Vineith

We were inspired by mountains! Particularly by the mornings in our mountain lifestyle, as the first light cuts through the mist and shimmers on the snow of Himalayas or the dew drops on the Shola grasslands high up in Western Ghats. Summiters Adventure had been a passionate enterprise that made it possible to relive my childhood paintings of hills, rocks and animals.

It was a winter evening when Vishwa, Chandru and I met to set-up Summiters as an eco-tour enterprise in 2006-07 and now it has become what it aspired, I handled the operations of treks in Western Ghats, which was a special class alongside my Engineering days to know wildlife. Also I developed excellent skills in handling guests with eco-tourism practices and responsible tourism by claiming the support of locals and providing them with basic education towards environmental issues and skill development.

With this benchmark, I began to lead groups with Summiters and then learnt more on snakes at Agumbe Rainforest Research Station, then I guided at King Sanctuary, Nagarhole, Orange County, Kabini, Leisure hotels, Corbett and Rajaji National parks and Taj Safaris - &Beyond lodges, Madhya Pradesh. I currently lead wildlife/birding groups with Summiters during my break from being Manager at Karnataka Government undertaking, Jungle Lodges and Resorts.

— Vineith, Naturalist @ Jungle Lodges and Resorts

EBC trek in 2011 with Summiters impressed meThe promptness of the response, quality of information provided. They come from people who love the outdoors (the mountains, in particular) and are therefore well-placed to give advice/ guidance . The network through which they operate.It is also a pleasure talking to people involved with Summiters.

I look forward to more opportunities to trek with assistance from Summiters.

Bharat Venkataramani (Age : 43 years), Head of Research & Pricing, Munich Re India Services Private Limited

Background :
This dream started in SeptI am pasting here the excerpt for the mail written by Jyoti Prakash (JP), the leader of the Auden's Col/Mayali Pass/Rudugaira trek in Aug-Sep 2010 (additional photos here), to all of us who had trekked with him in the Auden's col trek or in some other treks previously

 

Arwa Col:

 This Col was first discovered in 1939 by JC Auden’s but he didn’t cross it. It was mentioned again 1990 by Harish Kapadia during his exploration of Jadganga valley. Even Harish Kapadia didn’t cross it. It is an unclimbed Col at 20300 feet, 8 kms to the left of Kalindi Pass. Harish Kapadia reached Saraswati Col in 1990 but again didn’t cross it.

 
The dream is to cross Arwa Col on which no human has ever set his feet till now. This might be a full fledged expedition starting from Bhaironghati and will take us to Badrinath via Nelang – Naga - Arwa Col. Biggest obstacles are getting permits from Army and local administration. Anyone interested in joining?  Or anyone who can help getting necessary permits using his/her contacts?
 
 
 
Without bothering you about all the intermittent details I will skip forward to May 2011, when JP informed us that in the background he and Harsh (another team member) had been working to get the permits for the expedition to Arwa Col.
 
The names of the participants kept changing a bit.  Harsh and Subbu (mentioned in the permit above) had to drop off because of personal commitments.  The final team comprised
  1.  Debabrata Mukherjee (also know as Debuda), a well acclaimed guide/entrepreneur,  leader of IMF sponsored successful expedition to Gangotri-III,  the one who opened the route to Panpttia col in 2008, joined the group as a member, friend and consultant.  Debu-da has been a mountain-man for close to 25 years (or probably more).  He is a registered tour guide and is well versed in Japanese and Swedish (in blue t-shirt sans cap, 2nd from right in the photo below)
  2. Subhamoy Ghosh, another seasoned trekker/mountaineer, who had crossed the Longstaff col, is also an excellent photographer.  Subhamoy, a banker by profession, has been mountain-lover/trekker at heart for a long time.  (in bright orange t-shirt sa in the centre of the photo below)
  3. Viswanath is another avid trekker, good photographer and is passionate about the mountains.  He runs his own adventure company( see  http://www.summiters.net ). (seated in fluorescent green t-shirt in the extreme right of the photo below)
  4. Moiz, a constant trekking companion of JP - the only lad from bombay works in the IT field. (2nd from left in the photo below)
  5. Pavan, the youngest member of the group, is an avid trekker and photographer. He was a member of the Auden's col trek last year and has also been to Siachen/Roopkund. He works with a prominent company in the IT business. (Donninga floppy sun hat is 3rd from right  in the photo below)
  6. JP, who founded the yahoo group himalayan_trekkers (with over a 1000 members)  has been a trekker for over 15 years.  He too works with a prominent company in the IT business. (with dark shades, baseball cap, waist pouch in the picture below)
  7. And yours truly, a newbie to the trekking community compared to the vast experience of the other team members. (extreme left in the picture below)
How it all started ?
- A number of folks I had met were always talking of a Leh-Manali bus drive/motor-bike ride/cycling expedition. Well, I thought why not a trek from Leh to Manali.
 
- Checked with a few trek mates if they would be interested. I knew that beyond 2 weeks folks would find it difficult to get time off from work and that is how it turned out -:) so decided to do this solo (something I wanted to do)

The Original Planned itinerary (based on Lonley Planet Guide : Trekking in the Indian Himalayas):
Date Start Finish
24-Jul Bangalore Delhi
25-Jul Chandigarh Manali/Jobra
26-Jul Jobra Chika
27-Jul Chika Balu-ka-Ghera
28-Jul Balu-ka-Ghera Shia Goru/via Hampta Pass (4270 m)
29-Jul shia Goru/Siliguri Chatru/Batal
30-Jul Batal Chandra
31-Jul Chandra Tal Tokpo Yongma
1-Aug Tokpo Yongma Tokpo Gongma
2-Aug Tokpo Gongma Baralacha-la/bharatpur {Baralacha La South (4900m) & Baralacha La North (4950m)}
3-Aug Bharatpur Lingti via Kelong Sarai (4510m) along Manali-Leh road. If required go to Sarchu and resume from Tso-Mesik
4-Aug Lingti Camp Chumik Marpo
5-Aug Chumik Marpo Phitse La Base Camp after crossing Phitse La (5250m)
6-Aug Phitse La Base Camp Tanze
7-Aug Tanze Purne/Phugtal
8-Aug Phugtal Base Kontse La/Tantak
9-Aug Base Kontse La/Tantak Homuch via Kontse La (4810m) & Gotund La(5040m)
10-Aug Homuch Satok
11-Aug Satok Tso Mesik
12-Aug Tso Mesik Lun via Marang La (5300 m)
13-Aug Lun Dat via Yar La (4950 m)
14-Aug Dat Tsokra
15-Aug Tsokra Base Zalung Karpo La via Zalung Karpo La (5190 m)
16-Aug Base Zalung Karpo La Hankar/Thocuntse
17-Aug Hankar/Thocuntse Nimaling Side trip to Kangyaze Base (4-5 hr / 8 KM return)
18-Aug Nimaling Shang Sumdo via Kongmaru La (5150 m)
19-Aug Shang Sumdo Hemis
20-Aug Hemis Leh
 
Pre-trek information :
Weight of my Rucksack : One of the big challenges for me was to keep the weight of my rucksack to manageable levels so that I can carry it solo. Here is what my rucksack contained :-
    • BackPack Weight (~3 Kg)
  • Tent (~3 Kg)
  • Sleeping Bag (~2 Kg)
  • Inflatable Sleeping Mat ( ~1 Kg)
  • MSR Stove (thanks to JP for lending this : ~0.5 kg)
  • MSR Fuel bottle (33 oz = ~0.5 KG + bottle weight) + spare fuel (250 ml = 0.2 Kg)
  • Utensils (1 Stainless steel copper bottom vessel / 1 mug / 1 spoon : ~0.3 Kg)
  • Water in Hydration pack / Bottle (~ 2 L or 2Kg)
  • Ice-Axe
  • Food (for 4-5 days) : Maggi /Pasta / Coffee /
  • Emergency food : Biscuits / Dry Fruits ( ~1 Kg)
  • Warm Clothing : Down Jacket / Gloves / Rain Cut / Thermals /...
  • Other essential clothing (2 trousers / synthetic t shirts /....)
  • Camera (purchased last day before my travel - thanks to subbu..) / Cell phone / charger
  • Utilities
And soon I was carrying a ~25KG backpack. -:) and I was aiming to pack light. Well the weight was such that I could not lift the backpack and swing it on my back. I had to pay obeisance to my rucksack and get down on my haunches and slip my hands through the shoulder straps of the rucksack and haul myself back up...
 
In retrospect there was not much dead weight I was carrying (except for warm clothes - which was not of much use in the first half of the trek - but one can never predict the mountain weather..).
 
 
Off I go..Manali : Here I come
So off I went to bus-stand near my house on 22nd July to board the bus to the railway station. As soon as I boarded the bus I realized that I had forgotten my cellphone in the house and could not afford to go back to my house for fear of missing the train. My wife & father had come to see me off. So off I went & boarded the train sans my cellphone (so much for my promise of calling up my wife -:) ) and to my surprise my father boarded the train from the other side of the compartment carrying my cell. Well what can I say -:). This also coincided with about the 3rd/4th Day of the Test Series between India/England. Luckily for me I never had to see/hear the painful India/England cricket saga for the next month and a half. Rajdhani'd to Hazrat Nizamuddin, Shatabdi'd to Chandigarh and boarded the HPTDC bus to reach Manali on the night of 24th July with just enough time to grab a bite for dinner (before the hotels closed) and crash into a lodge room....
 
 
Damp 25th July @ Manali :
The heavens opened up on 25th July @ Manali and it was raining sixes and sevens. I pottered about - having breakfast, purchasing leomann maps (which later on turned out to be very useful), unleaded petrol for my stove - amidst the frequent visits to the bus station to enquire if the buses were going towards Keylong, only to be informed that, given the rains, there \ buses were not crossing the Rohtang pass and the next bus was at about 12:30 in the afternoon (all the other buses had left by 5-6 in the morning at which time I suppose I was still dreaming... ....I wont mention about what -:) ). Washed away with the rains were the plans for doing the Hampta Pass. I waited patiently in the Manali bus-stand for the 12:30 bus which came by 2:00 p.m. Usually the bus is chock-a-block but given the rains and the prediction that bus would return from Rohtang the bus was surprisingly empty (with about 5 passengers..). So sure was the conductor that he gave us a ticket only to Mahi -:) (?? the last stop before Rohtang pass ) and said that there would a "Transmit". En route we found buses which had gone earlier in the morning returning -:). Well I did not have anything to lose so I continued. The driver was a determined fellow and on the bus was also an officer of the local transport who was also directing other buses (on his phone) and with his urging we somehow managed to get across the most dangerous part of the road @ Rohtang (where the bus might have got stuck and there was danger of rockfall..). After that we even stopped for some hot maggi & biscuits (temporary paradise for a famished soul -:) ). Now, when I said that I wanted to go to Batal/Chandrataal, the conductor was in the mood to give me a ticket to Khoksar. Luckily when I got to Gramphu ( a few kms ahead of khoksar from where the road diverts to batal..) there were still a few dhabas open and so I got off the bus at about 5 or 6 in the evening.. There was a French couple in the dhaba who were stuck in the dhaba @ Gramphu since morning as the "Nalas" were overflowing enroute to Batal. The French couple were with an Australian couple to reduce the Sumo Cost (a whopping touristy price of Rs 5000/day...). They agreed to drop me off @ Batal next day (which is en route to their destination of Kaza) as they were looking to share the cost of the Sumo.. Well with the transport arranged for the next day I chose the option of sleeping in my tent (for free instead of paying Rs 100 to sleep in a bed inside the dhaba...) after my dinner @ the dhaba. There are decent camping sites just outside the dhabas besides the road stretch leading to Batal.
 
