4th August : Khangsar (~3700 M) to Tantak / Base Kontse La (~4000 M)I was feeling lazy after the long walk the previous day. Got up late to splendid morning views from this campsite.
After breakfast, packed lunch and nice hot shower I felt clean and brisk. Left for Phugtal by 9:00 a.m. I had been here in 2009 towards the end of September. At that time of the year the Tsarap chu looked a pristine blue (similar to the photograph of the Zara River) as opposed to the greyish, silvery stream flowing now. The trail follows the left of the Tsarap Chu river before it reaches the bridge to cross over to Phugtal Gompa.
As you follow the trail the sight that strikes you the most is the massive boulders that lie in the Tsarap River. These boulders forces one to imagine the destruction they may have caused when they rolled down the scree slopes.
Mules (especially with loads) could not walk the trail from Purne to Phugtal 2 years back as one had to go through real narrow trails. However, now the trail had been widened, a result of trekking demands, so that mules can go all the way upto Phugtal. This had robbed the trail of a bit of its beauty and charm compared to 2 years back. High above (about 80m) on the slopes of the mountain on the other side of the river one can see another trail cutting across the mountains (see the narrow line in the centre of the mountain slopes on the left of the above 2 pics). This is a route used by the villagers/monks to go to a nearby village (I think Kyalbok) instead of coming all the way to Purne. If you are having a rest day at Purne then this is a trail one can explore. The trail might be broken (was 2 years ago) and there will be stretches where the trail is a complete landslide/scree zone. The terrain both above and below the scree slope looks like a slide and if you slip (and you are most likely to unless you are experienced enough to cross it, and I am no expert to advice you how) you would land straight down amidst the boulders in the Tsarap river 80-100m below. It is useful to have a walking stick to cross such a terrain. I found it downright dangerous when I attempted to cross it 2 years back and looking at it now, it still sent shudders down my spine. This scree slope reminds me of the scree slopes & the miniscule ledges one traversed during my trek to Tilicho Lake, a 2 day detour from Manang during the Annapurna Circuit Trek, in Nepal. I often wonder how the villagers and the monks cross it regularly. The term "Rugged mountains" is the one which most describes the nature of these Zanskar mountain ranges. Nothing exemplifies the "Ruggedness of the mountains" more than the jagged rock faces which one encounters all along the trail to Phugtal. The sheer brutality of the surroundings dwarfs you and one feels a certain sense of powerlessness whilst admiring the beauty of the harsh landscape. The one sight which left a smile on my lips, as I completed my 2 hour walk I was to the bridge to Phugtal, was that of a young monk with sunglasses riding a horse towards Purne - a sight I would never have seen 2 years back.
The setting of the Phugtal gompa would always leave its mark on any visitor.
One catches the first views of the Phugtal gompa, when one is about 100m from the bridge leading to the Gompa. I have had the good fortune of seeing a number of monasteries both in India and Nepal in the past few years. However, none has left its imprint in my mind as much as Phugtal has. Maybe that is the reason I am drawn to visit this Gompa again. It is a sight that leaves one captivated. There is nothing ornate about the gompa, but there is a certain purity even to the whitewashed walls of the monastery which exudes a sense of calm. The gompa is set amidst the white limestone cliffs, in contrast to the stark brown cliffs surrounding it, and the greenish tinge once sees higher up in the mountains. When one sees the bridge one might be lulled into thinking that you have reached the gompa. However, there is a short, steep climb which still has to be done before one reaches the gompa. The magnificence of the sight of the top of the gompa set within a cave/recess in the mountains is one that has/will be etched in my mind forever. I could exhaust reams of paper (am still part of an earlier generation which wrote on paper -:) ..) extolling the beauty of this place but I will stop. The trail one sees on the top right of the above picture, is the one towards Tantak. This is the trail I would follow later in the day.
TIP : For getting good photographs of the Phugtal gompa one can continue (on the same side of the bridge) on the trail towards the village of Yugar.
