Cheng Chin Yuen

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Leh (9th – 23rd May)

It is good to be among Ladakhis and Tibetans once again though I cannot tell one from the other. Shopkeepers here have the wonderful habit of leaving you alone on the pavement and at the eating places, the customer is king once more. ‘Ju-Leh!’ is the universal greeting that almost guarantees a pause and smile from the steady stream of wrinkled and sunburnt folks around. Leh was just waking from her winter hibernation. Many shops and restaurants remained closed and hardly any tourists roamed the streets. Heavy snow on the ingress routes temporarily prevented Coke and Lays from poisoning the city so we had to make do with healthier alternatives like pear juice and dried apple chips. It was ‘paradise’ finally found in tranquil Leh especially with the rugged mountain palisade still untouched by snow melt.

Our travels in and around Leh was made more economical, interesting and inspirational when we befriended Edel, Williz and Kerstin whom we met in Kashmir.

Edel at 55 has been to several countries several times. Not letting the daily grind get in the way of her travels, this positive social worker is the kind of mother who is perfectly OK with her son being a bicycle repairman and a waiter. On one trip to Nepal, she gave her down sleeping bag to her Sherpa after the trek so ‘he will never have to shiver again’. Two mangoes also survived the 6 day trek in her bag over a 4900m pass. I was envious of her new 10MP Sony camera which churned out several great shots.

Williz retired himself at 50 after he realised he was going blind staring at his PC all day long. He hates trekking but some how managed to find Edel on the net to be his travel buddy in India. Two meant a cheaper trip. That’s how open-minded Germans are. With his eccentric streak, you half believe him when he contemplates wearing a diaper to solve his bowel problem. One of his favourite jokes about Singaporeans is the ‘Banana’ one. Yellow on the outside, white on the inside. Most unfortunately, his 80 year old mother passed away in her sleep and he had to catch the first flight home after only 3 days in Leh.

Kerstin is the bubbly, talkative 26 year old Austrian kindergarten teacher. While we had booked of flight tickets into Leh a week before, she chose to just turn up at the airport and try her luck. Of course she got a ticket and it had to be cheaper than what the rest of us paid. She’s in Leh to work on a farm for free and continually amazes us with her arsenal of strange skills. These include making wood whistles from branches, weaving bracelets, pencil drawing and juggling the three clubs which are stashed in her backpack.

At 3550m, Leh could really give you a big headache. So the first two days were spent walking down the characteristic chaos of poplar-lined alleyways that linked Leh’s lime-plastered Tibetan-influenced dwellings together. Our favourite four-table establishment was simply named ‘Tibetan Restaurant’. Here, over a bowl of savoury ‘tomato and vegetable soup’ we met an American lady who having lived in Leh for 10 years, could speak Hindi, Tibetan and Ladakhi. Her American volume, made sure that everyone in that tiny restaurant knew about her linguistic prowess. In one corner sat a Swiss PhD student who is in Leh to visit his ‘adopted’ Tibetan kid whom he has sent money to for his education. It was his fifth time in India. The humble hospitality of the couple who runs the place ensures that it is always full of locals and tourists. You pay as you leave and the bill is never recorded here.

Early the third morning, we hired a jeep for the day to visit the surrounding monasteries. They are all built castle-like on a rocky hill with the main prayer complex at the apex and a clutter of white cubic dwellings on the slopes below it. Beneath the block-like exterior of the main complex is an asymmetrical series of staggered landings, courtyards, prayer halls, libraries, mask halls and monk residences all interconnected by wooden ladders and a web of dark musty corridors that had an earthen scent. One interesting room contained demons so horrible that their faces had to be veiled. The atmospheric ancient nooks where the monks are left to their own study, recitations and prayers probably make the process more meaningful. Buddha statues in the prayer halls are huge and you do get quite a surprise when you step into the second landing and see this oversized head staring out of the windows. The original poplar, brick and plaster remain the main building materials. Temple toilets are dark and smelly. The gap over the long drop is usually too wide to straddle and I suspect the correct procedure is to defecate on the sandy ground and shovel it down afterwards. Explorations ultimately lead to the flat rooftop where unparalleled views of the valley and distant highlands can be enjoyed. Thiksey monastery with its immediate backdrop of scree-slopes is my favourite.

