Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Ladakh - Zanskar Trek: Day 9 and the Trip home

Day 9: Pishu to Padum, via Karsha

From Zanskar Trek

We started the last day of the trek hoping to find a taxi along the way. It had rained a bit through the night, and the morning was colder and cloudier than usual. It helped make the hike easier, but the clouds also hid the tall mountains around us.

The hike to Karsha from Pishu was along an unpaved path that clearly had car tracks. Cars clearly did make it to Pishu, but we didn’t see one until Karsha.

The hike was along the flat bed of the valley, along the Zanskar river. As we walked, the valley opened up more, and we started seeing taller, whiter mountains around us. We saw the Stongde monastery on a hill across the river -- something we would have thought about making a detour to if we weren’t that dead tired. Past Stongde, we could see Padum in the distance as well.

From Zanskar Trek

We didn’t meet any hiker this day -- in either direction. We suspected that most people must either drive to Pishu, or even Zang La to start the hike in the opposite direction. We were the only idiots who hiked the entire distance.

It took us a good part of 5 hours to get to Karsha. We expected horses to catch up to us by the time we got there. We had hoped that if we couldn’t get a taxi, we can ride the horses to Padum -- we definitely did not want to hike the last two hours to Padum. As we neared Karsha, we realized the horses weren’t going to catch up with us. They had taken a different path and were taking a shorter route directly to Padum. We could see them in distance closer to the bridge on the river, while we stood on the hill in Karsha.

From Zanskar Trek

Luckily we found a taxi as soon as we entered Karsha. It was a different matter that the guy expected us to pay him Rs 800 for a 10 minute ride. Under normal circumstances, I would have refused to pay anything more than 50, but this time we settled for 700.

Ten minutes later we were in Padum -- which clearly looked like a town with facilities.

Immediately we set about finding a proper hotel to stay in. We looked at three and finally took the third one -- none of them was as clean as we would have liked. Once we had found the hotel, we ventured out looking for food. Our notion of “food” was clearly different than what was available in Padum. Apparently they don’t have any vegetables, so we could only get mutton, or chowmein and mo-mos. We, on the other hand, had been day dreaming about all kinds of meals we would feast on once we ended the hike. Alas!

However, we had a hotel room, beds, shower, warm water and a taxi for the next day to take us to Kargil and Srinagar.

The Drive to Srinagar via Kargil

From Zanskar Trek

The drive to Kargil goes through the Zanskar valley and it was probably the most breathtakingly beautiful drive I have ever been on. We passed through valleys and passes, always surrounded by tall snow covered mountains. As we neared Kargil, at some point the region became more lush and villages became more frequent, roads became better. We also noticed that the population changed from being mostly Ladakhi to mostly Muslim.

It took us 12 hours to get to Kargil. Kargil itself is a pretty big town, especially when compared to everything we had been subjected to so far. It seemed bigger than Leh.

We stayed at a hotel that our guide had said is the best hotel in Kargil. Pooja took it to mean that this was going to be a 5 star hotel, complete with spa and shops and all elements of luxury. I asked her to not expect too much, and indeed she felt quite disappointed when we arrived at the hotel. The hotel was quite alright though -- a bit baroque, but had warm water, and everything we needed. It was probably the first day in many that we enjoyed a really good meal.

We left early morning the next day for Srinagar -- we were on the road by 4am! I realized why we needed to hit the road that early a litle bit later. The highway to Srinagar is closed in the night and the barrier at Drass opens up at 6am. The road is lined with cars and trucks waiting to cross at 6am.

I had thought the drive to Kargil was pretty, but as we got closer to Srinagar I realized why this place is the one people rave so much more about. Ladakh and Zanskar are extreme places -- and very brutal -- but Kashmir is just as beautiful and a lot more habitable and soothing. It is very saddening to know that this place suffers from chronic militancy and disputes -- because you fall in love with Kashmir very quickly.

From Zanskar Trek

We stayed at a houseboat on the Dal Lake -- the houseboat called “Teharan,” owned and run by an elderly gentleman whose hosptality made our stay very memorable. Based on what everyone called him, we addressed him as Haji sahib too. His cook made for us lamb curry, biryani, seekh kebab -- and we downed them all. If you are ever in Srinagar -- look up Teharan houseboat!

For a change, Pooja’s expectations were also met -- we thoroughly enjoyed our stay, however short it was. And it did feel short. Both of us promised ourselves to return to Srinagar for a longer visit.