I went upto Yugar, took some photographs and returned. This detour cost me about an hour and half (later in the day I would realize the importance of this hour.).
TIP (for trekkers): You can keep the Phugtal Gompa as a day trip from Purne/Khangsar and take the well trodden path towards Padum via Khalbok, Pipula, Itchar, Reru, Mune. This would take you 2 days and the road construction extends to Reru (and beyond).
I went to the gompa by noon and was invited up for some food/tea & some donation :) by the monks. There were classes going on for the budding Llamas. The photographs from this terrace (where the classes are going on) would be ones which would vy for top spot in any landscape photography contest.
After spending some time in the gompa I left by around 1 p.m towards Tantak. One first has to find his way through the narrow stairs and passageways of the gompa. Once I managed to find my way, often ducking to avoid low beams, through the living quarters of the gompa I had a steady climb to the chortens (see the trail on right hand side 3 pics above), adorned with numerous prayer flags. You get a good bird's-eye view, of the entire route from this vantage point (see pics below).
From here one is entering "gorge country".
The trail winds it way, high above, the course of the Tsarap River. For the next 6 kms, which took me close to 2 -3 hours I followed this winding trail, till I reached a break in the main trail, indicated by a log blocking the trail. There are a few side streams along the way (which one can use to fill water ) and at least 2 or 3 spots which can form ideal rock/cave shelters (as evidenced by the charred remains of some firewood). There are some very interesting formations one observes along this stretch of the trail. This particular one below reminds me of a series of giant "Choco Bars".
At this point I will take a small aside, and recount to you a seemingly innocuous piece on conversation I had with a villager from Yal, whom I met on the trail from Yal to Purne. This person had informed me that a week back a bunch of yaks were taken across Nial Kontse La/gotund La and about 2-3 days prior a group with mules had gone across the same path. This information was very useful because in the course of the next 3-4 days (when I met no one on the way) everytime I saw mule shit or yak shit on the way, especially in the areas where the trail was not clear, I knew was on the right track. (Moral of the story : Spotting Bullshit/Horsheshit often guides you on the right path in life :) )
I wondered why the log lay in the main trail and as I turned the corner I understood why. The main trail had been completely washed away for ~30m because of a landslide. So, I took off my rucksack and checked if there was anyway I could descend towards the river through this landslide area and ascend back-up to the main trail. After a few metres of descent, I quickly reached the attempt was really foolhardy and dangerous. So, I came back up and returned to the place where I found the log. There was a side gorge, near the log, and there was a strong stream flowing (maybe Lumen Chu) down this gorge. The only reasonable option would be to go up this gorge, over the hill and descend back onto the main trail. It was around 4 p.m, and with water nearby, I decided to have my packed lunch here. Post lunch, and refilling the water bottle I ascended about 150M up the hill. The descent was trickier as there was no clear trail. On the top of the hill I found some white prayer flags, and a trickle of water, and a location for a possible campsite.
But I decided to proceed. I slipped and slided my way back to the main trail.
It had taken me well over an hour to get back on the main trail. It was about 5:30 p.m and I was thinking that from here on it should be easy going. Could not have been more wrong. I had walked about 10 mins when I found that another 20m of the main trail had been washed off and this time there was no route up the hill. I went down a slippery descent close to the river and clambered back up to the main trail.
TIP (for other trekkers) : Note that this is a slippery descent and if you miss your step it could be fatal. So please be extra careful in this section.
It was close to 6 p.m and soon it would be dark. I decided to go ahead. There was another river (tributary ??) flowing and soon I crossed the confluence of this river and Tsarap. The water from this other river was pristine blue (see pic below), in stark contrast to the dark waters of the Tsarap river.
