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Ladakh 2009 - Adventures of a Gama in the Land of The Lama

The story of our revisit to Ladakh, the Land of the Lama, where we travelled to see our Tibetan friends. We also managed a trip to Hanle, a village in the normally restricted Tibetan border area and wrapped the whole thing up with a trek to the Mysterious Tso Moriri Lake.

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Day 1 [25.08.2009] London to Delhi

Lars the Polar Bear checks out the luggage - bless this bag and all who sail in her...

On board the British Airways flight from Heathrow to Delhi. Just waiting to finish boarding. So far it looks like a very empty flight but you never know if five coach loads of screaming football fans are about to turn up. For the time being we are just sharing the plane with a few ageing trekkers – not unlike ourselves.

So now the destination is Delhi for a brief overnight stop before hitting the road to Leh. This is going to be an interesting alternative start to KE’s Mysterious Tso Moriri trek, which we will be joining later. Anyway, thanks to Clare’s meticulous preplanning, it should all go pretty smoothly. With luck we will soon be basking in the heat and dust of Leh, Ladakh and taking tea with Tsegyal and his family... queue rerun of photographs from Stok Kangri, 2005.

Well, enough for the time being – got to get used to using this pen thing again.

Later – Delhi, the Comfort Hotel ‘The President’, after a long but uneventful flight. We were nearly an hour late leaving Heathrow but made up the time with a 70 mph tailwind – yippee! Then we lost it all waiting on the tarmac at Delhi for a gate to become available – boo!

Anyway we found Delhi in the grip of swine fever paranoia with airport staff wearing surgical face masks and wielding heat scanning cameras. They have obviously fallen for the hype - hook, line and sinker. Fortunately we had nothing to declare to the thermal camera and all our bags came through after the usual anxious wait. On the way out we changed USD 200 at an airport booth, choosing the ‘honest John’ no frills option as opposed to the ultra high tech Thomas Cook stand right next door, the latter manned by four smart young executives. A good choice or not – who knows? At least ‘honest John’ had a winning smile and less overheads! And it pissed off the Thomas Cook clones too! Heh! Heh!

Out of the airport and once more into the steamy, smelly heat of the Delhi night. Actually quite a lot cooler than last time and they seem to have tamed the crowds outside the airport too – the number of hustlers was considerably reduced although a couple still demanded a tip for simply laying their hands on our bags. Too bad, we had no small change to give them even if we had felt inclined to shell out for the non-service! And we still needed to get our heads around what was what in the currency world – not easy at one o’clock in the morning.

At the exit we were met by the Discovery India rep. who piled us into the ‘jeep’, ably driven by Mr. Suba Singh – who is also going to be our driver for tomorrow, or more accurately today. So basically he’s going to take us on a 14 hour drive to Manali after a couple of hours sleep... welcome to India, it’s a different world!

By the way, I should just mention that the service from the BA cabin crew was excellent as usual – I have no idea why so many people knock BA.

So, the ‘The President’ is a comfortable enough joint, a stone’s throw from Conaught Place and other attractions. Not quite up to the standard of that old KE stalwart, Claridges, but I guess times are hard – if only people knew what they were missing! Anyway, we only have a few hours here, it’s already 2 AM and we have an 07:30 departure. Blimey!

Day 2 [26.08.2009] Delhi to Manali

Manali: At an altitude of 1850m already. A 14 hour drive from Delhi on good and bad roads. In the beginning mostly dual-carriageway, which, over here, means space for at least 3 lanes of traffic if not 4, and 6 at traffic lights. Overtaking allowed, over, under and around the guy in front. The white lines on the road are largely a waste of paint but it all seems to work somehow. Even though they travel barely centimetres from the next vehicle, normally an overloaded, highly decorated lorry, contact is almost never made. Years of experience and lightning fast reactions appear to be the key, although the life expectancy of a learner driver in Delhi must be limited.

We stopped for tea and lunch – excellent dahl and paneer – along the way. The roadside restaurants are clean and the service is good. As usual people stare at us wherever we go, especially Clare with her blond hair – she attracts a lot of attention from the drivers we pass.

After 6 hours driving we were well over half way to Manali, giving a strong hint of what road conditions to expect for the rest of the journey. Winding, single track roads, hundreds of Ashok Leyland lorries (strange to see the old Leyland logo after so many years), overtaking allowed in all circumstances. Mr. Singh proved to be a highly skilled driver, moving us quickly and cleanly through impossibly small gaps in the traffic. Blind bends are good places for overtaking lorries – ‘horn please’ – and if something does come in the opposite direction then speeds are not so high that a collision is inevitable. Try this at home and there would be chaos and death, here everyone knows what to expect and how to react. Amazing.

After dark we were still 3 hours from Manali. You could tell that even Mr. Singh was starting to feel the effects of 10 hours behind the wheel. But even so we were still going hell for leather along the narrow roads, lights blazing. Luckily it seemed like most of the traffic, in a remarkable quest for self-preservation, quit after dark. So, although we had some narrow escapes and lost one wing mirror, we did actually arrive at our hotel – the ‘Honeymoon Palace’ no less – in one piece.

Discovery India’s manager in Manali turned up to meet us at the hotel and we paid off Mr. Singh with a 1000 RPS tip. Meanwhile our overweight trek bags were whisked up to our room on the 4th floor of the modern granite block building, which boasts an impressive open, central plaza. This place puts quite a few Norwegian hotels to shame and, in addition, the staff are ultra-friendly. Our supply of small denomination tip money is dwindling rapidly!

Clare in Michael Palin map perusal mode, checking the route for tomorrow in our Honeymoon Palace suite.
The impressive central area of the Honeymoon Palace Hotel, seen from below.
Looking down on the centre of the Honey Palace Hotel, Manali.

The room is clean with modern bathroom, featuring a huge corner bath – well it is the Honeymoon Palace – and excellent shower. The TV works but there are no channels – never mind. Checked a few emails on the mobile phone – so far they seem to be missing me at work, phew! No dinner tonight, we are too tired. Just drinking loads of water. To bed at 22:30.

Day 3 [27.08.2009] Manali to Sarchu

At an altitude of 3150m on the way up to the Rohtang Pass. Sitting near the front of a queue of vehicles waiting for an oil tanker wreck to be cleared from the road. Set out at 07:10 from Manali with our new driver but after an hour we came round a corner to find the road blocked by the tanker lying on its side. Looks it happened a few minutes before we arrived. The tanker itself is pretty much undamaged apart from a crack in the windscreen. The only oil spilled is coming from the engine. The driver, on the other hand, is lying dead inside, killed by half a ton of bling, heavy tools and other loose objects that were in the cab. Even the seats appear to have been loose so that the body is totally buried. Seat belts and a cleaner office area and he would have walked away from this one – what a waste.

The tanker lies on its side, a few minutes after the accident.
Another lorry that didn't make the turn.
Looking back towards Manali.
The hillsides above Manali have a Swiss atmosphere, heightened by the presence of a ski lift.
The Belgian Family Robinson passing the time.
Traffic continues to build up along the road.
Every cloud has a silver lining - refreshments anyone?
The crane is backed up to the tanker.
Tanker recovery operations begin with body retrieval.

So now we watch and wait for a crane to come up and remove the obstruction. It’s now 10 o’clock but they say another hour for the crane to get here from Manali. We will see, even after it gets here it may take a few hours to clear the road... wait a minute, looks like it might be here!

Another hour down the line: The crane was backed up to the tanker and crowds gathered but there wasn’t a lot of action other than some reorganisation of the trucks on the hillside above. However, the police and coroner have just arrived, together with AK47 armed carabinieri on a motorbike and another tow truck equipped with hydraulic hoist. They also seem to have brought a Hindu priest with them. The coroner is leaping around photographing the scene from all angles. Hah – now the army have arrived in a shiny new Mahindra jeep. Looks like body retrieval may take place soon. Then we have to wait and see how they tackle the tanker itself. Amazing to see how the onlookers gather around the scene. Personally, I’m keeping my distance – as far as we know there are no leaks from the tanker, it may even be empty, but if it goes up it’ll take a couple of hundred people with it. Not to mention a few decapitations if one of the cables breaks.

Meanwhile Clare is passing the time chatting to a Belgian family – mother, father, three daughters and their respective boyfriends. All speaking perfect English, of course!

This hold up is good for acclimatisation anyway. We are at 3150m, yesterday we were at sea level. I can already feel my brain expanding as the pressure falls; we’re down to 700mB already. Will this be a good or bad trip from the acclimatisation point of view? You never know.

A thin cable is now attached to the top of the tanker – progress is being made... progress of a different nature as the slogan went in my old company. Sometimes you just have to pinch yourself to remind yourself that all of this is real and not something from the pages of a book. Here we sit on the side of a mountain, surrounded by rocky outcrops, exotic plants and sparse pine woods, waterfalls of crystal clear water cascade down into the valley below. Just shows that nature goes on regardless of what mankind tries to do to it.

