It is really hard for us, but we manage to walk for three whole hours and reach the Phugtal monastery. In total we have walked for 12 hours, but it is totally worth it. Right before the monastery there are wine red cliffs and the region is very beautiful. The monastery itself is built in the cliffs and the temple complex is in a giant cave. It belongs to the “Yellow hats” sect – Gelugpa and is really impressive. Dates back to 14-th century.
Views before reaching the monastery
Inside it there are many corridors, tunnels and staircases going here and there. We are just on time for the afternoon puja and this time we are also served milk tea with salt.
A boy, who happened to know English very well, showed us two side temples which he unlocked especially for us. The one that is at the top, just under the cave’s ceiling, is very old and darkened. Inside it there are statues of the protectors with cloth covering their faces. In front the table, on which the monks read sutras, there are several big drums. The boy says that one of them is made of human skin and asks us to touch it and feel the difference!!! You never know what strange surprises may await you in these monasteries…
In the second temple there is a stone plate dedicated to the first foreign explorer of Ladkh: a Hungarian who came in the region somewhere in the 19-th century and lived here for many years. He wrote several books describing in details the local culture and language. There are two more temples, but they are closed for tourists. While we are walking around, the boy tells us that the legend says that the first person came here to meditate as long as 2500 years ago.
He also says that just two months ago the river’s level rose significantly and carried away the school and most of the bridges in the region. We can tell by the marks on the cliffs that the level rose around 10 meters!!! I can’t imagine what it would have been if we were here May. Probably we would have stayed here for months on end waiting for the new bridges to be built.
The school and the hidden temple
After we finished sightseeing we started looking for a place to pitch our tent. But on this side of the river there are only cliffs and rocks so we decide to cross on the newly built bridge and go to the next village. The bridge is quite dreadful and it’s made of in-wrought twigs like a basket.
The bridge over Tsarap River
At the village they notice us immediately and we ask the people we see if we could sleep on the pasturing glade, which we noticed had almost no grass left on it. The owner replied with a firm “no” because, in her opinion, we would trample down the grass. We have to climb over the village’s fence and sleep on the rocks outside the village, but at least we find a relatively flat place. We remembered fondly the old Muslim man who was the only person who accepted us with open arms in Ladakh
Mill – they still use these to make flour
I don’t know what and how happened but we are filled with energy. Was it from the tea that the monks treated us, the enormous quantity of black tea we drank at breakfast or something else, but we are almost flying on the way back. We manage to cross the whole distance back and walk 8 hours like cyborgs. We reach the village with the mill and stay at a small glade surrounded by poplars and with a slight inclination.
Alas in the morning we are awakened in such a way that ruined half of our day. Some kids show and start shouting “come out” obviously sent by their parents to ask for money, saying this is their forest (?) We don’t pay them much attention and they stop harassing us. In the afternoon we walk for three hours till we reach Reru Village. We wait for a short while and a jeep comes by. We help the driver to load a cow-yak (mixture between a cow and a yak) which takes us half an hour and we go back to Padum.
Reserve for the winter – twigs and cow’s excrement
Two very nice things happened on the road. While passing by a nunnery a nun invited us to drink tea at her cell which was very comfortable with almost no furniture and just a few things inside. Good that it was that nice woman to make our mood better and wipe out the bad impressions that piled up lately. The other good thing is that we met two travelers: an American who goes around the globe by foot and a Slovenian anthropologist girl who wants to explore Indonesia. Sadly we had time to only stop and speak for a few seconds.
Something that we see and makes us sad is that the construction of the road goes full force and maybe we are one of the last people who make this trek before the road is finished. Then Lamayuru and Darcha will be connected with an asphalt road. I image that this will lead to increased traffic of Indian tourists, and construction of many shops and restaurants. Then, instead of walking the distance for several days on rocky pathways, you will arrive in just two-three hours.
The people, living in this remote valleys, will change their traditional lifestyle, which they’ve led for centuries, and will start living like everybody else. Which means we are very lucky to still meet people who don’t use Internet, phones and all the other devices that need electricity and the only means of transportations are horses and yaks. Although at some of the villages they already use solar panels life, here life still continues the way it used to be.
In the evening it rains again and we go back to our glade at Padum to sleep for a few hours and wake up unsuspecting of a crazy day.