The journey to the sapphire blue Pangong Lake took up the next day. This monster stretches more than a 100 kilometres into China and it took a 5 hour ride over Chang La, a freezing snow-covered 5289m pass to get there. The glare off the snow stung our eyes and compelled us to get clip-on shades when we got back to Leh. Highlights included yaks, a stop-over at a nomad’s parachute tent, massive boulders and exposed domes, a marmot sighting, driving through the snowmelt and dramatic landscapes to big to put into words. At one point the driver decided to race with the jeep in front. This got him a scolding. At other times, he was tailgating, unaffected by the exhaust that was collecting in our vehicle. Again we had to ask him to go slow. Only Edel gave him a tip at the end of the day. Pangong itself was worth the ride. The crystalline water was bluer than the postcards and I regretted not bringing my swimwear. Kerstin got us all skipping stones and dunking durian-sized rocks into the water. An absence of tea-stalls and shelters kept the place peaceful and pristine. We had lunch at the nearest town which was a hour back the way we came. Lunch meant coarse rice, dhal and a small lump of some unidentifiable vegetable. There was no menu or other choice. But it was 70 cents, good and nutritious.

When we thought we were fully acclimatised, we started on our 6-day Spituk-Chiling Trek which climaxed midway over the 4950m Ganda La Pass. It was hardly an epic journey as we walked without load for only 3 to 5 hours a day. The S$60 per person fee got us and entourage of 7 horses and a mule to carry our packs, rations and camping equipment. It felt really strange not carrying my own load but it was much better to have horses rather than porters doing the hard work for me.

The slow pace gave us lots of time to enjoy the landscape at leisure. Here’s a summary of each day:

Day 1

What I had initially thought to be a uniform boring desert mountain landscape turned out to be a wide geological spread. From the continuous rock strata that ran along the highway to the landslide of purple scree to the micro-weathering that turned them into flakes the thickness of a twenty cent coin, rocks here were not just rocks. Kerstin spotted a pink wedge of wriggly clay which she christened ‘ice cream rocks’. There were also rock pillars, protected from the weathering and erosion processes by the resistant cap rock balanced on the peak. In some places, the surrounding rock composed of hundreds of thousands of rounded pebbles and stones ‘glued’ together by finer sediments. Erosion also produced scalloped rock surfaces Although this initial stretch of the trek involved walking on an unpaved mountain road, these many changes in geology kept us going in the heat.

Our logistic train, led by two brothers overtook us at our lunch stop. We wondered if the four of us really needed so much equipment. Paema, our Tibetan guide cum cook carried our lunch of omelette chapatti sandwiches, fruit and chocolate in his day pack. This was to be repeated for our next 6 lunches.

By mid-afternoon we reached our campsite and had plenty of time to rest and chat while Paema and the horsemen set up the tents and cooking tent. It was uncomfortable Raj-style luxury camping where the money we paid ensured that we need not participate in the camping chores. Our job was just to walk and have a good time. Once the horses were unloaded, they rolled about happily in the sand to cool themselves down. They also paired up, faced each other and scratched each other’s neck with their teeth. We helped to pitch the tents and went about our business of lying in the shade and sipping tea for the rest of the afternoon. The only wild-life we saw was a magpie chasing a rodent.

It is idle times like these that I regretted not having my guitar with me. Everyone else had something to pass the time with. In Kerstin’s case, she had a variety of things to do. By dinner, she had made Paema a friendship band and was showing the horsemen how to make a whistle from a branch. At 26, this talkative Austrian had lots of life and energy in her…enough energy to carry 3 juggling clubs all the way from Goa. We all called it pony abuse.

Karen has taken up cartooning and has been capturing the scenes on her scrapbook. I do it a little faster with my camera.

Edel and I spent most of our time talking to Paema in the kitchen tent and we found out that the trekking company pays him only 250Rs a day for leading the trek. That’s S$9 out of the S$240 the four of us pay per day. The ponymen (so called even though there were no ponies) earn 350Rs each since they have to make the return trek on foot while we take the jeep back to Leh. Tibetans are also not allowed to own any land and must apply for a permit when they travel. These terms are still far better than a life of persecution in Tibet and Paema is grateful to India for taking him and his family in. We talk about the mountains the 45 year old has climbed and all the treks he has led in the region. Particularly enticing is the Zanskar River Trek, made in winter, walking on the frozen water for 21 days. The Lamayura-XXX trek that goes over 9 high altitude passes in 10 days with 5 to 8 hours of hiking a day is certainly more of a challenge.