But after a long trek, we were looking forward to the comfort of home. Sweet home.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Ladakh - Zanskar Trek: Day 8

Day 8: Hanumil to Pishu, via Pidmo

By the eighth day, mountainous trek had given way to relatively flat walk along the river. It was a lot easier to walk. However, the sun was beating down harder than it had earlier, and the trek didn’t feel any easier. It of course didn’t help that we were getting quite tired -- mentally more than physically -- and were really eager to finish the trek.

This day we were going to get to Pishu. An option we were thinking of was to go to Zang La, another village across the river and take a bus from there to Padum (our destination) the next morning. While the bus sounded very tempting, the additional hour of trek to Zang La from Pishu didn’t.

From Zanskar Trek

The guest house owner in Hanumil had said that we will start to get cell phone reception in Pishu. We decided we would call up from there to our agent in Leh, and try to have him send the car all the way to Pishu or at least to Karsha. We also thought maybe Pishu is a more populous place, and we might find even more facilities there -- such as a guest house!

The hike was actually quite nice -- we hiked through the pretty village of Pidmo, and hiked along the river. After a 5-6 hour hike, we eventually reached Pishu. The first thing we did when we reached there was to get our cell phone out and start looking for signal. No such luck. We tried hard: we walked around, we held it up, we checked at different times of the day, but our cell phone refused to find a signal. “You should be able to get a signal here,” said a local. “But sometimes they turn off the generator so the tower may be switched off!”

From Zanskar Trek

The campsite in Pishu was, for a change, very green. And huge. It was soothing to the eyes, being jaded from all the dust and rock the past several days. We thought the horses must be going nuts -- having arrived at a buffet after days of fasting. The horses indeed were -- and so was the land owner. He didn’t want horses grazing there for the night and insisted they be taken into the mountains as usual.

This was something else we felt somewhat amazed at on our trek. After each day’s hike, the guy who tended to the horses will hike up further into the mountains and take the horses to greener pastures. Often he would sleep there in the open as well and return the next morning, and then hike with us for the rest of the day!

From Zanskar Trek

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Ladakh - Zanskar Trek: Day 7

Day 7: Parfi La to Hanumil: Entering Zanskar valley

We were very excited about the seventh day: we were going to cross the Parfi La -- the last pass on the trek -- and we were going to enter the Zanskar valley.

As was usual now, we started early, ahead of our entourage. The climb started almost immediately to the Parfi La. Though not as a steep or long as the climb for Hanamu La the previous day, Parfi La felt more tiring. For one, Pooja’s diarrhea was back. We concluded that any time she eats something made of flour that is not fried or boiled, her stomach can’t handle it. Earlier it was the mo-mos and this time the pizza.

From Zanskar Trek

This day we met quite a few other hikers -- all headed in the direction opposite to us. One of the guys we met was doing the trek entirely by himself, and had done the trek a few times before too. He expressed surprise to see Indians on the trek -- he said he didn’t see enough Indians walking in the mountains. He of course wasn’t counting the staff that accompanies every hiker. And he was right -- invariably the people we met on the trek were not from India.

Crossing the Parfi La we entered the Zanskar valley. We were surprised to see a large river -- Zanskar is actually a much bigger river than we had thought. It was hard to imagine that this river freezes up in the winter and people trek on it.

Initially, the Zanskar valley was underwhelming -- probably because we had been walking through some amazing scenery the past 6 days, or because the long trek had tired our senses. We were expecting lush green valleys, but all we saw was more barren land. One difference, though, was that the valley was much wider and much more open. And we didn’t have any more passes to climb!

It took several hours of walking on a rocky path along the river to get to Hanumil: a relatively green village with 2 houses, 5 people and 3 “hotels.” One of the houses carried a big “Guest House” sign -- and that raised our hopes quite a bit. I could sense Pooja’s excitement as we walked towards the guest house.

From Zanskar Trek

“Look, it says ‘Guest House’ doesn’t it? Yes it does!”

“Hmm.. yeah, but is it open? It looks closed... Look there’s a drum blocking the entrance.” said I.

“Why won’t it be open? It says Guest House!”

“Look, it’s locked.”

“Let’s ask that guy. At least we can find out about a shower.”

As it turns out, the guy in question owned the guest house. He showed us the room, which looked pretty inviting. There was a slight problem though. When we asked him about the bathroom, he pointed to the river.