Sadly the driver of the tanker will not be going home tonight, or ever again. If he had a family they will only have a struggle to survive to look forward to. Life is fragile and yet we persist in pushing the boundaries. Having said that, a little more health and safety and a little less reliance on religious bling and the guy would still be around.

Tanker righting operations have now started. With the help of a winch from above the vehicle is put back on four wheels, looking remarkably unscathed. Top up the engine oil and it’s probably driveable. But we are not going to hang around to find out – edging our way around the scene, past the blanket wrapped body in the back of the police tow truck, and on our way again. Lucky we are at the front, it’ll take a while to clear that traffic queue.

Crowds gathering on the road above the accident.
The tanker almost back on the road.
The queue stretches back for miles... just like home.

After a few minutes drive we reach the top of the hill and an encampment of tents offering horse-riding and other luxuries to the tourists coming up from Manali. But we eschew offers of tea from our driver; we’re three hours behind schedule and looking at another eight hours on the road before we reach our camp for tonight.

Onwards and ever upwards as we climb over progressively higher passes. The altitude on the GPS passes 5000m and rises to over 5200m. With our level of acclimatisation, i.e. none, this is the equivalent of the death zone. You can almost feel the pressure building on your brain as your body struggles to dispose of surplus cerebral fluid. If we have a breakdown now we could end up in serious trouble.

Passing a flerd of sheep and goats.
Sheep and goats heading for the Rohtang Pass.
Bird circling above the flerd.
Looking back towards Manali from the far side of the Rohtang Pass.
Looking back towards Manali from the far side of the Rohtang Pass.
Roadworks further delay us on the road to Sarchu.

As dusk falls we start to descend the dusty, rocky, treacherous trail down the northern side of the Zanskar mountain range. Our driver is a cheerful chap but even he must be starting to feel the strain now. Soon we are passing the tented encampments of Sarchu and, at about 20:00, we pull off the road and into one, the oddly named ‘Goldrop’. Our bags are taken from the back of the jeep and carted to our tent, number five in an elongated horseshoe of tents. It’s a big tent with double bed, electric lighting and, in an alcove at the back, an honest to God flushing toilet!

Donning down sweaters we head off for the dining tent for a little dahl and rice. There are a few Spanish and German tourists plus some Indians in residence. They stare at us with tired, resigned eyes as we come through the entrance. Nobody arrives at this place unscathed – it’s at 4500m, nearly the same as camp 1 on Aconcagua. If you think about it, it’s crazy – Japanese tourists are dying at lower altitudes than this at the Everest View Hotel! And we are totally dehydrated into the bargain – toilet stops cost valuable minutes on the road!

After tanking up we head off to bed. Unfortunately I got the wrong red bag from the jeep so Clare has no sleeping bag, but she gets my liner plus all the blankets. I have my new PHD bag to try out.

Day 4 [28.08.2009] Sarchu to Leh

Clare packing in our tent at Sarchu.
Dawn over the Goldrop campsite at Sarchu.
Our tent, number 5, at Goldrop, Sarchu.
Sunlight approaches the Sarchu campsite.
The road from Manali climbs ever higher into the Zanskar mountains.
Pausing for photographs at the roadside.
Andy on the Nakeela Pass (4947m GPS).
Himank - The Mountain Tamers. Nakeela Pass marker stone.
Tea stop on the way down from the Nakeela Pass.
Stunning erosion features in the Zanskar Mountains.
Clare and our driver on the Tanglang La (5340m GPS), the second highest pass in the world.
Clare by the Tanglang La marker - 'Unbeliveable is not it'
Andy by the Tanglang La marker
Tanglang La, second highest pass in the world.
Car washing on the Manali Road, just outside Upshi.

Finally into bed and I manage to sleep about 3 hours before waking up with a throbbing altitude headache. Paracetamol happy hour. Clare is having a much worse time; she’s got the altitude shakes. Still her blood-oxygen is better than mine, low 80s as opposed to 75 for me – eek! We spend the rest of the night tossing and turning in the throws of AMS. When it comes time to get up we have mixed feelings, but manage to get organised without throwing up – just!

Down, we need to go down. In the breakfast tent everyone is feeling the same. Nobody is eating, just drinking weak tea and comparing symptoms. What a place!

At 07:00 we board our jeep for the last leg of our journey – 8 hours to Leh over 3 more high mountain passes, including the second highest in the world at over 5300m.

Clare is in the front and I am in the back as usual, getting bounced around all over the place. I actually have a blister on my elbow from wedging myself against the door handle. I spend the morning in a haze of semi-sleep, drifting in and out of a Stephen King movie scene. With my eyes closed I seem to be travelling down a deep canyon lined by blood red rocks. Overhead the sky is filled with fire. As the jeep turns left or right in the real world, new pathways open up in the canyon to match. Bizarre stuff! When I open my eyes the situation is not a lot better but at least the sky is blue!

Onwards and upwards, eventually we peak at the Tanglang La, second highest pass in the world at 5360m on the map, 5340m on the GPS. We stop for photographs. Amazingly, moving around is not difficult and we pose around the landmarks and check out a German tourist’s Cybershot camera with panoramic feature – nice!

Back in the jeep and on our way again. Soon we are bleeding altitude and entering the oxygen rich terrain below 4000m. The difference is amazing. We stop twice for tea. At the first stop there is no tea but our driver washes the jeep in a handy stream. At the second stop, the police checkpoint in Upshi, they make us fill in yet more swine flu forms. The Germans stop here too, they have apparently explored a considerable part of India over the years and have a host of funny stories to relate.

Back in the jeep and we are soon on familiar roads, passing the monastery of Thiksay, the Golden Trout Pond and several other tourist attractions. On the outskirts of Choglomsar some of the houses appear richer than they did back in 2005; looks like some people are making money despite the recession. In Choglomsar itself, the old metal bridge has been replaced by a permanent structure with two lanes fully open, a definite improvement. We hear that the Indian government is planning to tarmac the entire road from Manali to Leh, making it two lanes wide all the way. Hard to believe but they have already made a big start and plan to be finished 2012. The road is intended for the army and we infer that there is unrest along the Tibetan border with the Chinese making surreptitious acquisitions of Indian Territory. Never underestimate the yellow peril.

The Singge Palace Hotel is our final destination, located close to the main street but still an oasis with a grassy central area behind the white painted faηade. We are met by Sonam, the Discovery India manager for Leh, and we fill in yet more forms before heading for our room. Just as we are wondering how we are going to get in touch with Tsegyal and family the phone rings – they are downstairs!

We have a reunion in the hotel garden, Kalsang, Pema, Sherap and Tsegyal, who is much more grown up at 15. They have brought tea and biscuits which they offer to us continuously. Nothing has changed there then! They have even typed out an itinerary for us for the next few days. Alas, Clare has other plans. Even though Kalsang has travelled all the way from Hanle to see us, Clare is intent on visiting Hanle in the Forbidden Zone (aka Restricted Area). This is a saga that could run to several pages – let’s just say that confusion will be heaped on confusion before the day is out!

After saying goodbye to our friends we head out into town to use the internet, and try to communicate with Clare’s contact in Delhi. Apparently he’s not coming to Leh but we manage to get him to fax up the Hanle permit to the Deputy Commissioner’s office.

Afterwards we move upstairs to the Himalayan Cafι for paneer and rice. Excellent Nan bread too. Then back to the hotel for a well earned early night.

Day 5 [29.08.2009] Leh

Early arrivals for the Dalai Lama exit parade: Dorje, Tsegyal, Clare and Kalsang.
The streets begin to fill in anticipation.
The crowd gathering.
Tseggy in Dorje's car.

Up at 06:30 to witness the Dalai Lama’s leaving procession. We had arranged to meet Kalsang et al at 07:30 but they were already hammering on the door at 06:45. Into Dorje’s car for a quick trip down to the airport road junction to get the best position. Hanging around on the side of the road in the early morning sunshine, watching as more and more Buddhist people gather. Scarves (kata) are reverently unwrapped and wafted in the dense smoke from the thick bundles of incense that are being lit. Everywhere there is an air of expectation.

After some time a sizeable crowd has gathered. The excitement mounts until suddenly the first of a convoy of police jeeps speeds around the corner and the crowd surges forwards. More jeeps pass at high speed and then suddenly a large 4x4 comes into sight. It’s travelling so fast that everything is a blur, trying to snap a photograph, raise the kata in the proscribed manner and get a glimpse of His Holiness at the same time proves to be impossible. I get a blurred photo of the front wing of the vehicle – a fraction of a second later would have been perfect, next time I’ll use video – and I’m left with the vague impression of a small figure in purple robes waving from the front seat. The crowd are ecstatic though, despite having been close to His Holiness for a month, they are still overwhelmed to have seen him once again. Frustrating that security reasons appear to force him to travel at such speed.

