Prayer Flags, Yak and Pizza!

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.22815045_10214615652210870_2139143481966744979_n

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The camp site that finally found me! The white tent was the French team’s dining tent.

P102072822788640_10214615644250671_9141334806434276633_nTrekking 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.P1020731 (2)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.P1020733Now, 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.P1020732Being 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.P1020734Walking 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 . . .P1020738 (2)P1020737Down 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. P1020739 (2)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.20131108_140735Coming 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!P1020744P1020742P1020745 (2)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. P1020747Outside, 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.

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The vehicle in the pic belongs to a middle-man, come to collect his supplies for the month.

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 . . .

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Lost and Found (thanks to horse shit!)

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! P1020682This 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.P1020683As 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! P1020686 (2)P1020692When 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 . . .

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Notice the salt deposits? They don’t seem too different from the snow on the far-away mountains, do they?

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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.P1020707P1020708The 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. P1020710Marmots 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.

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Pic courtesy: https://centraleasternalps.weebly.com/behavioural-adaptations.html

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.P1020725 (2)P1020705 (2)P1020721 (2)P1020722 (2)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.P1020723 (2) 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. IMG_20170825_141420 (4)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.

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Jungney and his horses waiting for the French trekkers to arrive before setting up camp.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Set your Pace, this isn’t a Race

Trekking through Ladakh -the Diary of a procrastinator: Day 5

Today was all about learning from and correcting yesterday’s mistakes. So I made a mental note to NOT sit down, however tired I was, and to NOT try and match George stride to stride. With these strategy changes firmly conveyed to my brain, I got out of my tent surrounded not only by nature’s beauty, but also a large dollop of positivity.

I’d slept for straight 12 hours last night, almost akin to the Hindi proverb- Ghode bech ke sona – which literally means sleeping after having sold one’s horses. During ancient times, horse-traders attending annual fairs to sell horses used to have sleepless nights owing to the possibility of the horses being stolen. But once the beasts were sold and a neat sum pocketed, they could sleep peacefully without a worry. Now, before you accuse me of selling Namgyal’s horses, let me clarify that I meant it all metaphorically. The saying can be interpreted as catching a sound tension/tiredness/distress-free sleep, and that is exactly what I did after yesterday’s strenuous trek. As for the five horses, they were such charming beasts, I quite fell in love with them.P1020653Like yesterday, George and I packed our stuff and had an early breakfast. But today, I waited to watch how the campsite was being wrapped up. Vessels were washed, tents were collapsed and packed and horses were loaded with just the right amount of stuff according to their age and agility. Then, we set off for yet another day of trekking. Today, we’d leave the Kharnak Valley behind us, cross the Leh-Manali highway into the Morey Plains of Samad Rokchen and finally arrive in the Rupshu Valley on the shores of Tso Kar.

Once we hit the highway after a couple of hours, I was given a profound insight into my life, thanks to this sign board . . .P1020655That was also where I met an interesting person – Mr. Satyen Das. He was on a mission to raise awareness about global warming and his method was rather unique -he was pedaling a cycle rickshaw all the way from Kolkota to Leh and beyond! He’d been on the road for two months now and it would probably take him three more days to reach Leh. P1020657While I was in awe of his physical achievement -it’s definitely no mean task he’d set for himself- I’m still not sure how his mission could’ve contributed to raising awareness. Perhaps he’d be featured in the papers and on websites, but what after that? He had apparently done a similar trip in 2014, riding all the way to Siachen. But did I or any of my peers know about it? No. And do any of you know about his trips? I’m not sure. So, how many people have really been made aware of the issue at hand? And even if a substantial number have, how has it affected them? Have they really done something to tackle the issue or have they just read & liked the article or seen a video (here’s one I found much later after returning home: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9HM8ip4QpuE)  and forgotten about it? These were some questions that kept my mind occupied during the next leg of the trek.