26 July : Batal/Chadrataal : Welcome Me...
I was up early, packed my tents and just completed packing my rucksack when the Sumo (with the French and Australians) pulled over and they asked me to hop in. So without a breakfast I jumped into the Sumo and off we went. We would have travelled about an hour before we halted. There was a stream raging down the hills and a vehicle from "Planet Himalaya : Travel and Adventures" was stuck in the stream (see photo).The next hour and a half was spent waiting & watching how this vehicle would be moved. All the occupants of the vehicle were asked to exit the vehicle and they were helped out by the staff without getting their feet wet. Next came the foot soldiers (the staff of the adventure company and some other drivers), with their pants rolled up to their thighs and feet in the icy cold water trying to push the vehicle, while the driver revved up the vehicle. But to no avail. Then a Mahindra vehicle tried to tow the vehicle from the front assisted by the same heroes who tried to push the vehicle. To no avail. In fact the tow line broke a number of times and the Mahindra vehicle also got stuck for a bit. That effort was abandoned and then came the brainwave.
The vehicle is to be towed but in reverse. So the line of vehicles standing behind was cleared. A similar sized vehicle (to the one which was stuck) was turned around so that a tow-line could be attached. And the tow was tried again with the driver of the stuck-vehicle putting the vehicle in reverse gear and the "heroes" pushing the vehicle in the reverse direction. Attempt 1 : failure
Attempt 2 : failure
Attempt 3 (with some minor adjustments) - Success...Praise the Lord..
 
Well if one thought that from here on to Baatal would be smooth sailing then one was sadly mistaken. There were to be at least 2 more such crossings & waiting along the way
 

Incidentally, there were a number of bikers who were coming in the opposite direction from Leh to Manali who had to be helped in crossing these streams.
 
Meanwhile the companions in my vehicle told me (esp the australian lady...bless her) asked me to pay them whatever was appropriate. I did pay them Rs 300/- at Baatal which to me seemed fair. Hope they felt the same -:).
 
We reached Baatal at about 1 pm in the afternoon and I was looking forward to the food. Had lunch (rice/dal & tea) at the Chandra Dhaba in Baatal and then began my trek. I could have travelled a few more kms in the vehicle but I was itching to walk after sitting in vehicles for so long. There are 2 routes from Baatal To Chandrataal. One is along a jeepable track till 2 km short of Chandrataal. The other way is to go further up on the route to Kunzum la and then walk down to Chandrataal from there. Folks going only upto Chandrataal usually do the latter and return to Baatal from Chandrataal through the jeepable track. Anyway I walked along the jeepable track. I was just about 30 mins into my trek and suddenly I looked up to see a sizeable rock hurtling down. Watched it bounce on the road above me and hurtle down in front of me (a safe distance as I was looking up) onto the road below me. A grave reminder at the start of my trek that I was now in the lap of mountains, need to be careful and need to have the grace of god to succeed in my trek. A number of bikers passed me along my 3 hours trudge to reach the fixed camps/parachute tents at Chandrataal. I told the folks @ the tent that I intended to go to Baralacha-la top solo and they informed that route finding was difficult and that just the day before a couple of foreigners (along with their guide) had returned as the water levels in the rivers/stream was high and it was not possible to cross. But they gave me a ray of hope saying that previous day a European group had gone to Chandrataal and that they may be still be camping @ Chandrataal today . So, if I went to Chandrataal today (and it was still another 2 hours off ) that I can hook up with them and seek their assistance in route finding . So, off I went and it was another couple of hours before I reached Chandrataal.




Chandrataal (4270 M) takes your breath away. And with the evening sun shimmering on its turqoise waters you realize that the trek is really worth it. It really is a big lake (not huge like Pangong or Phewa Lake in Pokhara...) and I was pleased to see that the European group still camping on the far side of the lake. I walked up to their tents and told them of my intentions. Both the Guide (Mahendra) and 12 Englishmen (most of them had just finished their school, awaiting results for admission into colleges/universities) were very welcoming. I pitched my tent next to theirs while savouring in the pleasure of watching Chandrataal. They offered that I could share their food as they had plenty and obviously I accepted -:) but did ensure that I did not take any undue advantage of their offer in the course of the next few days

27 July : Chadrataal (4270 M) to Tokpo Yongma ( 4420 M)
Started at around 7:30 - 8:00 a.m from Chandrataal. Had to cross a few streams along the way. I had to take off my boots and walk through the icy cold water to avoid wet boots. I could describe the terrain but the best way to get an idea of it is from the pictures. So here are a few...


We I was walking on the right bank of the river (as seen in the Pic). Often very high above the Chandra river.

There were boulder zones where one could not find any trail. So one just kept walking straight -:). There were a few "gaddi" shepherds along the way, where one could find the occasional patches of grass, in this brown and rocky landscape. There were scree slopes as well...
 

It was about 5 pm at which time I saw the campsite. It was on the other side of the Tokpo Gongma river (which joins theChandra River). The river was wide and fast flowing. I could not figure out how the group had crossed. So I waved at them hoping they might see me. I thought they did not catch my attention so I took out my red tent and waved it to catch their attention (Later on the guide told me he saw me waving and pointed me in the right direction but I could not see him waving from that far off..). So I took off my rucksack and went down the slope to the river, a steep and slippery descent, to see if I could cross it. Since I could not find a stick I took my ice-axe and dipped it in the river to check the depth. Even at the edge of the river the ice-axe went in completely. Bad idea...can’t cross the river here. Racked my brains on how to cross the river. I scrambled back, up the scree slope and well above where the trail was. Now from my elevated vantage point. I could see, in the distance, what looked like a possible snow-bridge. So came back to the trail got my backpack on and moved further upstream onto the snowbridge over the Tokpo gongma river. There was still some ankle height water crossing but I did notbother taking off the boots. After the crossing, with wet boots ,I made my way back downstream to the campsite by about 7 p.m.. The leader of the English team (Mark) and a horseman, who gave me dinner later on, assisted me in pitching my tent.. It was a tiring but successful day and I was pleased with myself at the end of it...
28 July : Tokpo Yongma (4420 M) to Tokpo Gongma (4650 M) :
Left the campsite early by 7:00 a.m as today there were going to be 2 stream crossings (one of them really major)





 

Again have a look at the pictures to get an idea of the terrain. The first 4 pics are the terrain upto the first stream crossing. One can see beautiful snow-capped peaks while walking through the rocky terrain. Took my boots off for the first stream crossing. Water was about knee high ( icy cold as always -:) ). So crossed without much of a problem.

 
The terrain after the first stream to the Tokpo Gongma was pretty similar. As I reached the Tokpo Gongma I was left wondering "How on earth am I going to cross it ?". There were cairns, possibly marking where the river was to be crossed. It was close to 1 PM and the river was raging and it was wide - say about 15m - 20m. To even attempt crossing it, and that too alone, would have been suicidal. I was thinking to myself - "Maybe I should camp here and see how it is next morning" and also wondering how my English friends (who were ahead of me) had crossed the river. I could not see them from where I was.Maybe with the help of the horses and guides they had forded the river and gone further. So, I took off my backpack went upstream a bit but still could not find a place to ford. I came back and put on my backpack again and went further upstream to check. Then I saw my "English friends" sitting on the other side of the river. Their guide/helper was waving to me to "get further upstream". I must say that my energy levels were down but when I saw them waving I rushed (upstream) and could now see the "Snow Bridge.
Crossing the "Snow bridge" is more difficult that it seems in the pic -:). I had to get to the other side of the side "Snow Bridge" (which is not seen in the pic). There was a slight break in the "Snow Bridge" and the right side of the "Snow Bridge" (in this pic) was completely solid ice. One could not climb down it. I slid down the solid ice and arrested my slide by bracing my hands against the ice-wall on the other side. There was a "horseman" on the other side who carried my rucksack for a few metres. If you notice on the left side of the "pic" there is a narrow ledge just beside the river. We had to walk/run on it, as it was a rock-fall areal for about 20-30 metres. After 20-30m the ledge widened out into a broader rock area where I took my well-deserved rest. Seeing me tired Mark, the leader of the English group, did offer me thrice to carry my backpack which I politely declined.

Then I had to climb up nearly 70M - 100M up a very steep slope. The photo (on the left) is from the top of the climb. Notice the wide bank on the left of the stream , where I rested , and also the snowbridge upstream.



After the climb it is a straightfoward walk to a very pleasant flat and grassy campsite with beautiful views. One can see the snow-capped peaks in the distance (across the river) and one is hemmed in by mountains all around. There is a "gaddi sheperd" encampment at this campsite. It was about 2 pm by the time we reached this campsite. The skin on left shoulder blade had come-off because of abrasion (from my rucksack) and it had been bleeding for the past couple of days but today it had gotten slightly worse and I thought it deserved some attention. After some tea I asked the "guide" of the "english team" to help patch up (put bandaid) on my left shoulder. The rest of the evening I spent savouring in the magnificient views that Mother Nature offered - an inspiring tonic for the soul.
 
 














29 July : Tokpo Gongma (4650 M) to Baralacha La South/Nort(4900 M/4950 M) :
This was a comfortable walk





From the campsite it was a gradual climb and then there was a big stretch of plains leading upto the Baralacha La South, which is marked by numerouscairns and prayer flags. There are impressive mountain views of the Himalayan Range.

 





 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
As one continues to walk the plain areas one might be lulled into thinking, for a change, today there is going to be no further stream crossings. Could not have been more wrong as after the plains there was a slight descent and another stream to be forded. So off came the boots, into the icy water (with a very strong flow) and onto the other side. A slight rest, put your boots on and march forward .






 
 
 

After the stream crossing what one witnesses is an "ethereal beauty" of the mountains which one is at a loss of words to describe. If ever there was peace and tranquility in the mountain vista it is here...If you are a shutterbug your fingers will get tired pressing the "shutter button" and you would still be yearning for more. You will hop, skip and jump (as there are still some minor streams to cross -:) ) merrily along whistling a tune all the way to the leh-manali roadhead which can be seen in the distance.....









And when one reaches the roadhead one will look back at the grand views with a sense of satisfaction, a tinge of disappointment (at having to leave this place) and in my case a sense of anticipation of what lies ahead for this was akin to the appetiser of a full course meal. One can see "Sarchu" in the distance and though can see it is a 5 KM walk downhill to reach it. And if you have trekked before you would know the anticipation for good meal, hot water, a shave and rest in a bed. After futile attempts at stopping trucks / vehicles to hitch a ride to "Sarchu" I managed to wave down an army convoy . The officer in the first vehicle asked me to hop on beside the driver in the 2nd vehicle in the stream of 20+ vehicles. And thus I landed at Sarchu marking the end of the first part of my travel.











29 July : Bharatpur to Keylong Sarai (4510 M)
As I was having lunch and resting at Bharatpur I was thinking over the next part of my journey.  
  1. Surely, I won't get lucky again and find another group trekking over Phitse-la into Zanskar (as most trekkers would take the conventional route over Shingo-la into a Zanskar - a route I had done couple of years ago).
  2. Since it is not a frequented route would there be any trail. How difficult is route finding going to be ?
  3. Would there at least be Gaddi shepherds along the way ?
  4. I knew that I had to cross the Lingti River and is that something I could do alone (without rope / harness as guidebooks recommend).  
  5. After the exertions of the previous 4 days did I have enough energy to do this stretch solo
As I was wrestling with these questions the options I was mulling over :-
  • Should I hire a couple of mules (horseman) to carry my backpack - the horseman would cook the food.
  • Should I hire a guide/porter who could carry some load from by backpack and that would ensure that I at least have a companion in case of emergency
  • Should I go for this solo
Well, if I had to hire mules I had to go to Keylong/Lingti River a 3-4 hours drive.  I almost did this.  I did enquire a few cars which stopped at the dhaba but they were reluctant to give me a ride.  A truck driver agreed to take me to  Keylong but by the time I could get my rucksack the truck driver was gone.  
 