Near the Deputy Commisioner’s Office - Leh polo ground with the palace in the background.
Leh palace overlooking the polo ground.
Tseggy with Pema.
Clare, Dachen and Dorje.
Opening the presents we brought from the UK.
Grandma, Clare and Kalsang.
Sherap, Tenyang and Pema.
Clare relaxing after lunch.
Dachen, Kalsang, Pema and Tenyang.

After all the excitement we headed back to the hotel to get Clare some tea and toast. Anticipating what’s to come I decided to skip breakfast and just make do with some excellent lemon tea. Then off in Dorje’s car to find the Deputy Commissioner. We hope to get an extension to our Hanle permit. Unfortunately he was busy with the aftermath from the Dalai Lama’s departure so we gave up and headed for Choglomsar to see Pema, Sherap and the kids. Not forgetting Grandma. Nothing much seemed to have changed although it looked like electricity was gradually making bigger inroads into their lives.

After a huge quantity of snacks, chips in tomato sauce seem to be pretty popular all of a sudden, we had the usual present exchange. Predictably, after we had filled up on the snacks, the main meal arrived – a big struggle to eat any more, I hope they weren’t too insulted! Fortunately having so many kids around to play with takes some of the attention away from the piles of uneaten food. And Clare is really good with the kids.

At 3 o‘clock in the afternoon we take a taxi, with Kalsang and Tsegyal, up to the D.C. office. The taxis are great with people jumping in and out all the time; a couple of lads in school uniform who had missed the school bus, and old guy with his grandson, a young woman carrying some apparently ornamental plant stems. She stares resolutely out of the window avoiding any eye contact and looking deeply insulted at having to share a taxi with a couple of bloody foreigners. Or maybe it’s the Tibetans she doesn’t like? Who knows?

At the D.C. office we have two hours of getting the bureaucratic run-around until finally the revised permit is virtually in our hot, sticky hands. Then, at the last moment, it is snatched away because the ‘Government of India’ has fixed the dates and the D.C. of Jammu and Kashmir doesn’t have the authority to change it. In the end, after all the effort, we still have a permit to visit the Forbidden Zone but not on the dates we wanted. Still, this is an achievement in itself – everyone said it was impossible, but, thanks to Clare and her contact in Delhi, we still have the chance to go where no westerners have gone before... almost. I guess we’ll have to wait and see if we make headlines for the wrong reasons! Who knows how far we will get and what we will find when we get there.

Kalsang says that there are weapons being moved across the border from both sides as various factions, Chinese and Indian, attempt to stir up unrest in the area. Meanwhile the Chinese are gradually encroaching on Indian Territory, hence the massive expenditure on improving the infrastructure of this remote area. A border war here would certainly put Afghanistan into perspective.

During the night it rains quite hard but gradually eases off. Hopefully it will not be a case of rain stops play on the road to Hanle.

Day 6 [30.08.2009] Leh, picnic

A leisurely morning and a breakfast of omelette and toast. Some sunshine breaking through and the rain seems to have stopped. The flight from Delhi came in on time anyway. Got some photocopies of the treasured permit at a photo shop, apparently we’ll need to hand over one at every checkpoint.

At 10 o’clock Kalsang, Pema, Sherap, Tsegyal and a bunch of girls turned up with a taxi. They whisked us off to Pyang monastery, outside Leh, for a picnic. We unloaded the vehicle at the nearby ‘Hidden North’ campsite, courtesy of Pema’s trekking connections, and he and Sherap set up a stove. Soon they were turning out plate after plate of perfect chips, accompanied by endless biscuits, fruit and tomato ketchup. We washed it all down with a lake of butter tea.

Fun in the back of the jeep.
Dachen, Woeser, Tenyang and friend.
Life is a hammock.
X-Factor, Ladakhi style.
Dachen and Tenyang entertain.
Dachen goes solo.
Pema frying chips...
... while Sherap prepared even more.
Lobsang is popular with the girls!
'All this for me?'
The best picnic, ever.

At around 12:30 we headed off to Pyang monastery for a look around. Apparently about 70 monks live there. We arrived in the middle of their lunch but they opened up some rooms for us. This place attracts far fewer tourists than the mainstream attractions to the east of Leh. It’s far more authentic if you ask me. I think we surprised them; two foreigners turning up with a bunch of Tibetan children in tow, not to mention two Tibetan women and Lobsang, the taxi driver! Inside, it was interesting to see even the youngest children prostrating themselves in front of some of the statues. According to a sign outside there’s a charge for tourists but they waived it for us. We did leave quite a few donations though.

Walking up the path to Pyang Monastery.
A monk goes to get the keys to the Monastery for us.
Pyang Monastery.
What's behind the red door?
Lobsang, Tibetan jeep driver from Choglomsar.
Accomodation bock for the Pyang monks.
Old steps inside Pyang Monastery.
Inside Pyang Monastery.
Leaving the Monastery.
Clare and friend at the entrance to Pyang Monastery.
Young boy outside Pyang Monastery.
The Pyang monks are obviously men of means!

Back to ‘Hidden North’ for lunch – argh! Managed to survive without eating too much, too many chips! Shame after they have gone to so much trouble. After lunch the kids did loads of dancing, singing and skipping, to the amusement of everyone. Plenty more salt tea to be had, then juice, then lemon tea. Blimey! Finally it was time to pack up and head back to Leh – a great day, and the kids slept all the way back to Leh.

Looking up the valley from Pyang Monastery.
Village around Pyang Monastery.

Finished the day by packing a few things ready for tomorrow’s epic adventure. Decided to take only one camera fitted with a brand new memory card, just in case they decide to confiscate it.

Day 7 [31.08.2009] Leh to Hanle

An early morning call at 04:00. But we are already awake because Clare has been having a sleepless night. Personally I think I managed to sleep until midnight but then ended up dozing while listening to the tossing and turning going on in the other bed. Added to that, some loud music was being played somewhere and there were packs of dogs noisily roaming the streets. Ah well, sleep? Who needs it?

Down to the restaurant for a quick cup of black tea – the staff are already up and about down there. Mind you, it’s Ramadan so the Muslims have already had one round of torture from Allah. Our driver turns up in the restaurant, a skinny, dark skinned young guy, his name is Dorje. At 04:30 we head out to the waiting jeep and pile in for a quick ride down to Choglomsar. With no traffic on the roads and in the dark it is a very quick drive. Even at this time in the morning there are groups and families huddled together at the side of the road trying to blag lifts. They have small torches to wave and look like fireflies in the distance.

In Choglomsar we say quick hellos to Tseggy’s family and help to load Kalsang’s mattress and table on to the roof of the jeep. A few boxes inside, including several dozen eggs, and we are ready to set off for the Forbidden Zone. Kalsang’s two daughters are fast asleep on the back seat.

With no traffic our progress is fast and we are soon speeding past Shey Palace and Thiksay monastery, heading up the Indus Valley. Pale light is starting to fill the sky as we pass the turnoff to Hemis monastery. Our first security checkpoint is on the road out of Upshi. The official is still in bed and we pass our documents in through the window. He is surprised we are going to Hanle but it is obviously too much effort to query it – just leave it for someone further up the line to sort out. For the time being we are still in tourist territory.

Pema, Kalsang and Dachen by a hot spring, Chumatang.
Making faces in the Cafe while waiting for breakfast at Chumatang.
Building supplies are readily available - stocking up on sand.
Clouds reflected in the still waters of the Indus.
Ladakh, a harsh landscape interrupted by occasional patches of green.
Endangered black necked cranes beside the road.
Getting close to Hanle, the road becomes a dirt track.
On the road near the nomad encampment.

Onwards, up the Indus Valley in full daylight now. Massive conglomerate beds line the sides of the valley – field trip anyone? The crux of the trip will come at Mahe Bridge, but first we stop at Chumatang for tea and omelettes and to admire the hot springs. Well maybe not admire, but the water is certainly boiling where it comes out of the ground from several small springs.

Back on the road and Mahe Bridge is the next stop. We pull over to the side of the road and, armed with passports and the fabled entry permit to the Forbidden Zone, enter the gloom of the border police office. A dull light filters through the dirty window, barely illuminating the small room. The single light bulb hanging from the ceiling is broken, the bare filament exposed. Three men are reclining on the filthy camp beds arranged around the walls. The place is a mess. The senior guy looks up, barely acknowledging the presence of more tourists. He looks away again, bored. I step forward – ‘we have a permit for Hanle’. The reaction is instantaneous – ‘what?’ This never happens! I present the permit and he stares at it intently for several minutes. Then he passes it around and discussions are held. Kalsang joins in; we are totally in the dark. Next they take our passports and meticulously compare the numbers with the ones on the permit. They can’t find any discrepancies. More discussions but they can’t find a reason to stop us. Instead they make detailed notes on the back of the pass before placing it carefully in their logbook. And... we are allowed to go on our way. We have entered the restricted area which has been off limits to foreigners for decades. Crazy stuff!