As promised to myself, I listened to my body and set my pace accordingly, not bothering about Tashi and gang overtaking me. I had embarked on this trek not to compete with anyone but to enjoy being in the midst of nature and maybe even being one with it. The route itself wasn’t complicated and I was confident of getting to the destination on my own. So I watched on as the crew and George were going . . .going . . .gone.P1020658P1020659P1020660And suddenly, I was all alone in the middle of nowhere! Well, almost alone, ‘coz the mountains and a few stray clouds kept me company. Each mountain, as I mentioned in my last post, had a story to tell, the clouds kept shifting shape and positions so that there was something new for me to discover every few kilometers. The weather was pleasant too -although the winds were as stubborn as ever, the sun was kinder and did not scorch like yesterday.P1020662 (2)P1020661P1020663

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Just look at the color of that mountain!! The little white dots at the foot of the mountain are houses belonging to the Tso Kar nomads

Through my trek today, I came across several low wall-like structures covered with stone slabs that had something inscribed on them. Later, I learned that these were ‘Mani’ walls. “Om Mani Padme Hum” meaning ‘Behold the Jewel in the Lotus’ is a sacred Buddhist chant that invokes Lord Avalokiteshwara and monks carve this sacred chant on stone slabs as a form of meditation. Then, when traveling, they deposit the slabs at various points on their route and what starts off with just a few slabs slowly grows into a full-fledged Mani wall.

p1020671.jpg  P1020669P1020670Soon, I was approaching the camp site at Tso Kar. Tso means Lake in Ladakhi and Kar means White. That makes Tso Kar translate loosely into White Lake, a name acquired because of the thick crust of white salt deposits surrounding the lake. Although the deposits have been depleting over the years, it is said that the lake was once the source of salt for the entire Ladakh and Tibet regions. When the lake made its first appearance as a thin blue line highlighting the base of a far-away mountain, I felt ecstatic. This was yet another feature the trek description had promised me – azure-blue lakes.

Also, I was no longer alone. Several horsemen passed by, greeting me with the customary Julley. Their sombrero-like hats and the dust kicked up by their horses lent to a wild-west kind of ambiance that I quite enjoyed. I later learned that they belonged to the group of Khampa nomads of the region and were sometimes also known as Chinese cowboys. Apart from herding and rearing goat and yak, they have also been bartering salt for other goods in nearby regions since ages.

P1020666   P1020667  Tso Kar being a protected ecological-zone, travelers aren’t allowed to camp within 2 kilometers of its perimeter. But unlike my previous pit-stops, this is a rather touristy place, attracting several hundreds of tourists each season. Justifiably, a row of white tents greeted me into the camping zone, even before my favorite blue tent did. These, of course, were part of some resort and had all the frills that a regular tourist would ask for. With one group having vacated earlier today and the next group not having arrived yet, the camp wore a deserted look as I passed by. That, however, allowed me to sneak into their well maintained toilet tent later in the day – it sure felt like heaven to use a commode after two days of being left at nature’s mercy!P1020668aWell, I was at my camp site now and quite early at that! Siddhartha had just finished cooking our late lunch, so I ate to my heart’s content and rested for a while. Then, after tea at around 5pm, there really was nothing to do. Surprisingly, I wasn’t tired today and decided to venture towards the lake and spend some time on its shore. So I informed the crew and set off enthusiastically. Little had I anticipated that the lake that looked so close from the camp site was in fact rather far (I got to know about the 2km perimeter only after I returned from this jaunt!). So I kept walking and walking and walking . . .

Somewhere along the way, I spotted a dog trotting towards me. I was immediately alert ‘coz Stanzin had mentioned there would be wild dogs in the region to beware of. Even the dogs belonging to the nomads, he’d said, were rather dangerous. However, it was too late to turn back to the camp now, so I kept walking towards the lake with my heart beating a tad faster than usual. Thankfully, the dog passed me without much ado.P1020677When I reached the shores of Tso Kar, I was left mesmerized. It had taken me more than an hour to reach, but it seemed so worth it. I sat on a small out-crop and watched the sun set behind the mountains. A jeep soon stopped by and two older women and a man stepped out to dip their feet into the lake. Having done that, they got back inside and turned towards the road. That’s when I also turned back camp-wards since it was getting dark. After driving for a few meters, the jeep suddenly stopped and waited for me to catch up. The uncle at the wheel popped his head out and asked me if I needed a lift. I would normally have refused, but I took up his offer today since I didn’t want to risk running into that dreaded dog again.

