Category Archives: Himalayas

Day 9 – June 20 – Down to Hemis

The last day of the first section of our trek took us down an easy trail to the Indus valley. Most of it was actually a lightly traveled road that the Border Roads Organization (BRO) had built to a town in the valley. We could only speculate why BRO felt it important to make a paved road to 20 houses in a blind valley.

After lunch, we took a bridle path parallel to the Indus over to another side valley that held our final destination, Hemis Monastery. Hemis was holding a famous monastic festival the next day, and its campgrounds were already packed. We set up in an overflow campsite by some stupas at the entrance of the valley.

After a little rest and some baths, we walked up to the monastery. Hemis is the largest monastery in Ladakh, having been patronized by the king. It is associated with the Drukpa sect based in Bhutan, whose leader was already in town. The main structures are four stories tall and include a large standing statue of Guru Padmasambhava, who often figures large in Tibetan Buddhist iconography. The monks were busy preparing for the next day's festival.

Day 10 – June 21 – Hemis festival first day

We got up early to stake out a place because we knew it was going to be crowded. The Hemis festival has become famous among European tour groups, whose white-haired flocks swoop in to watch a few hours of monk dancing every year. The better seats are reserved in blocks at about $7 each and with thousands of visitors, this probably funds the monastery.

We had several hours to wait while the monks did pujas inside. The presence of the sect's leader and a young rimpoche (reincarnated lama) meant everyone needed extra time to be blessed.

By the time the dancing started around 11, the courtyard was jammed with people, both tourists and locals. With only one entrance, the crowd turned into a crush of people just below us pushing and shoving to get in or out. Fortunately, there aren't any fire marshals in this part of India, and even more fortunately no one got hurt while the show went on.

The dancing was impressive for a time. At its climax, there were close to 50 masked dancers in the courtyard, including a large masked figure of Guru Padmasambhava and a smaller Sakyamuni Buddha, who obviously takes second billing in these parts. At the end of the morning the tourists clapped as if they had been to the theater and then most of them left.

The afternoon's dances were short and surprisingly simple. They did have a torma effigy as we had seen elsewhere, but they dispatched it with a few quick whacks instead of the intense ceremony that usually takes much of one or two days. The afternoon finished anticlimactically with a dance of monks in animal masks, then everyone packed up and left to visit the museum.

So far, we were a little disappointed with this the most famous festival. Although it put on a grand show neatly packaged in a few hours for the tourists, it seemed shallow compared with the traditional local festivals that drew few tourists and stretched from morning until night. Perhaps with the tour buses gone, the second day will be more like that.

Day 11 – June 22 – Hemis festival final day

The second day of the Hemis festival was more low-key and actually more to our liking. Although the dancing started late and ended early and lacked the flashy big masks of Guru Padmasambhava and his followers, it seemed more unified and real. Most of the audience was local and it had less of the feeling of a performance for tourists.

Most of this day's dance was devoted to neutralizing and then slaying an effigy of evil spirits, much as we had seen at other festivals. In the long morning wait while pujas were conducted inside the monastery's assembly hall, a monk made a small triangular platform out of tsampa (barley meal). The effigy, also made of tsampa, was later placed on this platform at an appropriate moment in the dance.

After some preliminaries, a group of masked monks made a circle around the platform. Groups of four among them were dressed as different types of people – monks, turbaned merchants, protector gods, and so forth. Each group paid their respects to the platform by dancing around it.

With the effigy now in place, a group of masked gods came out for the serious business of destroying the effigy and its evil spirits. Led by a god with the head of a yak, they danced deliberately in a large circle. Finally the yak-headed god made a clean slice with his sword and severed the effigy's head. Evil had been defeated for another year.

Next came the four skeletons to finish the work. These younger monks danced energetically and sometimes hassled photographers who had encroached too far into the ring. Then they settled down for the serious work of destroying the tsampa platform, which might have inherited some evil spirits when the effigy was slain. While two of them lifted the effigy, the others used their feet to scatter the tsampa.

The dancing ended with a comic routine where a few masked monks brought out their own instruments and played them. These slapstick routines are a common feature of these monk dances, breaking up the seriousness and keeping the crowd under control. In this case, the routine distracted the crowd while the regular musicians packed their instruments and left.

We got back to Leh around 4:30 and checked into our hotel for a final night before leaving on the second part of our trek. Leh's internet connection was fortunately working, so I was able to complete all of the business that I had left hanging at our previous departure.

Day 12 – June 23 – The drive to Honupatta

The first day of the next part of our trek was devoted to getting to the trailhead at Honupatta. Although it was only a bit over a hundred kilometers, the roads were very bad and took almost six hours.