On down the road and we can’t help smiling and waving at the stunned expressions on the faces of the people we pass. At a bridge there is a military checkpoint, again we produce the magic paper and after more discussions are again allowed to continue. Some of these army guys are Muslims and you get the feeling they don’t like infidels encroaching into the Forbidden Zone. But our passage is approved by the Government of India and there is not a lot they can do. Kalsang says the army has no jurisdiction over us because we are civilians; they are just indulging in a little power tripping. On the other hand, you can see why they are edgy. Everywhere there are military transports on the move and road improvements are going on apace. Even Tsegyal jokes ‘war, India versus China, 2012’. And actually it looks like no joke; they do appear to be gearing up for the big kick-off in a couple of years. They are even building a brand new airstrip and constructing underground installations. Maybe it’s just a ploy by the Indian government to keep the army’s mind occupied, or maybe it’s a real threat. In which case, I wonder who’s side the British government will take? That would be a tricky decision for someone at the FCO! Regardless though, our friends will be in the firing line.

Onwards up the Indus Valley, we pass two checkpoints in the town of Nyoma. The second is an Indian Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) post. The CO there is surprised to see us. We take highly sugared coffee with him and answer all his questions. We ask him a little about how it is to live out here in the wilderness – he has a couple of months left of his two year posting. Eventually we are allowed to proceed, despite the Pakistani visas in our passports.

A flock of sheep grazes between the nomad tents.
On the way to visit the nomads.
Lorries on the road behind a nomad tent.
Buddhist altar with butter lamp inside a nomad tent.
Dachen and Kalsang.
Tseggy testing Tibetan incense.
Pema playing with some fleece.
Clare, Andy and Pema.
Making butter tea.
Contented nomad baby asleep at the back of the tent.
Hanle Monastery with army camp in the foreground.
Pema in front of I.T.B.P. improvised tin can sculpture.
With the headmaster of the TCV School, Hanle.
Children at the TCV School eating their evening meal.
Clare and Tseggy join the children on the floor.
A big smile!
Who are these strange people interrupting our dinner?
Keeping an eye on the foreigners through Kalsang's window.
Strolling around the Tibetan village at Hanle.
Dorje, jeep driver and reluctant tea drinker.
The Tibetan settlement at Hanle.
Old woman bringing home grass for the animals.
Inside the old couple's house.
Old couple with kata blessed by His Holiness, the Dalai Lama. Brought back by Kalsang from Leh.
Tseggy helping himself to Kalsang’s Tibetan noodle soup.
Kalsang with her small garden.

Up and on to the plateau at an altitude of around 4200m. Heading away from the Indus on mixed roads, albeit in better shape than the Manali road. Long stretches of brand new tarmac. We make good progress. Close to Hanle we see nomad tents a few hundred metres from the road, camped on a patch of grass near a small river. Kalsang insists we visit the nomads and we walk uncertainly over the bare ground, scattering small lizards ahead of us. We pose for photographs around the nomad encampment before being invited into one of the tents for the ubiquitous butter tea. The woman who invites us in is carrying a four month old baby. It’s a Mongolian flashback except that here we both move to the right of the stove and sit cross-legged on the rug covering the floor. In Mongolia it would have been men to the left and women to the right. The nomad woman adds dung to the fire and lights it with a teaspoonful of spirit. Opposite the doorway is a small Buddhist altar where a butter lamp is burning. With the stove going, the baby is wrapped in a sheepskin blanket and put in a basket against another wall while the kettle is set to warm up.

The roof of the tent is woven from dark yak wool to gather heat from the sun but it’s light inside. We drink salty tea and eat fresh curds. The curds are delicious. These nomads must live one of the harshest lives on the planet yet they stay here on the plateau even in winter when the temperature can drop to minus 40 centigrade. As we leave I give the woman RPS 100, at first she doesn’t want to accept it but eventually she takes the note with a shy smile. Kalsang says that Indian tourists often eat lunch with the nomads and then only give RPS 50. I guess that’s the Indian class system coming into play. For us it’s only our common sense that prevents us from emptying our wallets on the floor – our western sensitivities are taking a battering in the face of all this poverty.

Back to the car as a few spots of rain fall but it is over quickly, although fresh snow is appearing higher up on the surrounding peaks. Back in Leh they are apparently having torrential rain!

As we drive on we sight the astrophysics observatory at Hanle, the highest in the world, perched up on the col of Mount Saraswati. Below the observatory we turn off to the right and follow a rough track until we come to another ITBP post, nestled beneath the ancient Hanle monastery. There are more surprised people inside but they turn out to be friendly in the end, after relieving us of yet another copy of the permit. One of them is an acquaintance of Kalsang and we are invited into his office while they chat. I think he is pleased to finally see some foreign tourists in the area. He and Kalsang appear to be sharing a few jokes. On his desk is an old Epson dot-matrix printer, almost an antique, connected to a weird looking device which may, or may not, be some kind of satellite telex machine.

Back outside we board the jeep, but then Kalsang decides it’s lunchtime and we offload again to head down to the stream below the IBTP post. The police shout at us, for a moment it sounds bad but then it turns out they are just offering us a thermos of tea, complete with a boxed set of glassware, to have with our picnic lunch – amazing!

We enjoy a lunch of soup and fried momos – delicious despite our altitude induced reservations about all food Tibetan. (Mixing altitude and local cooking over the years has severely reduced our tolerance to local flavours – let’s just say that a bad experience with rancid yak butter left a lasting impression!)

Once again we pile back into the jeep and head up Saraswati to the observatory. The wind is howling up here and it’s not warm. Kalsang drags one of the technicians out of hibernation to give us a guided tour of the facility, showing us the two metre mirror telescope and array of cameras. The instrument itself is remote controlled from Bangalore University via a dedicated 2MB satellite link. The technicians live in Leh and work 10 days on, 10 days off to maintain the equipment. In the control room they allow us to check our email!

Once more into the jeep and we drive back down the road and through the local houses of the Indian population, set in a relatively fertile landscape. Climbing again we enter more barren terrain allocated to the Tibetan refugees and the nomads. It is a desolate place with just a few rundown buildings. To the right of the track is the TCV School at Hanle and we pull in through the gate. A few children are around and they are amazed to see a blond woman and grey haired giant emerge from the car. At first they are scared but curiosity overcomes the fear as they follow us and then run away again when we turn to watch them. Soon they gain more confidence. Since they are mainly nomad children, we may be the first westerners that some of them have seen. It is unlikely that too many have visited this school in recent years.

The children are called away to eat and we go in search of the headmaster. Not able to find him – apparently he’s off inspecting the school greenhouse – we have a quick tour and then go back to Kalsang’s home on the school campus; a small, flat roofed, building consisting of a small main room and even smaller kitchen. Time for butter tea!

Later we find the headmaster, a small guy with a kindly face, who welcomes us to the school. We ask if it’s OK for us to stay and he is very pleased to have us. In return we hand over 100 pens and some money for the school. He says the pens will be used to encourage the more reluctant pupils. Kalsang, laughing, suggests the staff might appreciate a few themselves. We take photographs and then he shows us around.

It’s still dinner time and all the children are sitting on the floors outside their dormitories tucking into bowls of curried cauliflower and big bread rolls while the teachers supervise. In the dormitories there are tightly packed bunk beds. By the doors are pigeonholes stuffed with children’s rucksacks. Everything is neat and well organised.

After they have eaten the children have an hour to play before a session of private study. They have all changed out of their TCV uniforms except for one small girl who is still wearing hers. She gets told to go back and change, she goes but she’s obviously the school rebel – watch out World!

Back to Kalsang’s for more tea. We find that the headmaster has sent round some of the school dinner for us. For once Kalsang actually says not to eat too much, that must be a first, since she’s got something special for us later. Blimey! Anyway, it won’t be wasted; there’s an old couple living outside the school who get all Kalsang’s leftovers. Actually the bread is very good, heavy and doughy, more like a dumpling really.

Otherwise, Dorje, our driver, and I are having fun trying to say ‘no’ to Kalsang who is plying us with inexhaustible quantities of various teas. With so many different cups on the go it’s impossible to avoid getting multiple refills!

After tanking up on tea and using the school’s facilities we head off to view the greenhouse, but it turns out to be too far away so we opt for a shorter walk instead. We visit Kalsang’s old couple, both in their 80s, and are invited in to their house by the wife. It’s hard for us to imagine more poverty but they seem to survive. Inside it’s almost pitch black. Kalsang wants me to take photographs but I am worried about using the flash – the old woman says it’s OK. I snap a couple of shots into the darkness, the flash is blinding in the confined space. When our eyes have recovered we sample the tsampa, it’s delicious. As we leave, her husband returns bringing home a huge pile of grass for their cow. These are two amazing people. The only thing we have to offer is the promise of sending them a few photographs after we return to our world. There are rumours that the Government of India will open up this area to foreign tourism next year – we can only hope that life will improve for these people if that happens.

Back at Kalsang’s we all pile into her kitchen. Even the reluctant Dorje is persuaded to join us – there is no escape from Kalsang’s hospitality! We sit in the light cast by a solar powered fluorescent tube while she prepares a Tibetan noodle soup for us. It’s good and a second helping soon follows the first. And there is more tea, of course. The old man appears in the doorway bringing fresh curds for us – they are delicious too.

