The soft gold of Kashmir, crazy weather in the mountains, meeting the Changpa nomads and their herds and the magical Tso Moriri Lake

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Somewhere in the Himalayas

16.08

In the morning the owner of the property sees us and our tent, but miraculously just smiles and says nothing. We walk around Leh buying provisions all day long and manage to go out of town at 5 p.m. with a minibus.

We start hitchhiking and a truck with two guys from Manali takes us for 40 km. Then we start walking through some military areas and looking for a place to pitch our tent. There is almost no traffic now, just military jeeps pass by. It gets dark.

Suddenly we see a truck going in our direction and we decide to do a night hitchhiking session. Luckily they take us to Rumtse Village that is the starting point of the trek we plan to do. Both of the men in the truck are Punjabi. They treat us to tea and are very concerned about where we plan to sleep and what we will do. In general our impressions from Punjabi people are positive and everyone from this state we have met up to now is joyous and very nice.

Around 9-10 p.m. we arrive at Rumtse and settle our bivouac after the village.

17.08

We plan to walk two weeks close to the border with Tibet, an area that is desert-like and uninhabited. There are only temporary camps of the nomads Changpa in the region. These nomads are in fact Tibetans and have always migrated between Tibet and the Changtang Plateau in Ladakh, but unfortunately nowadays the border is closed and they can’t move freely. Most of them stayed on this part of the border after the closing. Traditionally they breed Pashmina Goat a.k.a. Chagtang Goat which gives pashmina wool – their main good for trading. They call it “the soft gold of Kashmir”.

For the whole trek we will pass only close to one village located at ten days walk from Rumtse on the coast of the enormous Tso Moriri Lake. In fact it is not even a village but some kind of headquarters of the nomads. Our starting point is at 4200 m. above sea level (13 800 feet) and after it we will always be above 4500 m. (14 800 feet) and most of the passes are at 5400 m. (17 700 feet) so we need to acclimatize well.

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Blue sheep horns

Today is the first day of the trek. Our rucksacks are extremely and unbearably heavy. Luckily the pathway climbs up Kaymar Valley and we have to reach the foot of the first pass. The valley is very beautiful with lots of pastures. The pathway is wide and flat and after walking for 5 hours we find ourselves at a camping space. There are no people. The weather is sparklingly sunny. For the whole day we met only one lonely tourist and two horsemen.

We plan our days better now. We get up at 6 a.m. and walk till 2-3 p.m. and then we rest solidly. Today we slept a few hours in the afternoon and woke up with headache. I noticed that when we sleep at an altitude higher than 4700 m. (15 400 feet) we don’t sleep well, but we have to adapt for this trek. At night temperatures fall down a lot, but we will get used to this too 🙂

18.08

The weather is cold and cloudy when we get up. Today we have to cross two passes that are at 5200 m. above sea level (17 060 feet). Good that the altitude displacement is not big and climbing is easy. On the first pass it starts snowing and gets foggy. After the pass the air clears and we enjoy the unreal beauty of the scenery. On the second pass it starts snowing again. Tonight we plan to pitch our tent at Tisaling’s pastures that are at 5000 m. (16 400 feet).

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Snow and fog

While walking we meet three German guys with a horse and local guides. We will probably see them these days since they will do the same trek. We also met the guy we saw earlier today who turned out to be A Czech from Brno (where we had lived for a year). We like each other and pitch our tents together. The Czech then treats us to homemade apricot alcohol (merunkovice) and we drink few shots.

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The mouse

19.08

This turned out to be the worst night since the beginning of the journey. The temperature is below zero and in the morning all is white frosted including our tent. We couldn’t sleep at all because of the headache and the shivering from the cold. We are very happy to see the sun rising. Today we have to cross a pretty high pass at 5300 m. (17 400 feet), luckily it is easy to pass and then we have several hours of walking to reach the salty lake Tso Kar.

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View after the pass

Today is a day for wild animals spotting. After the pass we see many different kinds: first we meet a few bharials or blue sheep and Mr. Shushtari takes off running to chase them on the cliffs. He manages to get close to them, but then they run away. Then we pass by a few glades with many holes of something that looks like a mixture between a hare and a mouse, we had seen them before in Markha Valley. While we are walking I almost step on one baby of the above mentioned kind, that was on the pathway and looked disoriented. I follow it for a few meters and then it suddenly freezes in shock. We give it a cookie and manage to caress it.