The threesome in the vehicle were cheerful and gregarious -I soon learned that they were driving back from Tso Moriri to Leh and had booked a home-stay at Tso Kar -and before I knew it, I was at my camp. It had taken the vehicle only 15 minutes to cover the distance I’d walked in over an hour. Well, that’s trekking for you! Back at the camp, everyone was worried since I’d been gone a long time – Tashi was even preparing to go looking for me. P1020681Relieved that I was back safe and sound, we all had a hearty dinner fueled by interesting conversation after which we retired to our respective tents for the night.

 

 

 

Rite of Passage

Trekking through Ladakh -the Diary of a procrastinator: Day 4

Waking up inside my tent on Day 4 was a surreal experience. The bells on Namgyal’s horses had kept jangling through the otherwise cold and silent night, reassuring me even as I slept fitfully -being claustrophobic, it took me a while to get used to the confines of the tent. When dawn broke, I peeped out to find frozen dew on the tent and grass – it must have snowed high up in the passes during the night. The thought made me happy. I guess snow has a special place in my heart considering I live in a city that experiences almost eight months of summer each year, with temperatures peaking to just under 50deg C in May. And then, watching snow fall is on my list of the top ten romantic experiences one can ever have.

When I crept out of the tent to stretch myself, I felt a bit overwhelmed. Despite preparing for six long months, it took time for it to sink in that I was now in a tent in the middle of a valley in Ladakh . . .with just four people and five horses for company! I inhaled the fresh mountain air and took a short stroll by the rivulet before the others woke up and got busy with their respective chores. Having deposited me in the care of the trekking crew, Stanzin and Jimmy left for Leh early. George and myself packed up our stuff, had a quick but hearty breakfast and set off in the route explained to us by Tashi. The others would follow later, after cleaning and wrapping up things at the campsite.

And just like that, I was on my maiden trek!

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My trekking route in red with pit-stops marked in blue

Thanks to the ‘camping style’ trek I’d chosen, I didn’t have to carry my heavy backpack – the horses would do that for me! So, I set out with a smaller day-pack with some bare necessities and water, trying to match George stride by stride. The first few kilometers were easy enough. I was fresh, energetic and raring to go and we mostly walked on a road in-the-making. On either side, there were nothing but tufts of grass and a lot many pebbles in the foreground while much farther away was a pleasantly undulating horizon in all directions. P1020636 (2)As we walked, George filled me in on the previous half of his trek and gave me tips on tackling tiredness, the most important one being not to ever sit down to rest -that would make it several times harder to get back to trekking. An ideal scenario would be to just place one’s bag and trekking pole down and stand for a while before resuming. I followed his advice . . .for a while. But somewhere around 10kms into the trek, I was itching to park my bums somewhere. That’s also when a stream materialized out of nowhere, giving me a pretext to take a break. So I removed my shoes and sat on a rock with my tired feet dipped in the cool waters. Wow . . . was that Bliss or what!p1020641-e1535224101315.jpgWhen we resumed our trek after the unplanned indulgence, I noticed that the terrain had completely changed. We now had rows of reddish-brown rocky/sandy hills on one side while the plains stretched for miles on the other. P1020643That’s when I also came across the first bit promised by the trek description – Changpa nomads grazing their sheep and Pasmina goat. Although there weren’t many of the latter -George had encountered many more during the previous leg of his trek – I was happy enough for a chance to see them.P1020647Tashi and gang had caught up with us by now and even overtaken us. They would reach the next camp site and set up the dining tent well in advance so we could have something to eat as soon as we reached. As we continued trekking, the sun moved to the top of our heads and was shining rather brightly, even as cold winds blew mercilessly. It reminded me of the folk-tale where the Sun and the Wind quarrel over who is mightier and the matter is settled when the heat from the Sun forces a farmer to remove all his clothes. The terrain also changed subtly, with the mountains closing in on my right, wearing different colors -light orange, red, turquoise blue . . .and of course black. They weren’t close enough to figure out what gave them these colors but few days later, I realized that every mountain in the region was covered with a different type of stone and it was the chemical composition of these stones that gave them the unique colors. I even saw a beautiful purple mountain later that seemed like an illusion but was in fact very real!P1020648 (2)We’d covered over 15kms in 5 hours by now and I guess tiredness was starting to show on my face. So George, a seasoned trekker, decided to give me a pep talk. He said every trekker has to undergo the Rite of Passage – that moment when he/she completely breaks down and then rises up to the challenge with a renewed resolve.  He also warned me this was only the beginning and that I should brace myself for the passes that would be the real test of strength and character.