By 21:00 everyone is tired and even Kalsang’s tea reserves appear to be running down, at least for the time being. We retreat to the house next door where we have been kindly allowed to sleep. We arrange our sleeping bags on the couches around the walls. Clare has stomach pains but we soon fall asleep.

Day 8 [01.09.2009] Hanle to Leh

A slow start this morning, we wander round to Kalsang’s at 07:30 for breakfast. At 08:45 we go round to where the school is having its assembly. The children are lined up in rows in the sunshine while the headmaster addresses them. Then they sing the school song before Clare is asked to make a speech to encourage them to study harder – she does a great job. I lurk in the background, pretending to hide behind the camera. Tomorrow is apparently Tibetan Democracy Day, a holiday, and the kids get a quick lecture on the importance of it all. Finally the school band strikes up a marching song and they all stride off to start their classes.

The kids come to view the strange looking intruders.
Fun to see the different attitudes, indifference, uncertainty, amusement...
The headmaster addressing the assembled school.

After the assembly we get to visit the school library, stationery store, kitchen and, finally, medical facility, where a handful of sick kids are lying on the floor. Apparently they use mainly western medicines here, not Tibetan.

Preparing food for the entre school.
Tseggy and Kalsang in the school kitchen.
Walking towards the main school building.

The headmaster then takes us round each classroom, introducing us to each group of children. I take copious photographs so that we will have something to send them later, but it is not easy in the cramped classrooms. In some of the older classes they are encouraged to ask us questions – they are taught in English so they have the language – but mostly they are too shy. Clare makes a good show of examining their exercise books and encouraging their studies.

The TCV schools do so much with so little, they are incredible. The children are so eager to learn, they would be the envy of any school in the UK. When you think what could be done here for the price of a couple of missiles it makes you despair. Every politician should spend 6 months teaching in a place like this.

Some younger pupils at work.
Some members of a junior class.
Reading aloud.
Laughter in one of the senior classes as Clare introduces us.
What did she say?

Finally we complete our tour and prepare to leave – our permit runs out today. Kalsang is leaving Pema and Dachen, her daughters, here with the school nurse, so we will have more room in the car on the way back. Before leaving Hanle we make a detour to the school greenhouse and meet the guy who is responsible for keeping the children fed. It’s an impressive arrangement. Again you are quickly reminded how the Indian Government has given the refugees the worst land available – generous, but not really.

The keeper of the school's greenhouse.
Clare and Andy in the greenhouse.
Outside the TCV School greenhouse, Hanle.

We are told that refugees fleeing over the border from China sometimes arrive at the school. Kids are sent by their parents, literally sending them off into the darkness to find their way into India, walking for days, sleeping in caves and in the open, until they finally reach Hanle. After a few days to recover, they are sent on to Dharamsala for rehabilitation. The Chinese Government are a bunch of evil bastards, pure and simple. And I am ashamed that the west sits back and does nothing about it.

Kalsang with Dachen and Pema in their TVD uniforms.
Kalasng, Tseggy, Pema and Dachen.
Group photo outside Kalsang's house at the TCV school.

We hit the road back to Leh. Along the way we pass small herds of kyang – wild asses. On the way here we even saw some very rare, endangered, black necked Cranes. Eat your hearts out, twitcher folk! We drive through a few showers of rain and hail. There are occasional sunny patches but on the whole the weather’s overcast and grey with a moderate breeze. We make good time back to Mahe Bridge and, all too soon, we have put the Forbidden Zone behind us. Now we are just ordinary tourists again, but what an experience we just had!

Camouflaged army tents on the road out of Hanle.
Camouflaged army tents on the road out of Hanle.
Kyang - wild asses - beside the road.

Tseggy has been sitting in the front seat next to Clare and his English has improved amazingly in just a few hours. Now he has enough confidence to hold a conversation. He seems to have a pretty good knowledge of world history and asks lots of questions – this is great!

After school shopping at a local tea shop.
Too many strangers - let me out of here!

Getting back to Leh is an anticlimax. We get back to the hotel and Kalsang and Tseggy leave quickly. She said something about a dentist so maybe she has toothache. Clare seems to think she’s not very happy but it’s hard to tell.

We talk with Sonam and hand over USD 200 for the jeep. Sonam says he’s waived the Discovery India fee since we were helping the Tibetan refugees. But we have been generous with the exchange rate so I don’t think he’s out of pocket. We also have to say goodbye to Dorje, our excellent driver and new friend.

The KE group have arrived and Kev, who’s up on the roof, sees us heading for our room. We exchange a few insults from a distance and then head for the shower - yes! Ade, the KE leader drops by for a chat and gets to meet a towel clad Clare fresh from the shower!

After the last few days we are interested to see how we cope with group life. Fortunately the group turns out to be a bunch of nice people and we are all of ‘mature’ years. Looks like it could be fun after all. Dinner in the hotel restaurant tonight, the first time for us. Lots of chatting before heading off for an early night of undisturbed sleep – because we’re worth it.

Day 9 [02.09.2009] Leh

We decided to pass on the chance to see a Buddhist masked procession, put on by the local monks, up at the polo ground. Instead we spent the morning catching up on our diaries and rehydrating after two days on the road. Had lunch at the Himalayan Cafι – chicken burger for me, I needed some western style protein for a change.

Clare poses in chuba with the rest of the family.
Clare in chuba.

At 16:00 we took a taxi down to Choglomsar to see Tsegyal and family. Grandma was there too, always pleased to see us, especially Clare. Drank eight cups of butter tea, four glasses of lemon tea and consumed three plates of chips with ketchup. It’s impossible to say ‘no’ when Sherap and Kalsang are around. Left again at 17:30, with Grandma wishing us good luck and a long life (‘tsering’). On the way back Clare was wearing her Tibetan chuba outfit which she’d brought over for a new fitting. Got some very intrigued looks from the locals as we walked through the Leh market area on the way back to the hotel. Also picked up a CD of Tibetan music that we heard playing as we walked past one of the stalls – all in all a good day!

Dinner with the group again, but I only had a couple of bits of chicken due to being completely stuffed with tea and chips. Late to bed for no particular reason other than Clare wanting to catch up with her writing.

Day 10 [03.09.2009] Kardung La / Leh

Looking back towards Leh from the Kardung La road.
The Leh valley from the Kardung La road.
The road from Leh up to the highest pass in the world.
Del and Steve contemplating the Scottish weather.
Garri, Clare, David, Ade and Hatti acclimatising.
The gardens at the Singge Palace, freshly washed by the morning rain.
The gardens at the Singge Palace Hotel.
Sunshine returns to the Singge Palace Hotel.

Breakfast at 08:00 today. Cold and raining this morning. Planned to go up to the Kardung La, the highest pass in the world, but decided to wait an hour to see if the weather improved. Finally set off just after 10:00 in three of Sonam’s luxury jeeps. Glad to see our driver from Hanle, Dorje, was still with us, we jumped in with him, sharing the jeep with Hatty and Barbara.

After climbing up out of Leh to about 4500m it started to snow, real Scottish winter conditions. We continued on to 5037m on the GPS and then pulled up next to some kind of workshop building. A bizarre place to have one if you ask me. The drivers said this was the last place they could turn around before the top and they didn’t want to go any further – I didn’t blame them. Some other tourist jeeps were still heading up, looking at the state of some of their tyres I’m glad we weren’t in any of them. The roads were pretty slushy.

Back down to Leh by 13:00. The group opted for eating their packed lunches in the hotel garden but we took the opportunity to hit the Himalayan Cafι again – chicken fried momos and special fried vegetables. No competition!

Spent the afternoon sorting gear. Still cold outside. Kalsang came round at about 16:30. She and Clare went out and bought a few presents from the Tibetan market and one or two of the other genuine Tibetan shops. No more handouts for the Kashmiri usurpers, torturing the tourists with their sales banter before fleecing them for sub standard goods and then running back to Goa as soon as the weather changes.

Kalsang came back and we were given another kata as a goodbye present. It was very sad saying goodbye but she will be heading back to Hanle while we are trekking. In the end we procrastinated by going round to Pema’s stall in the Tibetan market before finally waving goodbye at the hotel entrance. Sad!

Tonight we are going to the Himalayan Cafι with Kev, Del, Steve and Garri – the Welsh contingent!

Day 11 [04.09.2009] Leh to Rumptse

Almost deserted main street of Leh.
Baby monks arriving for school.
An old doorway of Leh's main shopping street.

A good meal at the Himalayan Cafι last night although the service seems to deteriorate as the size of the group increases. Clare and I had tikka massala paneer with mushroom fried rice. The others had sizzlers and pizza – not so good, I think we made the right choice.

