Trekking through Ladakh -the Diary of a procrastinator: Day 7
The human mind sometimes filters out details served to it in the real world as ‘knowledge‘ and ‘facts‘ and delves into only those aspects that resonate with its true self. That’s what happens with me when I look at stars. Despite being a keen outer-space enthusiast and having read several scientific expositions on the topic of stars, what has fascinated me the most is the surreal concept of their ‘birth’ and ‘death’ -something that almost personifies them. This is an idea I have tried to explore in my children’s book When Grandma Climbed the Magic Ladder and in some of my poems.
Coming back to my trek, the information overload about these curious cosmic orbs did not prevent my mind from perceiving them as pinholes in a two-dimensional sky as I lay staring through the opening in my tent last night. I’d ideally have wanted to do this lying on the grass outside, but it was biting cold -although still technically on the plains, we were camped at a height of 4300mts above sea level with winds blowing like crazy into the funnel-like valley.
I did venture out to take a leak in the middle of the night though (I usually frown when told how men are more gifted than women – but after this experience, I’m grudgingly willing to accept that men are better gifted when it comes to the act of peeing!), and that’s when I was overwhelmed by the number of stars above me – perhaps, if a population census had been taken right then, China would’ve been beaten hollow! It was at the same time beautiful and weird to have these million eyes staring at me as I peed!
Walking back to my tent, a zillion story ideas passed through my mind and I hope to exploit them sometime in the future (when I get over my procrastinating ways!). For the time being, though, I snuggled back into my sleeping bag and allowed my mind to run amok thinking of all possible starry thoughts. Uncharacteristically, Mr. Dog did not howl last night and it was all eerily silent as I dozed off with an Eskimo saying playing in my mind:
Perhaps they are not stars in the sky, but rather openings from where our loved ones shine down to let us know they are happy.
Well, that was last night. I woke up today feeling upbeat – the time had finally come to conquer my first pass. At the height of 4900mts, the Horlamla Pass was a climb of around 600mts from our camp. Tashi assured me this would be an easy climb, with gentle slopes and beautiful vistas. He wasn’t wrong – it was ideal for a first-timer like me. After breakfast, George and I set out first as usual. Tashi helped me cross the stream – it seemed to be a deceptively easy task but was in fact pretty rough considering the gushing cold waters and slippery stones – and went back to pack up.
Trekking up, I was back in the lap of a barren sandy landscape with snow-capped mountains playing peek-a-boo. And when I turned back after a while, I was in for a surprise. Tso Kar had actually followed me all the way here (like I’d wished yesterday)! As I climbed higher and higher, the view of the lake became clearer and I was ecstatic.At the same time, I was acutely aware that Mr. Dog wasn’t following me today. He sure was at the campsite when I left; so, where was he now? However, I was distracted before I could confess to myself that I was missing the little fellow. Watching me from far away, blending surreptitiously into the landscape, were a pair of Kiang – the Tibetan Wild Ass. They are said to populate the entire Changtang plateau, but this was only the second time I’d spotted them during my trek -they’re either shy creatures who don’t venture close to humans or are damn good at camouflage. Unfortunately, I don’t have a good picture of them to share; but if you’ve seen the Indian Wild Ass at the Little Rann of Kutch, these looked pretty much similar -except, I’m told, the Tibetan species is by far the largest of Wild Asses. Well, I’m not going to spend more time ass-essing this, but rather take you quickly to the summit of the Horlamla where an interesting sight awaited me.Now, isn’t that a welcome sight! Not very far from this guy were two stone piles with bits of cloth strewn on the ground in between. I wondered why someone would make such a mess at the top of a mountain when Mr.Goat himself had been so carefully assembled. After a bit of poking around I figured out that the stone piles were meant to prop up poles that, at some point of time before the strong winds blew them down, would have held a string of Tibetan prayer flags, ‘coz that’s what the bits of colored cloth were. Just as the ‘mani walls‘ were a common sight on the plains, prayer flags hung between poles as close as a few feet to as far as mountains apart are a common sight at passes. I’d noticed them at the Tanglangla Pass too and would see many more of them over the next few days.Being an atheist, it was easy for me to put away the idea of prayer flags as gobbledygook at first. But then, I was told that these weren’t meant to carry prayers to the Gods but to spread the positivity of the Buddhist mantras printed on them. Ancient Tibetans believed that as the flags flutter, the message of the mantras are passed along by the winds, spreading goodwill and compassion to people all over the world – something that current-day Tibetans and Ladakhis (did you know that Ladakh is sometimes called ‘Little Tibet’?) still passionately believe in. The traditional prayer flags are printed on colored cloth depicting the five elements – blue for sky/space, white for air/clouds, red for fire, green for water and yellow for earth. Further, hand-carved wooden blocks are used to print the mantras along with symbolic creatures such as the Wind Horse, Garuda, Dragon, Snow Lion, and Tiger as well as divine figures such as the Buddha, Green Tara, Padama Sambhava etc. Each set of five flags comes with one of the above symbols surrounded by the mantras. Here are a few samples off the internet:
If you want to know a bit more about their history, check out thepeaceflagproject.org
