . To separate the wheat from the chaff, the farmers throw it high up in the air. It's always windy up here, the light chaff is blown away a few feet while the heavier wheat falls straight back down. "Food without salt is like work without fun", says a Ladakhi proverb. And really, everybody is singing or whistling on the fields. Apart from making the work easier, the singing has a social function as well, I think. It's not like in Europe where every farmer works only his own field. Six to ten houses form a Paspun, a very small local community that helps each member, also during harvesting. Members are closer than relatives who live outside the Paspun, true to the proverb "it's better to have a bad present neighbour than a good absent relative". Often there are ten people working on the same field. Work days begin at dawn and end at dusk. Time is running short, the harvest should be in the granary before the cold winter days begin.
Instead of monasteries there's a small mosque in almost every village. Soon Ladakh's two highest mountains can be seen: Nun (7135 m) and Kun (7134 m). The surrounding mountains are also quite high, one glacier is so long it touches the river we're driving along.
In the afternoon we reach a broad, long and totally flat valley which stretches from east to west. All of a sudden prayer flags, chorten and a mani wall appear. A mani wall consists of many stones which have the famous prayer 'o mani padme hum' inscribed on them. They are made during the long winter days when people stay in their houses. The length of those walls is often stunning and shows the important role of Buddhism even today. We leave the Muslim influence behind and enter Buddhist territory again. The village of Yüldo consists of three houses and is very idyllic, but we drive past it without stopping. Luckily five minutes later we find a nice camp site. I don't fully realise the beauty of the valley until I get out of the bus. It's very quiet except for the broad rivers rushing and the birds singing. The high mountains around us look as if they are protecting this place. It also feels like this here. I walk back to the village. Everybody except for an old couple are out looking after the cattle. The old woman wants eye drops, but I don't have any. What she probably really needs is a pair of sunglasses, but I still need mine.
She has laid out barley to dry in the sun.. Later the barley will be ground and roasted to make tsampa. Her husband comes out of the house, looks at us for a minute with not too much interest and walks off aimlessly. But I guess people up here have a purpose for everything they do, it's just not as easy to see because they do things more calmly. People aren't aggressive or pushy or in a hurry, which can lead you to the wrong conclusion that what they do is not very important. So when he slowly walks up a mountain he's not just strolling around because he's bored, he might be looking for herbs. Of course he could run around (if he still can at his age) and try to collect more herbs, but what good would it do him? Tiny observations like this make me think.
On the walk back to the campsite I see the family's cattle. Many animals graze here; cows, dzomo (a mix between a yak and a normal cow), yaks, sheep, goats, even small horses. Horses from here are famous in Ladakh because they are said to best ones for polo, therefore they cost about US$ 800.-. There seems to be an abundance of grass and water, but when Islamic nomads from Jammu sent their cattle up here a fight occurred. It led to a shoot-out in which some people were injured.
The valley is also well-known for its herbs and flowers. Doctors in traditional Tibetan medicine come here in summer to collect rare herbs, the number of flowers is really big. The smell up here is refreshing. It's so nice to walk after those long hours in the bus. A few clouds block out the heat of the sun, but the wind is not too cold, . The evening mood is amazing. When you sleep in a tent you're so much closer to nature and start to notice and pay attention to small details.
Today is the first time our cook and his assistant do the dinner. It's surprising what they cook on their two little gas stoves. Rice, lentils, cauliflower, soup and a salad. The cook's name is Indhar, the assistant cook is his nephew and is called Bupandhar. They're from Nepal, near Pokhara. Dinner is great. But I have trouble sleeping, the first night in a tent is very different from a hotel. Every noise - and there are many, too many - seems to wake me up. Birds, the river, the wind - everything is too loud and unusual.
Yüldo to Padum
I haven't slept well and when I feel tired enough to get some real sleep it's 6 o'clock and almost time to get up. The air is very clear, the sun turns the steep mountain walls and the broad valley into a beautiful light. This is the last day of driving, we have one more pass to cross, then we'll come to the largest valley in Zanskar and soon after that we'll get to Padum. I'd rather walk than sit in a bus the whole day. But I'll get more than enough walking in the next few days. We drive towards the Rangdum monastery, which stands on top of the only hill in the valley and the end of it. I'd say it's a castle if I didn't know that it's a monastery. Its location seems to be nicer than its rooms, otherwise we would have stopped for sure.
We're on our way to the pass now, the scenery doesn't offer much of interest, apart from amazing mountains of course. Soon the Penzi La is crossed, the 4'401 metres is the highest altitude so far. Mont Blanc is about that height. The pass is the natural border between the districts of Ladakh and Zanskar. On the right-hand side the enormous glacier Durung Drung crawls into the valley. It's the well of the river Stod which makes life in the valley possible. This side of the pass is very different from the valley at Rangdum. It's steeper and more stony. It also seems less fertile, but there are more villages along the road.
We stop for lunch. A very warm wind together with the smell of all the different flowers make me feel like I'm in southern Spain. Sitting in a meadow full of flowers, enjoying the sunshine and having a great lunch. The whole village seems to be watching us. An old women talks to our bus driver. Then she starts pushing and shoving him and he runs away, much to the amusement of everybody. He looks pretty embarrassed. She argues with him, apparently she wants his shirt but he's not willing to give it away and hands her a few rupees instead. But she's too proud to take it, so he just puts it in her pocket. She chases him to give it back, it looks so funny that people start to laugh even more. Somehow they reach an agreement and she keeps the money.
Half an hour later, all of a sudden there this phhhh sound and the bus shakes. A stone has slashed a tire. The twenty minutes it takes to fix it is a nice break. We should've made more short stops, especially at nice places to take pictures and to walk around for a few minutes. When I see all the fields down in the valley near the river I understand why more people live here.
An old man walks by and asks me something. I don't a have a clue what he's saying but I firmly reply: "Padum," which seems to be a good answer, since he nods his head and says: "Ah, Padum." I'm extremely proud of myself. Two minutes later another old man stops for a second and talks to me. My standard answer 'Padum' doesn't seem to fit this time, he looks puzzled. He actually wanted to know what has happened to our bus. Well, one out of two is good enough if you consider that my knowledge of Ladakhi consists of 'Julay' and a few words for food and water. Julay is the magic word, it means hello, good-bye, good morning, and thank you.
Padum with 70 houses and a population of 800 people by far the biggest town in Zanskar, lies in a big valley. Actually it's three valleys that meet here and form a large, completely flat area. It's so big that not all of it can be irrigated and used for pasture, therefore a large part of it is desert. When we get there, a storm is coming from the south. It's not raining yet, but it's very windy and small sandstorms can be seen. Due to this and the fact that people have had things stolen out of their tent we stay in the best hotel of Padum.
Hotel Chorola hardly deserves the name hotel. And even though it could be compared to a construction site it can be turned into an (almost) cozy place with some fantasy. The rain and wind are kept out, which is the important thing. The village of Padum isn't very attractive either. It's a typical transit village. It's the only Islamic village in the valley, 75% of its population consisting of Sunnit Muslims. In 1975 severe riots occurred and could only be stopped by flown-in public figures from Leh. Muslims had caught and eaten fish from a lake considered sacred by Buddhist. Buddhists threw stones while Muslims prepared their guns. Luckily, a big clash was avoided. Today both groups live together in harmony. There's not much to see in the village itself. We have a rest day tomorrow and there'll be enough time for a day trip to explore the valley.
During the night a spider walked over my face, the wind pushed open a window and it rained on my bed and at four in the morning the Muezzin of the mosque woke me up with 'Allah, oh Allah' prayers over the mosque's p.a. system. I think Christianity's custom to ring the bells on Sundays is pretty selfish, but Islam beats that. The good news is that last night our horses arrived. Actually we have 5 mules and 5 horses to carry our big backpacks, the tents, the food and gas for the stove. Two ponymen will come with us, Raijiv 1 and Raijiv 2. The younger one should probably be in school instead.
We're in Zanskar now, which is even more remote and harder to reach than Ladakh. For more than seven months a year it's cut off from the outside world. Only during the few summer months when there's no snow on the passes is it possible to get there, either by the only road or by foot. Snow-capped mountains are far more numerous than in Ladakh, their different forms and colours seem endless. There's an abundance of glacier water, desert-like areas hardly exist. People use every flat area for agriculture, but since the fields are at a higher altitude and it's colder here, things don't grow as fast as in the valleys further north.
The few things that are known about Zanskar's history come from legends, which certainly have a bit of truth in them. A long time ago a huge lake covered the area. After the water level had sunk, people from Tibet and Mongolia settled down. They were hunters whose gods were the sun, the moon, the earth and some gods from the animal world. It took them a long time to discover agriculture and build villages.