Despite the talk, my pace reduced drastically during the last leg of the trek. George was still as fresh as when we started out, so I told him to go right ahead and not wait for me. With him walking several hundred paces ahead of me before disappearing at a bend, it felt strange to be walking alone in the valley. It was alternately pleasant and punishing – the former because of the sheer beauty that surrounded me and the latter because of my own sagging stamina. But then, I realized that trekking, as are the most challenging situations life throws at us, is all about listening to the body even as we control /manipulate our mind. So, I talked to myself and became my own motivator over the last few kilometers. And you have no idea of the relief I felt when the tip of the blue dining tent made an appearance in my cone of vision! Soon as I reached the camp site, I kicked off my shoes, put down the trekking pole and lay down flat on the grass. With closed eyes, I replayed the experience of the entire day and figured I’d not done so badly for a first time trekker!

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That’s orange juice in the kettle – not tea!

Siddhartha soon beckoned with hot orange juice and noodles that I devoured like never before. We then chatted for a long time as he prepared dinner.That’s when I learned that he is a trekking guide back home in Nepal where he takes trekkers along the Annapurna Circuit every year. It is only during off-season back home that he comes to Ladakh and since he’s not eligible to work as a guide here due to certain regulations, he accompanies trekkers as a cook. I was mighty impressed because he does cook marvelously well! That evening, he made some bhajias followed by mutton curry, rotis, rice and dal. It was a joy to watch him work deftly as he cooked all of this on his twin kerosene stoves with some help from Namgyal.

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Siddhartha at work . . .

I had an early dinner that day and just around the time I’m typing this out on my computer today – 6.32pm, I retired to my tent, pushing away the idea of lying on the grass and watching the stars to another day. And soon as my head hit my fleece-jacket pillow, I slipped into a deep, dreamless sleep.

Where is Dat (that)?

Trekking through Ladakh -the Diary of a procrastinator: Day 3

Nomadic Trails . . . doesn’t it sound romantic? Especially when accompanied by a  description that says – you will pass through the Changthang plateau characterized by high arid plains, pasture lands where you can spot Changpa nomads grazing their herds of Pashmina goats, yak and sheep, snow-capped peaks and azure-blue lakes . . .

Well, I definitely fell for it, doubly so when I saw the ‘medium strenuous’ label attached to it. However, it turned out that no one else was mesmerized by the idea last year and I ended up being the only one to sign up for it which meant, it would be more expensive than anticipated. Then one day, before I left for Leh, I received an email from one George saying he was starting his trek from Padum and if I met him halfway at Dat, we could complete the rest of the trek to Tso Moriri together and maybe even save some money in the bargain. I pondered for a while and sent him a mail in the affirmative.

Hubby dear panicked, naturally, with some help from dear sis. Here I was, agreeing to trek in the middle of nowhere with some stranger called George. Unfortunately for him, when I make up my mind to so something, I DO that something. So, that was how I ended up waking early at Stanzin’s home-stay at Leh on the 25th August 2017 to make sure I’d packed everything I needed for the next 8 days.

The last week of August is considered one of the better windows for trekking in Ladakh – the weather is good with less or no rains and an oh-so-slight chill starts to creep into the air, making it comfortable for trekkers. But with snowfall anticipated high up in the passes I was to trek through, I’d packed enough warm clothes. After a quick breakfast, I hopped into the awaiting Scorpio with Stanzin. With a cheerful Jimmy at the wheel, we were soon breezing down the Leh-Manali highway towards Dat.

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Jimmy’s vehicle, christened after himself, is ready to fly!

The meandering roads -well constructed and maintained by the Border Roads Organization’s Himank project – took us through some mesmerizing terrain that included the banks of the more slender and tame version of the Indus. But what stood out in the midst of nature’s splendor during the drive was something clearly man-made. Take a look at these witty road signs by the BRO that added an element of fun to the drive.

There were more, to be sure. A couple more signs that I can recall are: Safety on road means Safe Tea at home & Don’t Gossip, let him drive! And then, there was this one that that left me foxed for sure – Don’t be a Gama in the land of Lama . . . what ever does Gama mean!!