Paema’s cooking kept us gaining weight on this trek. Dinner was a 6 to 7 course carefully calculated celebration starting with a soup going through several vegetarian dishes and ending with black tea. It got better as the days went by, cumulating in a 10 course finale on the last night. You wouldn’t expect custard, tuna momos (wanton), vegetarian pizza, thukpa (handmade noodles), saffron rice and fried noodles on a camping trip. The only dish we didn’t devour was the eggplant mush. With the horses, camping became luxurious.

Day 2

With only 3 hours of walking for the day, we had lots of time to explore Rumbak, a valley village of 7 families in as many houses. The village pharmacist tells us that the main health problem here is high blood pressure as the local Ladakhis drink too much salt with their butter tea. The access road terminated at the first campsite and the nearest hospital in Leh is a 6 hour walk away, that’s if you’re fit. Old folks had to be carried to the access road in an emergency. Babies are delivered at home where there is no heating and poor hygiene conditions. Every family has lost at least one baby to infant mortality.

I got invited by the village oldest man for a cup of Chang. At 77, he has no problems climbing ladders to the rooftop where the barley flavoured alcohol flowed freely from a dodgy looking plastic container that may have once contained engine oil. From the vantage point of his 3 storey plaster and stone mansion we could see the entire valley below us. It was a great deal of land for 7 families. Paema later told me that these folks were very wealthy. They had sheep, yak, buffalo, horses, cows, plenty of food and money from the campsites they maintain. The fee for each tent was 100Rs. His massive house contained a stable-sty-barn at the bottom for the animals in winter, a spacious kitchen cum living room in the middle and about 4 rooms at the top. Electricity for lighting came from solar panels sponsored by government. Outside every house is a mummified goat’s head presumably a warding against evil. One of the horsemen with me chose to end his stomach problems with 3 glasses of diluted whisky. The next morning, he told us that through the night, he visited the loo 7 times.

Day 3

Another short walk to the next campsite at 4400m. It is cold but a marmot (large furry golden squirrel-rat-beaver like animal) and a herd of 30 Blue sheep kept me occupied. The Blue sheep were supposedly blue at the chest but the patches there looked black. How they thundered from one side of the valley to the next was amazing! The steep slippery scree slopes did not slow them down or break a hoof. A couple reared and rammed their large goofy horns head-on in play or a tussle for power. It was cold enough to have ice on the ground so Paema cooked up noodle soup to keep us warm and happy. The thick noodles were hand-rolled from flour. The air is getting thinner and Karen is getting a headache.

Day 4

After what seemed to be a never-ending stretch of uphill slog, we reached the Ganda La Pass. The horses had overtaken us and Karen gallantly rejected a ride despite her AMS and laborious breathing. Paema thoughtfully had one horse saddled just in case. The broad magnificent views of the grounds we’ve covered and the passage to our destination was interrupted briefly by a snow drizzle. After a quick group photo, during which I lost my towel to the howling winds, we happily began on the gentle descent to another village. This time there were only 2 houses here. Edel revealed that she barely made the pass by breaking the final stretch into shorter ‘stone to stone’ checkpoints. At 55, it must have felt quite good to be at 4950m.

At our campsite, we met another group of 10 Mumbai trekkers. These garang group, ranging from the middle-aged to teenagers chose to carrying their own packs. Despite this, they still had 16 horses to carry the rest of the gear. They were doing the same trek but in the other direction. Later, we found out that they were going on to climb the 6250m Stok Kangri.

Day 5

This stretch to the village of Skiu, offered the most variations in geology. The different rock types coloured the mountains in alternating bands of jade, brown and purple. We walked along a stream that wound between steep gorges and a particularly impressive rocky razorback from which orange scree slid for a stretch of 150m. The shifting shadows on the large planes of rock were also good causes of amusement for me.

Skiu was the largest and perhaps the most prosperous village on the trek. We got invited to join the farmers during their break from the ploughing session and were fed butter tea, Chang (again dispensed from a dubious container), a heavy round-bread and a milky lime-flavoured vegetable mush which we tried to enjoy on the freshly ploughed soil. Karen and I were probably their source of entertainment and there was loads of laughter as grandpas, grannies, men, women, children and toddlers ate together. I ask the bubbly 17 year old girl that invited us to tea where her father was and she said, ‘He died, Chang always drinking’.