This morning we were awake at 06:00 and listening to the Buddhist chanting from the nearby monastery. Better than Allah! A quick shower and last minute packing then breakfast at 07:45. Tipped all the hotel staff since we won’t be seeing them again for a while and paid the bill for the room. Only came to RPS 450 – either they forgot to charge for all the tea and biscuits or they liked us so much they decided to waive the charges!

Took a quick trip round the centre of Leh to view all the closed shops. Apparently the whole town is shut down in response to the mysterious death of a monk in Kashmir. Not only the Buddhist shops but also the Muslim and Kashmiri ones are closed. In fact, everything is closed down except the schools.

Back to the hotel and on the road just after 10:00. Down through Choglomsar and on to Upshi for some roadside tea. Then a few more kilometres up the Manali road to Rumptse, pausing for a packed lunch along the way. At Rumptse our tents are already set up and waiting for us.

Parting of the ways at Upshi.
Our campsite at Rumptse.
Sonam‘s luxury limo service.

More tea and an introduction to our camp crew – Amin the cook and a bunch of other guys including a waterman. Blimey! The tents come complete with mattresses and pillows. This trek is going to be the height of luxury, I am not sure that I like it!

For exercise we take a quick tour of the area, including a visit to a local house and to an impressive arrangement of manni walls and stupas up on the hillside. Back to the campsite for tea and cake.

Houses at Rumptse.
Inside the house.
Young boy at Rumptse.
Mother and baby.
Manni wall and stupas, Rumptse.

Now the sun is just going down and the temperature is going to plummet. At least the tents are snug. Time for dinner...

... blimey! A buffet dinner with chicken bits, roast potatoes and vegetables followed by egg pudding. To bed before 21:00, almost a full moon tonight – stunningly beautiful.

Day 12 [05.09.2009] Rumptse to Kyamar La

River crossing on the first day.
Disused wolf trap beside the trail.
Manni wall enhanced with blue sheep skull.
Beware of the marmot.
Blue sky trekking.
Camp 1, perfect weather.

First day trekking today. Managed to sleep until 01:00 before needing to take a trip outside – the curse of getting acclimatised is having to drink 4 or 5 litres a day. But it was worth it, the scenery was amazing in the moonlight, so bright you could easily see the colour of the grass. And, surprisingly enough, it wasn’t that cold either since the wind had dropped. The only downside was that three horses with bells around their necks seemed to like the grass around our tent – not exactly melodic after the first 30 minutes.

Up at 06:00 and packed by 06:30, must be a record there somewhere. Breakfast of pancakes, eggs and coffee. On the trail just after 08:00.

Slow walking all day, gradually building altitude. A few stops for refreshments and a longer stop for lunch – the crew brought out a selection of curried dishes and rice, all carried by the ‘lunch horse’. Great organisation, shame we chose a wind tunnel to sit and eat it in! Sat around for a while waiting for the rest of the horses to appear but they didn’t so we carried on in the end. David spotted a gold coloured bird of prey flying over the crags above the lunch spot but it disappeared in a blur of golden feathers before anyone got a real look at it.

After lunch it was just a quick hike to our campsite at the base of the Kyamar La. Sat and waited for the gear to arrive, chilly wind but OK as long as the sun shines. Took a while for the kitchen crew to get organised but they got the tents up pretty quickly. From experience it’s better to stay out of the way, no matter how much you feel like helping – you just get in the way.

While we were waiting in the tent I fired up the JetBoil and made some bouillon. Worked well. Then the crew brought round some hot lemon. Right now it’s pretty quiet around the camp apart from the noise from the cook tent – seems like the wind has chased everyone inside to do whatever it is they do.

Wow! Tea and pakora in the mess tent! Then back to the tents for another 90 minutes R&R before dinner. It will be a cold night tonight; the moon is almost full now. Means that you can’t see too many stars though. To bed before 21:00.

Day 13 [06.09.2009] Over Kyamar La and Mandalchan La to Tisalang

Sitting at 5200m, approaching the top of the second of today’s high passes, the Mandalchan La. Waiting for the rest of the group to catch up, I seem to have got a bit out in front. While I’ve been sitting here a couple of guys with some pack horses have passed, going in the opposite direction. I guess they are heading back to pick up a new trek.

Ascending the Kyamar La.
Clare, Morup and David breaking away from the rest of the group.
At the top of the Kyamar La.
Army outpost above the Kyamar La.
Stunning geology, amazing colours!

An excellent day’s walking today with long, gradual ascents along good trails. The first pass, the Kyamar La, ended up at 5120m, the next one looks a little higher. Seemed like Hattie was a tad unwell at breakfast, maybe altitude, but the others all seem to be going well despite the rapid height gain. Tonight we camp at over 5000m – that could be interesting. Even Clare and I have probably used up our Manali Road altitude credits by now.

The scenery is fantastic, rugged hills in every shade of green, brown and dark red. Some snow still on the tops. Blue sky with virtually no clouds. Only a niggling cold breeze to keep it from being perfect. At least it helps you keep cool on the ascents.

OK – I can see most of the group coming up the trail now. Onwards and upwards to the top of the pass which is marked, like all the passes, with a cairn and prayer flags. There is the skull of blue sheep perched on the top.

Down from the pass it’s just a short walk into the valley where our next campsite is located. The altitude is 5040m on the GPS. An impressive height gain since leaving Leh only two days ago. A few people say they are tired, I guess it was a fairly long day with two ascents.

Ade asks me not to walk ahead of the guide in future. He’s the boss so I will see what I can do, but I don’t plan to walk nose to tail in a long, slow line either, that way you see nothing except the rucksack of the person in front. To be honest, I think he’s being a little over cautious on these easy trails.

It’s a chilly evening so we all retreat into our tents until tea is served. Biscuits today. Then another hour and a half until dinner. Chips and tuna fishcakes tonight, there is no limit to Amin’s talents. Kev didn’t seem to like the chips, pity since he can’t eat much of the other food either. Will be interesting to see how far he can get on virtually zero food intake. Ok for a while but he’s bound to hit the wall at some point.

To bed before 21:00 again – too cold to hang around. My brand new sleeping bag has a cold patch above my knees – weird. I wrapped a down jacket around it and it made a big difference, almost too hot now. Clare got out just after midnight – the moon was full tonight, incredible views!

Day 14 [07.09.2009] Over Thasang La to Phongponagu

Another six-seven-eight start this morning. On the trail by 07:50. Just an hour’s easy climb up to the next pass, the Thasang La, at exactly 5300m. Then a long descent along the side of the valley to our campsite at Phongponagu. Along the way we pass a flock of blue sheep and half a dozen wild asses – kyang.

It’s a long but easy descent to a campsite next to a salt lake called Tso Kar. Apparently it used to be mined for salt but it’s not done any longer. Down by the lake it’s quite dusty and the wind blows constantly. A pity because the views are stunning but hanging around to admire them is less pleasant. Today we get tea with fried walnuts in a sugary batter – delicious!

Nature spotting along the trail.
Mountain views.
Looking down to Tso Kar Lake from the Thasang La.
Tso Kar salt lake.
The trail down from Thasang La.
Tso Kar. Of course, it was much bigger before global warming.
Clare and Morup.
The horses are coming!
Stupa at Phongponagu... with toilet shed annexe.

Tonight we seem to be in a commercial camping area not unlike the one we stayed in at Sarchu, basically a temporary hotel. There seems to be a group of bikers in residence – the usual Rent-a-Norton crowd. The exhaust from their generator is blowing across our tents – this does not bode well!

Day 15 [08.09.2009] Phongponagu to Nuruchan

Cruisin the dunes around Tso Kar.
Clare and Morup heading for the hills.

A surprisingly good night, the generator went off just after nine but I was already asleep. A quick venture outside at around 01:00 – another fantastic moonlit night and not too cold either. Back to sleep until just before the ‘bed tea’ arrived at 06:00.

Started walking just after 08:00 – an easy day today, just walking around the lake. Spectacular views, each one seemingly better than the last. Reflections of the mountains in the water of the lake. Passed several nomads guarding their flocks. Stopped to take some photographs and get some addresses to send them to – there’s a chance they may get delivered, many of these people actually have postal addresses. One old guy was asking for medicine for his eyes. Ade said he didn’t have anything – probably the politically correct answer. We have some stuff too but it’s probably best to keep quiet about it.

Smell those Tuareg Nomad campfires.
Morup collecting addresses.
Anyone seen my flock?
Can I have your autograph?
Have you met my sister?
Tea anyone?

Cloud reflections in Tso Kar Lake.
Clouds reflected in the still waters of Tso Kar Lake.
Subtle reflections of the surrounding hills in the waters of Tso Kar Lake.

Tibetan nomad herder on the shore of Tso Kar Lake.
An inquisitive goat.
Goats grazing along the shore of Tso Kar Lake.

Onwards – had lunch in a dusty spot just off the trail. Waited for the horses to overtake us, which they finally did. There are a number of nomad winter homes and animal enclosures scattered around the lake, plus the ubiquitous manni walls. You have to admire the toughness of these people.