Mr. Shushtari had spoken to the truck drivers from Kashmir to take us from Kargil which is located on the main road Srinagar – Leh. They’ll drive us to Zanskar region that is 270 km. away but it takes usually 8-9 hours to pass it because the road is terrible. There is no other alternative and we must wake up at 4 in the morning.
“The highway” Padum-Kargil
Our meeting is for 5 a.m. The sun is just rising and we see a group of Kashmir people coming out of a mosque and going our way. They behave cordially and accommodate us in the truck. There are three trucks that travel together and we stop pretty often to buy tea, biscuits or change places. We haven’t had breakfast and thanks God we have a lot of biscuits. Hours pass by as we drive on the road with no asphalt left. We see amazing view of snowy peaks and everything is relatively normal.
At noon we reach the foot of Panzi La Pass which is the only one on this road. Before we start climbing one of the truck drivers asks us for money. It turns out that they expect us to pay 1000 rupees per person (around 15 euro).
In total we have 700 rupees on us at the moment and there are no ATMs here so we can’t pay. We decide to get off at the next village. One of the drivers even implies that we have to get off here in the nothingness where there are only several semi-nomad stone houses and no chance to find food. The nomads can give us only yak milk and flour. Anyway the drivers are OK to take us to the next village which is 50 km further away.
Ancient craft for building roads by piling rocks
We continue travelling and suddenly we stop at a semi nomadic village. Several women are tearing to small pieces from some big chunks of half pot cheese, half butter. There are large herds of yaks pasturing around and it is very cold. Judging by the marmots we see running around we are 4500 m. (14 760 feet) above sea level. The Kashmir truck drivers get off the truck and start chipper with the nomads. It the beginning it seems that the negotiations don’t go well, but at the end they reach an agreement, buy a calf and put it at the back of the truck. It is startling that they buy it for just 600 rupees (9 euro). One of the drivers is rubbing his hands in delight and seems extremely happy.
The drivers who ditched us in the middle of the road. Can you find is Mr. Shushtari in the pic?
We start climbing the pass on the winding road, but after just a few bends a commotion builds. The trucks stop and people start flutter about. It turns out that the calf managed to jump out of the truck and was gone. We turn back and everybody starts searching. I pray all the time for them to not find it, but they do. Everyone calms down and we start climbing again. We are almost at the top when we stop and a Kashmir guy jumps out from the first truck with a grin on his face and a big knife in his hand.
They tell us to take a walk for a while. The only good thing I see in this is the very beautiful glacier next to us. The situation we are in is staggering – we haven’t eaten anything but a few biscuits since 4 a.m., it is now 2 p.m. and we had passed only 100 km. for 9 hours of jolting. They are about to leave us at some unknown village in the middle of nowhere on a road where few cars pass by and 99% of them are taxis. We have 10 euro left till I don’t know when, the only food we have left is a kilo (2 pounds) of flour and some lentils. On top of all this we now have to walk on the glacier while waiting for the drivers to slaughter the calf at the back of the truck where we ride.
Half an hour later Mr. Shushtari goes back to investigate what happened and sees the calf, all in blood, at the back of the truck. At the next turn we see a truck that was outside of the road, dangerously inclined over the steep slope. The drivers can do nothing and are just walking around.
Painting or photo? Visit the place and check for yourselves 🙂
Our group continued going up after we take two of the drivers of the out-of-service truck. We are now seven people in the cabin and manage to squeeze in somehow. Like this, and me dying from hunger, we continue climbing slowly. We cross the pass and then we stop again. It turns out they managed to cook the calf while in motion and started eating. At 5 p.m. we reach Rangdum Village and the not so pleasant driver asks us to get off. The village is not so small and there is even a restaurant and a shop where they are selling only biscuits. We are half way to Kargil and we are delighted that the horrible jolting has stopped for now. We rush to the restaurant and order rice with lentils and potatoes which is the only meal they serve. We fall upon it hungrily, sharp-set.
We notice something interesting here. There are many locals with big bags and saddlebags who are negotiating with the truck drivers to take them. This makes us think that they are the only means of transportation. Our trucks take 5-6 people and we are left in the nothingness. Our next task is to buy food but nobody wants to sell us anything than biscuits. Mr. Shushtari goes “hunting” for food around the village for two hours.