“I want to build a bathroom, and toilet and more things. But you can’t get plumbers and skilled people to come here.”

We spent yet another night in the tent.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Ladakh - Zanskar Trek: Day 6

Day 6: Hanamu La to Parfi La base camp close to Jing Chan

The next day started off pleasantly. Pooja was in great spirit -- she had slept well for the first time on the trek, and she felt a lot better. We left the camp with lesser load on us than normal -- giving away even our backpacks to be carried by the horses. Pooja intended to climb the pass herself and we left even earlier than normal to put some distance between us and the horses.

It turned out to be probably the most pleasant day of the trek. The climb, though steep, was pleasant. We made it to the top in about 2.5 hours. We had now given explicit instructions to our entourage where we were going to stop each day -- a hike of no more than 6-7 hours for the entire day for any of the days remaining.

From Zanskar Trek

The hike down from the pass was straightforward -- along a narrow gully that kept showing signs of opening up but never really did. We stopped at Nyestre -- all it had was a tea stall (aka “hotel”) -- where we ran into a couple of hard core French backpackers. Unlike us, they were carrying their entire stuff on them (tents, food, everything) and -- yet more unlike us -- they had started that morning from Lingshed, were going to cross another pass the same day. I bowed in respect.

From Zanskar Trek

We reached our camp in an hour’s hike from Nystre. The camp was in a mountain gorge, next to a beautiful mountain river. It was the first day of the trek that we reached the camp site early in the day and were feeling well. Things were finally beginning to look up! :)

We took full advantage of the flowing river and washed and rinsed -- we were finally going to get some clean clothes to wear the next day.

That day, for dinner, our cook made pizza with olives as toppings.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Ladakh - Zanskar trek: Day 5

Day 5: Gajo to Hanamu La base camp, via Lingshed (aka another Really Long Day)

We started the fifth day somewhat lazily. We had made a resolution that we were not going to hike more than 5-6 hours that day. Our plan was to stop at Lingshed. The guide book indicated that there was a guest house there -- and that sounded like a welcome change.

The hike to Lingshed was much easier than the hike of the previous two days. We crossed a small pass on the way but it didn’t involve much of a climb.

Lingshed is a beautiful village, situated in a green valley, surrounded by tall rocky mountains on all sides. No roads come here -- though there is a helipad that mostly recently had brought the Dalai Lama here for a visit a week back. Lingshed Gompa makes a pretty sight as you come over a tiny pass and start to descend into the valley.

From Zanskar Trek

However, Lingshed does NOT have a guest house. Upon enquiring, someone told us that there was a “homestay” just a short walk down the mountain. As it turned out, the “homestay” was an empty house that you could take your sleeping bags to and live in -- a far cry from what we had in mind.

Our guides made some excuses why it wasnt a good idea to camp there (too much sand blowing around, no water, blah) and we, grudgingly, decided to hike forward to the base camp for Hanamu La. Having wasted several hours in Lingshed, it was near dark by the time we reached the base camp. We could see the trail leading to the next day’s climb in front of us -- in fact we could see it in the distance from Lingshed itself. We knew the next day was going to be a long climb.

From Zanskar Trek

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Ladakh - Zanskar Trek: Day 4

Day 4: Photoksar to Shinge La base camp close to Gajo (aka the Longest Day)

From Zanskar Trek

The next morning started early. Pooja woke up with a headache around 4 or 5 in the morning. We had taken medicine for altitude sickness the night before, and had been downing the garlic-ginger soup we had been recommended so heavily. Pooja bit off a power bar and took an Ibuprofen. The decision seemed obvious: we’ll head back to Leh, take a taxi to get to Srinagar and catch our flight back as we had originally planned. Both of us felt a bit disappointed but also a bit more assured.

Around 6:30, our guides came to check on us and confirm what we wanted to do: go forward or return. We told him we were going to head back. Once he left, we got talking. Pooja, miraculously, was feeling better: no headache, no nausea. I felt alright too. We decided to carry on forward. We weren’t too comfortable with the decision, but we both did want to do the trek. We also knew that moving forward meant we had to finish the trek: we were going to cross Shinge La -- the highest pass on the trek -- and it will be harder to come back than go forward.

It was also decided that one of the horses will be freed up for Pooja to ride.

We informed our entourage of our decision, packed, had a quick bite to eat and took off on ahead. The initial hike to a smaller pass even before Shinge La was hard -- Pooja got tired quickly. The horses were yet to catch up with us. In the meanwhile, Pooja started needing to go take a dump every hour or so. Now that she felt cured of the altitude sickness, she had diarrhea.

