Trekking through Ladakh -the Diary of a procrastinator: Day 6
I was superlatively groggy when I woke up on Day 6. I’d hardly slept through the night, thanks to a constant howling that was substantially amplified by the stillness of the night and seemed to be coming from somewhere behind my tent. Was there a wild dog outside my tent? Would it come tearing in and tear me to pieces? I was paranoid for half the night as Stanzin’s warnings reverberated in my mind. The other half was spent in convincing myself that I was being unnecessarily paranoid and that I wasn’t as faint-hearted as the situation made me believe.
So, imagine my surprise when I crawled out of my tent to see the reason for my sleepless night sleeping peacefully under the early morning sun! This was the same fellow who’d passed by me last evening during my jaunt to Tso Kar. I wanted to be annoyed, but ended up smiling. Doesn’t he look so at peace with himself? There was this urge to go cuddle him, but better sense soon prevailed. Deciding to abide by the age-old proverb, I let the sleeping dog lie and went about readying for the next leg of the trek.
Today, we’d be trekking along part of the perimeter of Tso Kar, one of the three high-altitude lakes in India, before detouring towards Nuruchen – to cover a total of 25kms on the plains. After yesterday’s trek, I was confident with my strategy and ready to take on the day. Also, George and I had decided to leave early today so we could spend some time on the shores of the lake before the rest of the crew caught up with us. So, we packed our tents and bid adieu to the others.As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, Tso Kar, situated at an altitude of 4530m and covering an area of around 22 sq.km, is surrounded by wetlands/marshlands in its immediate vicinity. But a little further down, the terrain morphs into these soft mounds of moist grass before suddenly turning arid as one approaches the mountains. What is interesting is that this transformation from wetland to arid zone occurs within a radius of just 5-6kms from the periphery of the lake. Last evening, I’d walked on these mounds to reach the lake, wearing my comfy slippers. Today though, with my trekking shoes on, I decided to walk on the road, not wanting to crush the several tiny birds (or their near-microscopic eggs) that nest in the shrubs scattered through the region.
I was only just narrating my last evening’s experience with the dog to George as we trekked along, when Mr. Dog woke up from his nap and decided to follow us. That’s when I noticed the collar around his neck and heaved a sigh of relief. . .he wasn’t wild after all! When we neared the lake, Mr. Dog wandered away in search of bird eggs, I presume, and left me to soak in the beauty of the landscape. The lake looked very different under the morning sun and the mountains were reflected almost perfectly in its clear waters. Walking along the periphery, I stopped at several spots to click a photograph thinking that would be the best angle to shoot from; but a few more steps later, I’d say to myself -Nah! This is better! No wonder I ended up with an insane number of photographs of Tso Kar alone! Don’t worry, I’ll share only a few of them here . . .
The wetland is also home to several birds and although I got to see some of these through my binoculars, including the very rare black-necked cranes that breed here, I could capture only this guy in my camera.
I also came across several small Stupas along the way that seemed so in harmony with the landscape.The rest of the crew had caught up with us by now and it was time to leave the lake behind us and turn towards the plains. I did so with a heavy heart, turning back every few kilometers in the hope that the lake would follow me instead of Mr. Dog, until we arrived at a bend and stopped to take a break at a desolate nomad village. Even as I explored the stone huts with roofs too low for anyone to enter and use comfortably, I heard a flurry of shrill noises. Looking around, I couldn’t see anyone at first, but soon noticed these squirrel-like animals standing on their hind legs and screaming their throats out! These were the marmots that Stanzin had said I’d find on the trek. Marmots belong to the rodent family and can be considered ground squirrels. They live in burrows and hibernate during winters. But today being a warm sunny day, they were out in the open, scurrying all around the plains. I later learned that they raise an alarm at the slightest of provocation and in all probability, what I’d construed as welcome screams (an oxymoron?) were in fact warning whistles!
George wasn’t interested in the marmots -he said he was more a ‘bird’ person – so I let him to rest by himself and went on a pursuit of the rodents that kept popping their heads in and out of their burrows, reminding me of the nursery rhyme -Pop goes the weasel. Some of them waited until I was only a few feet away before they disappeared into their burrows. Although the opening of the burrow looks small, I believe they dig an elaborately planned tunnel under the ground. I was curious to know more about these burrows and so did some digging (pun intended!) when I returned home. Although I didn’t find details specifically for the Ladakhi marmot, I found one for Alpine marmots.
What made me do a double take was that these guys even build themselves a toilet, when people in our country haven’t yet gotten around to doing so despite being ‘civilized’ and ‘human’! Perhaps politicians shouting themselves hoarse propagating the use of toilets under the Swachch Bharath Abhiyaan should use Mr. Marmot (or Ms. Marmot, if you please) as their mascot!