Inside a house at Rangdum Village
He manages to buy milk and yogurt as well as dried cheese and lentils. We found out that the nomad women strain and dry the yoghurt and then tear the mass to small pieces and make it in flat bits that look like coins. Obviously like this the lactose gets so concentrated that it tastes sweet. Mr. Shushtari told me he entered some houses and that it was really interesting inside them. At the end the owner of the restaurant takes pity on us and gives us two onions. We now have some food and we go around to look for a place to build our bivouac. Rangdum Valley is wide and it is easy to find a place. It gets very cold in the evening and although we put all of our clothes on we freeze. This is maybe the coldest place we have slept on though it is just 3800 m. (12 500 feet) above sea level.
Camping near the mill near Rangdum Village
The new day starts with a yak that tries to eat our sleeping bags. Then continues on with us lying on the road, training kung fu, talking and performing all kinds of activities while waiting for a car to pass by. Hours pass by and the road is empty. Till noon only two jeeps full of people and a military truck drove by. Around 1 p.m. a pick-up comes our way and we manage to persuade them to take us at the back.
Busy road… for 7 hours only 3 cars passed by
We sit on some sacks full of God knows what and the arduous jolting starts. Next to the road there are huge cliffs covered with ice and snow. We didn’t expect it to be so beautiful here. After an hour of driving we still have 70 km. left and I feel like crying. My brain is shaken more than I can bear. Soon we step on a road with actual asphalt on it and the situation becomes more bearable. We see more villages here and the architecture of the buildings change.
Even more views
We enter the Muslim region now and the houses look different, most have green frames on their windows. There are also much more trees. It starts getting dark when we reach Kargil. We are in shock from the “civilization”. There are shops everywhere, as well as buildings, people, cars, street vendors. We walk flurried and our eyes roll in all the directions. For more than fifteen days we have walked around the wild valleys of Zanskar where it was really hard to find even the more basic things like eggs and onion. Now we feel like some wild Tibetans who have never seen anything but snowy peaks and yaks.
Great Himalayan Range
It is getting dark and we have to find a place to sleep like right now. There are buildings everywhere – welcome to the city! But the Universe takes care of us and we materialize an empty park with many trees and flat spot. We pitch the tent and go to bed tired of the long day.
Kargil belongs to the Muslim community that are mainly Shia. The border with Pakistan is just 5 km. away. In 1999 there was a war between India and Pakistan here and we see many military bases in the area, but now things are calm. The town is small – it’s 30 minutes walking from end to end. The atmosphere is typical for the Muslim world – veiled women, mullahs with long robes and turbans, thousands of shops, muezzins asking people to come inside the mosques. We feel very comfortable here and we look around with interest.
First thing we do is buy all kinds of fruits – apricots, apples, papayas, melons, plums – we are buying like crazy. The second is to find an Internet café. They are everywhere here but typically for the region there is no connection for two days now and no electricity. The last thing is to draw money, but the only ATM is out of bills so we are left with the 200 rupees we have (3 euro).
Our next destination is Srinagar – the main city of Kashmir, totally connected to civilization. Our idea is to rest there for a few days from the harsh mountain conditions, treks, hitchhiking, the broken roads and to interleave with new atmosphere and culture (from Tibetan Buddhism to Islam), as well as to catch up with things in Internet which we haven’t used for twenty days now.
Then we will go to Leh for one last trek in Eastern Ladakh. This trek ends in Himachal Pradesh and from there we will descend from the mountains. The monsoon season should have been over by then and we would be probably able to travel normally. It is true that we will spend a lot of time in the Himalayas but after that it starts snowing and the roads are closed. We plan to spend some quality time in the tropics so now is the time to enjoy the mountains for the last time.
We go out of town and a truck full of vegetables takes us right away. We are at the back again and I feel sick from the bends but at least the road is good. We enter the town of Dras which is 60 km. away – this is the second coldest place on earth after Siberia. It is populated by some ancient Aryan people – the Dard people.
On arrival we immediately see many blond, blue eyed, tall people. We drink some tea at a hotel and then continue hitchhiking. Soon a big truck takes us. We travel for 20 km. and then we stop because it becomes late and all the vehicles have to stop before passing Zonji La. This pass, along with all the others, is closed for the winter and the regions of Dras and Kargil are isolated for months on end. Well in fact this is valid for all the areas in Ladakh.
We prepare our bivouac on a glade next to the road not far from where the trucks rest. Mr. Shushtari goes at the cabin of the driver to cook and later we have a delicious meal for dinner: lentils with rice.
Dinner in the truck going to Srinagar