Then, I tried the 2nd option of hiring a porter.  Luckily a group from Calcutta had just come there after finishing their Mt Yunum expedition and I talked to a porter from that group.  He asked me Rs 500/day and said that he could not travel alone with me as he needed another porter for company.  So, I needed to hire 2 porters.  Now that was too much for me.
 
I did not want to spend the night in the dhaba so I decided to go for it solo.  I had rations for 4-5 days.  I would reach lingti river by 2nd day and so if I had to turn back I would still have rations enough to return.  So, having reached the decision of going solo the next question was "How do I get to Keylong Sarai ?".  I could either trek to this place (and that would be about 2 hours) , once I find the trail (which was not apparent to me) or I could hitch a ride (about a 30-45 min ride downhill).  Again as luck would have one of the truck drivers who had stopped at the dhaba for lunch agreed to give me a ride to Keylong Sarai.  I must thank the dhaba owner for persuading the truck driver to give me a lift.  I got off near the GREF post near the bridge at Keylong Sarai at about 5 p.m.  Ok so next I had to find a camping site.  I asked a GREF personnel as to where the trekking trail was.   He did not know but pointed in a general direction behind the GREF post.  Checking my map I knew that the campsite had to be close to the Yunam river, which was flowing close by.  I hauled my backpack and climbed the hill behind the GREF and continued in the general direction parallel to the Yunam river.  There was no clear trail, but off and on, one could spot what seemed like a trail.  After about 30 mins one could see areas where folks had camped.  I continued for the next hour till I reached a flat grassy area close to the river which seemed like a good campsite.  There was good clean, from a stream by the river, at this location.  10 mins further along there was a side stream which was flowing with such force that it did not seem like a good idea to cross it.  Well, then that was it for today and I started pitching my tent at about 6:30 p.m and was hoping to cook some hot dinner before it got dark.  Just when I was thinking the day is over Murphy chose to strike.  I took out my MSR stove, connected it to the tank, primed the stove and tried lighting it with my gas lighter.  Well since the first gas lighter did not work I tried the second one.  That too did not work.  I cursed my luck as I had forgotten to get a matchbox.  Well I did not want to sleep hungry and it was getting darker by the minute. So, I took out my headlamp and ran all the way back to the GREP outpost.  When in crisis one somehow finds the energy.  I reached the outpost in about 40-45 mins.  There was a truck driver there and few other GREP personnel.  I told them of my situation and pleaded with them for a box of matchsticks.  The truck driver gave me half-a-box and some other personnel gave me a nearly full box of matchsticks.  It was close to 7:30 p.m and I had to find my way back to the tent so I ran back.  Halfway back it was already dark.  Switched on my headlamps and found my way back to my tent by 8:15 p.m.  By the time I had my maggi & soup for dinner and cleaned up it was past 9 p.m.  Finally, I hit the sack with my hunger satiated.  In the mountains, especially when one is away from civilization, the slightest miss in planning tends to get magnified and the impact can be severe.  


30 July : Keylong Sarai (4510 M) to Lingti Plains (4400 M)
After the excitement of the previous evening I decided that I should have some extra rest this morning.  But try as one may, with the bright sunlight streaming in, it is difficult to sleep beyond  7 a.m/ 7 : 30 a.m.  It was around 9/9.30 a.m before I packed and got moving.  Today was supposed to be an easy day (as per the guidebooks).  First hurdle - stream crossing.    

To my pleasant surprise I saw a Gaddi shepherd standing on the side of the stream.  He had his shelter on the other side of the stream and had come to collect water.  His presence gave me more confidence in wading through the icy cold water.

He welcomed me to his shelter and made me some tea which I gladly had.  His earnings are less than Rs 100/day for taking care of the flock of sheep.  Had some conversations with him and took some photos (which I have promised to send to his address and do intend to keep that promise).  He even offered to give me some "atta" for the way which I politely declined.  These simple folks really do have a large heart.  I tried to confirm some directions with him towards Lingti but he did not know.  However, he did point me in the general direction, which is follow the river and then go towards the left by the Lingti river. After spending half an hour with him I was on my way again.
The trail is parallel to the Yunum River. On the other side of the river one could see the stretch of the Leh-Manali highway leading to Sarchu,  running parallel to the river.The majestic mountains overlook both the trail and the road on the other side.  One can see an occasional truck moving on the road in the distance. The walk is not difficult in terms of the gradient, but is a tiring one in terms of the distance. After about 2-3 hours of walking I could see the "fixed camps" at Sarchu with the mountains in the backdrop.  
At the junction where the Lingti Chu meets the Yunam River the trail veers to the left and then follows the Lingti Chu upstream. 

The terrain from here on is undulating and one has to cross 2 or 3 side-streams (nothing major), which feed into the Lingti Chu, before one reaches the Lingti plains.  I reached the junction of Lingti Chu/Yunam river around 1:30 p.m.  After walking a further 30 mins - 45 mins one can see the Lingti plains in the distance but it would be another 3-4 hours before I reached the Lingti plains around 5:30 - 6 p.m.  
As one reaches the Lingti plains one can see the "gaddi shepherds" high up on the slopes of the hills.  There is also a "Dhoksa" - cowherd encampment  - at Lingti plains where one can see over a hundred yaks.  I camped near this"Dhoksa".  
The yaks in the Dhoksa were tended to by the Ladakhi ladies in the Dhoksa and there were about 10 shelters in which these Ladakhi ladies lived.  I was famished (as always -: )) after the 9-10 hour walk and asked one of the ladies if I could get something to eat.  I got some tea (with "sattu") , 2 rotis, which had probably been made that morning, to eat along with curd (a treat I did not expect..).  All through the evening (till about 8-9 p.m) the ladies were busy milking all the yaks (or dris...).  That evening I decided I would not cook, given the late "roti meal".
 
31 July : Lingti Plains (4400 M) to bank of Lingti River
I awoke in the knowledge that I had to cross the Lingti River today.  The "Ladakhi cowherds" were again busy this morning - churning the milk, collected in huge wooden caskets, with mighty wooden churners, each of which was about 5 ft tall, that required massive effort for each churn.  Got some early morning tea, fresh & tasty paneer and several glasses of "lassi" for breakfast before I set off at 8 a.m.  I would have travelled only about an hour beside the Lingti river when, to my pleasant surprise, I saw a camp with 3 horsemen.  I stopped by their tent.  As luck would have it, these horsemen were also going the same way - towards Padum over Phitse La - to pick up a trekking group by Aug 10th. They were to return the same way and head upto Chandrataal.  They offered me breakfast and also offered to take my rucksack on the horses, which I obviously accepted.  This was a welcome break as I could now have a more relaxed walk, sans my rucksack, for the next 4 days upto Khangsar.  About an hour later, once the horsemen had packed their tents and loaded their horses, we set off once again.  There were a few more minor stream crossings (and my foot slipped in one of the streams and I got quite wet -:) ) on our way to the bank of the Lingti river.   In about 2-2:30 hours we reached the banks of the Lingti River and decided to camp, around noon, on a flat, grassy plain beside the river.  The views from the campsite were awesome and seemed right out of a picturebook.  If an artist were to conjure up a vision of a "picture perfect" landscape, for his masterpiece, all he had to do was to take a photograph of the surrounding landscape and see if he could match it.  






 
1 August : Bank of Lingti River to Chumik Marpo (4750 M)
The idea was to cross the Lingti river early this morning when the flow of water would be lesser.  So, the horsemen got up early by 7 a.m.  Two of the horsemen were off to gather the horses.  One horseman (who doubled up as the cook and a wonderful cook he was) and I waited....and waited and WAITED for nearly 2.3 hours before the horsemen came back with the 20 horses.  The horses had crossed the river and wandered off and it took a long time for the horsemen to even spot the horses, herd them together and get them back.  They had to wade across the river multiple times and it was about 10 a.m by the time they returned.  
 
It was another 1 hour before the horses were saddled up, loaded and ready to leave.
By 11 a.m the wide Lingti river, flowing with rapid force was a challenge to cross.  The boots got garlanded around my neck, trousers got folded upto the thighs, and I followed the last of the horses into the icy-cold river.  As luck would have it the last 3 horses played truant and decided to ford the deeper part of the river.  When I was three-fourths of the way down I realized that the water was really deep and I had to balance myself against the gushing force and step carefully on the rocks in the river bed.  5 more steps pushing myself perpendicular to the strong current, conjuring up every last bit of strength I had, and I was in more manageable part of the river,  before I crossed over to the other side.  Thank god I did not have the backpack on  else crossing would have been even more difficult and I would have had to resort to going further upstream (where the water levels are supposed to be slightly lower).  Once across, the terrain almost reminded you of scenes from "old western" classics.
The trail follows along the Lingti Chu river


and then veers left following the river, which goes through a deep gorge,
leading onto some spectacular landscapes.  The river, snaking its way through the mountains, with the snow capped peaks in the distance is a sight to behold.  Did I forget to mention that to reach this paradise one had to cross a few more icy-cold streams -:) after Lingti 

At around 3:00 p.m, after about 5-6 hours of walking, we established camp amongst these surreal surroundings.  I thanked God for giving me the opportunity to see the beauty of His Nature.
This was the last camping site in the Himachal pradesh state (Lahaul region ).  From tomorrow onwards I would be in J&K (Zanskar area).

 

2nd August : Chumik Marpo (4750 M) to Zingchen(4480 M) via Phitse La (5250 M)
Today was going to be the big day.  Set off around 8:00 a.m and got a head start of about 30-45 mins on the horsemen. The day started off well with view of colony of marmots.
It was a tough and relentless climb.  The initial trail was high above a small side stream
 

 

and then the trail ascended in a continuous stretch.  It was surprising to see a number of wildflowers growing at this altitude.  The views of the mountain ranges and the snow capped peaks along the trail provided the revitalizing tonic for the tired legs.  

After nearly 4 hours of climb the Phitse La was in sight marked distinctly by the numerous prayer flags. 
I was left speechless, spellbound and mesmerized at the views from Phitse La.  All around, the complete 360 degrees, one could see mountain ranges (not just peaks). Right in front one could see a peak with a hanging glacier.  My joy knew no bounds, like that of a child who had been given all his favourite toys in one go.  I kept pirouetting about, savouring in the views of the mountain ranges, first on one side and then another.  I should have been sitting down, tired after the labours of my arduous climb, but, believe me, I could not sit for a minute in my excitement.  Such was the beauty, magnificence and grandeur of these views that it both numbs and refreshes you at the same.  

  

If ever there was a time when the words in the English lexicon stops short of conveying the splendour on view, then this was it.  It is at times like these that one wishes that time stand still.  But time never does -:).   So half an hour later came the horsemen

Normally, these horsemen are unflappable characters.  But even they could not hide their joy atop the pass.  So much so, that they decide to rest for half an hour before proceeding downhill.  Finally, I reluctantly tore myself away from the pass at 1 p.m and started the descent.
It is a steep descent down the pass, much steeper than the ascent.  
Tip :  Based on this gradient it is advisable to cross the pass from Lingti to Zingchen as opposed to the reverse direction.  Also, in snowy conditions the descent might be more dangerous so please ensure proper gear.


After the initial steep descent to the base of the pass the trail eases out a bit and continues high above the stream (Phirtse Chu river), which passes through gorges, before evening out a bit near the campsite at Zingchen.  

 
It was 4:30 p.m, 3.5 hours walk from Phitse la, before I reached the campsite at Zingchen , which is marked by large stone cairns.  