Nomad winter home, Tso Kar Lake.
The road splits around a Manni wall so that it can be passed on the correct side.
Buddhist text amongst the Manni carvings.
Manni stones on top of the wall.
The group studying the Manni wall.
Campsite at Nuruchan.

Eventually we turned away from the lake and headed up towards tomorrow’s pass. Walked along dusty jeep trails and through an avenue of barbed wire that was fencing off two large rectangles of wasteland. Not sure what it was for although maybe it was some kind of proto-airstrip. Luckily, a few bends in the trail quickly put the eyesore behind us and we were back into raw nature with our campsite located in a meadow next to a small stream. Loads of litter from previous treks scattered everywhere. Ade set the crew to gathering it up. Apparently we pay a fee to the local families to use these sites; therefore it’s in everyone’s interests to keep them clean.

A bit of a hiatus in the kitchen department this afternoon so we got juice served in small plastic cups. Tea at 16:30 followed by a ‘faffing’ session as Ade now calls it. Basically retreating to our individual tents to sit shivering until dinner is served. It’s certainly a lot colder here in September than it was when we were here in August. And this part of Ladakh is apparently the coldest part of the country.

We had pizza for dinner tonight – the group very kindly allowed me to have Kev’s unwanted slice since the one I got was minute! Talking of Kev, he wasn’t too well today and ended up doing the last couple of klicks on the ‘emergency horse’, quickly transformed from the ‘lunch horse’. Poor Kev. Hopefully it’s nothing serious but he must be weakening – he eats far less than even me!

To bed at the usual time. The weather is changing now and we have already seen the odd snowflake falling.

Day 16 [09.09.2009] Over Nuruchan La to Rachungkaru

Early morning at Nuruchan.
Leaving camp to ascend the Nurchan La.
Looking back at the Nuruchan campsite with Tso Kar Lake in the distance.
Prayer flags atop the Nuruchan La.
Dust devils sweeping the valley.

Yet another good night’s sleep – didn’t want to get up at 06:00 this morning but need to be ready to receive the ‘bed tea’. Omelette for breakfast and then off up to the Nuruchan La at 4971m. A relatively easy gradient all the way, just a few false summits to keep you guessing. Much picture taking at the top!

While descending the bad weather arrived with a bitter headwind and some rain. Eventually had to stop and break out the rain gear. From the bottom of the pass there was a shortish, level walk to our next campsite at Rachungkaru.

Since the tents had not arrived we all piled into a nomad tent to eat our lunch and drink tea. At least this time we were given a choice of whether we wanted salt tea or not. I chose not, this time – as Clare said, we didn’t want to stretch their resources too far. Garri went for it but only managed a sip – he can thank his lucky stars he doesn’t have a ‘family’ in Leh!

The horses arrived and the tents were set up down by the river, below the nomad tents. An easy afternoon awaits although it is now snowing outside, not settling yet though. The plan is to convene for tea at 16:30.

Tea and biscuits today, shame, had a small hope there might be pakora again today. Never mind. The usual ‘faffing’ before dinner and then off to bed for another long night’s sleep – we’d be useless without our ten hours. If this was Pakistan we’d up until all hours playing cards but here it’s so cold at night that we just want to get into the warmth of our sleeping bags.

Nomad child.
Nomad woman.
Young nomad boy or girl - we were never sure.
Clare under observation while moving into the tent.
Tentside entertainment.
Livestock surrounds the toilet tent.
Day 17 [10.09.2009] Rachungkaru over Kyamaru La and Gyabarma La to Gyabarma

Clothing stop soon after leaving camp.
Climbing the Gyabarma La in poor weather.
Kev on horseback heading off into the distance.
Clare with double protection headgear.
Waiting for the number 52 bus.
The Gyabarma La.

Crossed two high passes today. Left camp at 08:00 as usual and trekked up the valley towards the last of the nomad camps. Got caught by an old woman brandishing a booklet of receipts, looking for contributions to the Ladakhi Women’s Union. Gave her RPS 100.

Continued on up into the valley that lead to the first pass. A good trail on broken terrain, not overly steep. Got a bit ahead of the group to enjoy a little peace and quiet away from the continual banter – not far, just enough to be out of earshot. Nice to only hear the wind and my own breathing for a change. After a while I paused on a rock and watched a huge marmot rustling around in the undergrowth. He didn’t seem to care that I was there, but he heard the rest of the group coming up long before they actually appeared. Since they were taking their time I backtracked along the hillside to see where they were and saw them pass below me. Then I saw someone on one of the higher grazing trails, looked like Kev so I thought I’d drop back and offer some encouragement. It turned out to be Garri who was struggling a little with the altitude, walked with him all the way to the top. Clare told me that Ade was pissed off again; apparently I was out of the rescue zone. Ah well, it was worth it for a few minutes of mountain solitude.

On top of the pass, the Kyamaru La, it was windy and cold. Paused for the usual photo taking before heading down the other side. Expecting just a short traverse to the next pass but it was actually quite a long walk along the valley floor. The weather turned nasty again with more snow falling.

Out of the mists we saw a nomad tent emerge so dropped in for lunch. They were just in the process of packing up to move down the valley but very kindly interrupted everything to allow us to shelter in their tent while we ate our lunch. In exchange we gave them our leftover food. I think we got the better end of the deal!

Onwards and upwards over the Gyabarma pass and down to Gyabarma itself to camp at over 5100m. The weather improved as we reached camp.

Clare approaching the top of the Gyabarma La.
Tashi(?) - guide and lunch horse manager.
Heading down from the Gyabarma La.
Day 18 [11.09.2009] Over Yalung Nyau La to Karzok Dok

Preparing the horses in the early morning at Gyabarma.
Leaving the Gyabarma campsite behind.
Spectacular mountain views from the Gyabarma valley.
Above the snowline on the Yalung Nyau La.
Clare approaching the top of the Yalung Nyau La.

The usual start in relatively good weather. Up another valley to the Yalung Nyau La, the highest pass of the trek. Entertained myself by climbing up the valley side above the main trail. Just following the grazing trails and challenging myself to always take the higher trail at all the intersections. Most likely Ade was not amused but at least I was keeping the group in site and not really getting ahead of the guide. A couple of times I dropped back to the main trail when they stopped to rest, losing quite a lot of altitude, but what the heck!

After a while the snow came down and visibility deteriorated so I had no option but to walk with the group. Gradually we approached the top of the pass, unfortunately Kev ran out of fuel and had to finish the climb on horseback. Offered to carry some of the lunch stuff but Morup and his friend were quite happy to carry it all themselves.

So, onwards again with Kev, on the horse, soon overtaking everyone while Garri was a long way back. With everyone on foot moving slowly I thought I might offer Garri some more encouragement but Ade said to keep going to the top and not to hang around. Fair enough – I decided to take him literally and set off in pursuit of Kev’s horse, reaching the top not too long after them. Took some photos and waited for everyone else to arrive. Clare wasn’t far behind, going very strongly.

Down from the Yalung Nyau La in snowy conditions. Kev back on his feet for the descent. No lunch stop due to the poor weather. A few steep sections on the descent but nothing too difficult. More problematic for the poor horses though, it took them a while to come down. I guess there were quite a few loads shifting on the steep bits. Hard work.

Sooty horseman's tent at Karzog Dok.
Snow starts to settle as the temperature falls.

When the terrain levelled out it was just a slog down the outwash plain to our campsite a Karzog Dok. Which actually arrived much sooner than we all expected, something I think we were all grateful for, given the conditions.

Thanks to Ade we got the mess tent set up quickly and we all took shelter while the poor guides got to grips with putting up our tents – lucky us! The snow was still falling and soon starting to settle on the ground.

Tomorrow is a rest day – looks like we might need it.

Day 19 [12.09.2009] Karzok Dok, manni ceremony

It snowed all night and there was maybe 3 or 4 inches on the ground at breakfast time.

The morning after it snowed.
Snow around the tents at Karzog Dok.
Karzog Dok campsite in the snow.

Today was the first day of a Buddhist Manni ceremony over at the nomad community. All of us, except David, took a tour over to observe the proceedings. Lots to see and photograph, with most of the local people from the area turning up in their best clothes to receive the teachings of the Rinpoche. The man himself turned up in his personal jeep with his parents – I guess giving birth to the reincarnation of a holy personage brings certain privileges. The Rinpoche himself seemed about the best fed person we’d seen since leaving Delhi.

Nomads gathering for the Manni ceremony at Karzog Dok.
Children in the mist.
For the nomad children, the foreigners add an entertaining twist to the ceremony.
Congregation gathering inside the tent.
This jacket was clean on this morning.
Don't trust those strange people.
The Rinpoche's father enters the tent...
...the excitement mounts.
Outside, the men prepare food for the party.
Amazing what kids find to keep themselves amused.

Since we seemed to be getting in the way a bit I left at around 11:30 but Clare and a few of the others stayed on. They were lucky enough, thanks to Morup, to get a private audience and blessing from the Rinpoche – nice!

