Yaks under Singi La Pass
We wake up pinched with cold and with a headache that is probably caused by the high altitude. One of my shoulders is very stiff and hurts terribly which is coupled by the headache. The weather is still cloudy and rainy.
We head to the pass and start breathing heavily but we overcome it. The view from it is totally worth the suffering endured.
At Sisir La Pass
On our way down we encounter a marmot’s family and stop to watch how the baby marmots play and fight with each other. They let us come really close, like just a few meters away.
Later we see a yak herd – some of the animals are as big as a buffalo and have fluffy tails. After two hours of walking we arrive at the fork for first village on the road – Photoksar. The village is pretty far from the road we follow so we decide to not go there.
Playing with the yaks
We walk a couple of hours and reach the next pass Singi La 5060 m. (16 600 feet). The road is empty – today we only met one jeep and two locals who were on foot. The nature here is quite raw and the views of gigantic cliffs are incredible. In the evening we reach a big river that we will pass tomorrow because the water level is high now – as it always is here in the afternoon.
It turns out that the bridge over the river is destroyed and the jeeps stop here. We expect that tomorrow the tourists will start their trek from here. Usually they sleep at Photoksar and then they head to the pass. We find a great glade and we pitch our tent during a short window when it is not raining. This night we sleep at a lower altitude and we are not soaked with water as yesterday so we rest well.
Under Sisir La Pass
Crossing the river turns out to be a not so easy task. Most of the people are crossing at the spot where the bridge used to be, using rope. We continue upstream and find something like a ford. We see some locals with horses also crossing here. The current is very strong and with the heavy rucksack and the water reaching your waist is a real art to not fall down. But the worst part is that the water is freezing cold and after a few seconds your bloodstream stops and you don’t feeling your legs.
Extreme river crossing
We cross two river arms and we head to the pass filled with delight. The groups of tourists and horses followed soon. We really hope that the next trek we do is not so popular. Climbing is difficult and it starts raining again. The view from the pass is stunning. The only ugly thing is the road that splits the otherwise absolutely wild mountain.
Right before Singi La
On top of Singi La, wearing sandals of course 🙂
The Indian government has destroyed the whole ecosystem trying to connect the people living here to the outside world, with this totally unnecessary road on which there are never any cars passing. In addition this project took away the accommodation business of the people living in the first villages at the beginning of the trek.
On our way down I see the most unforgettable view of my life. It looks like some fairy-tale 3D reality. The scale of everything is ginormous. Disappearing in the distance I see mountains and mountains. The cliffs are like millions of frozen, still waves. Some of the chasms plummet 400-500 meters down. The pathway follows some strange green hills and the altitude is 4500 m. (14 800 feet).
View of Znaskar Range
After two hours we reach a defile and then the pathway becomes steep and goes down to two small villages in the middle of nowhere. It is so steep that the road stops here and analyzing the topography of the place I can’t see how they will ever continue constructing it from this point on. We follow some narrow path going along the river. It is getting dark but we manage to find something that looks like an island that is higher than the other ground and is perfect for camping. We are so exhausted after walking for 9 hours today that we skip dinner and go to sleep.
The road where we came from
There was sun for a few short hours for the first time in days today and the colors of the mountain were sparkling and vivid. Unfortunately when the weather is cloudy our already old camera can’t catch even one tenth of the tones, the colors and the beauty of the landscape, so most of the photos have terrible quality.
In bed I ponder how is it possible for any human to come up with the idea of living here, in such so hard to access place. Giant abysses, high altitude passes at nearly 5000 m. (16 400 feet) altitude, turbulent rivers, steep paths and tons of snow in the winter when the only connection to the outside world is the frozen river.
Here is a short documentary of people passing the Chadar route (Zanskar) in the winter: click here
People here don’t have access to anything: the phones don’t have coverage, no Internet, no hospital, some schools are within 3-4 day walking distance, goods from the outside world are rare to find because everything is transported by horses or mules, and because of the high altitude the variety of fruits and vegetables is very limited.
But people live here for centuries…. And I think that besides the millions advantages that the so called “civilization” has we mustn’t feel so helpless if we are disconnected from it… needless to say we humans have been part of nature for hundreds of thousands of years.