The legendary king Gesar, a friendly god of war, destroyed the evil ghosts in the area. After that, Padmasambhava came to Ladakh in the 8th century. He fought against a man-eating monster - the demon lost. When it fell fatally wounded to the ground, it had the shape of Zanskar. To celebrate his victory, Padmasambhava promised to meditate on the dead body. At the location of the head, chest and feet the first monasteries were built. Zanskar's religious connections were with Kashmir, but when Kashmir became Muslim, relations with the much bigger Ladakh became more important. Later Zanskar was overrun by the Ladakhi army. The same Indian troops that occupied Ladakh in the 19th century also took possession of Zanskar. Many of the invaders descendants settled down in Padum and that's how it became the only Islamic city in the Buddhist area.
Due to its geographic isolation, the culture has remained more intact than in Ladakh. Buddhism plays an even more important role in Zanskaris' lives. But since there are only 5'000 people in Zanskar, the number of monasteries is more 'moderate'.
The largest one, Karcha, is where we go today. It's on the other side of the valley, about 2 hours by foot. The area is very flat, and once we're out of Padum and have walked for half an hour the desert begins. Although it's still morning, it's already hot. In the far distance I can see whitewashed houses, the monastery is built a little bit above the village. But Karcha doesn't seem to come any closer. Finally, we get to the river after two hours; it's only a steep climb now and we're there. With its 70 houses it's the second biggest village in Zanskar, and one of the oldest. The monastery seems to have more buildings than the village. About 120 monks live here, which makes Karcha the largest and richest monastery; almost half of the fields in the valley the belong to it. The Indian government initiated a land reform with the goal to take land away from big landowners and to give it to people with little or no land. But local farmers protested against taking land away from the monasteries, so monasteries remained as wealthy as they were. Today farmers have to give about 15% of the harvest to the landowner. Karcha monastery was built in the 11th century and has quite a few interesting buildings. In two weeks there is a big dance festival, people from all over the area will come to see it.
Monks have just repainted the masks which will be worn at the festival. Most probably the dance will show the introduction of Buddhism to the region and the main person will be Padmasambhava. They show the victory of Buddhism over the old, evil ghosts. There's one especially remarkable scene in those dances, where Padmasambhava takes a sword to fight a demon. But he doesn't kill the demon as you might expect, he just destroys the demon's blindness and ignorance. Once the demon's hatred is gone, he's not dangerous anymore. Isn't it like this in real life? Those Cham dances are performed all over the Himalayan region and last a few days. Too bad I've never had the chance of seeing one.
Unfortunately, the keeper of the key isn't in the monastery, so we don't get to see what's inside. But the view from the top is reward enough for the long walk. Desert, red mountains, Padum with its green fields and high mountains in the far background make this a marvellous scene.
It's noon, which means it's a long and hot walk back. At the hotel, I'm too tired to explore the village and take a nap instead. I miss a ceremony at the river. Too bad.
First day of trekking! To be honest, after ten days of driving and seeing so many things I don't see a reason for walking. The treks I've done before in Nepal were different. In order to get to nice or interesting places, I just had to walk. In Ladakh, everything was within easy reach by car. Hopefully I'll feel better about hiking after this first day.
We leave Padum at 8 a.m. I wouldn't mind starting earlier when it's cooler. Right after sunrise the light is also better and accentuates the landscape more. After that the brightness of the sunlight blurs the different colours which make this landscape so fascinating. We walk in the Lungnak valley. Lungnak means 'dark valley' and is called that way because some of the rocks are black and the valley is rather narrow. The river which flows in it is called Tsarap, tsa meaning 'salt', 'rap' is a shallow spot where the river can be crossed. Merchants from Tibet who brought salt had to cross this river. It's a dull walk,it's hot already and the valley doesn't offer much in the way of great views. The government wants to build a road for vehicles along the river. At one point a big rock is about to be blasted away. We have to hide behind a curve and can hear about eight explosions. They question is, are those all or are there more to come? Judging by the insecurity of the workers nobody knows for sure.
The two hours later, we see a monastery on a very high rock. This is Bardan, 'where the sign of religion is visible'. In the 16th century a monk was on a pilgrimage in Zanskar. During prayers, a raven stole one of his butterlamps and put it on a hill which was in the form of a conch. In Tibetan Buddhism conches are holy symbols. Seeing that sign, the monk blessed the place and gave it its name. Today the monastery belongs to the Lho-Drukpa sect from Bhutan, a small country east of Nepal. The Gonkhang is different from the ones I've seen so far. The first thing I notice is the suffocating air. When my eyes get used to the darkness, I see that the smell coming from huge blocks of rancid butter. The room is full of them, brought here by pilgrims as offerings. It's supposed to protect the cattle. The butter is used for the butter lamps, the milk of yaks has so much fat that it burns like a oil.
At noon we get to Murney. The town is nice, but the building where we wait for the cook is depressing. The owner seems weird, children play in the dirt, young men drink chang and smoke. The campsite should be near. The weather has changed rapidly. Before lunch, it was clear and there was a cooling wind blowing softly from the west. Half an hour later dark storm clouds are in front of us, a heavy wind blows from the east. It's so strong that it knocks down a prayer flag. I hope to make it to the campsite, which is one hour away, without getting too wet. Luckily the clouds are blown further away. The campsite is by a shallow lake, it's a nice spot.
Today's six hour walk wasn't very exciting. It's been a dull walk along a brown river with little else except stones. I don't know what I expected, but I hoped for more diversity. But I'm sure it'll get better.
Thunder is rolling when we put our tents up, but it doesn't worry me. If it rains, well, there's nothing I can do about it, so worrying is useless. I definitely wouldn't think that way in Switzerland and just accept it, but things here are simply different. When you're close to nature it's easier to accept the not so pleasant aspects of it. One hour later it starts to rain. It's just a few drops, but one minutes later it's almost torrential. The rain increases at dusk, during dinner the kitchen tent is already leaking. I just hope my tent is better. It really is and keeps the water out, after midnight the rain suddenly stops.
I've slept much better than in Rangdum. Even though my sleep can't have been deep (I noticed when it stopped raining in the middle of the night), I woke up only once. I'm up early and look forward to a stunning sunrise. I open the tent and see grey clouds, a big disappointment.
What does a normal trekking day look like? Often I wake up around sunrise at 5.30 and enjoy the views. Official get-up time is 6.30, half an hour later there's breakfast. Usually it's porridge and chapati (a thin Indian bread) with butter, honey or jam. Then we take down the tents and leave. The two horseman put all the luggage on the five mules and five horses. The cook prepares lunch and leaves an hour after us. On short days we walk to the campsite without stopping for lunch. But usually there's a short break at noon; the cook arrives a few minutes after us and we have a fantastic lunch. Most of the dishes are vegetarian, the five chickens they've bought are eaten mostly by the cook and his assistant because even the non-vegetarians aren't very keen on chicken. There's a lot of plain rice, a bowl of vegetable curry and lentils. I've turned into an eating machine up here, I don't know whether it's the altitude, the walking or the excellence of the food. I eat four big plates with rice and vegetables, and a bit less for dinner. After lunch, we usually have to walk for about two hours to get to a nice campsite. The horses get there an hour after us. Once the tent is up, I take a nap, write my diary or walk around if there's anything interesting to see. In the afternoon there's tea with biscuits. Yes, this is an unnecessary luxury but very enjoyable nevertheless. At 7 o'clock we have dinner. It's also rice and lentils, often there's spinach with tofu-like cheese in it. I stick to those local dishes, and ignore the more elaborate things like spaghetti or vegetable pie. One hour later, I crawl into my tent, read for a few minutes and fall asleep. We're closer to the equator than in Europe and when the sun disappears it gets dark really fast. It's also much colder than during the day, so the best place is the sleeping bag. That's our daily routine.
At least it's not very hot today, this only good thing about clouds. We only have to walk only a short distance, a mere four hours. The hike seems more interesting, there are more bends in the river; situated on the opposite side are villages and fields, and even our side is greener than the day before. Small bushes and colourful rhododendrons grow here. Maybe the landscape hasn't changed at all and my mind has simply accepted the fact that the next ten days will be spent walking. After half the distance it starts to rain lightly, but stops after an hour.