3rd August :  Zingchen(4480 M) to Purne/Khangsar (~3700 M)
Normally this stretch is done over 2 days.  However, we decided to do this in 1 long day.  The horsemen would drop me (or my load) of beyond Yal and proceed further, while I proceeded further on towards Purne/Khangsar.  As I was having breakfast there came a horseman from Tanze.  His horse had wandered off into the mountains and he had been searching for it since 5 a.m in the morning and it was close to 8 a.m now.  He was hungry so shared with him some of the dry fruits/raisins which I had and the horsemen gave him some "roti".  I started around 8:00 a.m.  The trail ascends from Zingchen and continues high above the Phitse Chu river.  From this high vantage point one can get beautiful panoramic views of the route from Phitse la, which one traversed the previous day, and the snow-capped peaks and mountain ranges ahead.

After about 30-45 mins on the trail the trail splits.  You can either follow the mule track on the upper trail which continues to traverse the upper ridge ( a trail I was recommended to take by the horsemen) or there is a steep descent into the valley and one follows the stream through the gorges. I chose the latter.  As I made the steep descent I found an interesting rodent in the shade of the rocks.
As one tries to find a way through the gorge one has to keep hopping and jumping across the stream.  Compared to the bright sunlight on the trail in the top of the ridge, the gorge has an interplay of sunlight breaking through the dark shadows cast by the ridges, on either side of the gorge.  
The stream and the gorge ends up in the village of Tanze (3900 M).  The Tanze to Purne stetch is part of the more frequented Darcha-Padum trek (Trans Zanskar trek), one which I did in 2009.  Slowly the Darcha-Padum trek is being consumed by road construction on both the Darcha and Padum side.  At the end of the gorge was a very interesting contraption 
If you have not guessed it from the pictures, it is a "Sattu" grinding machine powered by the stream flowing down the gorge.  I believe this is what is termed as "HydroPower".
Tanze is a beautiful village, with lush green barley fields, set in the backdrop of the majestic mountain ranges.
It was a ~2.30 hours walk from Zingchen to Tanze, which I reached by approx 11:00 a.m. After some refreshments, I crossed the bridge at the end of Tanze and from here on the trail continues on the same side of the Kurghiak Chu river (the trail is on the left side of the picture) till one is close to Purne. 
It is a 5 hour walk from Tanze (3900 M) to the bridge across Kurgiakh leading to Purne/Khangsar (~3800 M).  Enroute one crosses the village of Karu, Tetha (~3900 M) and Yal.  Reached Tetha around 2 p.m.  At Tetha there is a satellite phone, in one of the houses, from which I could call up home after 1 week.  The greenery of the fields in each of the villages provides a welcome relief from the brown of the rugged mountain views one sees throughout.
After about 15 mins from Yal the horsemen came and gave me my rucksack.  I thanked them and parted ways.  Hauled my rucksack back up, after nearly 4 days of respite, and descended to the bridge leading to Purne.  Close to the bridge is the confluence of the Kurgiak and Tsarap Chu rivers. Purne is on the banks of Tsarap Chu.  It is a popular and busy camping ground and a favourite pit-stop, especially among the French trekkers.  Trekkers usually camp here and make a side trip to Phugtal gompa.  It was a further 45 min walk from the bridge to Khangsar campsite and it was around 5-6 p.m  when I reached it.   Khangsar is about 100m further from Purne and at a slightly higher elevation.  The campsite is a good, clean, flat, multi-tiered, well maintained and run by the only family living here.  It is less crowded and hence much quiter than the Purne campsite.  One could get food,  hot water (for a shower) and it also had a good, clean ladakhi composting toilet.  Well what more can one ask for -:).


A little "aside"
There is a lady called Dolma in Purne, who is a nurse.  She featured in a French television series called "Rendez-vous to an unknown land" with Gilbert Montagne (a blind singer from France).  This is a series featuring a celebrity spending a week with folks like Dolma, who live in remote/harsh conditions.  This show/episode was quite popular in France and hence Dolma is popular among the French/French speaking trekkers.  Of course, being the only nurse in the region she has done her bit for the Zanskar community/villages around here.  She rides a horse well and is called upon to the nearby villages for medical assistance. 


This concludes the 2nd stage of my solo trek.  


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.).  


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.

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).


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".


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.

Note the deep gorge (pic below), through which a stream was flowing, to the right of the mountains behind my tent

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. 


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.  

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).
 
 
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)
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 

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.  

 
 
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.  


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.

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.


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.

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


 

10 Aug : Leh (~3500M) to Spituk (~3300 m)
After a well needed rest at Hotel Changlo  Chan (a budget hotel) on the old Leh Road in Sheynam I got up to search and book hotels (more luxurious ones) for the period from 20th Aug to 25th Aug when my wife would join me at Leh for the "tourist trip" of Leh.  I was able to get reservation @ Hotel Grand Dragon for the 20th & 24th Aug.  Given that this is peak tourist season it was not possible to get reservations for the intermediate days.  I thought those could be arranged later.  I also decided to leave some of my warm clothes  (rain cut, down jacket, thermals, t-shirts) behind at the Grand Dragon as the weather in Leh and through the first 3 weeks of my trek had been pretty warm.  It reduced the weight of my backpack by nearly 2 Kgs.  I also bought provisions to last me a week on the trek (maggi / pasta / coffee packets).  I had been wrestling last night with the itinerary for the next phase of my trek.  Should I do :-
  • Hemis to Sarchu crossing the Kongmaru La towards Nimaling and then to Sarchu via Lun/Dat, by crossing the Zalung Karpo La, Yar La and Maralang La 
  • Markha Valley trek from Spituk to Shang crossing the Ganda La and Kongmaru La
The first would have been a 7-8 day remote trek, where I would most likely have not met anyone for at least 4-5 days.  This would again have to be followed by a day's bus journey from Sarchu to Leh.  This route would have completed the trans-Himalayan trek as I had originally planned.  However, I had to be in Leh by 18th at the latest (given that my wife was coming on 20th) and in case I ran into bad weather I might default on the 18th target - not a very welcoming thought.  Besides, the thought of another 10-12 hour bus journey did not appeal to me.  So, I decided on the Markha valley trek, a more popular trekking route, where i was sure I would meet a lot more tourists.  The Markha valley trek can be done as a homestay trek with each homestay costing Rs 400/- per person per night (inclusive of night stay, dinner and breakfast).  However, the homestay was not an option for me.  My tent was my home and I preferred making my own coffee/maggi.  There are parachute tents along the way so in case I felt lazy on any day I could just opt for dinner at these parachute tents.  After the adventures of the previous 2 weeks I felt it was ok for me to pamper myself a bit, so I decided to go on the Markha Valley trek.  The first route would have to be taken up next year I guess.  
I left the hotel by about 3-4 p.m, as I did not want to stay in Leh for another night, and took a Rs10 bus-ride to Spituk. In Spituk I asked around for the trail to Zingchen and I was helped by the locals in the right direction.  It was evening and there was a strong wind blowing.  I approached the point on the roadhead from where there were would be no further houses.  The road then cuts through a typical Leh terrain, dry, barren and rocky
As it was close to 6 p.m I was thinking if I should pitch my tent, when a person near the last house on the roadhead emerged and asked me to enquire inside the house.  The house was a pretty large one, the only one with a 2nd storey in Spituk.  The lady of the house welcomed me to stay in the house for the night.  There were huge apple orchards, and apricot orchards behind the house.  Apparently, this Ladakhi family was very rich and owned land "as far as the eye could see".  I feasted on the apples and the apricots, which followed the hot cups of tea. The 22 year old lad who asked me to enquire in the house, was a Nepali boy, who spoke fluent Ladakhi, was an employee (helper) at this house. He had left his house in Nepal 3 years back at the tender age of 19, in search of employment. Had worked in some labour jobs before he got employed here in this household a couple of years back.   He takes care of the finances of his brother, who is studying to become a lama in a monastery in Mysore.  When on the trek there are many such interesting conversations one hears which made me realize what a privileged life and upbringing I have had.  After some interesting conversation, especially with this lad (I don't remember his name) I was served a sumptuous dinner.


11 Aug : Spituk (~3300 M) to Yurutse (4160 M)
After a shower and a hot breakfast of Ladakhi bread I was ready to leave by 8:00 a.m.  The hospitality shown by this family was such that it felt awkward even asking them how much I had to pay them.  They asked me to pay Rs 200 and I had no change (only Rs 1000) or Rs 160.  They ended up taking Rs 160.  Throughout this trek, all the time I have been on the trail,  I have been extended such help, warmth and courtesy by the locals, that is difficult to imagine in the cities.  After bidding goodbye to the family, I marched along a dirt road, which is by the Indus River all the way upto Zinchen.  Most trekkers take a shared jeep from Leh along this jeep track upto Zingchen (would cost about Rs 200/300 per head).  Walking on the road when there are jeeps passing you by, kicking up a storm of dust is not a pleasant experience.  However, there are still good views to be hand enroute 

At Zingchen (~3400 M), which I reached after nearly 4 hours, there are a number of campsites.  Most trekkers decide to camp here.  This is the last point on the jeepable track and after this one wont find any vehicles (thank god...).  The trail then criss-crosses a stream flowing through a gorge.  Initially there is a wooden bridge to cross the stream to the left of the gorge.  Further up (say about a 100 m or so) one has to move to the right and this involves stream crossing (wet boots).  This is not a dangerous river crossing like the crossing of the Zara / Lingti Chu or Tokpo Gongma.  At the stream crossing I met a young Spanish guy, who was a school teacher teaching chemistry in Madrid.  He too was travelling solo and planned to do a solo hike to Stok La as he had to be back in Leh by 13th Aug.  He would be my companion on this route upto Rumbak (~3850 M).  We talked on a number of interesting topics including bull-fighting which I thought was a favourite sport in Spain.  He educated me that there were a number of people, including himself, who did not like the sport and incidentally only yesterday (27th Sept) I read a report in the newspaper which said that bull-figthing has been banned in Spain.   For a change, one can find some trees along the route to Rumbak. 
Reaching Rumbak takes around 3 hours from Zingchen.  About 20-30 mins before the Rumbak village there is a parachute tent.  Heading along the left of it one reaches Rumbak, a village with about a dozen houses.  There are plenty of homestays in Rumbak.  I ended up going to Rumbak, along with my Spanish Friend.  There are grand views of the snow-capped peaks of the Stok Ranges from Rumbak.  Later on the villagers told me that if I wanted to get to Markha valley trek I need not have come here.  I should have taken a deviation to the right towards Yurutse from the parachute tents.  As Yurutse was not too far off I descended from Rumbak towards the parachute tents, took a shortcut on a ridge overlooking the parachute tent in the direction towards Yurutse.  En route it started raining.  As you can see (in the pic below) there is not much place to take shelter in this this glacial valley terrain.
There is a small wooden bridge across a stream which flows in the centre of the pic above.   
Then one heads up on the valley on the right.  It is a 300m climb 
from the parachute tents to the village of Yurutse which has 1 house.  I camped beside the lush green barley fields in front of the house
It was about 6 p.m by the time I pitched my tent.  The wind was so strong that when I was pitching my tent it was blown away a few feet and I had to run after it and catch it It reminded me of a story i heard in 2009 during my Zanskar trek where a trekker's tent was blown and washed away in the river.  Luckily i did  not have to face any such adversity.  There were a couple from Austria (spoke German) who had pitched their tent next to mine.  they were doing the trek by themselves, sans guide/horses.  Most other trekkers I saw on this route were doing "sahib style" trekking and a few opted for the "homestay style trekking".  These folks were to be my companion in another couple of campsites as well.  I may be travelling solo but I was not going to be alone in this trek -:) .
Another fact that will hit you both in this trek and the Zanskar trek is that Indian trekkers are conspicuous by their absence.  The only Indians that you see on the trek route are either locals, guides, cook, helpers and horsemen.  The pre-dominant trekking population is mainly European - French, German with a few Englishmen and Israelis.  In Leh you would find internet centres with Hebrew keyboard.  (Am not sure  you would find one with Hindi keyboard -:) ).  I did not come across a single Indian trekker in my entire route.  The local guides too confirmed this fact.  My only reasoning, knowing about the trekking community in India, is that Indian trekkers probably lean more towards the Garhwal area.
A sumptuous self-cooked dinner of soup/maggi and pasta followed some hot cuppas of coffee in the evening, before I called it a day.