Well, after a long time spent on the road, we made a pit-stop at the Taglang-la pass, which, at an altitude of 17,582ft above sea level, is the second highest motorable pass in the world after Khardung-la. It was severely windy and we quickly found ourselves savoring black tea inside the warm confines of a parachute restaurant -a very common sight across the region.

tanglang-la-and-the-prayer.jpg      IMG_20170825_113014After the short break, we were on the road once again and soon reached the detour that would lead us into the Kharnak valley and to Dat. Two things caught my eye here: 1. the signboard that gave a census report of the Pashmina goats in the valley and 2. the memorial to a martyred Jawan hailing from the region.

IMG_20170825_115815 (2)As we continued our drive on the non-existent road through the valley, I was getting more and more eager to reach the camp site. However, when, after hours of driving we were still nowhere near Dat, I turned to Stanzin with a questioning look. Imagine my surprise when he revealed that he’d never been to this part of Ladakh before! Add to that, there was no cell phone network through which to contact George, no internet connection to check an online map and not a soul around to ask for directions! Yet, for some reason, I did not get perturbed – maybe I had faith in Stanzin’s mountain instincts? So, I continued enjoying the drive, certain that we’d find our destination.  Sure enough, after one more hour of driving over some passes and through the valley, we finally reached Dat.

Dat is a tiny nomad village nestled in the Kharnak Valley of Ladakh. Kharnak, I learned, means Black Castle and was at some point in history, the domain of some Ladakhi King. The Black in the name is in reference to the decidedly black soil that covers most of the rugged terrain here. With low-roofed houses made of locally available stone and animal hide, the village is home to the Dat nomads only during the harsh winter months of October to March and sometimes until June. At other times they wander around in the high mountain passes where there is enough grass and shrubbery available for their animals to graze on. But even during these times, one or two villagers regularly ride back to the village on horses every second day to light a candle at the famed Dat monastery. 

Well, now that we were at Dat, I was overjoyed and itching to meet George and the camping crew who’d be my company for the next 8 days. However there was no one to be found. After several minutes of waiting and hunting through the tiny hamlet, we found a young chap who informed us that the group had started out towards the next pit-stop after lunch and must be anywhere in the valley right now! Thankfully, Stanzin knew the trekking route and we were soon driving in the direction, hoping to reach the camp site before dark. And we did! After a couple of hours more of driving, we finally spotted the blue dining tent set up on the banks of a rivulet.

P1020651 (3)Disembarking from the vehicle, I followed Stanzin inside where he introduced me to the crew: Tashi, a 21-year-old college-going lad was the guide, Siddhartha, a young Nepali  cook, Namgyal, the horseman with five beautiful horses and finally there was George, my trekking companion. Thanks to my sub-conscious stereotyping and no thanks to Stanzin who never really clarified who George was (actually, I too didn’t bother asking him…), I’d imagined him to be a foreigner. It so turned out the George was/is a true blue Keralite and a charming one at that! P1020635The air was starting to turn chilly around us by the time I’d set up my tent with help from Stanzin and Tashi. So we all gathered back in the dining tent where the fire, the delicious food whisked up by Siddhartha and the conversation kept us warm. We chatted into the night, exchanging notes from the adventurous day and getting to know each other better and when I finally returned to my tent, I couldn’t wait for it to be morning again so I could start my trek.IMG_20170825_183709 (2)Well, that brings me to the end of Day 3 in Ladakh. See you all on the other side of the night with more adventure and some bit of self-realization . . .

 

 

Julley!

Trekking through Ladakh -the Diary of a procrastinator: Days 1 & 2

From the time I reached Stanzin’s home-stay to when I bid goodbye to Leh, the one refrain that was a constant companion was -Julley! The Ladakhi Julley is the equivalent of Namaste/ Hello and people greet each other with the word all the time, respectfully bending their head as they do so. I was soon doing the same with gusto and by the end of my trip I came to the conclusion that it is a rather Julley Good Word (forgive the pun)!

I spent two days in Leh to get acclimatized, considering I’d been sufficiently warned about the thin air and its side-effects. And I spent my time well, exploring the old town, the Leh Palace and adjoining LAMO center, the various foodie hot-spots, the bazaar and visiting SECMOL, the Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh established by the now famous Mr. Sonam Wangchuk. I’ll not bore you with too many details though, and rather leave you with a few photographs of places/stuff that intrigued me. Do scroll down to the very end ‘coz the last photo is by far the most interesting 😉

And until we meet again on the first day of my trek, Julley!

