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Trekking in Ladakh: Lamayuru to Chilling and on to Markha Valley

By Anamika Mukherjee

A trek in Ladakh is always a big event. The landscape is vast, infinite, without end... and the scale of preparation and coordination required is almost in proportion to it. Plus, a trek of 11-12 days is quite a major undertaking in its own right, when you're not going through a travel agency.

I'm not sure if having a lot of experienced and well-prepared people on the team makes everything easier, or a little more difficult. When Amit and I went on our first Himalayan trek ever, we were five trekkers with a total of zero years of trekking experience between us. Our equipment then consisted of rented sleeping bags and a jacket each. In our ignorance, we walked in sneakers and somehow stumbled through alive.

This time, our team had four members: Amit, me, and his cousins DDB & B. DDB&B have been trekking for about a quarter of a century, so the total of our trekking experience amounted to maybe 60 years. Consequently, we had about enough equipment to start a mid-size trekking agency of our own. Apart from personalized sleeping bags and mats, some genuine, branded North Face jackets and rucksacks, and enough medicines to treat a small city, we even had high-ankle, waterproof trekking shoes and - for Amit - calf-length (almost), steel-tipped workman's boots. Nobody could accuse us of traveling light.

I was the only one who had been on this route before, so, before I quite knew what was happening, I had been appointed "leader" of the expedition. This was scary, because the others were all older, more experienced, fitter, and in every way better than me, so I didn't feel qualified in any way to be leader. I should not really have taken the designation seriously, but for the realization that three other people were just about to subject themselves to serious degrees of discomfort over several days, not to mention the rather high financial commitment, all on my sole recommendation. That was really scary. Every time a query was addressed to "leader-saab" - which was often! - I had serious palpitations, the more so as I didn't really have such a clear memory of every twist and turn of the route as to be able to address basic questions like: How many river crossings will we have today? (This later had "interesting" repurcussions - but that comes later.)

Amit had been praying so fervently (despite his self-professed atheism) for sunny weather, that I was pretty sure we would find rain. And we did, but it altered our plans in a way least expected.

Being very long-term planners when it comes to travel, Amit and I had booked tickets to Leh about six months in advance of our intended date of departure. This was a BIG mistake, because we spent several weeks prior to departure juggling air tickets, because the airlines (IC) took us on a jolly ride by changing the dates of both flights into and out of Leh. Then our flight to Delhi (Spice) was pushed out by almost three hours. Altogether we spent way too many hours and way too much money booking and re-booking flights, but when the dust settled, our flight from Delhi to Leh which was scheduled to leave at 5.45 a.m. on Friday got delayed till 7 a.m. and then sat on the tarmac for a further two hours, eventually taking off at 9 a.m. At 9.30, when our arrival at Leh should have been imminent, our pilot abruptly announced that weather conditions prohibited us from landing, that the Leh airport had been shut down, and that we were turning around and heading back to Delhi!

After a disaster like this, things can only get better... or worse. In this instance, they got worse before they got better. There was a free-for-all at the airport, brought on primarily by the airlines requesting us to wait for the next flight out on Monday. Although there were only a handful of passengers on this flight, and some wise ones (like yours truly) opted out of the fracas, bodily injury seemed inevitable, so the airline representatives gave in and organized a "special" flight for us the next morning. By this time, it was past lunch time and even the most energetic campaigners against the airline were tired, so we had lunch at the airport and went back home.

The next morning, things looked almost equally dismal. Internet reports on the weather at Leh were not promising. Plans B, C, D, and Z were discussed, including plans to shorten the trek, change the trek, abort the trek, and one particularly desperate plan to fly to Srinagar and drive from there to Leh; but the flight took off on time, and after circling above Leh for about half an hour, suddenly plunged through the clouds, swooped around the mountains, and landed at Leh amidst much applause from the 30-odd passengers.

The nice thing about Leh - actually, there are many nice things about Leh, but one of them - is that if you've been there once, when you go back it's like returning to a host of friends. You have more than a passing acquaintance with a substantial proportion of the town's population. We had been there a combined total of three times already, so we knew practically everyone. The taxi driver we got through the prepaid window at the airport, for instance, had driven us back from our aborted trek two years ago, so we were pretty much on first name terms right away. The small lodge where we always stayed, Palu Guest House, treated us like family, as did one particular travel agency, Royal Explorer, with whom we had never done business but only met socially. Having arrived in Leh, things proceeded smoothly. Over the next two days, we got acclimatized and made all the arrangements necessary to start trekking. This included buying a large pressure cooker, a plastic can for water, kerosene, of course, and a sleeping bag for Ballu, who had decided to travel without one. It also included a trip to the Leh palace and Shanti Stupa, and to the local grocery stores and vegetable market. Having sneaked in several good meals along the way, at the end of two days, we were almost organized and ready to go.

The next day, we left for Lamayuru. At Lamayuru, we took two rooms, so we did not have to set up and tear down the tents from day one - there would be plenty of that in the following days. We negotiated with the locals for a group of five donkeys to carry our stuff, requested our taxi to pick us up from the end point on the appointed date, and with that, we were set to bid goodbye to civilization for the next ten days.

Lamayuru was wonderful, as always. It is a small, rustic place, with a monastery, a handful of run-down houses, solar lighting, a riverbed without much evidence of a river, and of course Moonland. Moonland is one stretch of mountain that has an ethereal creamy-white surface. Whether it is rock or sand it is difficult to say, but it is quite fascinating. The weather was somewhat unpredictable - it would rain every 45 minutes for a few minutes, not hard, but sufficiently so that whoever was outdoors would be forced to retire indoors.

Despite the rugged landscape and the unpredictable weather, there is a high awareness of cleanliness and hygiene in these areas, as evidenced by the following scene. Five assorted people were standing around tentatively under a temporary shelter outdoors. On a nearby wooden bench was a fat cotton mattress, doubled over. It was just beginning to rain. The following conversation took place in Hindi, in which it is hugely effective.

First person: You'd better put that mattress in; it's beginning to rain.

Second person: Well so what? When it rains, it'll get wet, and when the sun comes out, it'll dry out again.

First person: Why have you kept it out then, to wet it or to sun it?

Second person: If it gets wet, consider it washed...

First person: And if it gets the sun?

Second person: ...it will be "dry cleaned".

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Lamayuru and Wanla on the Map

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Comments and information welcome. Write to anamika dot mukherjee at amukherjeeworld dot net
Copyright 2008 Amit and Anamika Mukherjee. All rights reserved.