I walk with the cook and since his English is pretty good we have an interesting conversation. Indhar is from Pokhara, the second largest city in Nepal, but he has been working in India for the last 10 years. He's been with World Expeditions for quite some time and has worked in all parts of northern parts of India: Ladakh, Zanskar, Himachal Pradesh, Rajastan and Sikkim. He earns 3000 rupees a month (US$ 100.-) and gets paid vacation. This is pretty good for Indian standards, but he can only see his family in Nepal every 4 months. His wife takes care of their two daughters and organises the work in the fields. The money he makes allows them a decent lifestyle, and he's saving for two things: a good boarding school for the eldest daughter and a trip to Switzerland, where he wants to cook for a trekking agency. I try to tell him that work permits are extremely difficult to get (and don't want to say 'impossible' because I don't want to destroy his dream), but he says it won't be a problem. He's very curious and wants to know everything about my work, what exactly I do, the hours, the salary, vacation etc. I don't downplay the figures, but I also tell him about living costs like rent, food, insurance, taxes. I just don't want to make him believe that Switzerland is a total paradise. Of course it is almost a paradise, but the chances are he'll never see it or enjoy a comparable standard of living. I try to ensure that he doesn't feel as if he's living a bad life here in India. Conversation like these make remind me that I should more grateful for the things I have and appreciate them more.
The scenery remains the same for the rest of the day and the clouds are also still there, but it doesn't rain. We reach the campsite near the river. One of the things I love about trekking is resting. Of course I don't mind the walking itself, but it's just a means of transportation and things like great views, interesting conversations and encounters and rest are the rewards for it. I have a big blister on my little toe but hopefully it won't bother me in the days to come. My legs are a bit sore, but otherwise I feel great. My cold is gone and the stomach problem doesn't call for too many toilet stops. During a long afternoon in the tent (it's drizzling outside), I can fully catch up with my diary (I didn't write when I was so sick).
Pepula to Purne
We've camped next to the river, but I've slept surprisingly well. Only in the morning does the rush bother me after my earplugs have fallen out. It's still cloudy and we've walked for 20 minutes when it starts to drizzle. As long as my weatherproof jacket keeps me dry I don't care. Of course it'd be nicer in sunshine, but my mind is set on walking. It blocks out the things that are not important; I also seem to think less. Time passes quickly. I can't really explain what I do when I walk for so many hours a couple of days. Many people think it's boring and don't understand how I can do it. Admittedly the first day is strange, but after that I get used to it and the mind just keeps itself busy. Sometimes I feel like I've been walking for an hour without thinking for a second.
The rain gets heavier during the next two hours, but since the valley is broadening and the views are getting nicer my mood is getting better. I start to really enjoy this. For the first time since Rera we see a few houses on the other side of the river. When we reach the village of Chu, the sky clears up and the sun comes out from the clouds. This seems trivial, but it makes me extremely happy. The boring valley ends here and so the landscape offers more diversity: high mountains, dune-like hills and another valley which looks more like a canyon.
Today's campsite in Purne isn't far away and there are two paths leading to it. A safe one high above the river and just next to the river a shorter one, which is sometimes washed away. When we reach the fork, a horse caravan is just coming from the lower path, so it's safe to go that way. Great! It's much cooler to walk next to the water, and we don't have to climb the hill. The lower way is also spectacular. This is an amazing afternoon. Soon we get to a new bridge, it was finished just two days ago. I know how much it takes for something be repaired in India, so I'm very glad we didn't have to cross the river two days earlier. After a short climb we walk through a chorten and follow a mani wall. We're in the small two-family village of Purne. This is where we'll stay for two nights.
I'm starving. I didn't eat much for breakfast, so after four hours of walking I'm very hungry. It's a great relief to me when I see two dots in the distance, it's probably Indhar and Buphandar with lunch. By the time they get here, it's drizzling again. The family lets us stay in the guest room, which is a very nice room with thick carpets on the floor. It would be even more pleasant if it weren't for their obnoxious 10-year-old daughter. The nearest school is in Cha, 1½ hours away, and so children from here don't go to school. I think school also teaches social skills and interaction, which this girl hasn't learned yet at home. Of course you could also say that school tries to change children and form them into something useful for society, in which case it would good that the children don't have to go.
Anyway, I try to ignore her and enjoy my lunch.
Phunchok, the leader of the group, usually works as a teacher. He's a tour guide only in the big tourist season in July and August. School is mandatory for children over 5. A school (which is just a simple house) is in every bigger village, which means that some children have to walk one hour to school and another hour back home. School is from Monday to Friday, each day from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. with a lunch break, when kids sometimes get food from the school. In southern India providing lunch has increased attendance. When I ask Phunchok what it's like here he says that parents have recognized the importance and value of good education and are happy to send their kids to school. There's one teacher for up to 30 children in different classes. In high school they learn geography, history, science, and four languages: Ladakhi, Urdu, Hindi and English. If you consider that all four languages have a different alphabet and Urdu as an Arabic language is even written from right to left, there's a lot for those children to learn.
Apparently there's enough time for the children to work on the fields or herd the cattle. It's very important that they learn those things. too. If they don't succeed in school or their parents can't pay for further education after high school, they can still work as farmers and so aren't totally lost. Bright children whose parents can afford it go to one of the two colleges in the area. The colleges in Leh and Kargil only teach a few subjects. More subjects are taught in Srinagar, 400 km farther west. But if you consider that there's a civil war and it's a Muslim city I doubt that many parents want to send their children there. But those with a college degree have problems finding an adequate job here. Many of them have to work as farmers.
A teacher's lifestyle isn't easy either. Most of them can't teach in the village where they live. If they're sent to a remote school they have to live there in a single room where they sleep, cook and work. Once every few weeks they can go home to their families for a few days.
Phunchok wants to send his only daughter to a Tibetan school in Dharamsala. But the fees are very expensive, which is why he works as a guide in the summer. It's amazing how highly education is valued and that most parents only want to have one or two children, because they feel they couldn't take good care of more. Kids aren't seen simply as an old-age pension anymore. I wonder if this change of attitude is taking place in other parts of the world, too.
This will be another lazy afternoon - nap, tea, diary writing, nap, dinner, sleep. But I get the crazy idea that I should wash myself, the first time since Padum. I find a small waterfall. If I were courageous I'd stand under it for five seconds, put some soap on and wash it away. But the water is freezing (quite literally, it comes from a nearby glacier) and, maybe more important, I'm a wimp. But I still wash myself and even do my laundry. This should be good enough for the next 4 days.
It's a beautiful day! I wake up before 6 a.m. and get up. It's shortly after sunrise. The light is very warm but not glaring, sun rays turn the barren mountains into a golden light. Where the sun hasn't reached, it's still cold and dark. Two hours later we leave for our day trip to Phuktal, maybe the most stunning monastery in Zanskar. Phuk is Ladakhi for 'end of cave', tal means 'too much'. The monastery is built around a cave and it seems to be built into the mountain, which gave it its name.
It's a mere two-hour walk to get there. "Two hours of walking, no!" I might have thought a week ago, but now it's more like: "Only two hours, not bad." It is wise to leave early while it's still cool. As usual a small path follows the river. Purne lies at the meeting of two rivers, the Kurgiakh Chu from the south and the Lingti Chu from the north east. After fifteen minutes a narrow valleys lies before us and we leave the small fields of Purne behind. The side we're walking on is still in the shade. Not much grows here with rhododendrons the only large plants. But this only makes the landscape more fascinating; nothing distracts the eye from the stones which seem to glow in different reds in the morning sun. That's one of the nice things about trekking, you start to pay attention to things you normally ignore. Soon we reach a bridge (also newly built, which is lucky even though it means that I can't bring back any pictures of Indiana Jones-like bridges) and are almost in Phuktal. This can't be, it felt like a 20-minute walk. I'm surprised to see that many local people on their way to the monastery. Many are dressed in local costumes, women have put on their finest jewellery. Most of them walk, the ones from further away ride horses. A visiting high lama is giving a religious speech this morning. Two men who passed us yesterday bring a young yak as a present. A few minutes later chorten and long mani walls announce the monastery. We walk around a corner, and there it is, absolutely stunning. It looks as if it was glued to the vertical mountain wall. How can somebody find such an amazing place to build a monastery? How can human hands build something like this?
Legends say that three brothers discovered the cave and meditated in it. After finding enlightenment they flew away, each in a different direction. In the 15th century they showed Sherap Zangpo the way to the cave. When Sherap Zangpo left Tibet to establish the Gelupka sect in Ladakh, the founder of this sect, Tsonghapa, foresaw that he should see three mystic creatures. The three brothers led Sherap to the first chorten; when he found the cave he meditated and built the monastery.
Another story tells how the monastery escaped looting from the Mongols in the 16th century. A Mongol wanted to steal things from the monastery and put a rope on the cedar above the monastery to climb down. Halfway down he saw Palden Lhamo, the female protector, who changed into a monk and cut off the Mongol's hand with a long sword. The mummified hand has been kept and is still shown today during a festival in winter.
Most of the 40 monks are in the assembly hall where they hold a ceremony. Their age varies from 7 to 70, but even the young ones recite the texts without too many gaps. Every five minutes there's a break to fill up their cups with butter tea. Again, it'd be nice to know what exactly is happening, but I couldn't find a description of the ceremony in the book I've read. At least I figure out the seating arrangement. It's very hierarchical, the head of the monastery sits closer to the altar, while the young monks and lay people sit near the entrance.