Eventually we had Pooja on a horse and we kept going towards Shinge La. That day’s hike was probably the prettiest hike of all the nine days The pass was nestled between two huge impressive peaks. It was a day that reminded me of Tintin in Tibet a lot. Except that it was supremely tiring.

I still didn’t have much of an appetite and couldn’t eat the lunch we had packed. After about 6 hours of hiking we realized that we were going forward beyond where other groups were stopping. While other groups stopped at the base camp and planned to cross Shinge La the following day, we were pressing forward. As our final climb neared, I too found myself breathing a little too hard too frequently.

Pooja and I switched for a little bit -- and I rode the horse for some part of the way while Pooja hiked. Eventually we made it to the top -- out of breath and exhausted. However the day was not yet over. It took another 3 hours of hiking to get to our camp site eventually. By the end of the ten hour hike, were were tired, pissed and hungry all at the same time. The first thing we told our guides when we reached the camp was that no way in hell were we hiking more than 5-6 hours the next day.

From Zanskar Trek

That night we had a stroke of luck. There were a couple of Polish hikers who we had met earlier in the day, who happened to show up at our camp that night. They were looking for some cooked food and our cook obliged. As we sat talking we learnt they had a guidebook. That night we borrowed their book and pored through it in detail. It turned out to be a great book: it had maps and had estimates for how long it will take us to hike between different points on the route. By the next morning we had a plan.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Ladakh - Zanskar trek Day 3

From Zanskar Trek

Day 3: Hanupeta to Photoksar, via Shise La

We woke up to a beautiful morning -- as our photos will confirm. It was also the first day we went to the loo in the open: no toilets on this trip!

After a quick breakfast in the morning, Pooja and I started off first while our entourage took care of packing up. We were going to cross the second pass of the trek, and it was going to be a long steady climb. As we started hiking, Pooja started complaining about headache. We thought it was just the sun and continued up. As we climbed up and trudged on, it got worse. She threw up once, and her headache worsened.

Close to the top of the pass, we met a guide from another group heading the same way as us. We exchanged notes and, to my dismay, he was of a very strong opinion that the trek will take us 11-12 days and not the 9 days we were planning for. In contrast, the cook-guide with us felt we “have to finish the trek in 9 days irrespective of whatever” even though he had no clue what lay ahead. As we discussed -- and both of the guides were quite animated about expressing themselves -- at the “hotel” on the pass, I noticed Pooja was looking quite bad.

From Zanskar Trek

She had tied her scarf tightly around her head and was sitting with her head firmly in her hands. My first thought was to turn back. We stayed there for a little bit while the horses and the cook went on ahead. We ate some Maggi, drank some tea and eventually started up again. Within minutes Pooja had vomited everything she had eaten. Bravely enough, though, she made it to the top and we were eventually at our camp a couple of hours later.

At the camp, while Pooja took some garlic-ginger soup to nurse what looked like altitude sickness, I argued with our guides. Dhuntup, who was responsible for the horses and had done the trek earlier, was very hard to follow -- he would pretty much agree to whatever we proposed. It didn’t help that we now learnt that the written plan we had been given from Leh to follow was incorrect: it even listed the places we would reach in the wrong order. We realized we had to somewhat take leap of faith if we were to go forward, and it will surely mean a more arduous trek than we had thought it would be.

And it didn’t help that Pooja wasn’t able to eat anything.

We finally postponed the decision to the next morning: if Pooja felt better and we could move forward, we will. To make matters worse, I had a headache and nausea by the time dinner came around.

We had mo-mo’s for dinner -- steamed dumplings, something Pooja normally craves for -- though neither of us really had much of an appetite.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Ladakh - Zanskar trek: Day 2

Day 2: Tarchit/Wan La to Hanupeta

The second day’s hike was fairly ordinary -- or as ordinary as a hike in Ladakh can be. The scenery was always amazing. We walked through a canyon and the walk was almost always easy. The entire walk was along a road -- either paved or unpaved -- and on arriving in Hanupeta we realized we could have saved two days of hiking by getting dropped directly in Hanupeta. Or, at least a day and a half’s hike by getting dropped in Fanjila -- a small village 4 km from Tarchit.