Back at the Horlamla Pass, the vistas all around were breathtaking to say the least. The snow-capped mountains that had teased me were still miles away but I could now see them in their entirety, not just their tips. After a long time spent in conversations with George and Tashi, who’d caught up with me by now (and so had the French trekkers), it was time for descent. Casting a last look at the Tso Kar behind me and whispering a silent goodbye, I started towards the vast valley opening up below. We would now trek down to Rajungkaru, at a height of 4700mts and move on to our next pit-stop.Walking down, it was hard to ignore how the terrain had changed. The slopes were now populated by clumps of dark green shrubs that no one knew the name of. Returning home, I tried hard to find out what these were called and finally pinned them down to being the ‘Bird’s Nest Spruce’, a hardy evergreen shrub that resembles – you guessed it right! -a bird’s nest. Their thorn-like leaves prevent them from being grazed on and help them weather the snowy winters well. If you’re wondering why I’m meting out a botany lecture here, it’s because my mother is a botany enthusiast and that inspired me to take photos of and research a lot many of the Ladakhi flora after my trek. So be warned, some more botanical knowledge awaits you in my future posts . . .Down in the valley, specks of black and white against a sandy backdrop welcomed me. As it turned out, they were a mix of sheep, goat, horses and . . .yes, YAK! Everyone has some strange wish or the other that they hope will be fulfilled during their lifetime -something that’s difficult to explain to people who’d rather roll their eyes and guffaw than confess to their own much stranger wishes. I have many. And one of them has been to see Yak in the wild. The only other time I’d seen a Yak was at the Hidimba Temple in Manali where the poor chap was used as a prop for touristy photos. While I didn’t savor that experience, I won’t deny I too clicked some pictures -just in case I died before meeting one in the wild. It is another matter altogether that I didn’t pose with Mr. Touristy Yak; no one from my family fancied the idea of sitting on him either -so this picture is of some random tourist posing for his newly-wed wife.Coming back to my trek, I must point out that these Yak were not wild in the true sense of the word; they were domestic -reared by the Changpa nomads for wool and milk. However, they were out there grazing in the austere beauty of the Ladakhi terrain and that was wild enough for me!The appearance of the animals heralded the presence of nomads and soon enough, we walked into the village that was to be our next pit-stop. As usual, we set up camp near a gurgling stream and I crawled into my tent to relax for a while. Outside, the herdsmen were bringing their animals back home. These were the same nomads whose desolate villages I’d passed in the plains during the last few days. They would remain in the mountains for one more month before heading for their stone huts. Out here though, they live either in parachute tents or in the traditional rebo -a tent made of yak-wool fabric, woven and stitched together by the Changpa women, and erected over a shallow pit about two feet deep with wooden posts for support. These, however, are not as commonly used now, since the parachute tents are easier to erect and maintain and withstand the strong winds better. The Changpa women also weave shawls to be sold to middle-men who supply to shopkeepers in Leh, and are adept at milking the yak and preparing curd which, sold as Tibetan Yogurt, is much sought after in the plains.
I soon got summons from the dining tent where Siddharth had prepared some hot soup and pakodas. As I savored the food, a Changpa matron stopped by and started to chat with him. Before she left, Siddharth packed some pakodas for her grandchildren and handed her some money -I wondered what the latter was for and soon got to know that there was a fee levied on all campers in the region to help keep the premises clean. I love the idea and hope other camping locations will also follow suit so nature, the natives and campers can all benefit from it.
We were all soon chatting and even as the pakoda plate was licked clean (well, not licked!), Siddharth told us how he’d attended cooking classes back home in Nepal. Then, as if to prove a point, he started preparing Pizza for dinner! In a tapeli! With pebbles on the base and an aluminum plate mounted on top! Forgive me my exclamation marks, but given my own aversion (and incompetence) to cooking, I just couldn’t help being in awe of this guy.
Here are some pics of how the tapeli-pizza was made . . .for those who don’t know, tapeli is the Hindi word for a deep metal vessel with a broad rim and flat-ish base used to cook a variety of liquid-y Indian dishes.
Well, this was my hurrah moment – relishing tapeli-pizza at a height of 4700mts above sea level!! And while I don’t have pics to show how it was all eaten up in a jiffy, trust me it was!
Later in the night, the shepherd dogs belonging to the nomads began howling even before I could get comfy in my tent. I had earlier counted at least five of them; but now, with their howls echoing through the valley, it sounded like there were several more. This was definitely not a night to take a leak in the open! And although I was as scared as the night at Tso Kar – even more so considering there were more dogs that could come tearing into my tent – I was also sad . . .because suddenly, I missed Mr. Dog.
Why hadn’t he followed us here today? Could these other dogs be the reason? Or was it that the last campsite was the extent of his territory and he didn’t want to stray beyond? I remember a conversation with a friend about Mr. Dog after I returned home -given the sudden appearance and disappearance of my one-day-companion, he hinted that maybe it was not a dog at all, but the spirit of the valley. Although it does seem temptingly romantic, I’m quite sure it was indeed a dog and not a spirit. In hindsight, I wished I’d known he wouldn’t follow us that day . . .I’d have at least spent some time beside him, bidding him adieu and wishing him well. And I wished I hadn’t taken his company for granted . . .