It was another 2 km and another hour before I reached a wooden bridge. The trail continued on the same side of the river and I was in a quandary over whether to cross the bridge or continue along the trail. I consulted the Leomann Map (sheet 3), which I carried in my trouser pocket all the while, and the Lonely planet Guide : Trekking in the indian Himalayas . As the map indicated Tantak and the Kontse-La base was on the other side of the river I crossed the bridge. It was after 7 p.m and getting dark. The trail ahead on seemed like a narrow ledge on the side of the mountain. I had at the max 30min of light. I took a chance and marched on along the trail. Soon, it was dark and I was walking on a narrow ledge, halfway up the mountain, balancing myself against the mountain slope. I could hardly see beyond a few metres but I had to keep walking as there was no place I could camp. With the river thundering below me I hoped (or rather prayed) that the campsite was not be far off. I put on my headlamp. It was already 8 p.m and my legs were getting weary. I stumbled along for another hour, often precariously along the ledge till I saw the silvery side stream hurtling down a gorge in the mountains. From the way it thundered down it was clear that there was no way I would be able to cross it. I thought to myself "OK - it seems like I would just have to spend the night under some huge boulder". However, as I approached the gorge and descended a few metres to get closer to the stream, I could not believe my luck. There was a bridge (a typical shepherd construction) across the stream. I crossed it and then again up a narrow ledge. It was 9:30 p.m. I decided that this was enough for the day (and night -:) )and I have to camp. I found a spot, just big enough to pitch my tent and though the area was rocky, it was not on the mountain slope, and it was slightly away from the precariously perched rocks on the mountains slope. Though not completely safe from rockfall the chances of direct impact from rockfall was less here. I needed no second invitation. In the darkness I cleared up the area as best as I could with my ice-axe and pitched my tent. Only to find that part of my tent was pitched right over a rock which protruded from the ground. Well, considering the circumstances, that was a minor discomfort as I could still sleep comfortably in half of the tent. As I was too tired to cook dinner I crashed after having a packet of biscuits. All in all it had been an interesting day.
In retrospect I was thinking, if I had left Khangsar an hour or 2 earlier, or had not detoured to Yugar, or if I had spent less time talking to the monks in Phugtal or if I had decided to camp at one of the campsites earlier in the evening I might not have had to walk on the mountain ledge in the dark. To get a bit philosophical, life is full of such "ifs and buts". However, to quote Shakespeare, "All's well that ends well".
Note the deep gorge (pic below), through which a stream was flowing, to the right of the mountains behind my tent
5th August : Rest day
The first thought as I got up in the morning was to find out where I was. From my tent I had spectacular views. But soon I realized that my tent was at a highly exposed location. Check the precariously perched rocks/boulders in the mountain slope just behind my tent in the pic below.
and the deep gorge/valley in front of my tent (pic below), on either side, through which another river flowed.
You would agree that this spot, exposed to wind from 3 sides, was not the most ideal location -:) for pitching the tent. A further 100 M or so was the location that would have been an ideal campsite, (by the river) amidst the cedar trees (see pic below)
I could see Tantak village in the distance (pic below) - a quaint little settlement amidst the mountains.
- and though one could see it , it was good 45 mins - 1 hour walk from my tent to the Tantak village. The only family that inhabited this village, of about 6 houses ,was of this goatherd (see pic below). The goatherd and his family doubled up as caretakers of the Tantak Gompa.
The next person I was going to meet would only be after 3.5 days. He also confirmed that the trail, on the side of the gorge just behind my tent, was the way to Niel Kontse la / Gotund la. Had tea and breakfast at his house, took rest and returned to my tent post noon. As I feared, the strong afternoon wind threatened to blow away my tent. Putting the thought of that threat aside, I rested a bit more in the tent. Then I recced the route for the next day. There were a few rock cairns guiding the way up the gorge behind my tent. After about 10-15 mins the trail, which followed the stream initially, ascended to the ridge on the right and continued climbing uphill for another 30 mins. By 4 pm I returned to my tent having identified a clear trail for the initial 2 hours of trek the next morning. Checking on my rations I knew I had eight packets of Maggi left and that meant I had to reach Sarchu in the next 4 days.
