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.
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.
After 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.
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.
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! The 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.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 . . .