It is raining cats and dogs all night long. In the morning a mule boy comes to us and looks kind of scared. He tells us to never put our tent so close to the river because when it starts raining the river level rises a lot and it could be dangerous. Our island was 2,5 m. above the river but we thanked for the advice.
Our bivouac next to the river
We plan to travel in a more relaxed manner today. We climbed to the village above the river. There is drinking water there which is cool because for the last few days we always camp at places that didn’t have drinking water or a spring next to them so we couldn’t prepare tea for breakfast. It was always raining in the day for the last couple of days so we also couldn’t cook. After the day when we stayed at the abandoned house where we cooked pasta Italian style, we had been eating only dry sandwiches with cheese and cabbage. The water in the village is muddy brown because of the rain but we drink it like this and even prepare some tea (it is a muddy one) : )
At noon we take off to Lingshed – the biggest village in the region where they have all the extras – shop, satellite phone for emergencies, helipad, school that is visited by all the kids in the area and a big monastery. The village has more than 30 houses, which means it is enormous for the local standards because usually villages here consist of maximum 7-8 houses.
We walk for 2-3 hours more and we reach Margun La Pass at 4400 m. (14 435 feet) which turns out to be the most easy and pleasant for passing of all up to now. It is cloudy but not raining and we don’t meet many tourists except a German guy who passed us in the morning.
We like Lingshed very much. There is electricity at the local shop (from solar panels) so we manage to charge our camera and buy some stuff we need. We go to see the monastery that turns out to be very nice and with a pleasant atmosphere. Some of the temples in it are close but we see one with a photo of Dalai Lama on its altar.
Local woman at Gongma Village
We met two girls – one of them 11 years old but with a good English and we became friends. She picked yellow wild roses for us and walked with us for quite some time showing us the road. She told us there were 4 kids at her class and that they study very little Hindu and mostly Ladakh language. She was a really sweet girl.
Our little friends
We climb a big hill and when we reach the top we realize we have missed the path we should take so we have to go back. We are descending on a landslide and there are some boulders falling down. We then reach a river and cross it on some super rickety bridge that looks like it will fall to pieces anytime now and we see a nice glade with a spring.
We haven’t eaten the whole day and our planned “relaxed manner” resulted in 4 hours of walking with no food: it was exhausting. We immediately rush to cook – a meal with egg-plant, peas and okra as well as fried batters with cheese… and we finish the day with our bellies full.
We had the chance to meet a group of locals who had taken their animals out on pasture. The people were really colorful and we watched them as they separated in groups each going to its neighborhood. The girl who was with us at the time, informed us that one of them is “dirty”, and perplexed we asked “why”. She said he was the butcher of the village. There were authentic houses here and there everywhere on the road and all had small green wheat fields inside. The green wheat was contrasting with the high cliffs that looked like they were thrown randomly by some giant, and above them were the fantastic paintings formed by the clouds.
Separating the herds in the evening
Today the weather is great for the first time in many days – there are some clouds but it’s mostly sunny. We had milk with tsampa for breakfast. Tsampa is a special kind of baked flour which can be consumed directly and is very delicious. It is used a lot in the Tibetan cuisine. When I lived at the Canary Islands some time ago they had the exact same thing but it was called gofio. I started to like it there (well not so much in the beginning, but more and more with time) and today’s tsampa reminded me of these days back then and it was a delicious breakfast.
Cow excrement and thistles
Today we have to conquer two passes – the first one is Sabkang La at 4200 m. (13 780 feet), it takes us 1,5 hours and is pretty tiring. We didn’t meet anyone and later we were informed that the tourists were using another, longer route because of the risky pathway that goes down and would be difficult for the horses to descend. Between the two passes there is a gully and a tent camp. After a short rest we head to the second pass that turns out to be very exhausting.
The pass Hanum La 4720 m. (`15 420 feet) is actually a peak and one starts its climbing from a very low point. The pathway is very steep and bends a lot. After two hours we reach the “pass” and we are very happy. The only strange thing is that we don’t see the typical Buddhist flags or stupas. When we start searching for the path down we discover it not.
We are perplexed at this point and we start looking around. On our right we see a very big path that winds up towards the peak high above us. Obviously the place we are at is not the pass but a flat rock that connects the two ridges. We continue climbing and reache the real pass. We are dead tired and we sit to eat.