I'm the only non-monk in the assembly hall, all the other people go to the big white chorten in the cave. It's seems to be the real object of devotion, locals walk around it clockwise several times. To sit there and watch them is as interesting as the monastery itself. A well springs from a hole in the cave, and if you consider that the whole construction faces south it's easy to imagine that this must be a relatively comfortable place to live in winter when rivers freeze and snow lies in the valleys.
It's still hard to understand what made people walk so far just to find caves and live in them. But I think I'm beginning to realize that if you live such a hard life and your primary goal is simply to survive in the harsh conditions, you need something to believe in. There must be something else, something higher and more pure than the daily hardships.
The Gonkhang, room of the protectors, is the building furthest up. All the statues are covered, judging by the pieces that can be seen: Yamantaka, Palden Lhamo and various forms of Mahakala. It'd love to see the whole group uncovered. Those terrifying statues are fascinating, somehow I feel more attracted to them than to the lovely, pure golden statues of Buddha.
The room in front of the Gonkhang looks like a very old assembly hall. A few thankas hang on the wall, but it's impossible to see what's on them. I don't know if it's their age or incorrect handling that has destroyed most of the colours. A very rare item is the three dimensional mandala, a palace with several statues in it. This aid to meditation is usually painted or made out of sand and looks totally different, but it represents the same concepts and ideas. The two-dimensional mandala is simply the floor plan of the three-dimensional mandala. The statues in this room all belong to the 'nice and lovely category': Tsongkhapa, Avalokiteshvara, the future Buddha Maitreya and the three brothers who have found the cave.
I wander around and find myself in the kitchen. It's a big cave with blackened walls and ceiling. True chefs don't need great equipment (Indhar is proof of that), but I'd be very surprised if any delicacies came out of this kitchen. All that's in here are three fireplaces, three big pots and a few utensils. A monk is busy making tsampa, while others brew butter tea. Next I'm in the part where the monks live: their houses are fifty feet away from the assembly hall. I carefully look over the small rim of the roof I'm standing on. It goes straight down for at least 180 feet! The only material they use are clay bricks, wood and stones, which aren't the most reliable materials, I suppose.
I spend almost two hours in Phuktal without becoming bored. On the way back we can hear the sound of instruments, this could be the beginning of the lama's speech. Many parts of the path are still in the shade, since the path is often built in vertical walls. It's such a nice walk that I'm surprised to see the fields of Purne so soon. Instead of spending the afternoon climbing some hills and exploring, I sit around, which is of course a waste of time. But somehow I feel I've seen so many things this morning that it's enough for today.
It's very windy and with more and more clouds above us, a storm seem unavoidable. Tomorrow will be a long day, 8 hours walking, so I enjoy the rest and hope for good weather.
Purne to Kargiakh
I have had a bad night. My stomach is rebelling against something I've had for dinner, and the three dogs we've picked up on our way from Rera are barking like crazy. I have to get up a couple of times and can combine this with throwing stones at the dogs (but of course trying not to hit them) so they'll sit in front of another tent. The weather seems good, but then I look in the direction we're headed today. Dark, grey clouds - or better a wall of clouds - let me know this won't be a pleasant day. And I'll be right.
The first 30 minutes are hard work, a steep climb but then we reach a broad fertile valley. Barley and potatoes grow here, though the climate doesn't seem to be good for agriculture. The barley is still small. I hope people can harvest it before the cold days arrive. We walk past Jal and Tela, but the villages are empty, most people are working on the fields. They are very friendly, only kids get on my nerves with their "bonbon, school pencil". After almost two hours we've passed the green oasis and are walking through a stone field. Nothing but stones, stones, stones for more than an hour. We cross the Kurgiakh Chu, which we've followed since Purne, and walk through a similar landscape for a short time. I'm relieved when I see something white, a chorten. Often they are placed at the beginning of a village, and no matter how small the villages are there's something to see.
We're at Tanze and have done half the distance in less than 3 hours. Phunchok seems a bit worried that we're too fast for the cook to catch up, so we wait. He doesn't show up for over an hour. I get a bit restless, it starts drizzling and I'm sick of sitting around. Finally he arrives, but without his assistant. Another horse got sick and Buphandar is walking with them. We want to go a bit further before lunch, it's only twelve o'clock and nobody is really, really hungry. The drizzling changes into heavy rain and we stop at the next house, luckily it's close, only half an hour away. The people are very hospitable and we can have lunch here.
It's a typical house in the countryside. With its small windows, a tiny door and thick walls it resembles a fort. But this form of architecture is very effective - in winter the cold is kept outside while in summer the rooms remain cool. The house has two stories and a flat roof. The roof is used as a storage room in the summer to dry fruit and vegetables. Basically it's considered a nice place to sit and work and people spend many hours there. On the ground floor are the stable and the room for the farming tools. A very small and narrow and absolutely dark corridor leads to a staircase which goes up to the second floor. It takes us directly in the kitchen. The door to the living room is about one foot wide and three feet tall, luckily we're all small. This is the best room of the house, there's glass in the windows, jewellery hangs on the walls together with scissors to cut sheep wool and a copper plate. We're offered a seat on the thick, heavy, comfortable carpets. This room is directly above the stable. This has the advantage that in winter the warmth from the stable heats the living room. But there's also a disadvantage that it smells of animal dung. I don't want to sound ungrateful, I really appreciate it that we can use the best room. But the stench is pretty penetrating. Not only is the whole family watching us, the neighbours are also here to see what those tourists do. We're ready to leave pretty soon. I walk down those dark stairs and am glad to find the hallway. But I take the wrong turning and walk straight into the stable. I've almost gotten used to the stench, but here it's so strong that I almost pass out. I find the right way in time and am relieved to be outside again.
The rain is pelting down stronger than before, but at least our horses and mules have arrived. Two of them can't carry anything now, but since we have less food and petrol than four days ago everything can be transported. The rain has increased even more, but what I'm frustrated about isn't the rain itself but the clouds. There's nothing to see except grey clouds and stones. We walk along a broad riverbed. The low hanging clouds look depressing, but the mind (or at least my mind) finds a way to deal with this: it just cuts out the 30% of the most negative and 30% of the most positive feelings and thoughts. I walk pretty disinterestedly, but without feeling bad about the rain and feel like I could go on forever.
After two hours my clothes are wet but my mood hasn't changed. Apathy can be good in a situation like this. We would have reached our campsite a while ago, but since we are walking with the horses we're still on our way at half past three. Hurrying would be senseless, since we would have to wait for our tents anyway. We pass a few villages, chorten and mani walls in the meantime, but it isn't enough to catch my attention. By now I'd be glad to crawl into my sleeping bag. Then I see a chorten on our side of the river. According to the map (which so far has been surprisingly accurate) it must be Kargiakh. We leave the path to walk down to the river and I think we're there. But we walk for another 20 minutes - an endless 20 minutes. The meadow along the river is nice; it's astonishing to see what variety of flowers grow here. We finally put up our tents in record time. My sea bag is totally wet but the things inside are still dry. One of the many useful things I've brought is bouillon. Lying in a tent in a cosy sleeping bag with hot soup while it's raining is even better than lying in bed for the whole day on a foggy Sunday in December. Hopefully the tent will continue to keep the rain outside and hopefully tomorrow will be a better day.
It rained cats and dogs the whole night. The tent is better than I expected it to be, though. I'm dry but it gets cold and I'm not comfortable in my sleeping bag. Supposedly it's good for -12° C, but I begin to doubt that and hope I don't have to test it on this trip. In the morning the rain stops and a few spots of blue sky are visible between the clouds. Twenty minutes later it rains again. The sun tries to break through a couple of times but the clouds are too thick. I don't know anything about meteorology but I'm pretty sure all it would take is a little bit of wind to make this a sunny day. The rain is increasing. Group dynamics start to show, everybody walks on their own. I've seen a picture of this valley on a sunny day, it looked beautiful. The contrast between the green of the valley and the barren rocks above that fantastic. Ahead is the Gumburanjon, a 5'900 metres peak which looks fascinating because it is the shape of a pyramid and there are no other mountains standing in front of it. The river makes a strong right turn. So far every 20 minutes we've had to cross a small river, but despite the rain the water levels haven't caused us any trouble. Now we do have a problem: the melting snow and glacier water from the high mountains have lead to a rather big and strong creek. After five minutes I find a spot with a few bigger stones in the river, it seems jumpable. I've always been a good and confident jumper. Phunchok seems to be very worried though. Admittedly the distance from one rock to the other is big. Admittedly, the stones are slippery. Admittedly, a false step would be bad, very bad. I hear him saying 'be careful' when I jump. I make it. The others don't want to jump and look for another spot. It takes them a while, I'm freezing in the meantime. My coat can't keep the rain off anymore, it's getting damp. There's another critical river, but this time Phunchok doesn't let me jump. It gets windy, but the wind doesn't blow away the clouds. Instead the cold wind blows the rain in my face. It's miserable. This qualifies as a storm. During the walk I try to keep myself busy.
