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Strange Trekker

Though there are plenty of sheep and goat in Ladakh, we did not see any sheep dogs. In fact, at higher altitudes and in remote villages we did not see any dogs at all. But as we headed back and left the high passes behind us, early one morning a lovely collie-type mongrel came bounding along the path towards us. He nodded at us in a friendly manner, sniffed about like a busybody, and disappeared back in the direction he had come from. We waited, expecting his owner to appear, but his humans, when they did appear, turned out to be another trekking party. “Is he with you?” I asked, quite surprised that anyone would have brought their dog along for a trek. “He is since last night,” was the answer. Apparently the dog had joined their camp near Honupatta, appeared to have come from Photoksar (over Sisir La!) and looked all set to adopt them for the moment.

Throughout that day, we saw him off and on, as he kept pace with his adopted trekkers. He trotted, in a thoroughly composed and self-assured fashion, all along the 14-km path to Wanla. At one stage when he had passed us and gone ahead a bit, he came upon three donkeys grazing by the road. Apparently they didn’t like the look of him, because they lined up and brayed at him in a most threatening manner. He didn’t like the look of them either, and he paused at a safe distance and looked back at us, as if to say: “Why don’t you come and guard me against these terrible animals? I can handle one or two of them, but three’s a bit much, don’t you think?”

Having got past the donkeys, he went on his merry way again, catching up with some trekkers far ahead of us. When we reached Wanla that evening, we spotted him at the campsite, alternately begging and foraging for food. Our donkey man, a local of Lamayuru, told us that he belonged to the Lamayuru Gompa. What on earth was he doing out at Honupatta then, I wondered. It was a good 30 km away, with a small pass on the way to boot. And yet, he didn’t seem very put out by it at all.

Slippery Slopes

The usual trek along this route runs from Lamayuru to Padum (~10 days) and then, for the brave-hearted, on to Darcha (~20 days in all). Even before the deluge hit us, we had decided that we would not go all the way to Padum, but would cross all the high passes on the route and then turn around and cross them in the other direction. That way, we hoped to see the best views twice.

As it turned out, we did not get to see too much, what with all the rain, but we sure as hell had to do all the hard work twice. The passes we crossed were, in order of appearance, Prinkiti La (~12,000 ft), Sisir La (~15,500 ft), Singge La (~16,500 ft), Khyupa La (~14,500 ft), and Netuke La (~14,000 ft). We gave up on the last two passes on the way to Padum, Hanuma La (~15,500 ft) and Purfi La (~13,000 ft), out of deference to the rain.

Singge La was the highest, and Sisir La, being towards the north, was in the most arid region, where oxygen deficiency is felt most profoundly (there’s more greenery towards the south, even if in the form of shrubs), so both those passes were memorable in their own way. But it was Khyupa La on the way back that was clearly the worst. It was a strange pass, Khyupa La, because it was an extremely gradual ascent from one side, and an amazingly steep ascent from the other. Of course, going down the steep side was a lark, but when I turned around and saw the steep ascent from afar, I almost decided not to go back! It would take me four hours to do the climb, I thought, but in the event it took a mere gasping and panting 90 minutes.

If the passes took one’s breath away due to the steepness and altitude – and they did – the gorges took one’s breath away out of sheer beauty. I had already listed the walk from Lamayuru to Wanla as one of the best I’d ever done, but this time I found that the walk from Wanla to Honupatta was, if anything, much better. Here the river gushed along between two towering rock walls, twisting and turning like a ball of wool unraveled. At one point the water actually disappeared under the mountain, and emerged on the other side several feet away. It was the land of fairytales.

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Lamayuru, Wanla, Honupatta, Photoksar on the Map

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Copyright 2008 Amit and Anamika Mukherjee. All rights reserved.