Hanum La Pass conquered
Views from the pass
Lingshed Village in the distance below
I don’t want to repeat myself but the views are flabbergasting. On the other side of the pass there is a very nice, not so steep path that follows a small river and we decide to stop earlier today because we are tired after 6 hours of walking. Our decision is also influenced by the map that says that we have to pass the river several times in the next leg of the trek. And as we know here the rivers are very full in the afternoon.
We find a green slope covered with vegetation – a really nice spot. Although the slight inclination we pitch the tent and prepare soup. It is getting dark and there is a thunderstorm in the distance. It seems very far away and we continue talking, eating and watching the sunset joyously.
Our bivouac on the slope
After some minutes we notice the storm is coming our way so we gather our stuff and strengthen the tent as much as we can. We just enter inside and the wind starts bending our tent frighteningly. After a few seconds come the first raindrops. In five minutes the storms hits us with its full force. Lightings strike every 2-3 seconds and we are blinded by them. The thunders start falling on the peaks around us with horrendous rumble. The noise is deafening and to us it seems like some angry giant pours his/her rage around us.
We are lying in the dark without making the slightest noise praying that we are spared by the storm, well mostly by the lightings. It starts raining inside the tent but we don’t care – we only hope to not be struck by a lightning. After 20 min. the storm passes and we breathe again freely. It is so good to be alive!
We take off at 12:00 p.m. and start our already favorite afternoon treks. The sun toasts us a little. It takes us two hours and a half to go down to a camping called Snertse. In the beginning we are following a river and the pathway isn’t so steep but then suddenly becomes very rough, steep and narrow and starts passing on the edge of some staggering abysses. We also have to cross the river several times, thanks god it is relatively easy. We then enter an area with many huge canyons. I don’t know what will happen if someone, who didn’t have much mountain experience, came here…
Walking along the river
At the camping site in Snertse
There is only one girl at the camping site and she treats us to Ladakh tea with butter and salt. I dislike it, but Mr. Shushtari drinks it with pleasure. Then we continue on the path that goes down to a big river that runs into Zanskar River. We haven’t seen yet the mighty, big Zanskar but we are impatient to do so. The government tries to build a new road that goes along the river from Leh to Padum (the main city of Zanskar Valley), but the river is so fearsome and the cliffs so inaccessible that this projects seems impossibl. We cross the new river feeder on a newly built bridge. It seems that the river carries away the bridge every year and they build a new one. And the river here is so powerful that, if there is no bridge, you just have to go back.
We now face the last pass of the trek – Parfi La 3900 m. (12 975 feet). The altitude is not so high, but the paths are steep and it takes us two hours of sweating up the winding path. After the pass we see the mighty Zanskar. We will continue till we reach our final destination Padum. Then we will hitchhike back to Leh and after that we plan to see the rest of the valley and West Ladakh.
The last pass Parfi La
And again… with sandals in the snow
The canyon after Snertse
We notice a flat place surrounded by rocks with a place for fire, rose dry twigs next to it and a clean spring. Given that we have only two days till the end of the trek, we immediately decide to stay here. We expect that on the other side we will probably see the inaccessible cliffs of the Zanskar Defile. We have walked for 5 hours today, so we think it will be nice to rest and sleep at this place with beautiful views towards the river.
Below Parfi La Pass
Today we try to light fire for the first time and this exercise turns into an odyssey. The twigs and the wood wouldn’t burn at all and it turns out that the trick hides in the usage of cow excrements. The locals always light their fires like this and we are thankful that somebody has even left a dry cow shit next to the fireplace. Without it we couldn’t have done the trick. It heats a lot but it doesn’t burn, it looks more like live coal that keeps the other wood burning, otherwise the flame dies out. So like this, with just a few twigs, we have fire all the evening. I think people here make it through the winter like this because wood here is pretty scarce.
Freezing shower in the morning
This time we start walking earlier – at 11:00 a.m. It takes us half an hour to reach the pass and finally we get to see Zanskar River. For the next two hours we walk along the river. This is now officially my favorite river, together with Mekong.