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I want to be an Ibex my next life

In the early afternoon we reach the lake. An asphalt road passes by, there are quite a lot of cars and we are close to civilization again for a while. We pitch our tent after a big tourist camp at a “low” altitude – 4500 m. (14 800 feet) so I hope we will be OK. While I am eating noodle soup in the distance we see silhouettes of some wild animals. I ditch the soup and start running towards them. When I get closer I see they are kiangs – Tibetan Wild Ass, but a jeep shows on the road and scares them.

While going back I suddenly start feeling unwell, I enter a swamp and wet my socks and I feel like my head is going to explode. I think this is a reaction to the strong sun. All day the sky is clear and we get burned. I start shivering and enter the tent. Mr. Shushtari is cooking lentils in the meanwhile and the same thing happens – suddenly he leaves the cooking site and starts running to see a few kiangs that came near us. In fact they look much more like zebras than donkeys.

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Kiangs

This night the weather is warmer and we sleep well. We feel even better when we hear in our sleep the sounds that the kiangs produce while grazing just a few feet from our tent.

20.08

Today we have to go around the lake on a dirt road passing on its southern side. In fact it is so big that we will probably walk for few hours. In the beginning the dirt road follows the lake’s shore and the views are very beautiful. The water is sparklingly blue and there are little salt islands on the sides. The name of the lake Tso Kar translates exactly like this – The White Lake. Traditionally nomads used to come here to gather salt and then trade it for other goods.

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The salt lake Tso Kar

In two hours we go around it and then we walk for an hour and a half on a desert-like scenery with some grass here and there and at the end we reach the nomad settlement called Nurichan. We find a spring with pure water and thanks God there is one because we have only one liter of water on us and the sun is burning hot. Because of this the last leg of the walk costs us great efforts. When we arrive I drink a lot of water and then fall asleep on the ground exhausted.

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 Mani – praying stones wall

The settlement Nurichan is empty because all the nomads Changpa are up in the mountains pasturing their animals. They come here to spend the harsh winters. We see some other vacant settlements on the road. The buildings they inhabit in the winter are very simple – made of stone and clay bricks, with very few windows that are just wholes with no glass.

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A place where nomads pitch their tents

In a dozen kilometer radius there are no trees nor bushes to burn. Next to the houses there are only dried cow excrements that are probably the only thing one can make fire with. In the yards there are piles of animal skins. We peek in one of the houses and see that they don’t even have furniture. Of course there isn’t electricity either. The soil is dry, sandy and with stones. The nomads aren’t here in the summer so they don’t grow anything, but even if they were I doubt it anything could grow here or that any nomad would occupy oneself with agriculture.

Probably their only food is milk, cheese, meat and flour which they buy from somewhere else. Before I thought that people in Zanskar had hard way of life but the people here surpassed all my expectations. I hope we will see them somewhere around the pastures next to Tso Moriri Lake.

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The sign says: Take outmost care while walking on the pastures near the wetlands. By your little ignorance you maybe crushing the eggs of poor little bird who nest on these small grasslands

In the late afternoon herds of kiangs come very close to us, just a few hundred feet away. They are coming to drink water here. We watch their strange behavior and them running around. There are also many interesting birds in the air and in the mud we spot аn animal trail that could only be of a snow leopard. The feeling of being in the wild, surrounded by animals, is unique.

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Salty island

This is the best trek so far – total wilderness except the asphalt road on the northern side of the lake. There are no tent camp, no villages and local people walking around them. This really is the trek we have dreamed for!

21.08

We sleep well at 4600 m. altitude (15 100 feet) and early in the morning we head south. Three hours later we reach a pasture that the nomads Changpa use in the summer.

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Nomad highway

Flat area surrounded by mountain chains with vegetation and a river passing close by. There are at least twenty nomad tents and we can see their huge herds. Every herd has at least 200 sheep and goats. The goats, which produce pashmina wool, are the majority. They have fluffy white wool and very curved horns.

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Behind me – the pashmina goats

When we reach the camp we enter a tent with the idea to talk to the nomads who we wanted to meet so much. Men aren’t around, there is only an old woman and a mother with her little girl who is dancing all the time. They invite us to drink tea – with salt of course.