The pair of devilish beasts that pulled the plough looked like a buffalo-yak cross breed. They had menacing horns and were controlled by a single wooden ring that went through all four nostrils. A man who whipped the beasts with a long cane steered the plough, another scattered the barley in the furrows, two ladies covered the furrows by swinging a small changkol side to side and finally, the ground was levelled with a rake. It was back-breaking work but the rhythm, synchronised movements, community spirit and songs kept these hardy folk going.

The last campsite was a muddy disappointment. We camped here because the availability of hay for the horses which the horsemen bought from the farmers. Paema dished out a 10 course finale dinner which was followed by some singing by the campfire. It turned out that one of the horsemen sang really willingly and soulfully. Kerstin and Edel belted out some children songs including one about a horse galloping. Karen and I sang a much appreciated Majullah Singapura.

On that cold and windswept night, a faulty fly (of the tent) zip prompted Karen to ease her bladder in the tiny triangular space between the fly and inner-sheet of the tent giving birth to the first tent with an attached toilet. I slept soundly even though the sacred space was just half a metre above my head.

Day 6

The barren landscape on the last day wasn’t first class but we got to see how roads were cut into the mountainside. In a couple of years a highway will link Skiu to Leh changing the lives of the villagers forever. But for now, it was still a 5 hour walk over a final 3900m pass to the nearest road at Chiling. As Paema had pointed out the day before, the final pass seemed intimidating but we were lunching at the top in less than half an hour. It might have been easier for me if Karen hadn’t forgotten her pouch at a rest stop a little earlier on. I had to retrace the steep path to the lookout point to retrieve her valuables. That’s how the story usually goes with most boyfriends.

The trek concludes with a 30m trolley ride across the swift Zanskar River. We bid farewell to our horseman, gave him his tip and took our turns in the trolley. Five straight nights joking about Edel snapping the trolley cable and drowning in the river came to an uneventful end and we had none of her expensive clothing and equipment. The trolley had to be pulled across and that few seconds earned the locals 100Rs per tourist and 250Rs for the baggage.

We visited the Phyang and Spituk monasteries on the way back. Phyang seemed older but Spituk was architecturally more interesting and had a commanding view of the Leh Valley. A sacred room on a rocky outcrop at the top of the temple contained the diabolical Cham masks used in the Losar dances. There was no electricity and the gloom made the dusty masks appear even more supernatural.

While we were away, the snow melted over the connecting passes and Leh came to life. Thanks to global warming, it was a record early melt. It was time to move on even though there was still so much to see. You can’t have it all so Lamayura, Tsomoriri, the Zanskar, Dhanu and Nabra valleys have to wait for the next trip. I had one more bout of busy bowels and vomiting before saying goodbye to Edel and Kerstin and braving the 19 hour jeep ride to Manali.

Leh to Manali

This 19 hour road epic was worth every minute starting at 3.30am till 10.30pm. It was our first time travelling with 4 Korean girls who spent the breaks in the ride touching up their immaculate makeup. They also shared their vast amounts of food freely. In their seven days in Leh, the three teachers and one fashion designer did not explore the areas out of town and chose to spend their time teaching the cook in their (and our) favourite restaurant how to cook proper Korean food which they later added to the menu. Always shaded from the sun, these fair maidens are not to be meddled with and proved ferocious and blunt when it came to bargaining. When one man decided to intervene on our hunt for the jeep to Manali the fashion designer quipped, ‘And who are you? This is not your business. Please go away. Do not disturb us.’

The scenery on this 475km leg is awesome if you can keep awake. On the high plateaus, hundreds of yak and sheep grazed on the plains waiting for the next nomadic migration. The plains then suddenly fall away to a canyon at Phang and here we saw Cappadocia like rock pillars, arches, snow fields and frozen lakes and waterfalls. It’s just too much, too beautiful and too impossible to describe and photograph. The 10am breakfast in a parachute tent, was followed by lunch only at 4.30pm. Along the way, we passed many travellers on motorbikes going the other way and in summer serious mountain-bikers tour from Manali to Leh to Srinagar in one month.

We were all in awe of our young driver who drove cheerfully for almost a total of 17 hours! What stamina and skill to negotiate the countless bends, muddy ruts and slopes! I didn’t know that 19 hours was a respectable timing. Hiro, another garang Japanese girl who arrived later told me her driver took almost 24 hours and had to take a two hour nap in the middle.


Blogger Da Fatalists said...

mr cheng! if u put a tagboard it would be easier for viewers to leave a message after reading that massive blog of yours.

12:15 AM  

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