There was a lot of water. Recent warm days had caused the snow to melt, and every river was close to flood stage. The Indus, normally a large, sedate river became a muddy torrent when the Zanskar river joined it.

Along the way we stopped at a garden restaurant where a high lama was also eating. Seated under a yellow canopy, the lama had to interrupt his lunch repeatedly to bless a series of locals. He didn't seem to mind.

Because of the spectacular canyon scenery, many people start this trek in Lamayuru and walk two days up the road that was recently punched part of the way into the mountains. That would have been nice, but we were now on a tight schedule to get to our plane flights. By visiting both days of the Hemis festival, we limited the rest of our trip to 18 days, which was just enough if we cut off these days by driving as far up as we could. So we enjoyed the canyons from the windows of our taxi.

Even the small stream where we camped was a large flood rushing down the mountain. During the night, we could hear rocks rolling like bowling balls in the stream.

Day 13 – June 24 – Sirsir La

Our first day walking again was one of our longest. From our campsite at Honupatta, we had to walk up a long valley and over the 4800-meter Sirsir La pass. Although we were already acclimatized and the long climb was gradual, we had to gain over 1000 meters (3300 feet).

The weather began overcast with a few drops of rain, but gradually improved as we crossed the pass.

From the pass, we got good views in both directions. From the west from where we had come, there were other-worldly colored rock spires. To the southeast was a large valley, which we would spend the next two days crossing up to the snow-covered Sengge La pass, which we could see in the far distance.

Our horses were far behind us when we got to our campsite, so I took an additional walk down the valley to take pictures of the village of Photoksar, which is perched on a hillside.

Numerous people passed me and were very friendly. One man had a pair of mules carrying a young goat in each pouch.

Day 14 – June 25 – Climbing to base camp

The climb from Photoksar to the Sengge La base camp was not difficult. We first climbed over a small pass called the Bumitse La and then contoured up a long valley as far as possible until we reached the snow. There we camped so that we could climb the pass early the next morning.

We got our first bit of unsettling news along the trail when we met a team of mules going the other direction. At first this was encouraging because it showed at least one group had made it over. But as our guide talked with their team leader it became clear that the bad weather had indeed made two of the upcoming passes difficult, at least for pack animals. The Sengge La right ahead of us was indeed snowy and slippery at the top, and a later pass called Hanuma La required going through a narrow gorge that had deep snow from previous avalanches. This team had actually lost one mule in that stretch.

Over dinner it became clear that our plans were not to be. While we were resting, our guide and animal men had gone partway up the pass and at least one of the donkey men had declared himself unwilling to go on. It was not surprising given the pitiful state of the tiny animals he had brought, which seemed to have trouble carrying loads on level ground. But we were quite frustrated with our high-priced trekking company who had not even breathed a doubt about our planned route even though it must have been known that no one was getting through and they could not get strong animals.

Frustrated or not, we had to make an alternate plan. Our guide was great, proposing we climb to the pass in the morning and then return by an alternate route through the canyons we had rushed through earlier. We would then take a car on the long but scenic road into the Zanskar valley and continue with the final part of our trek.

At least the weather was finally clearing, which meant a cold night and hard snow for the next morning's climb.

Day 15 – June 26 – Singge La and back

We got up at 5 and were on the trail by 6:30. The cold snow was hard as rock, leading me to grouse to our guide that if the donkey men weren’t willing to walk on this they should never work for his company again. The final switchbacks, however, did become steep and icy, though no real problem for us.

At least we made it to the pass and the weather was superb. At 4950 meters (16,000 feet), Sengge La is the highest pass on this leg of the trip, and it crosses the spine of the Zanskar range, which is higher than the Himalaya in this area. Below us we could see the deep Zanskar river gorge and the Great Himalaya range beyond. The trail beyond would have skirted arount the mountains to the right and crossed several lower passes before descending to Padum in the valley. It looked so close, but it will take us two days of backtracking and three days of driving to get there.

By 10:00, when we began descending, the snow was already starting to get soft. I broke through in many places but was able to keep bouncing down the slope without trouble. Passing through the base camp, we picked up our lunches and continued back the way we had come the previous day.

At least the weather was now nice, so we could see the mountains and valleys that we’d missed in the rain and clouds of the previous day.

To make arrangements for Plan B, we had to hike all the way back to the satellite phone at Photoksar, retracing the whole of Day 14 in addition to the summit climb. By the end of about ten hours of walking, Marcia and I were both dragging butt. We slept very well that night.

Day 16 – June 27 – The Canyon

This day made up for having to change our plan.

