Tak Guest House
Sunday June 23rd
Since my last writing session (17th June), I’ve been on a trek with three others into the (still) ‘restricted area’ behind Leh which curves into the Sabu Valley, a distance of approx. 40kms, and climbing up to c.16,000ft.
The prime motivator was John, an American I originally met in Srinagar discoursing with Mohan and Prem on natural healing. John has been wandering through Ladakh, Zanskar, north India, Pakistan and Tibet for nearly three years. His visas are dodgy, but he merely wants to experience those people whose cultures are being threatened by the nationalism of the major powers. He’s been arrested ten times – as a spy!
His appearance, as near the indigenous as westernised woollen worsted will allow, gives the lie to that. My gear for trekking – Indian army boots, Swiss army knife and USA army shell bearer trousers – could conceivably be construed as spy equipment by uneducated Indian soldiers.
Dave, an archetypical hippy in appearance, yet, at 32, is too young to have been part of that culture. But he wouldn’t share in the water melon I took along for the first evening’s meal on the basis that it would be good for our blood which would be carrying less oxygen at the height we were at. He said that the melon could have been injected with contaminated water. His repast of baby cereal and artificially coloured and flavoured instant noodles didn’t help though; he gradually weakened and was sick, while I grew in strength. Mind you, that might have been because I was burdenned with the melon’s weight!
Valerie, from Blackpool, was based in Leh for four months as a rep for the Kashmir Himalayan Expeditions company, She started slowly but found her own pace and was steady throughout. She proved a good walking companion, particularly on our 3rd day descent into Sabu.
The first day, I discovered the limits of my stamina. John is acclimatised, able to ascend scree slopes and to traverse tilting, rocking boulders as if on a city sidewalk. A meal of tsampa (barley flour, milk powder, walnuts and dried apricots melded with water) gave the impetus needed to reach the evening camp.
This first pass was shared with yaks. These semi-domesticated cows with long shaggy coats graze together, climbing ever higher as the short summer moves the sparse vegetation up the mountain slopes. As we slowly surveyed our surroundings in the morning we discovered that yaks also have communal toilet areas!
The second day took us up to the snow line. John wanted to get up to a possible pass overlooking the Nubra Valley. Our ridge walk took us to within 1,000ft but, with nightfall approaching, we were forced to descend to the valley floor to find a dry camping place. Dave lagged behind listening to the BBC World Service on his short-wave radio! Personally, I’m quite grateful to be away from the immediacy of ‘home news’ because without it everyday experiences are intensified.
Using my poncho supported by my trusty walking stick as a tent for my head, and with my sleeping bag enclosed in a very large plastic sack, I slept sheltered from the flurries of snow. I still woke up wet though from internal condensation. It was a fitful sleep as I occasionally jerked awake to gasp a lungful of air. I was either feeling claustrophobic in my improvised shelter or suffering from the lack of my usual oxygen ration at that altitude.
Up at six, I saw three shepherds striding up the other side of the valley, so I woke John and Val. John leapt into his boots and breakfastless rushed after them to discover where the Digar Pass was. It was difficult to find out from his illicit stock of US army maps. It had been on a smugglers’ trail, but with Chinese incursions into Ladakh (inc. this year, 2014), this is a restricted area, with an Indian army encampment some 10 kms on the other side of the pass. It is served, we noticed, with an electricity supply lfrom Sabu on the Tikse to Leh road.
Val and I set off at eight down the valley leaving Dave still asleep in his tent. Marmots and lizards were our only companions until we reached the head of the cultivated section of the valley. We did see one lone soldier tracking upwards on the other side of the snow fed river, but he seemed perplexed at seeing us and apparently more nervous of us than we of him.
A herd of grazing goats were shepherded by Ladhaki couple.
“Jullay, jullay, one pen.”
A little while later, we met an old man with a walking stick identical to mine except his had mellowed with age. I refused the proffered exchange because mine will accumulate memories, assuming I can get it back through UK customs.
The heat rose as we descended, past a primary school whose pupils seemed unused to the sight of western trekkers.. This was unlike the older children we met later.
“Jullay, jullay, one pen, one rupee, one photo.”
Ah, the shame of acquisitiveness we tourists and travellers have inflicted on such gentle, self-contained people.
At the lower elevation of the valley floor, the heat of the sun was greater. Val and I had consumed nearly all our water and were quite exhausted.. We thought there would be a small shop or tea stall, but there wasn’t. We wandered through narrow bouldered alleys between semi-derelict houses and chortens (known as stupas in Indonesia) until we reached a more prosperous series of houses and met a western-dressed man.
We followed him to his house, a newly built palatial home indicative of the prosperity of the valley, which he shared with two brothers, one a monk. We were offered shade and, more importantly, milk tea and biscuits.
This sustenance was just sufficient to get us along the desert road to the junction with the Tikse-Leh road.
A lift in a passing truck and we were back in Leh in time for a jug of tea, a hot water wash and a hearty meal at the Potala.