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Wish I were a Snow Leopard . . .
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Hello! says Mr. Yaksha perched atop the entrance to the Leh Palace
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Did you notice the sign that says – Entrance fee is a smile?
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Two rather intriguing laundry ads . . .the list & illustrations are to die (laughing) for!
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View from the Ladies’ Toilet of a rooftop restaurant -no pane, all gain 🙂
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Traditional wooden tandoors run mostly by immigrants from Kargil
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Hot kehwa at Cafe Lo with freshly baked sesame bun from the tandoor outside -the strains of Namaaz filtering in from the neighboring mosque completed the ambience.
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A cozy nook built by SECMOL students -the temp within was 5 degrees lower than outside
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The Donkey Sanctuary – a novel concept!
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The Me Too moment OR Who says Donkeys don’t like to be photographed? 🙂
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Remember the Museum where I met Stanzin Yanrul? It showcases a variety of minerals, stones -precious or otherwise – and fossils found across the vast expanse of Ladakhi terrain. The place is tiny and dingy and clearly calls out for investment to better preserve the specimen; but what it represents – one man’s (Phunchok Angchok) passion and respect for the terrain he calls home – is way more precious than words can describe.
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The lady at the Tibetan market downtown made me a pair of Turquoise ear-rings and bracelet. She said the stones were sourced from the Ladakhi terrain by nomads and then processed by few cottage-industries around Leh before being used for making jewelry and artifacts.
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Delicious Thupka!
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A metal tree outside the LAMO center
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When a restaurant teaches you Ladakhi swear words!!

 

 

The Curious Case of the many Stanzins

Trekking through Ladakh -the Diary of a procrastinator: Days 1 & 2

Landing at the Leh airport, I was greeted by Stanzin, waiting to whisk me away to my homestay. Stanzin Odzer is the owner of Ecological Footprints, the company that was organizing my trek. I had never seen Stanzin before and had only spoke with him once over the phone. Even so, I was sure this wasn’t Stanzin as soon as the guy at the airport said his first few words of greeting. My safety antennae buzzed vigorously, but I stayed calm and asked him who he was. ‘Stanzin’, he replied nonchalantly and chucked my baggage into the car before we sped off.

Reaching the homestay, he showed me to my room, arranged for a hot-water bath and later got me steaming hot lunch. He was rather quiet through it all though, making me a tad uneasy. Although I was happy with his hospitality, I was constantly wondering if this was the guy arranging my trek. It was only around tea-time that another Stanzin made his appearance – taller, thinner and wearing a ready smile unlike his other namesake. It was when discussing with him that I realized that Stanzin is a very common name in Ladakh. When a child is born, the parents write to their spiritual leader (Lama) for blessings and the Lama writes back with a name that will be child’s given name forever. When the letter happens to be addressed to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the child is usually christened Stanzin after the spiritual leader’s name -Stanzin Gyatso. The name means -holder of the Buddha Dharma.

During my stay in Ladakh, I came across so many Stanzins, it was rather mind-boggling! My home-stay hosts themselves, for instance, had three Stanzins amongst them. First- Stanzin Odzer, the guy organizing my trek; second -the guy who welcomed me at the airport and who was also Odzer’s brother-in-law and third – Odzer’s little four-year-old son! Then, I came across a beautiful book of poetry at the Ladakh Arts and Media Organization (LAMO) center at the Leh Palace whose author was a Stanzin Lhaskyabs.

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But before you think the name is masculine, let me tell you that I met an equal number of female Stanzins. Take for instance the young college girl managing the Ladakh Rocks and Minerals Preservation Study and Museum -just a few minutes walk from my home-stay. When the charming girl, who works part-time at the museum,  introduced herself as Stanzin Yanrul, I couldn’t help smiling. I met another lady Stanzin at a tea-stall on the Leh-Manali highway en-route to the starting point of my trek and yet another one at the Leh airport on my way back!

Well, now that I’ve revealed the mystery of the many Stanzins, I’ll sign off and return tomorrow with more fodder from the Leh stable. Until then, you keep ruminating over the Shakespearean quote – What’s in a name . . .