Below Photoksar there are two routes. Like almost everyone, we had come on Day 12-13 over the less direct route driving up the new road and then crossing the Sirsir La. Despite the pass and the longer distance, that normal route is easy, even for our pathetic donkeys. In fact, the road will cross this route by the end of this year once they fill in a bunch of washouts.

But there is another secret route that only locals seem to take. Just below the village, the Photoksar creek joins the water coming down from Sengge La and enters a long, narrow canyon that eventually comes out at the road. Until a few years ago, the trail was very bad, but it had recently been improved with bridges and ledges through the narrow parts. So we could go straight down the canyon while our animals and luggage went back over the pass.

The canyon was one of the most beautiful I have ever been in. Crossing the geological zone between the Indian and Asian tectonic plates, it went through jumbled, colorful rocks that had once lain at the bottom of the Tethys Sea. The mountains above had fantastic knife-edge spires. I remarked that if this canyon happened to be in the United States, it would be the most famous of our national parks, not even the Grand Canyon able to match its splendor and variety. Yet here it was a minor trail used only by local people.

At the road junction a bus from Leh was unloading about twenty workers, teachers and monks who were about to head up the path we had just descended. Among their luggage was a pair of three-meter-high posts for the large prayer wheels at Lingshed monastery on the other side of the pass.

Our truck was waiting having already picked up our luggage from the donkeys at the end of the road. We camped at the town of Wanla, which we had passed through four days before.

Day 17 – June 28 – Wanla to Lamayuru

The last day of our abortive hike into Zanskar was a relatively short walk from Wanla over a relatively low 3700 meter pass to Lamayuru, the monastery town where we had already visited a festival earlier in June just before the start of our treks. This hike was actually unnecessary since we had already made it back to a road and we had a taxi waiting, but since we had time we decided to take in what has classically been considered the first day of this trek.

I got in trouble with Marcia by calling it a “low pass,” since the 500-meter (1600 foot) climb was still a significant effort. The terrain was not the spectacular canyons of the previous day but rather a series of dry washes reminiscent of Death Valley. Still, it was nice in a deserty way and it was satisfying to see the back of the large monastery when we rounded the final bend.

After lunch we were back on the road – the very long and bumpy road to the Zanskar valley. The two and a half day journey was one of the things we were trying to avoid by hiking in, but with that not an option we settled into the rhythm of an Indian road trip.

The first afternoon's drive was along the supposedly good road that connects Leh to Srinigar. We only had to go halfway to Kargil, and we had already covered half of that distance by starting in Lamayuru. Even so, it took us three hours to cover 65 kilometers (40 miles) because the boys from BRO had done an excellent job tearing up the pavement. It seems they were trying to widen the strategically important road to two lanes, but rather than do a few kilometers at a time they just tore up everything. One lone paving machine had finished about 500 meters, but the rest was like a giant construction zone.

At one point the road was blocked by a minor accident that had happened when a military truck had scraped a commercial truck on a narrow bend. They couldn't have been going more than 2 kilometers per hour and the Moslem driver of the commercial truck claimed had had been stationary, which was probably true. But with thirty Indian military men from the convoy immediately joining the argument, it seemed likely he might have to pay for the ripped canvas. Fortunately we got them to move the trucks off the road so we could get by.

Just before stopping for the night, we passed a carved rock with a large Buddha that may be more than 2000 years old, dating from the first wave of Buddhist expansion across India.

Day 18 – June 29 – Kargil and the Suru valley

Because we camped about 30 kilometers before Kargil, it took us an hour and a half to drive into town in the morning. While in town, I had to do a little business on the internet and we had to change to a different taxi, because in this part of the world each town has its own taxi union and they won't let other towns' taxis do through or round-trip business.

Kargil is an interesting town even though the tour books don't think so. Although politically in the Ladakh region and with a Ladakhi-speaking population, the town is predominantly Shiite Muslim, with a main square named Ayatollah Khomeni chowk. The market is bustling with people, much more than any we had seen since southern India. No one seems to take notice of the tense Line of Control only 7 kilometers (4 miles) to the north, where less than ten years ago India and Pakistan fought one of their many wars.

We next rolled and bumped down the mostly dirt toad through the Suru Valley, a winding alpine area that passes along the base of the 7100-mete Nun and Kun mountains. The weather was not so good, so our pictures are poor, but the scenery was amazing nonetheless. Glaciers poured into the valley right down to the rushing stream. In the high end of the valley, settlements were few and limited to police checkposts and communication facilities. The only place Marcia and I could think of anywhere similar was Alaska.

We camped at Rangdum, about halfway from Kargil to Padum, our destination in the Zanskar valley.