Thought #1: I'll be tempted to smack the first person in Switzerland who complains about rain. All it does in Switzerland is cause a minor annoyance. Up here it is a health risk.
Thought #2: Why am I doing this? I could be lying on a sunny beach, snorkling, scubadiving, surfing, enjoying the sun. Why do I make my life harder than it should be? I don't ask myself that in a bitter voice, though a bit of self-accusation lies in it.
Thought #3: This is a game. I'm playing it and I will enjoy it.
Thought #4: This is probably as close to survival of the fittest as it gets for a middle-class male at the end of the 20th century. I will 'survive' this with a smile on my face and a few good stories to tell afterwards.
I walk very fast since the rain seems to be getting even heavier. Snow-covered high mountains tower above me on the left and right, the roar of avalanches and landslides can be heard. The only real power is nature, humans are so small. We reach a bridge and are basically at the campsite, instead of 5 hours it took me 3½. Phunchok walks to the bridge to wait for the others, while I sit and freeze in a tent. It will take some time for the horses to get here. There's nothing to do but wait for dry clothes. I'm wet to my bones. I'm hungry. I'm thirsty. I'm tired.
The horses arrive an hour later, which is a pleasant surprise. They don't use the bridge though; instead they go walk through the river. Now I see how deep it is, water goes up to the horses' bellies. The current is very strong and the horses can't see stones or holes in the river. I watch in excitement (and admittedly fear) when it's 'my' horse's turn. Can it make it without stumbling? Yes, I'm relieved. We set up another record time in putting up the tents. It's windy, cold and still raining.
One hour later, the world doesn't look grim anymore. I'm in dry clothes, have drunken a litre of water, a litre of hot bouillon, a cup of hot chocolate and had great, hot lunch. Now I'm lying in my sleeping bag, enjoying every second of today. It's incredible how little it takes to make you satisfied up here: a dry warm place to rest, food and something to drink. That's all. And the rush of happiness when you have all those things just doesn't exist in normal life. The (temporal) lack of necessities makes trekking that interesting. And those fast changes from misery to happiness are just amazing. The mind simply works differently, it's clearer and somehow seems more receptive. For a little while it seems that the sun comes out, rain stops and it gets very bright. But two hours later clouds are as dense as before.
We've reached the end of the valley. It's like an amphitheater with a big entrance (the valley) and steep rows of seats (the mountains around us). The snow and white clouds make it almost impossible to say where the mountains end and where the sky begins, strange scenery. We're camping at the base of Shingo-La at an altitude of 5'100 m the lowest pass through the Himalayas. Our plan is to cross it tomorrow. But if the weather doesn't improve we'll have to wait another day or two. It's too dangerous otherwise, not necessarily for us, but for the horses. We're at 4'600 m and since there's not much else to do I take my pulse: 72. That's great, I'm glad I have adjusted that well to the high altitude. Doing all this with a headache or even worse health problems must be hell. Now that my basic needs (shelter and food) are satisfied I want the clouds to disappear, five minutes would be good enough. I just want to get a glimpse of the landscape. The colourful flowers must look great with the white mountains in the background...maybe tomorrow.
Shingo-La Base Camp to Ramjuk
Can things get worse? You bet. I wake up in the middle of the night, don't hear the sound of rain on the tent and see that it's bright outside. Great, a clear sky, the moon is shining. I get out - and my feet sink into a few inches of snow. Do we really have to stay here for another day? We'd planned to leave at seven o'clock in the morning, but at breakfast the cook thinks we won't go. The ponymen definitely want to stay, we tourists want to go and Phunchok is undecided. I woulndn't want to be in his position. Two hours later we leave in high spirits. The clouds have dissolved and we see the sun and blue sky after two days of rain. A steep climb takes us up to a plateau, there'll be a similar climb up to the pass.
We meet two hikers from Poland who've camped here for two days because they didn't know exactly where they were, the weather was bad and they were exhausted. The blue sky is gone by now, it's cloudy again. Soon we reach a big snow field. We walk with the horses today. After a few minutes the snow is one foot high, then two feet. Walking at this altitude in deep snow is strenuous, especially since I'm the second person and can't use any path, the ones at the end of our caravane have it easier. It starts to snow, it's foggy and windy. I love this, this is adventurous. Visibility hasn't been good for two hours, but suddenly I realize that we can't see anything. The fog and snow are so white that there seems to be a white wall around us. For two hours we walk up and down in zigzag course, to find the best way for the horses I assume. After another 45 minutes there's still no pass. Actually, there's nothing apart from the 'white wall'. When I see Phunchok pointing in one direction and Raijiv, the ponyman, pointing in the opposite direction I know we're in trouble. Things are clearly out of control. We're not in serious trouble, we could still walk back, but it's enough to give rise to a feeling of anxiety and fear. We're lost at 5'100 metres in a snowstorm. And if things are out of control at this altitude, serious situations can arise fast. It's a strange atmosphere, nobody feels comfortable anymore, some have reached their limit. Indhar has been sitting down every twenty minutes and complaining, the younger Raijiv starts to cry. It's almost two o'clock, we've walked for almost four hours.
Then, to everybody's relief, we hear voices and can make out another group of horses. They've just been following us, but since they're true locals they should find the way. We wait while their leader and Phunchok go looking for the right way. When they find the pass fifteen minutes later, everybody is relieved. We get to the rim where a pile of stones marks the pass. The wrong pass. The real one is a few minutes further down, we've been walking too far up. The strategy was to walk up as high as possible so we wouldn't miss the pass, and it worked, although it was very strenous.
Everybody is extremely happy on the way down. We all seem to know that we've just gotten out of a dangerous situation. Situations like this either break groups apart or make them stronger. The joking and snowball fights indicate the latter. But we do have a couple of problems: the amount of snow is still enormous and doesn't decrease, which makes it a slippery and slow walk; it's five o'clock already which leaves us only two hours to find a camp site; everybody seems to reach or to have reached their physical limit (people slip or stumble, luckily nobody falls down the valley), the cook is seriously sick, one horse leaves a blood trail (though I don't know how serious the injury is, it might be nothing), another horse is about to die. We pass the camp site where we've planned to stay tonight, but there's too much snow. We have one hour left, Phunchok says there's another campsite further down that can be reached before it gets dark. We've been walking for 8 hours without a break at high altitude, I hope everybody can make it there. The sick horse can't. It just lies down to die. I can't watch and follow the other group. We get to a flat spot, they tell me to stay here and they walk on.
It's getting dark, it's foggy and I wait alone in the middle of nowhere. The clouds just hang there in the valley, it seems impossible to think we could have good weather for the next few days. I've walked for over nine hours, had one litre of water to drink during the whole day, my shoes and pants are soaked. I sit on a stone on a snowfield, our campsite, and have time to think. It's hard to grasp the essence of what's going on in my head, and even harder to write it down. I just wish I could be more articulate and describe what has been happening since this morning in a way that I can read it in a year, to have stepped back and re-experienced it all again. But I can't, the thoughts seem to be there for a second only and then make room for another thought. One the one hand I hate this day, but on the other hand I love it because it's physically and psychologically the hardest thing I've done in a long time. Situations like this help you grow and become more mature, I think. "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger," Nietzsche once said, and I think he's right. But not only that, it also makes you realize how lucky you are when you are in a better situation.
Snow is a foot high at the camp site. We put up the tents without removing any snow, it's not necessary everybody tells me. I'm skeptical - hopefully they're right. I crawl into my sleeping bag and to try to warm up, rest, relax and sleep. Dinner is a bowl of rice and a cup of tea. I go to sleep, after few minutes I can feel the snow melting under me. Where does the water go? This bothers me more than it should, since only a little gets into the tent. But it's hard to lie on the small insulation matress all the time and not roll into the water. And it's really, really cold. I've finally figured out how to use the sleeping bag (I've never owned such a high-tech sleeping bag), only my nose is peeping out of it. But it can't stop the cold from the ground. I wake up several times and am glad when I fall asleep again, this is the best way to escape the freezing temperatures. It's a miracle that I don't get sick. I guess the body knows when it can afford to be sick and when not.
What will the next day bring? I'm very curious.
Ramjuk to Zanskar Sumdo
In the early morning it's below 0° C. An hour later I open the tent, expecting the worst. But the weather is fantastic, dark blue sky with a few clouds, the intensity of the sun at half past seven is insane. My first thought is what bad luck we've had. If only we had waited another day! This regret haunts me for the next three hours, I don't seem to be able to think about anything else.