Back at the camp, Kharma (actually Skarma), our climbing guide had arrived. Apparently our plans to climb Mentok II will have to be cancelled due to the avalanche risk. Bummer – that was the main reason I came! So now the plan is to hang around here for a few days to burn some time before heading down into Karzog village.

Looking from Karzog Dok towards the Mentok massif (behind the far ridge).
Karzog Dok campsite.
The snowline gradually recedes again.
Day 20 [13.09.2009] Karzok Dok, ridge walk

The Manni celebrations were in full swing until late into the night – actually early morning. What with the Ladakhi disco music and the continuous dog barking it was a pretty disturbed night.

Most of the snow around the campsite had melted away by yesterday afternoon, so we are back on bare earth again. Ade, David, Hatty, Barbara and Kharma went off to visit what would have been our basecamp for Mentok II. Couldn’t face the thought of a slow plod for no reason so Clare and I explored a ridge and hidden valley behind the camp. The Welsh contingent went off up another ridge, reaching an impressive vantage point well above the snowline – nicely done.

Clare with Mysterious Tso Moriri behind.
Andy resting on the ridge above Karzog Dok.
Shattered rocks with Tso Moriri in the distance.
Nomad shepherd boy clasping flapjack!
Clare’s ‘secret’ valley.
Small stream running down the valley.

On the way back, Clare and I stopped off at the big stupa near the trail down to Karzog. While we there we met a young trainee monk who invited us back to his family's tent for tea. It would have been rude to refuse so we walked back with him and were introduced to his parents and sister. Interestingly, they also had a large dog which was being fed from a large bowl of tsampa. Although the dogs hang around in packs and appear totally feral they are actually semi-domesticated and are used to protect the flocks from wolves.

Stupa at Karzog Dok.
Student monk - our new friend.
Inside the nomad tent.
Preparing more butter tea.
Boiling tea water over a yak dung fire.
Nomad girl with young son.
Nomad family.
A friend who just happened to drop in while we there.

Everyone back in camp for the usual tea and biscuit rituals.

Day 21 [14.09.2009] Decent to Karzog, Tso Moriri

Today should have been our summit day but instead we made a gradual descent to Karzog. On the plus side we soaked up some incredible views of Tso Moriri and Karzog along the way. Made it to Karzog by lunchtime and did some exploring. Visited the monastery and had tea in a parachute cafι. Bought a bottle of ‘Godfather’ beer to drink with dinner – no more acclimatisation worries now. Not bad although I didn’t drink the entire bottle. Morup offered us some local chang. Gave it a try but it was pretty revolting, at least to my taste, way too smokey. In fact, judging by the thick black sediment in the bottom of the bottle, a bonfire had featured somewhere in the fermentation process. Give me the chang in Nepal any day. Plenty of time today for relaxing with the MP3 player.

Packing up camp.
The only morning it was warm enough for an al fresco breakfast.
Early morning packing.
Early morning at Karzog Dok.
The four horsemen of the apocalypse.
‘You’ve all done jolly well...’

On the tourist trail to Karzog:

Climbing up from Karzog Dok.
Mysterious Tso Moriri (1).
Mysterious Tso Moriri (2).
The northern end of Tso Moriri.
Mysterious Tso Moriri (3).
Mysterious Tso Moriri (4).
Mysterious Tso Moriri (5).
On the hilltop above Karzog.
Clare, Steve and Garri soaking up the views.
Clare and Garri discussing Welsh Nationalism!
Miles and miles across the Ladakhi Plains.

Down into Karzog:

The village of Karzog comes into view.
The Rinpoche's lakeside retreat - nice!
Clare and Kharma approaching Karzog.
Stupas and Manni walls on the edge of Karzog.
Workers building a massive prayer wheel on the hillside above Karzog.
The rooftops of Karzog.
Looking up the road towards the Karzog Monastery.
Strange building, maybe a winter food store, down by the river.

Karzog Monastery:

Entrance to the main part of the monastery.
Well done The King's School, Worcester!
Buddhist images adorn the walls of the monastery.
Buddhist decorations showing some water damage and general deterioration.
Buddhist statue.
A strange mix of the very old and the relatively new.
Restoration of parts of the monastery is being done.
The roof of the temple.
Photgraph of the Rinpoche as a boy.
From the roof of the monastery, looking towards Tso Moriri.
The group on the roof of the monastery.
Karzog seen from the roof of the monastery.
Day 22 [15.09.2009] Karzog

The Rinpoche's lakeside retreat.
Clay jars containing the ashes of past Karzog residents are stacked along the cliffs.

Explored along the lake shore of Tso Moriri this morning. Spectacular, but I think everyone is a bit down at the moment – there are undercurrents of friction within the group. Not doing the mountain and then hanging around here is a tad frustrating. We tried suggesting heading back to Leh early but some people wanted to check out the bird life around the lake – alas there wasn’t any. Also toyed with the idea of renting our own jeep but we short one photocopy of the group permit so that was also a non starter. Never mind.

Kev was unwell again this morning.

The village of Karzog.
Cairn overlooking Tso Moriri.
Cremation pile.
Specially decorated manni walls in the cremation area.
Cremation area outside Karzog.
The shores of Tso Moriri.

Spent the afternoon trimming my beard and catching up on my diary – yawn.

Day 23 [16.09.2009] Karzog to Leh

Barbed wire and prayer flags. Appropriate considering Tibet is just over the distant mountains.

Today we had the ‘fascinating off-road driving experience’ which took us back to Leh. First of all we said goodbye to the Discovery India crew who took such good care of us on the trek – good work folks!

A dog in Karzog. Normally found hanging around in noisy packs.
A monk watches the crew packing up for the last time.
The Discovery India crew line up for a final farewell.


Drove back to Mahe Bridge and then along the Indus Valley back into Leh. Took loads of photographs of the conglomerates along the side of the road, maybe someone at work will be interested when I get back.

Pesky marmots.
Affectionate pesky marmots.
Crossing the last pass on the way back to Mahe Bridge.
Prayer flags and snow sprinkled mountains.
Morup and Clare.
Horses and yaks grazing beside the road.
Yak and horse in the morning sunshine.
Horses grazing the morning sunshine.
Don't be a gama in the land of the lama! A cryptic Ladakhi roadside hint.

Anyone interested in seeing more bizarre Indian road signs can look here.

Back at the Sinnghe Palace Hotel we didn’t get our favourite room 124, but the one we got at least had a better shower – the most important item on the agenda. Amazing how quickly everyone disappeared after we got back – you never know how long the hot water will last!

Pema, Sherap, Dorje and Tseggy came to say goodbye. They brought a large parcel wrapped in green foam padding – a carved Tibetan table. Lucky for us we have some spare baggage capacity on the flight to London so all we have to do is get it on through the flight to Delhi and it should be OK. It was really kind of them to go to all the trouble. They didn’t hang around long, just time enough to say goodbye and hand over another kata.

Had one last meal at the Himalayan Cafι – momos and special fried vegetables. Had to say goodbye to the friendly waiter, Topden, there too – well at least he seemed to like us despite the language confusion. He was brandishing some kind of phishing email, we tried to warn him that it was an obvious fake but it was impossible to tell whether he really realised it or not – hope he doesn’t burn his entire season’s earnings!

Day 24 [17.09.2009] Leh to Delhi

Early flight to Delhi this morning. Generally went according to plan, except for men not being allowed to have hand luggage on the plane. Bizarre. People in the know had given their rucksacks to wives and female partners while we had to check all ours in. The check-in staff for Kingfisher weren’t overly impressed but they could have mentioned it while we were checking in the rest of our luggage. Seems like it all depends on which idiot is manning the entrance to the departure area. If you need an example of safety gone mad then this has to be it – ‘are you carrying any weapons of mass destruction, sir?’ – ‘No, I gave them to my wife’.

Anyway, it was a good flight with some great views over the Himalayas. Landed in Delhi and everyone’s bag came through OK, even our table, covered in ‘Fragile’ stickers.

Discovery India had laid on a coach to the nearby D-Marks hotel. Bizarre to be back in Delhi in the heat and noise. Coach driver was in the wrong lane when he got to the hotel and had drive past it twice before he could get back to the entrance. Once inside, our first priority was to get on the Internet and change our flights – we succeeded so we will fly out tonight – a day early. Not bad, even got the extra legroom seats! Finally managed to get in touch with Hertz to hire a car from Heathrow – couldn’t book one on the website so had to phone them, probably cost a small fortune.

So, that’s about it really – the end of the Mysterious Tso Moriri trek. Have to say that, although the mountains were stunning and it was good to be out amongst them, it’s really been the cultural side of this trip that’s made it worthwhile. Especially meeting our Tibetan friends again and the trip to Hanle. Also getting to know the Discovery India crew and the various nomads we met along the way.

(After the trip we actually had 650 prints of various photographs made so that we could send them to the address list that Clare compiled along the way – would be interesting to know how many actually got to the intended recipients!)

Day 25 [18.09.2009] Delhi to London

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