About an hour up the ascent there is a potential camping spot, with a trickle of water. I was happy when I saw this potential campsite as it meant, that in case I had to return from the pass, for any reason today I did not have to go back all the way from where I started. One can also see the Tantak village in the distance. As one goes higher the village appears like a speck in the mountains. It was nearly a 4 hour climb to the Niel Kontse la, which is marked by the traditional Buddhist prayer flags and a yak skull (with horns).
6th August : Tantak / Base Kontse La (~4000 M) to other side of Gotund-La via Kontse La (4810m) & Gotund La(5040m)
Today was the big day, the day I would have to cross 2 passes (Niala Kontse La and Gotund La). I started by 7:30 a.m. As one ascends up the trail one gets stunning views of the Zanskar ranges.
The view of the blue river, the dark green cedar trees on its banks, snaking its way through the mountains, with Tantak village and the bright green barley fields in its midst is a picture that will remain etched in my memories.
It was an arduous climb to the pass. As I climbed up to the pass, I often had to take a 10 to 30 second breather, after I had counted down 50 or 100 steps. There were times when I was not sure of the route and had to do a short recce, sans my backpack, before I could proceed again. There are times they say, when your will, more than your body takes you forward. Today was one such day. I assure you that a harsh kindergarten teacher, would not have given his ward an imposition of counting upto 50 or 100 as many times, as I did today. It was nearly 11:30 by the time I reached the pass. I could have sat at the pass for the whole day lapping up the magnificient views of the Zanskar ranges, but I had another pass to cross. After a 30 minutes rest and pampering myself with an energy bar I was on my way again by noon. After the pass, initially, I could not find the trail. To add to my anxiety I saw dark black clouds in the distance on my far left and it started snowing slightly. Notice the dark clouds in pic below compared to the one taken about 30 mins prior ( see 3 pics above).
Somehow, I found the trail and increased the pace of my walk, to as fast as I could (nearly broke into a run). In these situations one somehows digs into reserves of energy, which one never knew existed. The fear which gripped me most as soon as it began snowing was that if continued snowing, the trail would no longer be visible. Those who have been in the mountains know how fickle the weather, especially at the high-altitude passes, can be. For those uninitiated to the vagaries of this weather, I mention that within minutes the weather can change from perfectly clear sky, with good visibility, to a complete whiteout. When mother Nature gives you early warning signals of bad weather you heed it. So when I way that I summoned up every ounce of energy in my body and walked as fast as I could I am not exaggerating. The trail (the line in the centre of pic below) contours the sides of the mountains without much loss of elevation
There are jaw-dropping mountain views with snow-capped peaks in the distance.
When I looked at the trail, I felt as if God had placed the giant fingers, each akin to a peak ending in a valley, of both his hands together and blessed these ranges. The trail was like the little continuous mounds found on the phalanges (finger joints) of these fingers. In fact, as I saw the Gotund La pass in the distance, I measured my progress by asking myself "How many fingers have I crossed and how many more do I have to cross ?". There were definitely at least 10 such fingers to cross ( if not more) for me to reach the pass. The colours of each of these fingers alternated between dark black (scree slope), grey and a lighter whitish tinge (light boulder zones). See Pic below
The sky behind me considerably clearing up, coupled with increased fatigue, ensured that my counting ability often terminated well below 50 and the breathers increased from seconds to a minute. The contouring trail ends in a short steep climb to the Gotund La. It was a three and a half hour walk from Niala Kontse La to Gotund La (5040 M), again marked by the traditional buddhist prayer flags and horns. The views from the top of Gotund La are breathtaking and one can see get a good view of the trail, which one traversed, in the backdrop of the mountain ranges. (pic below)
It was so windy at the pass (around 4 pm) that it felt that I might be blown away. However, all the wind in the world could not blow away the sense of satisfaction I experienced of crossing a pass and given, for the first time in my life, that I was crossing 2 passes solo in the same day the experience was doubly satisfying. (To be fair, one could argue that the first pass (Niala Kontse la) was not much of a pass, but more a dip in the ridgeline ). Every trekker who has crossed a pass will testify to experiencing such emotions. It is with a sense of gratitude that one looks at the beautiful surroundings and lets out a gasp, at nature's bounty. There wasn't much time for admiration though, as the weather on the way forward, on the other side of the pass, was looking menacing, with dark clouds hovering about (see pic below)
After spending 15 mins at the pass I started descending. It was a sharp and steep descent. I was wondering where the next campsite might be. After a 1 km descent there was a small and beautiful water body (would be a stretch to call this a lake). As it was 5 pm, and learning from the experience of 2 days prior, I decided to camp here.