In big contrast to the perfect weather are the 'casualties' of yesterday: one horse died; the two ponymen, Indhar and Gabi are snowblind, the horses had to stand in the cold the whole night and couldn't eat anything because the snow was too high. It's a disaster.
We pack our things, put the blind people on horses and go. The cook has left earlier to go ahead but I don't know how he can see anything, the other blind persons can't even open their eyes. The sun melts the snow fast, further down flowers look out of the snow and soon all the snow is gone. The horses and mules stop every few minutes to eat, which is understandable since they haven't eaten anything for a whole days, but we have to walk on. There'll be more grass at the campsite. I still feel bitter that we crossed the path too early. I don't blame anything except my luck. But I was one of those who didn't want to wait. And nobody could've known the weather would change so dramatically. It might have got worse, it might have snowed even more, thus making a crossing impossible. At noon it's still sunny, all the clouds drift into the direction of Shingo La and one hour later it's very cloudy up there. So maybe it was the right decision to go yesterday. I've come to terms with what happened, though I feel very bad for the boy who lost his own horse; it was his only one. But it was sick before and I can't understand that he didn't leave it in one of the villages. They're are going back the same way and he could've picked it up then.
We meet a group of Italians who are going up to the pass. 'We' is what I imagine Napoleon's army fleeing from Russia looked like. The leading guy is snowblind, he's followed by emaciated, overloaded horses with two snow blind people siting on the same horse and the fourth one literally lying on another horse. And even the 'healthy' members of the group (which I have the luck to belong to) have a clearly sensitive negative aura. Those poor Italians must think they'll be going through hell and will come out as we did. How many of them will think about turning around when they walk pass the frozen horse? Even though it isn't funny, Manuel and I have to laugh when we imagine their faces.
It becomes more cloudy, but all the clouds are blown to the pass. Ahead of us is a big valley, a broad river cuts it into two halves. Short grass and flowers grow on the opposite river bank. What a perfect camp site. And yes, we're really staying here tonight. Great! But first we have to cross a bridge, not a new one this time. Where the boards are too decayed they put a big stone to close the hole. I've been promoted and as a part-time horseman I drive them to the campsite. I've always had a big respect (ok, fear) of horses. Now I hold the horse with one hand, open the knots with the other hand and unload the luggage and unsaddle the horse. Admittedly, these animals are smaller than normal horses, but nevertheless I think I've conquered another fear.
After the rainy days, camping in this beautiful valley on such a lovely day is terrific! For the first time we are close to high mountains and can actually see them. Surprisingly, we're the only campers. How can this be? Up to this morning even this valley was snow-covered. All the trekkers left yesterday, some of them after waiting three days to cross the pass. But the storm didn't seem as if it would end and they walked back to the road. So we've been very lucky. Sometimes you don't see your luck unless you've seen somebody else's bad luck. I just sit in the sun the whole afternoon and enjoy every moment of doing nothing. I can even convince myself to shave and wash at (not in, it's still too cold for me) the nearby river. Why can't every day be like this?
We've had some stunning morning moods during the trek, but this is the first completely clear evening. The mountains glow in a white colour long after the sun has disappeared, the air cools down and I have the feeling that everything is getting ready for the night. It's not just the animals that become more and more quiet, even plants and mountains seem calmer and turn silent after dusk. It looks as if things are retreating for a few hours, only to be back in all their magnificence in the morning.
And how amazing this morning is! I wake up shortly before sunrise, five minutes later the summits in the far distance glow in an orange colour which slowly turns into yellow. More and more of the mountains are 'illuminated', while the valley itself lies in darkness. Above everything is the dark blue sky. This contrast is amazing, and every ten minutes the scenery looks different.
It's been a very cold night, even colder than yesterday on the snow field. That's the reason for me getting up so early, but after seeing the sunrise I'm glad that the cold made me leave the tent. At breakfast the valley is still in the shade, it's really, really cold. By the time we finish breakfast our horses are here and we're glad to start walking. Once again we follow a river, but this time downwards. It's an absolutely clear day, far away we can see the mountains behind Darcha, which is our destination for today. It's a seven hour walk. The first hour the path goes through fields of big boulders, but they make place for flowers and grass further down. The sun is very strong up here, but the wind makes walking pleasant. I feel like I could hike forever, the last three rainy days are forgotten. I wish this wasn't the last day.
We pass a few fields with beans or peas and reach Palamo at noon. This is the place we were supposed to camp yesterday but couldn't reach because of the napoleonesque state of our group. Although it more than doubles today's walk, I'm glad we stayed at Zanskar Sumdo. That place was terrific, Palamo is 'only' nice. The river disappears into a narrow, deep gorge here; it's unbelievable that so much water can flow through such a small riverbed. The bridge is also impressive, it's simply two iron bars with boards laid on top. I can hear the river 50 feet below, the rush is enormous. But I don't spend more time on the bridge than necessary, though it seems to be built solidly. But the lack of a handrail is a bit scary. A false step would be fatal, I guess. But the bridge is wide enough, it's not dangerous at all. I doubt that the horses want to go over that bridge, though.
On the other side a road leads to Darcha. It'd be wide enough for cars, but in the last four days of rain it has been destroyed in several places. It's still good for walking and after three hours Darcha valley is in sight. It's amazing how far you can walk in a few hours. We've walked from one end of the valley to the other. This might not be far in kilometres, but it's as far as we could see this morning. 500 people live in the village, but we camp a bit outside. When I hear this I expect a nice, quiet campsite on the river bank. I'm wrong. We do camp near the river, but close to the road and the main bridge. It's a culture shock, it's dirty, noisy, there are too many trucks and shops along the road. The good camp site is occupied. Why couldn't we stay in one of the villages we've walked through 10 minutes ago? I'm sure this is a idyllic place when you come from Delhi, but after ten days of (relatively) solitary and peaceful trekking and camping it is just too much. This seems an unworthy end to our trip.
I'm a bit depressed, I don't know why. Maybe it's because the trek is finished, and I feel like this exciting holiday is over. I still have four more days, but I consider them 'travel' days and not holidays. Hopefully tomorrow's drive to Manali will offer some great views. Uups, bad news. The road to Manali has also been washed away and has been closed for the last four days. I think about the poor tourists who waited three days to cross the pass, went back to Darcha and sat here for another few days. Nobody knows how long it will take to fix the road. I don't worry about it, I'll get to Delhi in four days somehow. And if not I can take another flight. Phunchok, Indhra and Buphandar have to catch a bus to Leh, their road was just opened today. Somebody from Manali is supposed to bring us a message since there are no telephones here.
Darcha to Manali
I sleep like a baby. It's warm 'down' here (3'300 m), and since the road was closed it was also quiet. Good news, the road was opened last night and a car should get here in the morning to pick us up. During breakfast we can (and I do partially) watch the slaughter of four sheep. It looks cruel, they're beheaded with a single stroke of a machete. Although I've been a vegetarian for more than seven years, it doesn't move me very much. Of course I'm sorry for the animal but it doesn't make me angry. I'm not sure if people up here can really survive without meat. And the sheep had a nice life: in summer they could graze in the mountains and only in winter were they kept in stables. Some people in our group who eat meat can't watch or shake their head in disapproval. How can they eat meat when they can't bear the killing?
The jeep is here and it's time to say good-bye. It's a bit of a sad feeling. We've been through quite a lot in the last two weeks, so knowing that I won't see them anymore feels strange. Since we've been a small group we've had a lot of contact with the local guides. After four days the distance between 'them' and 'us tourists' became smaller. I hope they've also enjoyed the trip. I must not forget to send a copy of the diary to our tour leader Phunchok Takshos (Village and B.P.O Nimoo, Leh - Ladakh 194101, India).
The guy from World Expeditions had a long trip from Manali to here. The road was blocked at four places. He took a bus to the first blockage, walked a few kilometres, then took another vehicle to the next blockage, walked again, took another bus etc. By the time he got here the road was opened and only the road two kilometres before Manali was still closed.
The jeep driver is a young Indian who wears a bandana, smokes western cigarettes and tries very hard to act really cool. Nevertheless, a fumigating stick burns in the car, a picture of a Hindu god stands on the instrument panel and before he starts the engine he prays for a few seconds. After only ten minutes the damages on the road can be seen. When it rained for several days, small creeks turned into rivers and washed away entire parts of the road. Landslides did huge damage, too. People are busy repairing the road, but there are no road machines. Except for the explosions and the transport of material, everything is done by hand. Everything means clearing the road of stones, hammering stones into smaller pieces if necessary, piling up the stones, putting them on lorries, putting them on a pile after unloading the lorry, cementing the street etc. Entire villages seem to be working as a roadmen or -women, from the twelve year old boy to the seventy year old grandmother. They don't seem to be as happy as the people further north who make a living as farmers.
