We set off in fine fettle into the high-altitude desert wilderness from the small village of Spituk, a scattering of mudbrick houses beneath a surprisingly large monastery. Fields busy with harvesting families, singing in rhythmic chants as they scythe the golden barley, give way to the expanse of mustard-coloured rock that covers this region wherever a river is not. We three tramp energetically along, the only sound the off-key whistling of Skarma, our guide, and Nick’s trumpeting behind (his guts are still not quite right).
Before long the mountains encroach and we are, I suppose, engorged. A turquoise tributary of the Indus snakes through the gorge and we follow it, delving deeper into the mountains. We walk on and up until I can no longer stand the delicious promise of the packed lunch tiffin in my bag and we stop for some sustainence. It’s 10.30.
Belly full, and with the niggling disappointment at not having my lunch to look forward to (I resolve to be more disciplined on subsequent days), we march on unstopping until 12.30, at which time the others eat their lunch. Nick kindly shares his sandwich with me, but it is too late for my mood: in a fit of meanness, I ban Skarma from whistling, telling him he can sing only because he does that in tune.
Skarma, half-Tibetan, half-Nepali, who grew up in Ladakh, is the essence of untroubled Buddhist acceptance. He gently acquiesces and the rest of the day’s walk is spent in silence (apart from Nick’s arse percussion). We reach our camping spot in the afternoon and it’s a cheery site. Our ponyman Nurbu has already set up the kitchen tent and our bed-tent with the help of trainee guide-to-be 18-year-old Ribu. The four ponies, which have carried most of our equipment, are nose-bagged up like Japanese commuters anxious to avoid swine flu, and the kettle is on.
We enjoy a delicious dinner, cooked up by Skarma, and I assuage my guilt by begging for some songs like a weirdly enthused fan of obscure Himalayan folk music. He obliges and we spend a lovely evening under the stars, Nick enthusiastically whittling away at a stick with one of his knives, the horses and me well fed and the three Himalayans chatting away together. A shepherd passes us, dressed in his warm Ladakhi coat but also sporting a pair of jeans and familiar pinkish 70’s sunglasses.
Next morning we rise early – mainly due to the pony bells that are ringing around our tent as they hunt for scraps, and head onwards and upwards. Every step we take, every breath we make, the air grows thinner (as Sting might have remarked). At this altitude, even the smallest movement leads to panting. Eventually, we climb out of the steep-sided gorge and into the less gorgeous but equally stunning. Ahead, and frighteningly high, stands the pass we will clear tomorrow. We walk through Rumbok village, until recently cut-off completely from the ‘progress’ of other villages, and stop to spin the prayer wheel in the little gompa. NGOs have been busy here: there is a polythene greenhouse in the field below, growing veggies for winter, there is a newly constructed microhydro for the village and some PV panels are visible. And two of the smarter houses have boards outside advertising ‘authentic homestay’. Climbing to the top of the village, we see some evidence of older animist practice mingling easily with Tantric Buddhism – some horn offerings and other signs of worship.
We press on to our next camp site, a wind-battered patch of relative flatness, 4000 metres up. It’s freezing cold and we busy ourselves eating (me) and preparing a fire (Nick). Nick unveils one of his survival gadgets and is rewarded with possibly the most appreciative audience ever, as the three guys gather round to watch and try in awe-struck joy. It’s a fire-steel, admittedly quite a fun toy, which when struck with the non-blade edge of Nick’s knife, sends off a fountain of sparks. Everyone has a go, and then we get down to the serious business of fire-making, which involves dung collection (the only fuel up here) and any scraps of card packaging we find. The fire is wonderful, although I am a lttle concerned at Nick being so close to it in his current condition, imagining the stone: ‘Here lies Nick, a windy man. His flatulence proved his undoing’.
I drag stories out of our mountain friends, learning that Nurbu the ponyman is from a nomadic tribe and moved to Leh only a year ago so that his aging parents could get medical care. He misses his old life terribly and has already been back once. I ask about his nomadic life via Skarma, who translates. There are two main tribes of nomadic peoples in these mountains, one is Tibetan and one Ladakhi. They are friendly with each other but culturally very distinct from the clothes they wear to the shape of the stone houses they build. Skarma interjects to tell me that he doesn’t see there being any nomadic families left in 10 years’ time because they are all moving down to Leh. This tragedy could be averted if the government provided basic medical facilities for the nomadic region, he says.
I ask Nurbu about the animals he sees in the mountains. Lots of wolves, snow leopards, eagles, he says. We strain our eyes against the dusk, searching for snow leopards. But we see only rock disappearing into more rock. It’s too warm for them here now, Skarma says. In Rumbok, the villagers are often visited by snow leopards during wintertime, and their livestock are gobbled.
Skarma described the changes he’s seen to the climate during his short 25 years. September here would be snow covered, he says. The mountains, now almost bare of glaciers here, had many even low down. The rivers ran full and filled irrigation channels easily, he says, but since the glaciers disappeared, they have dwindled to streams and many no longer reach the Indus. He points out a mountain ahead that rises 6121 metres. “We take groups on expeditions up there,” he says. “Last month, for the first time, we didn’t need crampons and ice-picks – the glacier was so wet we couldn’t cross it safely, but we could walk easily to the top,” he says in wonder.
We pass a cold cold night and leave early for our high pass. It’s just shy of 5000 metres up and higher than Nick or I have aver been. We struggle to breathe, struggle to climb, struggle to keep from tumbling down, but we make it. It’s beautiful, our Shangri-La, and we tie on the prayer flag that Skarma brought specially.
Only a few minutes to enjoy the view, eat half my lunch and then it’s down down down to the gorge below. But we are heroes now and the mountain flies beneath our feet. Great rocks stand in combs beside us, the original land they were once part of having long ago eroded away. It’s surreal and dangerous – crumbling boulders hover precariously above us, daring us to survive. We find the river and it leads us down into a new valley. We camp in a bowl made by mountains – 3900 metres but so much warmer. Our sleep is disturbed by a marauding yak that nearly steps on my head in the night. Nick shines his torch to keep it away, but I worry that yaks might be like Spanish bulls and perhaps get excited by the light and charge. We turn it off and lie wide-eyed with bated breath in the dark while the huge beast crashes around in the stones around. We compromise with a small green hanging light that we hope says: we are here so please go around us, but be sure we’re not challenging you or in any way threatening, kind yak.
The morning arrives too soon and we make our way out of the valley into the open scape like the champions we are, a spring in our step and four days’ filth on our skin. We reach the village of Stok by midday and are met by the jeep that takes us back to Leh. Leh feels so low to us now…