TIP (for trekkers):  If your body is not well acclimatized you could consider breaking up the journey from Spituk to  Yurutse into 2 days.


12 Aug : Yurutse (4160 M) to Skiu (3435 M) via Ganda La (4950 M)
I was feeling very lazy when I got up at Yurutse.  Knowing that there was a parachute tent at the base camp of Ganda La I decided to skip making breakfast.   Started around 7:30 a.m.  There is a gradual ascent of about 250M to the base camp.  This was one of those days where my walking speed was so low (given the fact that I did not yet have breakfast) that a number of trekkers overtook me.  As soon as I got out of Yurutse I came across a huge colony of marmots in the nearby fields.  There is something about these creatures that makes one feel like lifting them in your arms and cuddling them.

Reaching the parachute tent at the base camp I had a good breakfast.  After taking rest for 30 mins I decided to move on.  From here one has a clear view of the initial trail to Ganda La and there are breathtaking views of the mountain ranges.
There is an indescribable splendour to the clear blue skies, dotted with tufts of white cotton clouds, kissing the stark brown mountain landscapes.  For oldies like me this reminded me Mukesh's voice lilting the song "Yeh Kaun Chitrakar Hai" and in particular of the lines (in Hindi)  :-
...tapasweeyon see hain atal ye parawaton kee choteeyaan
ye sarpa see ghoomeradaar, gheradaar ghaateeyaan
....

ye kis kawee kee kalpanaa kaa chamatkaar hai
ye kaun chitrakaar hai.. ..
...

kudarat kee is pawitrataa ko tum nihaar lo
is ke gunon ko apane man mein tum utaar lo
chamakaalo aaj laalimaa, apane lalaat kee
kan kan se zaankatee tumhe, chhabee wiraat kee
apanee to aankh yek hai, us kee hajaar hai
ye kaun chitrakaar hai.. "


There were a number of other trekkers who were also admiring this "kavee ke kalpana" (poet's imagination) savouring the views of the Ladakh ranges and the ruggedness of Zanskar ranges.  Amidst the various trekkers I met on the pass there was an English group with a porter carrying "Oxygen Cylinder".  Now, I have seen many "Sahib Style" groups but an "oxygen cylinder" being carried by a porter along with the trekkers, was a first for me.  Just in case you dont know what "Sahib Style" trekking is picture a trek where
  • Your load is carried by mules, porters 
  • You have a guide to show you the route, hold your hand on difficult stretches and sometimes carry you across the stream on his/her back
  • Staff who will pitch/un-pack your tent / sleeping bags 
  • A cook with his kitchen staff (usually some helpers) to cook hot meals for you before you leave for the day, and they usually ensure that hot cup of tea/coffee is waiting for you when you arrive (along with biscuits). 
  • A 3 course meals with a soup, main course and dessert is served to you in a dining tent, which has tables / chairs and requisite cutlery. 
  • There are gas cylinders, carried on mules, for the cooking in the kitchen tents
  • Extra comforters are provided (in addition to sleeping bags) to keep you warm in your tent
  • A separate "toilet tent" is pitched for the group...
and you will get an idea of what a "Sahib Style" trek is.  
Getting back to my trek, after allowing myself to be captivated about 30 mins in the mesmerizing beauty of my surroundings I descended along the well laid out trail.
towards the village of Shingo.  En route to Shingo I  passed another English trekker, travelling solo, who was completely spent.  He was hardly able to walk and he mentioned he suffered from serious headache - definitely a case of AMS.  I stopped by to enquire and check if he needs help.  As I descended I kept a watch out for him for some time to see if he was making progress.  It took about 2 hours to reach the first parachute tents in the village of Shingo - a place for a welcome tea/snacks break.  I informed the shop owner that there was an Englishman coming and that he was in bad shape and asked them to keep some food ready for him.  And in case he does not come here in the next hour to go up and look for him.  I hope he made it.  There are homestays in the village too in case one wants to halt here.  I decided to go on further, following the stream, Shigri Nala, (and crossing it a few times) which flows through a gorge, to the village of Skiu.
There is a quaint little monastery at Skiu (affiliated to Hemis). 
Skiu is situated at the confluence of the Shigri Nala and Markha river.  The views of the mountain landscape from the Skiu monastery is breathtakingly beautiful.
The atmosphere in Skiu, with the darkness setting in, the lengthening shadows of the mountain, the sound of the Markha river thundering by, is such that it evokes a feeling of romanticism in you.  There was a soft mellowness to the beauty of this evening.   


Tip (For trekkers) : One can trek along the Markha river till its confluence with the Zanskar river and then trek further upto Chilling along the banks of Zanskar river.  This route can be used if one wants to avoid the Ganda La pass.


13 Aug : Skiu (3435 M) to Markha (3770 M)
Set off after a nice breakfast after 8 a.m.  I was surprised to see beautiful flowers growing in the garden of houses in Skiu.  The pretty sight of a lady among the sunflowers was a nice way to begin the day's trek.   This just furthered my belief that Skiu is definitely is a place for the romantics.

Today was one of those rare days in the trek where one could see some green, with the poplar, willow and thickets along the banks of the Markha river, for most portion of the trek.  
The trail is pretty well laid out and is generally along the river interspersed by a few short ascents/descents (say about 50 M) where one cant walk along the banks.  In some places you would find the direction marked by "bharal"horns. 
You will cross the settlements of Narding (3540 M), Zara (3560 M) and Chalak (3610 M), each having parachute tents, serving some refreshments. There are a number of chortens and mani walls along the way.  
Beyond Chalak, which is set amongst sprawling green barley fields, one reaches a point 
where there are huge mounds of bharal horns.
This is one stretch of the trek whose beauty is enhanced by a number of colourful birds one finds along the way.


If you thought that this stretch was going to be easy one just needed a rethink.  Just before Markha valley campsite I had to cross the Markha river.  It was around half past two and the river was raging and the water levels were moderately high (upto thighs), without being outright dangerous.  
One of the benefits of trekking in areas where there are other trekkers is that you can find someone to whom you can give your camera to take some photographs.  This is the only photo of my stream crossing though there were a number of streams, and more dangerous ones at that, I had crossed in the past 3 weeks.  As usual I had garlanded myself with my boots, had already forded the stream once to check if it can be forded, armed  with a stick  to check the depth, and crossed the icy cold waters barefeet.  Then I waited and helped another couple of german & austrian couples across the river before I resumed my trek.  It was another 30 mins before I reached the beautiful campsite at Markha.  The lush green campsite in the valley is in stark contrast to the majestic mountains that sandwich the valley on both sides.
After a hot cuppa, I visited the Shanmunatha monastery set atop the hill.  This monastery is in such idyllic surroundings that it is hard to describe the inner calm & peace one feels when one enters these monasteries. 
There were 2 caretaker monks residing in this monastery.  This monastery, like the one at Skiu is affiliated to the Hemis Monastery.  These monks were the most smiling lads I have ever seen.  They had a radio, one of the rare electrical/electronic gadgets I heard after a long time and what did I hear -  The misery of the Indian Cricket team losing its 3rd test to India (heard the commentary of the last 2-3 wickets falling).   I shamelessly asked them if they had any food/dinner.  They invited me and cooked a dinner of "Cabbage/Paneer Momos" - the most delicious momos I have ever had.  Believe me after having satiated myself with 15 Momos I returned to my tent for a good nights rest 


14 Aug : Markha (3770 M) to Thochuntse (4150 M) (via Hankar (3980 M) )
Today was going to be an easier day's walk, with the trail following  the course of the Markha river.  After leaving the Markha campsite at around 8:00 a.m I had to cross two streams, before I reached the Tacha monastery in about 30-45 mins.  The streams were glistening in the morning sun and painted a very pretty picture.

Combine the glistening stream with the majestic mountains surrounding it and you would 
have a landscape which aptly fits the description "picture perfect".


While crossing the first stream I went through the oft practiced ritual of removing my boots.  A few mins later I had to cross the second stream.  I did not now have the patience to remove my boots so I just marched across the second stream with my boots on.  With soggy boots I trekked along till I reached the Tacha monastery to be greeted by the lama who had cooked me dinner yesterday.

Perched atop a jagged rock spire and in the backdrop of an even more jagged rock faced mountain ,the Tacha monastery looks more apt as a spot for an "Eagle's Nest" than a site for a monastery. 
Whilst I allowed my boots to dry, I was chatting with the lama for about half an hour.  I then bade him goodbye and was on my way.  The scenery enroute seemed to be from god's picturebook.

If you kept your eyes open there were beautiful birds to be seen along this route

Reached the main village of Hankar (3980 M) at around noon.  There is a satellite phone in the village from where I was able to call home.  From Hankar there is a short steep ascent to the camping site at Thochuntse (4150 M).  En route to Thochuntse one catches the first views of Kangyaze (6400 M).  I was offered food by another camping group once I reached Thochuntse - so did not have to cook.  Meanwhile one German girl had fainted during the short steep ascent to Thochuntse from Hankar.  After drinking some water she was helped on her way to Thochuntse by her boyfriend.  As the girl continued to have a headache at Thochuntse, her boyfriend was very worried.  Spent considerable sometime talking to him about AMS, fatigue and its effects.  The boy was really worried and understandably so.  After consultation with a number of folks he decided to take a call the next day as to whether to proceed to Nimaling depending on how his girlfriend felt.  Incidentally, the next day they did make it to Nimaling.  
Just a side note on some of the guides in the Leh/Zanskar region.  A number of these guides are college going students who part time as guides during their annual vacations to earn some pocket money (Rs 900/- a day is not bad).  Such guides usually would have done 1-2 treks along the same route as a cook/helper before they become guides.  These guides do not have any hard core technical mountaineering experience.  So, when they are caught in adverse situations, like the one above,  where they have to provided counselling/guidance to clients on aspects like AMS they might not be well equipped.  However, the demand for guides during the peak trekking months of June-Sept in Leh is such that these college kids will continue to be  used as guides.  So, folks arranging treks through agencies need to be aware of the kind of guide these agencies provide.
As I had reached Thochuntse by around 3:00 p.m I spent the rest of the day relaxing.  


15 Aug : Thochuntse (4150 M) to Nimaling (4730 M)
Today was supposed to be a short day(2-3 H) of trekking to Nimaling.  However, the mountains (and yours truly) have a mind of its own, which makes what should have been a simple straightforward walk into an exciting adventure.  Having whetted your appetite with the promise of adventure let me proceed to tell you that the day began with very clear skies.  So, I lazily packed up my tent and started my walk at 8:00 a.m.  About 15 mins down the path the trail forked.  The trail to the left was the main trail and there was a side trail (or what seemed like a trail) to the right.  I went on the trail to the right.  After about 10 mins I realized that the main trail was the other one.   But I continued on the trail to the right.  The trail ascended gradually and offered magnificient views of Kangyaze and the valleys behind me.  I suspected that this trail might be leading to the Kangyaze base camp.  About an hour and half up the trail I spotted a "Dhoksa" (cowherd encampment).  The views  from here are spellbinding.  The clouds playing "hide and seek" with the mountains made the viewing even more magnificent.