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The dancing girl and her mother

Inside their tent is quite dirty and there is a small stove and an altar with the photo of Dalai Lama on it. We notice that they burn the roots of a thorny grass that grows everywhere in the area. When we sit on the rugs on the ground we feel heat coming from below – it turns out that the nomads are clever: they heat stones on the stove and then sit on them or put it under their beds. We ask if they have butter and they give us a chunk. It is white and tastes like something between butter and curds – it is undoubtedly the best butter we have ever tried.

Despite their hard way of life, hard from our point of view of course, they are totally adapted to conditions here and are not poor at all – they all have nice jeeps and trucks. The family, who owns 200 sheep and goats, is wealthy for sure even if their life differs a lot with the notion of living like the rich in the western world.

In the summer nomads climb up to 5000 m. altitude (16 400 feet) because the grass is greener and in the winter they go down to the lakes Tso Kar and Tso Moriri where the snow is not that much, respectively the animals can pasture and the weather is “warm”. Herds are being transferred through the valleys and the tents and the luggage is taken with the jeeps on the dirt road from Tso Kar to here.

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Nomadic tent

There are of course many nomads living in the neighboring valleys where there is no road but on this pasture (it’s called Rajung Karu) there are many of them. The modern nomads have smart phones which are not bad at all and other useful things from the civilization below but they continue living in their millennia old way. This make us wonder: why do they continue to do it? It is now very easy for them to drive a few hours to the closest city and live in eternal summer among the many benefits of civilization. They will no longer need to hide in the stone houses at minus 30 degrees in the winter (minus 22 Fahrenheit) that lasts 7-8 months and to pasture the herds in the cold summer.

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Inside

While I think about this questions with no answers the next question comes automatically in my mind: why do we all live the same way as the rest in our society where we are born and raised and supposedly have free choice and could live in any way we want to, but in fact we always choose what we know – for one this is the stuffy office in some polluted city, for others it is the tent at some cold mountain, it doesn’t actually matter what or where the place is, we are never really free, never really choosing, always following “our herd”. I strayed here… and so after the tea break we decide to camp after we cross the next pass.

The climbing tires us in a somewhat pleasant way. The pass looks really close, but we walk for 2 hours and at the end we have to stop every 2 minutes. The altitude is 5400 m. (17 700 feet) and this obviously affects us. Right at the pass it gets very windy and stars snowing. All day long the weather was cloudy and windy, but this is exactly what we want now because walking under the sun is hard and usually gets you headache at the end of the day. But the snow storm doesn’t make us very happy either. Almost running we manage to get to the pastures down and we hurry to pitch our tent.

We will sleep at such high altitude 5200 m. (17 050 feet) for the first time and we expect it to be а real challenge. In the afternoon the temperatures are already zero degrees Celsius (32 Fahrenheit) and our hands are stiff from the cold. Now is the moment to say something about how we are equipped. When we started this journey we didn’t plan to stay such a long time at the Himalayas and to do all these treks so we hadn’t taken any winter clothes or equipment. We said to ourselves that there is no need to carry it because we will be 90 % of the time in the tropics.

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Peaks

So in Ladakh we bought second hand equipment – used sweaters that had lost their colors, hundredth use snowboard pants and rubber boots for the snow. We also have a very old sleeping bag, which we use both, and underneath it we put a thin sleeping bag made in China. The tent is made in China too. So with this “incredible” equipment we sleep here already for the second time, but there are moments when the situation gets quite hard.

The only way to survive the night when temperatures fall 5 degrees Celsius below zero (23 Fahrenheit) is to put on all the clothes we have, heat some rocks on our stove and put them in the sleeping bag. Our already very thin sleeping mat doesn’t insulate us enough from the frozen ground, but the rocks are doing great job and keep us warm all night long.

Our problems came when we got altitude sickness symptoms. We adapted already, but 5200 m. (17 050 feet) is very high and the problem is that yesterday we slept at 4600 m. (15 100 feet) which is 600 m. (2000 feet) difference and it must not be more than 300 m. (1000 feet) per night. The difference is really big at this level. The more hours one stays at this altitude the higher the probability to sleep badly. So this night I get terrible headache and nausea. I barely manage to sleep and breathe with difficulty.