From Zanskar Trek

Hanupeta itself is a pretty little village. The camp sites are beyond the village, by a small stream. Hanupeta boasts of a phone line and even carries a sign that claims so. We would have had to inquire in the village to find out, and our camp was a good 20 minute hike away. Neither that evening or the next morning did we feel that a 20 minute hike was worth the trouble. We were also skeptical of finding the phone despite the posted sign.

This was our first real day of camping in the wilderness. One of the first things we found out was that our gear did not include a toilet tent. This meant, we were to go “exploring” in the wilderness to find the toilet we liked most.

*Recommendation: If you can get dropped into Hanupeta, you will save 2 days of hiking on the road. There is a large camping area with facilities just beyond Hanupeta. If you can, camp there. There is another campsitea little beyond this one which is quieter and closer to the stream (this is where we stayed), but you’ll either need your own toilet tent or go in the open.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Ladakh-Zanskar Trek: Day 1

Both Pooja and I had wanted to do a long trek in the Himalayas for a while. Pooja was more partial to the Uttarakhand area -- Valley of Flowers, Nanda Devi -- and I was more partial to Ladakh. It’s pretty rare that I can sway her but something about the Zanskar trek clicked and we picked that as our chosen path.

Having made all arrangements with someone we trusted (I had used his services in the past), we were pretty relaxed about the trip when we flew in to Delhi from San Francisco, and to Leh the next day.

Arrival in Leh

The first day was relaxing and yet a bit tiring. Neither of us suffered from any symptoms of altitude sickness, though both of us got tired from a short walk into the city from our hotel. We met Wanghuk Shali -- the agent who was arranging our entire trip -- and decided on the high level arrangements for the trip. We had done almost no research on the trek, so we trusted him completely. It was only on the fourth day that we realized our folly.

Since we were both feeling fine, we were to leave on the trek the next day itself. This way we could have another day on the trek -- so it was to be 9 days of hiking instead of 8. We were going to finish the trek in Padum, and a taxi was going to meet us there and take us to Kargil on the tenth day. After an overnight stay in Kargil, the taxi will take us to a houseboat in Srinagar. It all sounded perfect. We decided the menu -- vegetarian, eggs for breakfast, tea, normal stuff -- and we returned back to the hotel to sleep off the first day.

* Hotel: Noble House, close to the market in Leh. Recommended (good staff, safe, decent food, nice clean rooms).

From Zanskar Trek

Day 1: Leh, Lamayuru, Wan La, Tarchit

The first day started early -- as did every day from now onwards. We were to leave Leh in a taxi to Lamayuru by 8:30 and start trekking that day. We were packed and ready to leave by 8:15. Not surprisingly, our taxi and guides arrived at 9:30. Wangchuk Shali introduced us to the two people accompanying us on the trek -- Jitender and Utsal. We didn’t ask but based on my past experiences, I assumed that one was a cook and the other a guide who knew the route. Wangchuk Shali didn’t bother to go into this tiny little detail either. As it turned out, this was something we regretted not verifying.

The drive to Lamayuru was uneventful. I didn’t have a route map, and I had asked the people accompanying us to look for one. Somehow they didn’t look for it in Leh, claiming they will find it in Khaltse on the way. We didn’t. This became a common trend on the trip -- people will affirm the existence of facilities in villages that we could never find: guest houses, homestays, phone lines, bathrooms.

We stopped at Alchi gompa and made a short visit to the Lamayuru Gompa before heading out. The first day’s hike was pretty straightforward -- climb up to the pass (Wan La) and hike down to the village and camp. The only hitch was that we had started pretty late -- 3 P.M. -- and by the time we reached our campsite, it was pitch dark. Nevertheless, it was our first day on the hike, and both of us were pretty chill about it. We were (especially Pooja) also glad that the campsite had a functioning flush toilet and a bathroom.

A feeling of dread was beginning to dawn upon me though. As it turned out, neither of the two guys “guiding” us had ever been on this trek before. They did not know the way. The guy tended to the ponies knew the way -- but that didn’t seem reassuring

*Campsite: Tarchit. Recommended: nice location, next to a guest house, has bathroom, toilet that are kept clean by the owners. Carry your own toilet paper.

*Recommendation: You can skip the first day’s trek (which, IMHO, isn’t particularly interesting) and start directly from Fanjila. You save a day and a half’s hike, most of which is on a paved road. We met several people the next day who either were starting from Fanjila, or finishing in Fanjila.

*No cell reception (we carried a BSNL/Dolphin phone) once we left Lamayuru.