There are many towns along the road but they're all depressing as hell. Small shops sell toilet paper, coke and cookies; many people just sit there and watch traffic and small children play in the dirt. Those villages seem useless and unnecessary. I'm sorry for the people who live here and even more so for those who have moved here because they thought it would be better here than in the countryside.
Farmers in Ladakh and remote Zanskar might be poorer than people here, but because the farmers have nice houses, fields, cattle and enough food I've never thought of them as being poor. And I doubt that they think of themselves as being poor. Inevitably tourism will show those people what they don't have and can't afford to buy. This will make them poorer in their eyes and is an argument against travelling in such countries.
The brick buildings with corrogated sheet iron roofs are plain ugly. Maybe the rain washed away the whitewash and it looks nicer under normal circumstances, but after seeing so many picturesque villages this makes me remember that India is still a poor country. Most of the road has been fixed, but occasionally traffic jams occur. The road to Rohtang La has been washed away over a long distance. We have to get out and walk, but the car gets through. The drive is pretty interesting, with attractions such as waterfalls, glaciers and high mountains. After four hours we're on top of the pass, the difference between the two sides is amazing. On the northern side we've seen no trees, just flowers and grass.
The flora in Kulu valley on the southern side is totally different. I've never seen such a diversity of trees and flowers, they all come in all colours, sizes and shapes. It's like being on a different continent. We drive along a zigzag road down from 4000 m to 2000 m, which takes over an hour. Thanks to the trees which prevent landslides, the road here isn't damaged at all. Roadworks are going on in one curve, where they are cutting a way through a 15-feet-high snow field which goes across the road. Down in the valley the devastation is incredible. 2 km before Manali the river has washed away entire houses and large parts of the road are missing. We have to walk. Many porters wait to carry luggage and all kinds of other goods, one small guy takes all our three bags at once. The 40 kg and the heat are too much for him, so after half the distance he can't carry my bag anymore. The army is repairing the street with heavy bulldozers, loud detonations can be heard and felt. This seems to be a major attraction for the local people, each roadworker has a few spectators and the driver of the biggest bulldozer could fill a stadium, well, almost...
Manali is very, very touristy. It's not only a place for tourists, the Indian upperclass also likes to spend their holidays up here. I wonder it there are any buildings which aren't shops, hotels, guesthouses or restaurants. There are so many shops that I wonder how the owners can make a living. Soon we get to our hotel and after all the cheap hotels I've just seen I'm a bit afraid. I don't usually care about the quality of hotels, but after two weeks in a tent I either want to have a very nice room or stay in a tent again. Johnson's Lodge is wonderful. It's quite small, has a lovely garden and big comfortable wooden rooms, plus a hot shower, which is what's most important right now. Well, the first shower is lukewarm because I don't notice that I have to turn on the boiler. The second shower is burning hot, a real luxury after the ice cold glacier water.
It's quite hot here, but not too humid. With the nice breeze and the shade of an apple-tree, it feels like being at the sea in Spain or France in summer. I spend the rest of the day relaxing in the garden. When it's time for dinner it's hard to find the right restaurant, the sheer number of them is overwhelming. Chopsticks is almost full, which is a good sign for clean, tasty and reasonably priced food. A dozen momos, the Tibetan version of ravioli, costs US$ 1. I walk around in the shopping area, but it's too crowded and I don't feel like buying anything. And since it's already late I'm happy to go to bed (the emphasis is on bed, a nice luxury after the many days in tents).
It's wonderful to sleep in till half past eight, to get up without freezing to death, and to have a hot shower. I wish I could enjoy every morning like this, but I'll get used to it pretty soon. After a decent breakfast I go to the bank to change a $20 bill. You'd think this would take two minutes, wouldn't you? Well, it's really complicated and takes half an hour. Three armed policemen are in the bank, one of them is responsible for the correct filling out of the forms. It's unbelievable what they want to know, I even have to write down the number of the bill. Will anyone ever look at those forms again? After the third attempt I have everything right and can sign it twice, once on the front and a second time on the back. Then I have to take the form to another desk where I get a token, #4.. Now I'm qualified to wait in the last line. Only tourists have to wait in line, Indians just walk up to the counter to get what they want. I don't have a problem with that, I have time, but it's funny nevertheless.
The guy with token #5 has seen me in Darcha and we start to talk. He took the public bus which left at 5.30 in the morning. It broke down after three hours and caused the traffic jam I took a picture of. He caught another bus and arrived here late afternoon yesterday. He also did the Padum - Darcha trek, but started a day after us. He crossed the Shingo La following our footsteps, as did many others. So the weather can't have been much better, otherwise they would've taken the direct route to the pass. For a few days we've been legends up there, people talked about the 'three Swiss guys' who'd crossed the pass in the storm. The dead horse was also sighted. It was sunny on the other side, but many people became snowblind, and even those with good sunglasses had serious eye pains. Finally I get my money, I have to stand in another line for the receipt. I need that piece of paper when I want to change money back, but I don't want to spend the whole day in the bank.
What is there to see? Considering the size of the village, there's nothing to see. A Hindu temple and old Manali and the hot springs are within walking distance. To get to the old fort Nagar I'd have to take a bus which takes at least a hour to get there, even though it's only 23 km away. The famous Russian intellectual Roerich lived near Nagar in the beginning of this century and there's a small museum showing some of his paintings.
It's another sunny day so I decide to visit the Hindu temple and old Manali. The temple is situated outside in a cedar forest; the walk through the cool forest reminds me more of Switzerland than India. The Hadimba-Devi temple is a Hindu shrine which was built in the 16th century and is famous for its fine wood carvings. Inside is a big black rock and a another long flat rock which acts as a shelter. I suppose some guru meditated here. In the cave there are all kinds of offerings, from sweets to money to rice to flowers to fruit. It's a mess. It's the first time I've been in a Hindu temple, the ones in Nepal are strictly closed to foreigners. But if they're all like this I didn't miss much. No fine artwork is displayed here, and the local Hindus seem to see the place as a way to make money. I guess it's like this in most religions, but after the friendly and reserved Buddhists this pushy and selfish attitude seems even more disgusting. So far I've experienced feeling more comfortable in Buddhist places than Hindu places, and by place I mean temples, monasteries, villages, areas, countries. I don't know whether that's because they are two very different philosophies. Maybe I simply haven't travelled enough to really get to know Hinduism.
The old part of Manali is not far away, according to the map. But I can't find it, there seem to be only guest houses. Many of the western hippies have settled down here. I can't stand anything about them; not only does their music sound like crap and their clothes look ridiculous, I despise their ideology. It oversimplifies everything and reduces it to 'let's be nice to each other and we will save the world'. I couldn't avoid listening to two hippies while I was having breakfast. It's one thing to be educated and to be against our form of society and capitalism and to express ideas on how to change it for the better. But it's a completely different thing to be a stupid drugged-out freak who just criticises things without really knowing anything about them. It's easy to hide in a village in Thailand or India. Another thing that I don't get is how anybody with a dark complexion and a big beard who says 'money is bad' is looked upon as a god, a saviour or a saint. Why don't they take a few history books and try to find out how it came about that things are what they are today. Then they could propose some alternatives. But sitting around a bonfire smoking pot (wild marijuana grows here in huge quantities) won't change anything. I know that I generalize more than I should, and I also know that thanks to the hippies real progress was achieved twenty-five years ago. But this doesn't mean I have to like them today.
Anyway, after a while I get to the old part of Manali, and it's worth the walk. The houses don't look unlike chalets in the Swiss Alps. The first floor is built out of wood and stones. The second floor is made entirely out of wood. There is a big balcony on all four sides, and it is used in the same way as the roofs are used in Ladakh: there's probably nothing people don't do up there. Many families dry their laundry, keep hay and wheat there, work on the loom, or just sit there and talk. Since there's plenty of rain, the roofs slope and are covered with stone-slabs. I don't think people have as many cattle as in the moutain regions, agriculture is a bigger part of their income. Below old Manali are their fields. Apple-trees and pear trees are full of fruit, between the trees wheat, barley, corn and peas grow.
The difference in climate, scenery and culture from here to Ladakh and Zanskar is huge, so huge in fact that that it seems impossible that they are just a day's drive apart.
After two hot showers in two days I don't feel a need to go to the hot springs. And since I don't feel drawn to the shopping area of Manali either I go to the 'forest protection park'. I hope to see all the different trees I've seen on the way down from the pass and maybe some flowers and animals. All I get to see are conifers like they grow in all parts of the world. The only animals in the park are three wild dogs which attack me when they spot me. I'm not exaggerating when I'm saying that they're don't just bark at me, they run towards me at full speed. I escape by climbing up a fence. On the way back I see something moving in a bush, but it's too late. It's the dogs again, this time I run as fast as I can and throw stones while I'm running. The dogs retreat. My pulse must be higher than on the toughest part of the pass! That park was a complete waste of time!