It is very wide and incredibly powerful – I just can’t stop watching it while we are walking next to it. Somewhere before the first village Hanumil the valley becomes wider and small green islands appear inside the river. When you watch it from a higher ground it totally looks like an African river. Unfortunately our camera’s battery is dead and we couldn’t take photos after we overcame the pass. We stop for lunch at Hanumil and a bunch of kids come to us and we treat them to chapatas (flat bread) with jam.
Two hours of walking later we reach the next village – Pidmo which looks big and prosperous from the distance. Strangely the more we get closer to it, the more rickety and abandoned it looks although there are people at it. We look for a shop, but they tells us there is none. Also there isn’t running water anywhere. We continue and cross a river that comes down from the mountain and we see that here and there clean water comes from the ground.
Then a local comes and starts filling his tube. Suddenly some black water starts running from above. The man starts shouting and runs away, we also start running towards the bridge because the small brook, running in front of the bridge, has already become pretty large. We manage to cross it somehow and we continue to the village looking for a place to camp. We turn aside and we see abandoned wind-mill behind some hills and other abandoned buildings. They are located in front of a big sand alluvium 50 m. away from Zanskar. In the distance we see snowy peaks and the beauty of the colors of the sunset, reflecting on the river and coloring all the cliffs in pink, leaves us speechless.
We decide to not pitch our tent because it is warm outside and instead we will sleep in the building. The wind-mill has its roof and it is perfect for two people with luggage.
Something that struck us is that the villages in the most remote valleys are more filled with life than these closer to the city. Everything in the last village we passed by was falling to pieces and there were whole abandoned neighborhoods. On the other side of the river there is an asphalt road that is destroyed by the landslides and looks like it has never been used. The road is maintained and is much better getting closer to Padum, but still nobody uses it. On our side of the river there is no road, just a path and in 6-7 hours walking we would reach Padum.
Final destination Padum
Last day of the trek (number 9). We are quite tired of so many days of walking with almost no rest. At noon we are ready to go. Walking is hard and the distances seem enormous to us, but can’t rest because we are almost out of food.
After 2-3 hours on the path, that goes up and down so many times, we somehow manage to drag ourselves to Pishu. All the people from the village, or at least the older ones, are sitting on a glade, have small wooden tables arranged in front of them and are drinking something from small cups. They call us to join them and pour us what they describe as Tibetan beer or chang that is made by fermented wheat and rice. There is also tsampa that you can add or eat it directly from the plate. In the center of the glade there are two women who pour in the people’s cups when somebody runs out of booze.
There are dirty babies running around and all the people look very picturesque in their traditional clothes. In the multitude I see a really nice granny with gigantic hat with strange shape, with a badge of Dalai Lama on it and a bracelet made of sea shells. The old men take out ancient book and start reading sutras. It turns out this is some kind of Buddhist celebration. All wear many suits of clothes including wool trousers and sweaters, and there is one guy with a thick winter jacket. When you are in the sun it is unbearably hot so I really don’t know how they don’t get a heat stroke. Finally the woman who pours drinks says it is very hot and puts on a wool hat on her head!
The alcohol we drink is affecting us now (the babies are also given little beer) and we became entranced from the constant sutra reading. It is really sweet that the people, from some far away poor village, gather together and pray for the enlightenment and the well-being of all the human race. This is the main idea of the gathering and the drinking is not so important part.
We get a little bit tipsy and take off. Good that the path is easy and straight : ) At some point the dirt road from Pishu turns into a small path that passes by the enormous Znaskar. At this point we realize that the whole road had been obviously taken away by the river. Three hours later we reach Rinam Village. It is getting dark and we stop at an abandoned wind-mill. Some minutes later a boy comes and says we have to pay 200 rupees camping fee.
We get angry and leave. Then we cross a small brook and reach some caves in the cliffs. They turn out to be comfortable for staying and there is a barrier against the wind made of rocks, which is cool because since we descended Zanskar it is very windy. Because of the alcohol we drank and the bad physical shape we were in we couldn’t reach the last village of the trek called Karsha. From this village starts an asphalt road so we can hitchhike. To reach it we have two more hours of walking. I am frustrated that we couldn’t charge our camera’s battery and we couldn’t photograph all this incredible places and people.