Every time I fall asleep I stop breathing and wake up with oxygen deficiency, very unpleasant feeling. When I am awake I breathe normally, but the moment I start falling asleep things get tricky. To this you can add other small discomforts such as giant calluses on my legs, cleaves on my heels, bleeding and dry lips, dry and aged skin and a few days without shower… writing this even I wonder why we do this. But then I peek outside the tent and see the extraterrestrial scenery inhabited only by gods…

22.08

In the morning the terrible night seems like a dream to us. We get out of our sleeping bags and we momentarily freeze. Mr. Shushtari starts preparing something outside without gloves on his hands and one of his fingers starts bleeding from the cold. We leave at 10 a.m. because we wait for the weather to get a little bit warmer. The weather is dark and cloudy. We plan to walk only 3 hours today, to cross an easy pass and sleep on the pasture grounds after it. Yesterday we walked for 7 hours and today we want to rest more.

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The snow storm at the pass

We climb the peak (5300 m. – 17 400 feet) and a terrible snow storm hits us. The snowflakes are like needles pinching our faces. Luckily it lasts only half an hour and when we get to the pastures it is sunny. While we search for a place for the tent another storm comes and covers us with snow. We pitch the tent and it is so sunny again that one can take a sun bath. This happened again several times in the afternoon.

It went like this – first black clouds appear behind the peak, stormy wind starts blowing and all gets white from the snow. Then 15 minutes later the sky is blue and the sun is warm. We have never seen such a thing.

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The changing weather

Today our bivouac is at 5000 m. (16 400 feet) which is 200 m. (600 feet) lower than yesterday so we hope we will rest well. Tomorrow will be a long day because we have to cross the highest pass of the trek (5 400 m. – 17 720 feet) and then we have to get down to Tso Moriri Lake at Korzog Village where there are shops and asphalt road.

23.08

When we wake up in the morning everything, including our tent, is covered with thin ice. The night was not easy, but at least I could breathe 🙂 The sun came up and we could warm our frozen bodies.

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Enjoying the sun

We start climbing immediately and luckily the climb is easy and three hours later we are at Yalung Niala Pass (5450 m. – 17 900 feet) which is the highest place we have ever been at. We are breathing with ease and the weather is clear so we enjoy the incredible views.

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Mentok Range

Tso Moriri – the enormous lake that is incredibly beautiful, like a sapphire in the icy wilderness, flashes in a magnificent way below us. Behind it is the snowy mountain chain with several peaks above 6000 m. – 19 700 feet. This is the most surreal scenery we have ever seen.

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Tso Moriri Lake in the distance

 

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Tso Moriri

On this trek we met three women from Switzerland who were 60, 50 and 40 years old. They said they came here to climb some peaks above 6000 m. – 19 700 feet. They made us really happy because usually women older than 40-50 years consider themselves weak housewives who get tired even after a short walk in the park, to say nothing of such an adventure. I hope more middle-aged women to participate in such adventures instead of waiting for the old age to seize them.

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The incredible women from Switzerland

The view is so staggering that we don’t want to get down. Instead we decide to climb a closeby peak in order to have broader view. We think it is about 5600 m. – 18 380 feet. Going up we start see more and more peaks everywhere. It is sad that we are not well enough equipped to climb a peak above 6000 m. – 19 700 feet. I am sure the experience will be unforgettable. Next time we come here we will be more prepared for sure.

It takes us 3 hours to get down the nomadic pasture. We decide to stop here to rest and cook and then go to the village to buy food and charge our camera’s battery. The wind is blowing sand everywhere. We manage to find protection next to a bridge. On the pasture ground there are dozens of crazy looking donkeys (kiangs) that are running, braying, kicking out and chasing each other. We also see a dozen of tents that belong to the nomads.

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Sand storm

We cook pasta and it is almost ready when our stove breaks. We get worried because without it it will not be possible to continue. While we are trying to light it again a boy comes to us and we start chatting. We ask him about life here and he says that now the nomads are going around the lake and then will head to Tibet for the winter. He also says that they prefer living here than in Delhi for example. We ask him if we can buy cheese and butter and he takes us to his tent. Inside it there is a surprise. It turns out that a very interesting person, a French painter, who up to now had worked on some project sponsored by some museum in New York, had come here to live with the nomads for the next 10 days. He had finished his project, but he decided to stay more time.