Well, ‘all good things come to an end’, and so did my fun encounter with these adorable animals. We still had a long distance to cover and so George and I set off again in the route crew had taken around half an hour ago. It was sometime around now that the clouds that had been silent spectators started to take over my life . . .okay, that sounds melodramatic; but maybe you should look at the progression in these photos and decide.With the clouds dominating my field of vision over the next several kilometers, I was reminded of a poem of mine -Love is in the Clouds- that had been published in the Narrow Road Literary Magazine (check pg.35) only few days before I set out on my trek. George and I walked together for a distance before I started trailing behind. However, like yesterday, I decided to walk at my own pace and not tire myself out – a bad call, as it turned out later! But I didn’t know that yet and was happy to be ambling alone through the plains.
Well, almost alone . . .this time because Mr. Dog who’d disappeared a while back magically appeared again and started to trot beside me. It seemed rather strange at first, but I soon got used to him as he’d gotten used to me. He stuck by me for most part of the trek and wandered afar only when we came upon some deserted village where he’d sniff around for food, I guess, before joining me back on the trail. Before long, I was talking to him in Tamil, my mother tongue, about everything under the sun! It does sound strange, even crazy, now; but back then, it felt like the most natural thing to do . . .
I trudged along with Mr. Dog by my side for a long time before the trail forked ahead of me, with no sign of humans on either of the routes for as far as my eyes could see. This was unexpected. I’d thought the route would be simple and straight forward (pun intended again!) like it had been yesterday; but now I felt cheated. I turned a full 360 degrees to check my surroundings. There was nothing but stubbly plains stretching until eternity where they became one with the mountains. The sheer vastness of the land I – a tiny speck if there ever was one -was standing on, made me feel dwarfed -physically and philosophically. Much against George’s advice, I parked my bums on the ground and sat ruminating, even as Mr. Dog watched on. Getting up after a while, I realized I still had a real-world choice to make. Just as I was wondering which route to take, I noticed fresh horse shit farther down one of the trails. Taking it as evidence left behind by Namgyal’s horses, I took a leap of faith and chose to follow that trail. However, my troubles were far from over. After trekking for what seemed like donkeys years, I came upon another desolate village to my left, where Mr. Dog promptly abandoned me and quite surprisingly, the clouds too! To my right were several hills and a few kilometers up ahead of me a massive hill sat pretty, indicating a dead end.
How could that be? Where could Tashi and gang have disappeared? Had I chosen the wrong fork earlier? I was mighty anxious as I walked into the village, hoping to find someone who’d help me with directions. However, there was not a soul around. The village was located at an edge where the plains dipped to form a shallow valley with a slender stream running through. Knowing that the crew usually set up camp alongside a stream, I hurried down the valley and checked up and down the stream for the blue tent. There was none. Suddenly, the solitude I’d enjoyed until now morphed into loneliness, the silence of the valley seemed eerie. But there was nothing I could do. So I climbed back to the village and decided to plunk myself on one of the stone fences along the trail and wait – maybe the crew would miss me after a few hours and come looking for me? My only grouse was that I’d drained my water supply by now and since melodrama becomes me, I sat wondering how long it would be before I died of thirst!
It was after around half an hour of conjuring all sorts of thoughts that I heard the sweet jingling of bells. Turing around, I saw a man leading few horses down the hill behind me. He smiled and nodded at me with a Julley! and I reciprocated. Then, even as I debated with myself about confessing to a stranger that I was lost, he sat next to me and started to chat. He was part of another camping style trek that comprised a guide, cook and a group of three French trekkers, also heading for Tso Moriri. Since they’d been nowhere around me through the last 6 hours, I assumed they’d bypassed Tso Kar and reached here via an alternative route. And the horseman, Jungney, had obviously arrived much ahead of the others.
It was Jungney’s turn to ask questions now and not surprisingly, he asked me what I was doing alone in the middle of nowhere. That’s when I told him I was lost! A rather embarrassing moment for me, but it was the truth. Luckily, Jungney knew exactly where my crew would be camping -he too was headed to the same pit-stop, he said, and offered me a ride on one of his horses. Although I could have done with that ride, I politely refused. I guess warning bells never cease to ring in my over-cautious brain! So I trudged along behind Jungney and his horses, wondering how many more hours of trekking lay ahead. When we came to the hill that I thought was a dead end, it turned out there was a narrow dirt road to the right, secreted behind another hill in such a way that it couldn’t be seen from up front. Walking for a few hundred meters down that road, the hills suddenly opened up into a tiny but beautiful valley, with the blue tent sitting bang in the middle of it.
You can’t imagine the relief I felt at having found my crew again! I thanked Jungney profusely before rushing to the dining tent for a drink of water. The gang had still not started to worry about me, assuming that I would be ambling in later at my own slow pace (how unflattering!). But I had no time to brood then. Tired as hell, I dozed off for an hour or so, waking up in time for evening tea and snacks.
Sipping hot tea by my tent, I noticed that Mr. Dog had somehow found his way to the camp site. The French trekkers had also arrived and set up camp close by. Jungney waved at me with a sweet smile as he tended to his horses and everything in the world seemed perfect once again.