After a well earned coffee and dinner (maggi ) I called it a day.
7th August : Gotund-La Base to Satok (4040 M)
After breakfast, started trekking for the day around 8:00 a.m. After a short initial ascent, the trail is a long steady descent till one reaches the village of Kormoch on the banks of the Tsarap Chu.
En route one sees an exquisite emerald blue lake nestled among the hills.
The trail follows a small stream flowing through the gorges (centre of below pic).
One has to keep crossing this stream multiple times
The narrow gorge, through which the stream flows, widens at its confluence with the Tsarap river
It took me close to 3 hours to reach the deserted village of Kormoch. From here one goes left and the trail follows the course of the Tsarap river.
I continued on the trail, about 50m over the river, for about two and a half hours (8 km) till it reaches the confluence of the Zara river (the blue river in the picture below).
The ~100m descent from the trail, high above the river, to the banks of the river was a tricky one to negotiate. It took me some time to figure out the descent path, as it is not very clear. It was about 1:30 p.m. I could see the trail on the other side of the Zara river, but one had to ford it first. The river was pretty wide (the widest I had encountered since the start of my trek - about 15m - 20m) and was flowing with a good force. Luckily, on the banks of the river there were willow trees from which I could get a stick to assist me in river crossing. I took off my backpack and walked upstream to check if there were any spots where I could ford the river. After about 15 mins I thought I found a spot to cross the river. I took off my boots and trousers. I must have gone about a quarter of the way before I realized that the depth was too much and the force too great and hence I retreated. As I was walking back to the confluence I thought there could be another spot to cross. Same process repeated with the same result. I was thinking to myself "Well, I am stuck here for the day." When one has crossed 2 passes thinking about going back is not a very attractive option, especially when one has food left for just about 2 days. Finally, I came back to the place where I had dropped off my rucksack and as a last resort tried to ford the river near the confluence, where the river was pretty wide (see pic below)
Luckily I was able to ford it here. So I came back to the bank, stuffed my trousers into my rucksack, garlanded my boots around my neck, put on my rucksack and stepped back into the icy cold water once again. There is an additional element of risk when one crosses a strong flowing river with a heavy backpack. Without a backpack if you fall or loose balance, say because of the slippery rocks on the riverbed or the strong force of the water, you have a chance to recover but with a heavy backpack its weight will pull you down. So, I was extra cautious when crossing the river as to not slip. I slide my feet without lifting it much to ensure that I don't lose balance and with the stick ensured before every step I ensured that the depth was manageable. Though my feet were numb, having crossed the icy cold river the third time, there was an unbelievable sense of relief having reached the other side at about 3 p.m. I had mistakenly left my hat on the other bank. I did not consider it worth the risk to ford the river once more to fetch my hat.
After the crossing the valley became wider. The silvery Tsarap meandering through the
mountains in the bright sunshine presented a pretty picture.