 I walked past the encampment asking directions from a lady who was tending to the flock of yaks.  As I ascended the views were breathtakingly beautiful.  After another hour or so of climbing I spotted a goatherd in the rolling grassfields on top.  I went upto him and asked him about the directions to Kangyaze base camp.  As he was pointing me the general directions to Kangyaze base camp it started snowing.  The snowing was so heavy that visibility was reduced to a few metres.  Kangyaze, which was visible a few moments ago, could  no longer be seen.  There was nowhere to take shelter.  I could either take out and pitch my tent or make a run for the dhoksa.  Bitching a ten would take me another 10-15 minutes.  So, I decided the best thing to do was to run back downhill to the Dhoksa.  The way it was snowing it was clear that this was not going to abate soon.  I reached the dhoksa dripping wet and cold.  Requested for some tea which the hosts readily obliged.  After some cups of hot tea I was feeling much more warm.  It was another 30 - 45 mins before the intensity of the snowfall eased up.  It did not seem like a good idea to go Kangyaze base camp any longer as with this snowfall there was no clear trail to it and there would also be no good views given the "whiteout" higher up.   When folks talk about "fickle mountain weather" this is what they mean.  It was clear some time ago and in a matter of minutes there was heavy snowing, whiteout and almost no visibility.   I asked my hosts the directions to Thochuntse.  There was no trail in the direction they pointed.  So, I clambered up rocks/boulders for the next hour or so in the general direction they had pointed.  I could guess that the river was between the ranges where I was standing and the next mountain range which was visible and the campsite was along the river.  After about an hour or so I could spot folks walking along the main trail in the distance.  One of the lessons the mountains teach you is to trust your "mountain instincts" and to follow the lay of the land.  In about an hour or so I reached the Thochuntse campsite by around half past one.  It had begun snowing again.  So, I immediately pitched my tent, wore my down jacket and jumped into my sleeping bag to regain some warmth.  Just before this leg of my trek I had decided to leave my thermals in Leh as the past 2 weeks the weather had been warm -:).  The campsite of Nimaling is in a broad valley and is completely exposed to strong winds.  The green of the valley had soon turned to a complete white carpet.  It snowed relentlessly for the rest of the day and the rest of the night.  It was difficult to even get out of ones tent and go to the next one.  The tough part about solo trekking in such times is that one cant cook even if one has the rations as my tent is too small to cook (not a bottomless kitchen tent -;) ) and the snowing was so heavy that  cooking in the open did not seem a wise proposition.  After 2-3 hours of catching some sleep in my tent I went into the kitchen tent of the adjoining group.  The cook welcomed me and provided me with tea/biscuits and dinner for the night.  I went to bed thinking if it continued snowing so heavily trekking solo and crossing the Kongmaru-La would be difficult.  Thus went my independence day - a memorable day in white surroundings.  


16 Aug : Nimaling (4730 M) to Shang Sumdo (3730 M) via Kongmaru La (5150 M)
It snowed through the night and when I got up in the morning it was still snowing.  Through the night I had to ensure that the snow was shaken off the tent at regular intervals (lest the  tent caves in under the weight of accumulated snow).  The colourful tents managed to break the monotony of the white carpet which shrouded the entire plains and the surrounding mountains.

This Independence day surroundings reminded me of this year's Republic Day Surroundings in Chadar trek.  Seems like God had decided to bless the India that I witnessed, on these 2 national holidays, showering his blessings in the form of snow.   Had my breakfast at the  parachute tent.  Packed my tent, sleeping bag, mat and handed it to the horseman of the neighbouring group who had offered to take these on horseback  - as it was the end of the trek a couple of the horses was devoid of much load.  A wet tent, like mine was, weighs twice as much as its original weight (3 kg).  So, you could understand how relieved I was at this good fortune.  I started off around 8:30 p.m.  By the time we started the snowfall had abated a bit and I could even spot a sliver of blue in the sky - an indication that the weather might clear up.  I crossed an enclosure from which smoke was emanating.  This was full of sheep.  I do not know what the fire was for...
It was a 2 hour walk to the top of the pass, again marked by numerous prayer flags.  There were a number of trekkers going up along the trail.  Since a few horses had already passes along the trail the route was now well walkable.  On the way up I had beautiful views of the snow-clad mountains...
By 10:30 a.m I was at the top of the Kongmaru la (5150 M) marked by the numerous colourful Buddhist prayer flags. 
There is airtel network connectivity at the top of the pass.  So, called up home from there.  After enjoying the views for half an hour I decided to descend as it began to snow again.  The initial descent was slightly slippery because of the melting snow and slushy mud.  
After the initial 500M steep descent the trail follows the course of the stream which meanders its way through a narrow gorge.  One has to cross the stream at multiple places.  There are ways to avoid the stream crossing if one is prepared to climb the trails high above the stream.  Half way down this narrow gorge I found an Israeli girl, who had lost her way, and hence wanted to accompany me so that she would not miss the route again.  It was good for me too as I also would have company to talk.  Interestingly, she had been travelling around the world (after the usual stint serving in the Israeli Army & some months of working) to places like Burma, Mongolia and China.  There is a settlement with couple of parachute tents called Chuchurmo (I might have got the spelling wrong..) about 3 hours from the top of the pass.  Stopped there for tea/lunch and a bit of rest.  The Israeli girl also met her friend there.  Well, here is an interesting fact about Israeli travellers - they do not necessarily travel together.  But when they come to a place like Leh they know where to meet other Israelis and they do team up and usually they do this for company as well as for budget travelling.  What amazes me is that for such a small country the number of Israelis whom you meet while trekking is really high.  Amidst the interesting conversations neither of us (the Israeli girl being the other person) missed the grand mountain views.  


There is something magical about these mountains.  It casts a spell on you while you are there and leaves an indelible impression that is etched in your memories forever.  As I was coming towards the end of this trek I tried to answer what is it that addicts folks like me to come to these mountains  
  • Is it the sheer indescribable natural beauty 
  • Is it the physical/mental challenge that such treks present
  • Is it the simplicity/large-heartedness of the folks who live in these mountains
  • Is it the sense of peace/the inner calm one experiences amidst these surroundings
As I came to Sumdo (3730 M), the last point of the trek, I knew I did not have answers to these questions and I wish I never have.  I do know, that god willing, I will come to the mighty Himalayas again and return with even more questions, than answers.  But these are questions which have left me humbler, happier and have left me with a deeper appreciation of Nature and its Creator.  Himalayas do give a different perspective to life.
As I boarded the jeep for my 2 hour journey to Leh, at 6:00 p.m, I hoped that a lot more Indians (as opposed to the abundance of European trekkers) would come and see this paradise which our country has to offer.

 

My definition of A Solo/Independent :  This is a trek where the trekker is self-contained in all aspects of the trek for the entire duration of the trek.  
There are a few key aspects when it comes to being self-sufficient on a trek.  

Self-sufficiency and Fitness

  1. First let us look at some key items that would be in the independent trekker’s backpack
  2.  Food      - Say for 3-4 days or to get to a place where one can replenish food supplies
  3.  Fuel        -  Petrol/Kerosene  to cook food for about a week
  4.  Utensils  -  Plates/Spoon/Vessel to cook food in
  5.  Clothing  - There needs to be sufficient warm clothing (assuming you are trekking in the mountains). However, this is one aspect where one has to be really selective if one wants to travel light.  My thumb rule is that if it is not needed for survival you don’t need it in your backpack
  6.  Tent      - 1-2 man 3 / 4 season’s tent
  7.  Sleeping Mat
  8.  Sleeping Bag
  9. Water bottle / hydration pack
One would typically need a 60L-70L rucksack to carry these.  Roughly this  would weigh around 20KG-25KG, depending on what you have packed.  So, this means that one has to have the stamina/fitness/endurance to carry this backpack for the entire duration of the trek.   Stamina/Fitness/Endurance does not come overnight – one has to work towards this over an extended period (say a few months at least).

Choosing a Trail

The next aspect of an independent trek is identifying a trail that meets your criteria.  Some trekkers like the popular/established trekking routes while others prefer the routes less explored.  Personally, most important for me is to determine whether  the trail would be easy to find.    When I say easy, I mean that if I have a good trekking map, I should be able to find the trail by looking at footprints, animal droppings, track, stone cairns and the general  lay of the land.
Some research of the terrain is also critical as this (along with the season)  would determine the kind of equipment one would need to carry.  For example does one expect landslides, scree, boulder zone, river crossings, snow/ice/crevasses.  Depending on this one may need to take rope/ice-axes/crampons/snow-shoes.   The challenge when one has to carry a lot of equipment is that your backpack becomes too heavy to carry yourself.  Then one would need to hire a porter.   If the trail is too fraught with danger (say crevasses) or not easily identifiable then one would need to employ the services of a local guide.   If one employs the services of a guide/porter then some would say that you are no longer trekking solo -J.   So one really needs to choose the trail carefully.
Personally, to avoid guides/porters I prefer somewhat established trails. 

Choosing the Season

The season (time of the year) for doing the trek is another important factor.   It determines whether one can even do the trek.  Some trails are closed in winter (especially the high altitude passes) and some are not suitable in the rainy season.  The choice of season determines the kind of views you might get. 

Arranging the Permits :

This is one of the annoyances one has to prepare for before the trek.   Some treks require no permits,  for others it is easy to get.  For some the amount of red-tapism and bureaucracy one has to endure is unimaginable.

Flexibility :

One of the keys to enjoy my travel in the Himalayas is to travel without time constraints (something difficult to imagine for folks in the corporate world).  What I mean by this is that in the mountains one has to learn to submit oneself and enjoy the vagaries of Mother Nature.  Irrespective of your best planning there may be delays, say because you are snowed in for days together.  There may be cases where despite your best preparation (fitness/equipment) you may just not be able to reach your destination.  Say for example there is a river crossing and the river is in full flow and crossing it seems dangerous, then one has to be prepared to wait it out or even abort the crossing and retrace ones path.  Though aborting a trek , without a sense of failure/disappointment, is easier said than done -J , it is wiser  to live so that one can attempt to cross this hurdle another time.

Benefits of solo/independent trekking

v  Pre-trek preparation/Fitness :  One takes care that he/she is really fit/prepared to do the trek both physically and mentally as you know that there is no one to help you in case you are trouble during the trek.
v  Differentiating between wants/needs for the trek : Knowing that you have to carry your own backpack you will start differentiating between your  wants and your needs very easily.  You will be surprised at how little you actually need.
v  Knowledge/Study of the trail/terrain & logistics : A person who travels independently has more knowledge & does more research about the trail, how to reach it, what permits are required and what logistical arrangements are required than one who is going through an organized trek.
v  Sense of accomplishment :  The sense of accomplishment on doing an independent travel is far greater than an organized trek and is something that needs to be experienced.
v  Discovering Yourself :  One gets to discover ones own limits and is surprised by the extent to which your mind and body can push itself, especially when faced with adversity.  As you travel alone when you are fatigued you will find reserves of energy which you never knew, existed within you.  Once you experience this I found that it is something that can benefit you in other aspects of life.
v  Risk analysis/Decision Making/ Planning :  Your risk taking/risk analysis, decision making and planning skills are tested everyday.  The stakes are high as it is your life at stake.  If you don’t make the right decision you have only yourself to blame and no one else.
v  Belief in Fate (God for non-believers)/ Nature : One’s appreciation of Nature (call it God if you will) and the realization of how much one depends of fate increases.  It reaches a new high.
 
Finally, a few question I have often been asked.
v  Is it not dangerous to travel alone
v  What happens if you are injured or if you fall sick
v  What happens if you find wild animals on the trail
v  Don’t you feel afraid when you camp alone ?
 