He grazes the animals with the nomads and actually does everything with them. He is a notable person with interesting ideas. His help for us comes as if by magic. We need a permit to continue, but we don’t have it and he gave us one that he had received from some Russian guy some time ago. In fact originally it belonged to a French guy and his German girlfriend, but now we have it and we sigh with relief though we know Indians don’t care much about these things. Then he tells us about some very big house where we can sleep because is empty and has the key under the door mat. We are amazed every time something like this happens… whether you call it luck or something else.

Inside the tent is warm and cozy, the stove is burning and the old lady treats us to tea. Then we buy goat’s butter and cheese that is made by boiling yoghurt. They show us the pashmina wool that they sell for 5300 rupees per kilo (around 90 euro). The French guy said that it is very cold inside the tent in the evening, but the nomads don’t light the stove. Before we left he gave us apples and that was the end of this magical meeting. We are very happy to have apples because here one can’t buy fruits, maybe a few kinds of vegetables (not always) from Kozrog.

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With the nomads

We asked the boy whether they eat fruits and vegetables and he said that usually they don’t. Somedays in the summer one can buy here potatoes, onions and cabbage, but just 20-30 years ago even this was impossible. The caravans went on missions to bring flour, sugar and other basic goods from Leh, but back then it took them eternity – Kozrog-Leh is 240 km.

I’d really like to ask a nutritionist how anyone can survive without eating fruits and vegetables. Not only that, but people here look healthier than us!

It is getting dark and after our visit at the tent we start descending down the river bend. It is warm thanks God and we find a glade and pitch our tent. My body feels really comfortable at this “low” altitude. We fall asleep tired, but with smiles on our faces because of this incredible day.

24.08

We lie in the sun all the morning. Our food and the kerosene for the stove are over so we have to go to the village. It takes us 40 minutes to get there. We leave our bags in the first camp and go shopping. They are just delivering vegetables from Leh so buy as much as we can carry. If we had come yesterday we wouldn’t be able to buy even one onion. We charge our camera and after that we go around the local monasteries.

We saw the house that the French guy told us about, but we decided to not enter. And good that we did because in the evening we saw lights inside. We pitched the tent next to the fence of the house close to a beach. We went to the lake and we couldn’t believe how transparent and blue the water was – absolutely surreal.

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Dalai Lama’s house

25.08

We are still sleepy in the morning and talking about the incredible blue lake that we can’t wait to see again, when an old man comes and wants to fine us because camping near the lake is prohibited. The truth is we saw a sign yesterday, but looking at it we understood that here one couldn’t drink alcohol, light fire, have party and enter the lake – it didn’t say anything about sleeping. (All this prohibitions are voted by the local Youth Buddhist Organization because of the crazy parties the Indian tourists organized here).

The old man insists that the fine is 10 000 rupees and gives us another reason: the house next to us belongs to Dalai Lama (yes, this is the same house that the French guy told us to sleep in) 🙂 We say that we won’t pay a penny and the old man leaves. After breakfast we leave too. We had decided to walk a few hours next to the lake and lose one selves into the wild before we start our last leg of the Himalayan journey that will last probably about a week.

Walking away from Kozrog the scenery is getting wilder and wilder. We don’t meet any person – nor locals, nor tourists. Walking next to the lake is magical. One cannot even imagine the blue color it has and when one looks inside it the bottom resembles snowy mountain peaks. We have heard of the power of the Tibetan lakes, but visiting one is quite an experience – one isn’t sure if he is awake or dreaming.

The only unsettling thing in the region is that there are many military bases on the other shore. There are many activities going on there and now we get it why there are so many signs saying “no photos allowed”, but everyone, including us, disregard the signs and take photos all the time. Recently they have also forbidden to climb the two peaks on the other shore. All this is because last year the Chinese came here with trucks demonstrating military power. Thanks God there was no armed conflict.

Three hours later we are far enough from military people and bases and we find a tucked away bay with a beach. We try to enter the lake, but the water is freezing. There is no river or spring next to us, but we decide to stay and boil the water from the lake. We lie on the beach for several hours and then suddenly, as if by magic, from above starts flowing water that comes from the melting glaciers. The beach is very beautiful and finally we “go to the sea” on vacation, though we are 4600 m. – 15 000 feet above sea level. The moon is full tonight and the lake is sparkling. Really this is the most magical place I have ever been to in my life!

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