I continued on the trail past the deserted village of Mone Leh (3980 M) and reached another deserted village of Satok (4040 M) after another 3.5 hours. The stretch from Mone Leh to Satok was not without its share of excitement. I lost the trail after Mone Leh and knowing that the trail was along the river I walked, for the next 30 mins, along the bank of the river often jumping over boulders hoping to spot the trail. As I could not spot the trail this way I then clambered up the scree slopes and after another 15 mins I was able to find the trail. It was 6:30 p.m when I camped in a clearing in the willow trees at Satok for a well deserved dinner and rest. Or so I thought -:). After priming the stove I tried to light it and it failed to light. After several unsuccessful attempts at lighting the stove I had to resort to cleaning the jet and fuel line of the stove in the dark before I got the stove to work.
8th August : Satok (4040 M) to Sarchu via Tso Mesik (4200 M)
and there are a number of these prayer flags one crosses along the way today.
This is the kind of terrain that is best described as "Nepali Flat", a term used to describe a terrain where there is lot of uphill and downhill and the elevation at the end of the journey is similar to what you started and hence the term "flat". Here is a good description in a blog of the term "Nepali flat". The upside of these ascents is that atop each of these ascents one gets to see majestic landscape of the Tsarap river slithering through the valley, shimmering as the sun rays fall on it, in the backdrop of Baralacha range, with its snow capped peaks.
Started today's trek by 8 a.m. The trail is pretty cleared marked by stone cairns. There is a gradual climb to a ridge for about ~300m. This is followed by a series of "ascents" and "descents". Each ascent is marked by white prayer flags
En route one can also see some very interesting rock formations. The one below somehow seemed familiar (maybe like the Nandi bull rock sculpture at Mahabalipuram ?? or the image of a seated lion )
I also got to see a huge flock of 25-30 bharals
One has to be careful when one sees such a flock of bharals above you. These bharals tend to dislodge some stones/rocks, as they run, and one has to be wary of these potential rockfalls.
It was a 6 hour walk through such terrain before I reached the tranquil & green campsite at Tso Mesik, beside the Tsarap river, by around 2 p.m. From here I had planned to go towards Markha Valley, via Lun/Dat, by crossing the Maralang La, Yar La and Zalung Karpo La. However, this would have been another 5-6 days. I had rations (Maggi) left for about another 0.5-1 day. So, I had to abandon this idea and plan to go to the trailhead @ Parandi Nala and then onto Sarchu.
When I reached Tso Mesik, to my pleasant surprise, I found a couple of camps. These were a group of 3 trekkers, from New Hampshire, and their guide/horsemen. They were planning to trek 3 weeks via the route I just came (Kontse La, Gotund La) Tantak, Stongde upto Lamayuru. These were the first people I was seeing after 3/4 days so I spent an hour chatting & having tea with them.
The sun was beginning to set and as if to present me with a parting gift the setting sun bestowed upon me some stunning views.
It was getting dark at around 7 p.m. I could see the vehicles in the Leh-Manali road in the distance. However, it took me about another hour before I could get to the road. By this time it was 8 p.m and I was afraid that there would be no further vehicles on the road. I waited for another half an hour before I was lucky enough to be given an hour long ride to Sarchu by a truck driver. It was 10 p.m before I had my dinner and slept in a bed (after a long time) @ the camp at Sarchu.
Around 4 p.m I decided to leave for the trailhead at Parandi Nala. I was savouring the majestic views of the last leg of this stage of my trek.
Reached Leh around 9 p.m and was back to civilization, with its share of comforts and woes. That ended the first part of my trek
9th August : Sarchu to Leh via Taglang La (17582 M)
At 9:30 a.m, after a late breakfast, I boarded the luxury bus service which runs from Manali to Leh at Sarchu. The fare to Leh was Rs 600. It is a beautiful journey through Pang and one gets magnificient views from Taglang La(17582 M), the second highest motorable road in the world. There were at least a couple of passengers who threw up at Taglang La and a number of passengers were feeling headache and altitude sickness.