Here is my take on answering these questions. 
v  Yes it is dangerous to trek alone.  If you have a friend/partner who would travel with you do go with them.
v  If you are travelling alone and are injured or fall sick it is a risky business.  If it is a frequented trail you may get assistance and if it is not a frequented trail then you would have to bear the pain and fight through your sickness.  Luckily, for me I have not encountered this situation and thank god for it.
v  Of course wild animals can attack on trails
v  Not really
 
Due to the above reasons is why I am of the opinion as you trek solo your faith/belief increases.  So  I conclude by saying “You do your best and trust God to do the rest”

Here is a counter-view for the “Independent Style Trekking”. I ask myself “Why do you trek ?” The principal reasons are to enjoy nature and to enjoy the walk. If those are the objectives and if I can afford it why not achieve the above objectives with luxury and comfort. That is what “Sahib Style” trekking essentially is. “Sahib Style” trekking achieves the above objectives without the additional challenges (pains if you will) of “independent style treks”.
The following are some of the key characteristics of “Sahib Style Trekking” :-

  1.   Porters/Mules to carry your luggage
  2.  Guides to show you the way
  3.  Cook to ensure that you have tasty, nutritious and timely food along your way (often with desserts included)
  4.   A dining tent where you sit comfortably in a spacious tent replete with tables and chairs
  5.   A Kitchen tent where the cook & his staff (often comprising a helper or two) cook hot meals for you. Sometimes the staff even carries gas cylinders for use in the kitchen
  6.   A spacious tent for you having a sleeping mat, warm sleeping bags and in some cases I have seen a layer or two of quilt blankets/comforters
  7. Besides the standard medical kit often the trekking agency would provide for an oxygen cylinder for larger trekking groups in a high-altitude trek. This oxygen cylinder would get carried by a porter who accompanies the trekking group (walking along with them)
  8.  Guides would go to the extent of carrying their clients on their backs if you find a particular stretch (say a stream crossing) tough to negotiate
  9.  There is enough safety equipment like rope/harness/carabiners (in case you need to cross a stream etc). Note that I am talking about trekking and not mountaineering expeditions where all of this is mandatory
  10.  Throw in a bonfire at night

Now, you probably have a good picture of what I am talking about. The big question is what does this do your trekking experience ? Well there are 2 ways of looking at it :-

  1. One view is that it allows the trekker to enjoy the trekking experience, enjoy nature, walk , spend a lot of time capturing nature’s beauty in his/her camcoders/cameras without the inherent risks/discomforts/challenges of “independent style trekking”.

 Another view is that it by taking away the inherent risks/discomforts/challenges of “independent style trekking” it takes away a lot from the trekking experience and gives one a reduced sense of accomplishment.
Irrespective of which view one subscribes to there are definitely a few non-debatable benefits to “Sahib Style trekking” :-

  It gives you good local company (porters/guides) resulting in a better understanding and appreciation of the local knowledge/culture/customs and practices.

 It helps infuse finance into the hands of the local community better (especially if you arrange for the porters/guides directly as opposed through a trekking agency).

 It keeps you away from the “Red-tapism” and “Organisational hassles” of getting permits
However, as you will all agree, there are no “Free lunches” in this world. All this comes at a price. The cost of an organized trek is often 3-5 times (sometimes more) that of an independent trek. The magnitude of the difference(compared to independent trek) is a factor of the size of your group (in an organized trek), the level of comforts (from the above list) that you seek.
What is my view on “Sahib Style Trekking” vs “Independent Trekking” ?
Well, I prefer to do my treks within a budget and I also prefer solitude during my treks. So, I definitely prefer the independent style of trek. I also like being self-sufficient, carrying my own backpack and finding the route on my own (where possible). However, when route finding is going to be very difficult then I would prefer to employ the services of a guide (who could also double as a part time porter/cook).

I am posting my itinerary & photos (click on the links for each day) of the helambu-gosaikund-langtang and jiri-tumlingtar trek here to help fellow trekkers who might want some information regarding this trek. The jiri-Tumlingtar trek is a combination of 2 treks namely the Jiri-Lukla trek (the walk-in route to the EBC trek) and Arun Valley trek. :-

Itinerary
13-Jan : Kathmandu to chisopani
14-Jan : Chisopani to Kutumsang
15-Jan : KutumSang to Mangengoth
16-Jan : Mangengoth to Ghopte
17-Jan : Ghopte to Phedi
18-Jan : Phedi to Sing Gompa (via Laurabina Pass and Gosaikund)
19-Jan : Sing Gompa to Dhunche and Back
20-Jan : Sing Gompa to Bamboo Lodge
21-Jan : Bamboo Lodge to Thanshyap
22-Jan : Thangshyap to Kyanjin Gompa and Kyanjin Ri
23-Jan : day hike to Langshisha Kharka
24-Jan : Kyanjin Gompa to Bamboo Lodge
25-Jan : Bamboo Lodge to Syarbubesi
26-Jan : Syarbubesi to Kathmandu by Bus
27-Jan : Rest Day at Kathmandu
28-Jan : Kathmandu to Bhandar
29-Jan : Bhandar to kinjar
30-Jan : Kinjar to Taktor (across Lamjura la)
31-Jan : Taktor to Nuntala (across Takshindu La)
01-Feb : Nuntala to Bupsa (place before lukla on Jiri-Lukla trek)
02-Feb : Bupsa to Nanjig (over Pangom La)
03-Feb : Nanjig to Bung (over Surke-La)
04-Feb : Bung to Sanam
05-Feb : Sanam to Phedi (over Salpha bhanjyang with side trek to Salpa pokhari)
06-Feb: Phedi to Tumlingtar
07-Feb: Tumlingtar to Kakaribitta (by Bus/Jeep)
08-Feb: Kakaribitta to Siliguri

Highlights
From 15 Jan (KutumSang) to 20 Jan (Bamboo lodge) we encountered snow everyday and it was snow plodding for a large part of the way. It was moderately challenging to cross the laurebina la and we were also lucky as the path had been broken by another couple coming from the other side the day before. Prior to that no one had crossed the pass for around 10-14 days. It was nice as there were no other trekkers we met till Kyanjin Gompa...

In the 2nd half of the trek I had the privilege of meeting Appa Sherpa (climbed everest 21 times) in person when he and his group @ Sanam were doing the GHT (Great himalayan trail). The Jiri-Tumlingtar trek involved crossing 5 passes around 3000-4000 m range. Only on the passes you could find a little snow/ice. This is a cultural trail and again it was a pleasure as I encountered no other trekkers (except for Apa Sherpa's group) along the way.

To summarize :
Helambu has great mountain views.
Gosaikund is as peaceful and as holy a lake one would see.
The Helambu /Gosaikund has heavy snow at this time of the year
The Langtang is a beautiful forest, with excellent rivers/streams with numerous rapids. Kyanjin Gompa, the end of Langtang gives you a view of majestic peaks and glaciers.
Jiri-Lukla, is a cultural trail, where one gains and loses height several times as I crossed 2 passes. For folks going onto EBC this is definitely good acclimatization,
The Lukla-Tumligtar is another beautiful cultural trail. The height gain & losses were tiring on my knees as you cross 3 passes in this leg. Again one passes through thick forests which culminates in a beautiful river closer towards Tumligtar.
All in all a nice trek experience with a wide range of terrains...


Getting to the trek
This was my first trek of 2012 and the first major (long) one after recovering from grade 3 ligament tear on my right ankle. Took the 2 day long train journey to Gorakhpur from Bangalore on 9th Jan. After reaching Gorakhpur on 11th Jan evening I took a bus to Sunauli and crossed over the border. Found a place to stay and on 12th took a bus ride to Kathmandu. The bus ride was a whole day affair which started at about 6:00 in the morning and reached Kathmandu about 3 p.m in the evening. Went to Paknajol (near Thamel) and checked into the Friends Peace Guest house. After getting a shower got a local NCELL phone. Tried to buy petrol (for my stove) but all the petrol bunks in Kathmandu were out of petrol. Anyway returned and met up with Ashleena, my companion for the trek. This was her first time in the himalayas. Had dinner and bought a few supplies, coffee powder/sugar/milk powder/soup packets/biscuits/chocolate bars for the trek. The next day after breakfast, we went shopping a bit. I bought some vessels for cooking, ashleena bought a sleeping bag and then we walked to the Nepal tourism board office to get the permits for the helambu/langtang/gosaikund trek. The shopkeeper from whom we purchased the sleeping bag also got us petrol from his friend's bike. We got the permits around noon and then took a local bus to get to Sundarijal, the trailhead, which was about an hour's drive.


Jan 13th 2012 : Sundarijal (1350m ) to Chisopani (2350 m)
We started close to 2 p.m from Sundarijal and it was a 4 hours walk to Chisopani. The route is well laid out. There is also a jeep track upto Chisopani, though one does not have to walk on the jeep track. What amazed me most was the fact that you get splendid views of the mountain ranges on the first day of the trek itself.




Enroute one has to get a permit at the Shivpuri National park (NRS 100 for Indians).  As soon as one enters the park there is a bridge over a small waterfall.  The whole route is breathtakingly scenic.  Believe it or not we crossed some snow in the first day itself - portent of things to come.  It was evening (and just about getting dark) when we reached Chisopani.  Ashleena wanted a comfortable lodge so she chose a 3 storeyed lodge (with attached toilet/bath).  I stayed free of cost (room rent) in a more modest lodge right opposite to the hotel she stayed in. We had ,probably the best dal-bhats of the entire trip, for dinner, on our first evening.  Besides we had a very interesting  & long conversation with the lodge owners around the warmth of a small heater in the dining room.  






TIP :  There are a number of short 1-day/2-day treks one can do from Chisopani.  The trek to Nagarakot is a popular one.  If you want to chill out and trek you can plan to spend 1-2 days @ Chisopani doing these short treks/day-hikes


Jan 14th 2012 :  Chisopani (2350 m) to Kutumsang (2450 M)
If the views from Chisopani were great yesterday the views this morning were even more spectacular. 



We started off in the morning around 9:00 a.m. and it was about 4:30 p.m before we reached Kutumsang.  Another day of "Nepali Flats".  Though the eventual height gain is only 150M  you lose about 700 M of elevation before climbing back up nearly 800-900 M.  Kutumsang is another place with great views.  One can get clear views of Dorje Lakpa from here






Jan 15th 2012 :  Kutumsang (2450 M) to Magingoth (3285 M)
Started from Kutumsang around 9:00 a.m.  Today is  a steady climb.  As we approach MaginGoth one encounters plenty of snow.  There is a steady descent of 30-45 mins from the time one sees the first lodge at Magingoth to the main village (which has about 3-4 lodges) and the entire descent was in snow. 





As it was offseason only 1 of the lodges was open.  We reached here about 2:00 p.m and decided that we could push on further to Tharepati.  As the path was completely snow covered the trail was not very cleared.  As it happened we took the wrong path and instead of ascending to Tharepati we descended for about 1 hour.  The descent was very steep.  We felt it was the wrong way so we took off our rucksacks (at around 3:30 p.m) and I retraced the path alone to check where we had missed the way.  Also, it was starting to get and it was getting very dark.  By the time I came back to the spot where I had left Ashleena with the rucksacks it was about 4:30 p.m.  I decided that I would check if the descent to the village was faster.  After a few metres/minutes I decided that the village was too far off and I decided that we needed to head back to Magin Goth.  Luckily, just as i was turning back we met a person.  He happened to be one of the lodge owners in MaginGoth and he was heading from his village (which was located in the valley below) back to MaginGoth. He confirmed that the route we had taken was indeed wrong and the trail ascends immediately from Magingoth and that we had to head back all the way to the village. Ashleena, was down on energy and when he offered to help her carry her rucksack she readily agreed.  All 3 of us made our way back to the village.  I carried my backpack but was tired too.  It had started snowing steadily by now.  We reached Magingoth by 6:00 p.m - cold and tired.  Ashleena later said that as she had no energy if she had to come back she would have left the rucksack on the way and headed back to Magin Goth.  We stayed at the lodge of the person who helped carry Ashleena's backpack.  Today Ashleena had lost the confidence of carrying her backpack.  So, she decided to hire a porter who would carry her backpack upto Gosaikund.  We spoke to the lodge owner.  He said his brother would help her carry the backpack to Gosaikund.  We were lucky that his brother agreed to be the porter as there was no one else you could find on the way.  We had not met a single trekker on the way, except @ chisopani where there were 1-2 folks who were headed to Nagarkot.