Dinner time again, this time it's fancy Indian food. Kashmiri Dum Aloo (potatoes in a spicy curry gravy with a some fruit), Masali Kulchar (thin fried bread with different mashed vegetables on top) and rice. My stomach is still used to trekking portions, I have to order another dish, Aloo Koftan (a fried ball of mashed vegetables in a thick sauce) and two onion Kulchars. I spend US$ 3.50 for this amazing dinner, it's so good it'd be worth staying here for another week just to go to the different restaurants and try out their dishes. But tomorrow I'm leaving for Chandigarh, a city I know absolutely nothing about. I'll feel like a dumb tourist for the first time on this trip.
Another day in the car, I'm not looking forward to that. The first two hours are more interesting than I had hoped for. Between terraced rice paddies in all shades of green all kinds of fruit trees grow. Bananas, kiwis, mangos, apples, pears and even palm trees. Huge cactuses stand next to the road. One second I feel I'm in New Mexico, then I think I'm in Europe, then it looks like a beach or a tropical rain forest. We cross the river Beas on a bridge which doesn't seem to have been built for cars. It's so narrow that even our really small car has only 10 centimetres on each side. The broad valley narrows and it's impossible to grow anything because the mountains are too steep and the river covers the whole of the flat valley. The road goes up and down on a zigzag road. At Manli, Gabi and Manuel get out to take the bus to Dharamsala. They have another week and want to go up to Srinagar. It's quite dangerous up there and I've never read anything about it that makes it worth the risk. But it's their decision, I hope they have a good time.
The drive further south is boring, the winding street high above the river and the forest go on forever. Luckily I have the whole back bench to myself and can stretch out and doze. I think the driver is afraid I'll die when he sees me lying there, he looks very worried. I demonstratively yawn a couple of times which seems to comfort him.
In the late afternoon we reach the Ganges plain. I'm awake now and the drive becomes interesting. Traffic is heavy, but unlike Ladakh it's not mainly lorries full of goods, it's people driving home from work in all kind of vehicles: bicycles, motorcycles, buses, horses, horse carriages, trucks, jeeps, taxis, cars.
Most of them are men wearing turbans. I haven't prepared my return to Delhi very well, but I suppose I'm in the Punjab district now, where the majority of India's Sikhs live. I look on the mapand I'm right. Chandigarh is the main city, while the religious centre is Amritsar in the northwest. All I know about Sikhs is what I've seen on the news about their terrorist attacks a few years ago.
Their religion originates from this area, which is now divided into a Pakistani and an Indian part. But Sikhs can be found in almost all regions of India these days. Their total number is 20 million, which makes them a minority in 900- million-India. They are easy to recognize, the founder of the religion laid down a dress code which people follow very strictly:
1. They don't cut their hair, which is why they wear a turban.
2. Under the turban they have a wooden or ivory comb in their hair.
3. They wear short pants, mostly under their long pants.
4. They wear an arm ring made out of steel.
They used to carry a sword. These days the sword doesn't seem important anymore.
Their religion was founded in the 16th century, when Hinduism seemed to choke on its own caste system. Guru Nanak declared that there is only one god, who is above all the Hindu gods refusing to categorize people and to treat them differently. The religion turned into a political power and, after quarrels with Islamists, into a military power. Today Sikhs belong to an educated class and are financially better off than the average. They're asking for more autonomy from Delhi for their province Punjab with some even wanting to have their own independent country, Khalistan. Terrorist attacks and violent unrest in Punjab still exist, but the region is much calmer than it was a few years ago. I've always liked to deal with Sikhs, they are very friendly and their thinking doesn't seem to be as complicated as Hindus.
I want to find out more about Sikhs, but the driver doesn't speak English at all. Which he doesn't have to, it's more important that he drives well, and that he does. So far he's avoided frontal collisions with a dog, a motorcyle and a car by reacting and make way for them in almost a split second. And even if he did speak English, I doubt that he could answer my questions. So I sit back and enjoy watching the busy life on the streets. We get to Chandigarh in the evening in heavy monsoon rain. But people are used to it, nobody wears raincoat. People even seem to enjoy it, which isn't surprising when you think that their ife depends on it, Punjab is the rice basket of India.
When I get to the hotel, it's dark and too late to walk around. Not that I really want to, Chandigarh is a Corbussier model city and all the buildings I've seen are ugly blocks of concrete. There must be an old part which could be interesting, but I don't feel like I absolutely have to see more buildings. I should wait for somebody to bring me a new train ticket anyway. The plan is to take the morning train to Delhi, but it takes two attempts before I get the right ticket. He gives me a ticket for the afternoon train, which leaves at noon and gets to Delhi at four o'clock. My plane leaves late tomorrow night and instead of spending half a day here in Chandigarh I'd rather be in Delhi for a few hours. So the poor guy has to get another ticket. I have a real problem with that attitude in India: Sometimes they really listen and do what they think is best for you. Maybe getting up at five in the morning to take the train isn't convenient, but when I say I want to take that train then I don't mind getting up early. I'm usually not a pushy person and I hate it when I have to be that way, but travelling in India doesn't seem possible without being tough in such situations. At least I know how it works and can avoid many unpleasant situations by fixing everything in detail beforehand.
Dinner is a double portion of great Indian food again. My stomach seems be be shrinking to its normal size, I'm so full I can barely walk up the stairs. After three weeks without TV (and never missing it and even being glad for not being tempted to waste any time in front of it), it has a certain appeal and I fall asleep over a thing on military aircrafts on the Discovery Channel. Yes, I must be desperate but it's the only watchable channel. I'm not a big fan of Indian pop videos, Muslim prayers or Samurai soap operas!
Chandigarh to Delhi - 9. August 1997
A taxi is supposed to pick me up at 6 a.m. and take me to the train station. The taxi doesn't show up and I'm ready to get one myself when a Sikh who doesn't speak English comes up to me and tries to ask a few questions. He might be the one I'm waiting for. But when I ask him for the fifth time if can take me the to station, he tells me to wait here and disappears. That's what really gets on my nerves here, people don't seem to be able to give straight answers. Two minutes later a taxi gets there, but I still don't know (and don't care) whether the first guy has had anything to do with it. Hopefully we can make it in time, and thanks to Mr. Corbussier we do. The city might look ugly, but it's very well designed so despite the heavy traffic there are no traffic jams.
I've heard horror stories about Indian trains, but I guess this is a special train for rich people. It's a fast and comfortable way of travelling after my days on a bumpy road. Security is heavy, at the end of each wagon there are four armed policemen watching what's going on inside. Each piece of luggage gets a tag. Every fifteen minutes a policeman walks around to see if everything is okay. This is because Punjab has suffered many bomb attacks in the last few years; allegedly the 'separatists' (that's how the Indian government calls them, but I can't judge if that term is correct) are sponsored by Pakistan. There's a bit of a fuss when an untagged bag is found in one of the other wagons. Each passenger has to identify their luggage and the train stops for a few minutes. Then the official message over the speaker system says that everything is fine. The service is like on a plane, I get breakfast, snacks, an orange juice and even a newspaper. US$ 10.- for a four hour train ride is a lot of money for Indians, so they expect impeccable service.
We get to Delhi almost on time where somebody should be picking me up. I wait for half an hour but obviously the guy in Chandigarh was too confused by my taking the early train. Normally this wouldn't bother me, but I haven't received my plane ticket yet. Luckily I have the address of the agent. When I get out of the train station ten motor-riksha drivers rush at me. We argue loudly over the price, what they ask for is simply ridiculous. After five minutes we agree on half their initial price, which is probably still way too much. Bargaining is just part of travelling, at first it's annoying to have to go through this before every purchase, then after a while it's just normal. It's hot, humid, smelly; the drive through bus exhaust fumes goes on for 45 minutes. I already hate Delhi again. Luckily the travel agency is open on Saturdays. They had thought that I was going on the afternoon train and take this very seriously. I tell them that it's absolutely no problem but they're already on the phone to Chandigarh. It's amazing how they can organize such complicated trips, all they have are a few phones, a fax machine and two computers for word processing. That plus a few smart people is all it takes!
Much time for reflection on the way home: I can't believe I've just had a three week vacation. It feels so much shorter. In my mind I go through the whole trip again on a daily basis. I remember so many things but it was a short holiday nevertheless. Maybe the problem is that instead of simply looking at my memories I compare them to what else 'was there'. Three weeks can't be enough to see all the aspects of the Himalayas and its people and culture. I've seen only a part of it, but after my previous two trips I can add a third piece to the puzzle called Himalayas.
There's still so much to see and experience in that region. I doubt that this was my last visit to that corner of the world... [and as it turned out, it wasn't]