Jan 16th 2012 :  Magingoth (3285 M) to Ghopte (3440 M).
It was snowing in the morning.  After breakfast hung around for about 30 mins to check if the snowfall subsided.  On seeing that it did not we proceeded along with our porter on the "right track".  After a 2-3 hour climb in the snowfall we reached Tharepati (3640 M) around noon.





As we were approaching Tharepati the snowfall was really heavy and there was a complete whiteout.  There are a couple of lodges @ Tharepati, which are pretty close by.  However, the snowfall & whiteout was so heavy that we could not see beyond a few metres.  Anyway it was nice to break for half an hour and sit by the fire in the dining room of the lodge and warm ourselves.  There are 2 routes from Tharepati.  One is the on the traditional Helambu circuit which proceeds towards Tarkhegyang.  The other is towards Gosaikund lake.  We followed our porter towards Ghopte.  The route was complete snowed out -:) and the world was in monochrome.  Around an hour or so after Tharepati there is a nice solitary lodge.  Except the owner, who was a very enterprising lad, there was no one in that lodge.  This lad had worked in leh with the indian army supplying food for them.  He spoke good english and had even learnt Korean (got a certification) and was set to go to Korea in about 3 months.   He rustled up a very hot and tasty chowmein for us.  After lunch we headed to Ghopte which was about 45 mins to an hour away (reached around 2-3 p.m).  There was a solitary lodge that was open in Ghopte.


 It was expectedly cold.  The owner was friendly and kept a fire on at the dining room all the time.  However, he was not very encouraging.  He said that no one had crossed the Laurebina La and come from Gosaikund in the past 10 days.  Even before that it was a group that had come and they had ropes etc.  He said expect snow upto 3-4 feet on the pass.  He also mentioned that the route from Ghopte to Phedi was slightly dangerous.  Ashleena was definitely not enjoying the cold.  She was debating whether to turn back.  However, being a marathon runner, she definitely was not a quitter. The next morning when we got up the sky was absolutely clear and we had good views.  Ashleena, decided to go ahead. 


Jan 17th 2012 :  Ghopte (3440 M) to Phedi (3740 M)
It was a relief for me that Ashleena decided to go ahead to Phedi.  I would have felt a bit disappointed had we decided to return without giving the Laurebina La cross a decent try.  We started about 8:30-9:00 a.m in the morning.  By the time we left the lad we had met in the lodge (located about an hour back) had also come to Ghopte.  He was on his way to meet his friend at Phedi.  The route from Ghopte to Phedi was again completely covered with snow.



There were a few stretches which looked a bit dangerous, as it was on a narrow ledge.  We arrived at Phedi about an hour or so post lunch.  There were a few frozen waterfalls that we had seen just before we arrived at Phedi. 



There are a couple of lodges at Phedi.  We had lunch @ Phedi.  The evenings views from Phedi were spectacular.  It seemed like we were seated above the clouds.  The feeling was pretty similar to that you get when you are seated in a plane.  






Please note that the lodges in Phedi are pretty basic.  The cots in the wooden rooms are actually on the ground and the space between the cots (2 cots per room) has a wooden floor -:).  The place was pretty cold.  


The lodge owners were also not very encouraging saying that there may be snow upto the waist @ the Laurebina La.  The re-emphasized that no one had come from the other side in the past 10 days.  A couple of times that evening we were trying to reach the lodge owners at Gosaikund to see if they were open.  The phone was not being picked up.  We suspected that the lodges on the other side were not open.  We even tried the cellphone of the lodge owner but he was not picking.  This would mean that even if we did cross over the pass we would have to travel a long way down before we could find a lodge to stay in.  My partner was also not very confident.  In fact we had told our porter/guide that the next morning we were heading back.  Honestly speaking I was a bit disappointed that evening that my partner wanted to head back.  I was thinking to myself let us see how the next morning pans out.  


Jan 18th 2012 :   Phedi (3740 M) to Sing Gompa (3300 M) over Laurebina La (4610 M) via Gosaikund (4400 M).
As luck would have it the next morning we got up to clear skies and good weather.


My partner decided that she would go ahead instead of going back.  The reason being that she did not want to traverse the route we did yesterday again.  In a way going forward seemed lesser of the two evils -;).  Also, another German couple had crossed over from the other side yesterday.  They were staying in another lodge @ Phedi.  That was good news as then we would be able to see the footmarks.  So we left at around 8:00-8:30 a.m.  We made our way upto the Laurebina la.  Since the path had been broken the previous day (by the german couple coming down) we were able to follow the footsteps and reached Laurebina La by about noon.  It was really cold and windy @ the pass.  As I reached about 10-15 mins ahead of my partner I spent the time savouring the lovely views.  It was very windy.  Taking photographs was a challenge as the moment you took the hands out of your gloves the cold wind made your fingers numb.


 




 My partner decided not to stop at Laurebina la, except for a couple of photographs, and made her way down towards Gosaikund.  There is a frozen lake, Surya Kund, you can see @ the top of the pass.  It was another 1 hour or so down to Gosaikund.  We had to plod through the snow.  As one approaches Gosaikund one can see the views of the frozen Gosaikund lake on the way down. We were hoping that one of the lodges @ Gosaikund is open.  However, that was not to be.  There is a sense of unexplainable serenity in the surroundings.  No wonder this is called a holy lake and hundreds/thousands throng to it during the pilgrim season.  There is a temple @ Gosaikund and despite the cold there was a "baba", clad in black robes, who lives here.  It is said that he has been here for the past 3-4 years without going down and that he stays here through the winter.  A brave soul.  Besides Gosaikund is another frozen lake called Bhairav Kund.  We stopped here, imbibing the beauty of the surroundings.  This was like a "picture postcard from heaven".  





It was around 2:00 p.m so we decided to have lunch comprising a couple of energy bars for each of us. We decided to head down as we wanted to reach our next lodge before dark.  There was snow all the way down, though the main trail was still very much walkable (without much snow plodding). 


We crossed another small buddhist temple on the way.  One gets breathtaking mountain views on the way down.



 It was a complete descent all the way to Sing Gompa where we stayed at the Red Panda lodge.  It was 6 p.m by the time we reached here.  There are 2 or 3 other villages with lodges in between.  However, being off season all of them were closed.  The Red Panda lodge is run by a very affable and courteous family.


Jan 19th 2012 :   Rest Day / Sing Gompa (3300 M) to Dhunche 
We bid farewell to our porter/guide that morning as he had to return to Magin Goth.  Ashleena, decided to take it easy that day and take some rest @ Sing Gompa that day.  She spent her time reading a book and visiting the Gompa, which was right opposite the Red Panda Lodge.  Ashleena was running out of cash and also I was running out of supplies (coffee / chocolate bars etc.).  Also, I figured I would get bored resting all day.  So, I decided to head down to Dhunche from where I could replenish my supplies, draw money for Ashleena and head back by evening.  I started at about 10 a.m.  To be about a quarter of the way down there was snow on the trail.  Beyond that one gets back to beautiful treelines and one has amazing  valley views.  You pass by several streams & waterfalls on the way to Dhunche.  



Dhunche, which i reached by around 1:30 p.m, is a large village (small town) with say about 30-40 shops across a 100 m stretch and road connectivity.  Did all my purchases, had lunch and headed back to Sing Gompa.  Reached Sing gompa by 6 p.m.  The sunset views this evening from Sing gompa was really beautiful.  Ashleena had decided that she wanted to enjoy the trip without carrying a backpack (as it slowed her down).  So she engaged the services of another porter, the brother of  Red Panda lodge owner.


Jan 20th 2012 :   Sing Gompa (3300 M) to Bamboo Lodge (2000 M).
Today we crossed over from the Helambu/Gosaikund region onto the Gosaikund region.  It was a steady descent to Thulo Shyabru and then ascent to Bamboo.  The initial part of the descent was through snow and beautiful pine forests.  



After that as we approached Thulo Shyabru the ground became slushy and slippery.  My companion slipped and fell at least 3 times and was covered in mud by the time she arrived at Shyabru.  We stopped @ Shyabru for lunch and then proceeded towards Bamboo.  One crosses a spectacular hanging bridge. 


The one ascends along the river.  The river with its numerous small rapids, and thundering sound is an altogether different experience.






It was late evening by the time  we reached Bamboo.  Here we stayed @ the Bamboo lodge.  There was a Buddhist ceremony going on in the lodge.  Apparently, the lady of the house had cut a tree and there had been some bad luck in the family after that (at least that is what I understood) so the lama had come to the lodge for 3 days and was performing some ceremony (including reading out buddhist prayers).  It was interesting to watch it.  Also, there was a party that evening as the owners of the other 3 lodges had gathered in this lodge for a party.  It seemed that the tradition,at least in the off season when there were very few guests, was that one of the houses would cook and the others would join them for a dinner and a drink.


Jan 21st 2012 :   Bamboo Lodge (2000 M) to Thangshyap (3200 M).
Today was a nice start to the day as we had a hot shower.  Like the latter half of the previous day today was an unrelenting ascent, along the side of the river.  The sound of the innumerable rapids in the river broke the monotony of the silence of the surrounding forests.  Honestly, I have never seen so many rapids in such a short span.




 We started at around 9 a.m and reached Thangshyap around 4 in the afternoon.  We stopped for lunch at Lama Hotel (2480 M).  The view of the valleys with the snowcapped peaks in the distance makes for jaw-dropping views.






The trees provide good shade for most part of the day's walk.  This makes the walk much less tiring.  There is a steep ascent just before one reaches Thangshyap.  We could have gone on further but decided to stay here as this is much more quiet and pleasant stop than Langtang which is about a further hour from here.


Jan 22nd 2012 : Thangshyap (3200 M) to Kyanjin Gompa (3870 M) and  Kyanjin Ri (4300 M)
We started from Thangshyap after breakfast around 9:00 a.m.  Soon we reached Langtang.  En route a number of locals wanted to know where we staying at Kyanjin Gompa.  In fact a lady, who has a hotel at Kyanjin Gompa, escorted us all the way from Langtang to Kyanjin Gompa to ensure that we stayed at her hotel.  And we indeed did stay at the hotel.  As one approaches the  Kyanjin Gompa one can see the gompa and prayer flags from a distance.  We reached Kyanjin gompa post noon.  After settling into the lodge and a quick meal I checked if my partner would like to climb the Kyanjin Ri.  She was tired and wanted to take it easy.  I was told it would be a 2hour climb to the top and another hour down.  So this was to be a 3 hour sojourn.  The guide and I started the climb.  The guide is really a mountain goat.  He was fast.  He reached the top in about 45 mins and I took about an hour and fifteen (can account for sometime to take pictures.).  Had an "in the face views" of the snow-capped peaks and a real beautiful view of the glacier.  After spending a few minutes at the top I descended slowly back to the lodge.  The guide ran down and I did not find much point in following suit at that pace as there would not be much to do at the lodge, beside sitting the warmth of the fireplace in the dining room.  









While we were soaking in the warmth of the fireplace in the dining room we were in for a spectacular treat.  Suddenly, it seemed as if the sky was on fire.  The clouds were fiery orange/red (as seen in picture below).  I watched this 15 min spectacle unfold before me.  I have not seen such a sight before.  Nor did I see it the next day I was there.




Jan 23rd 2012 : Day-Hike : Kyanjin Gompa (3870 M) to LangShisha Kharka
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