Markha Valley in Ladakh had been beckoning to me for years and I had to oblige, and HOW! In the harsh winters, serendipity had worked its charm to bring me to the snow leopard territory into the Hemis High Altitude National Park.
This story appeared in The Hindu’s Sunday Magazine edition.
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The road goes from Leh to Spituk & then to Zingchen, an hour’s drive from Leh, after that its pure wilderness.
I had been warned by the locals that wild dogs had eaten up a woman just a week ago on the same trail. A good hearted samaritan agreed to accompany me till Rumbak which was a three hour trek from Zingchen. Huffing and puffing and marvelling at the incredible landscapes we were jolted when a wild yak was spotted in our path. Manoeuvring our way out of trouble walking through frozen waterfalls we reach the timeless buddhist village of Rumbak (4050m). It was bitterly cold even during the daytime due to the dense cloud cover.
Read : Kids of Markha Valley
There are 8-9 houses in Rumbak and all of them are homestays. I was ushered into the first one, straight into the warm confines of the kitchen. All homes have a ‘Bukhari’ in Ladakh, burning wood for warmth and on top of it food and tea is made. Three cute kids peer at me sheepishly as cha-cha (butter tea) is served. They are the children of my homestay owners and are creating a ruckus running and jumping around. The schools are closed due to winter holidays. The women in Ladakh work hard, the men mostly tend to chores outside of home. Handheld prayer wheels are rotated and the sounds of ‘om mane padme hum’ reverberate around the valley.
The per day rates have been fixed at 800 Rupees including all meals and endless cups of cha-cha. I am wearing 8 layers of clothing to combat the -30 degree temperatures that evening brings. The kids take me with them to walk around the village and meet everybody, there is no other outsider to soak in this tranquility. Other kids join us too as it starts snowing, making my heart sing in the process. We rush home as the entire landscape turns white and slippery as icy cold winds blow.
The Govt. has provided Rumbak with a generator and fuel, so electricity is available from 5 pm to 9 pm. Each family takes turns everyday to ensure the timings are taken care of. I express a desire to go to Yurutse the next day, which is a two hour walk along a frozen river.
We talk about the wildlife while a special Ladakhi dish is being prepared. It’s called ‘Timokh’ which is steamed Ladakhi bread in the shape of a croissant, to be eaten with dall & vegetable. Cha-cha is savoured in copious quantities to keep the body warm. Potatoes and spinach and other vegetables are stored underground in this cold weather. They say the snow leopard comes sometimes in the night and tries to take a goat or sheep away.
Chota Bheem plays on television as I watch riveted with kids. Dinner is served & is sumptuous, with mutter-paneer for variety. I praise the food wholeheartedly bringing a smile to the mother’s face. She asks me to take the village kids to Yurutse for company. They show me my room and the bukhari is lit-up to make it warm and cozy. I go out to relieve myself and see that the weather has cleared up. The view of the sky is surreal with millions of stars shining so brightly, I can scarcely believe my eyes.
Morning is sunny and the full splendour of the valley is laid out before us. We have breakfast and set off for Yurutse, my companions being Nyima, Tundup, Stanzin & Norbu. Within no time we spot blue sheep on a nearby hillock. Fresh footprints of a wolf and wild fox are identified in the snow. Nyima, the eldest of the three says ‘The snow leopard must be around.’
They regale me with fascinating children’s tales regards the landscape and the various colours of the mountains. We build a snowman, enjoying the simple pleasures of life. Yurutse at 4200m is a one home village on the way to 4920m Ganda La, the altitude taking full toll of me as we reach. The family welcomes us by serving lunch and the ubiquitous cha-cha. They refuse to take money when offered. Its a very old house, the prayer flags flutter amid azure blue skies and a pristine barren landscape, with a frozen river completing the pretty picture.
Yak butter is bought, so are hand-made socks and gloves from the family. They are colourful and delicately woven and cheap. A piece of iron to skate on is found from somewhere as we head back to Rumbak. The kids walk effortlessly and take turns to skate on the frozen river. I fall flat on my face with a thud on my first attempt. Slipping is a part of the game here as everybody laughs at my misery. We reach Rumbak before the night sets in. What an adventurous day this has turned out to be!
I thank the mother and the kids for everything, and in return they give me a glass of chhang(locally made barley beer). Even the small child of 5 years is drinking it with biscuits; they say it is good for the body. A phone call to my family is made from the one satellite phone in the village.
We retire for the night after having dinner while watching Chota Bheem, me having almost become an integral part of the family now. I wander around for a bit gazing at the clear night skies as the generator is switched off and everything becomes pitch dark.
My worries of walking back alone are noticed by the family in the morning. They feed me breakfast and ask me to come back again someday, as I gift them a bottle of ‘seabuckthorn jam’. Nyima & Stanzin come halfway to drop me. I almost run down the rest all by myself and arrive in Zingchen in an hour. Luck is on my side and I get a ride back to Leh for free!
I had heard so much about the famed (touristy) Chadar trek. A mixture of circumstances put me on a path prettier than everything else to send me on an epic sojourn that will remain etched forever in my heart. While I am not saying that this can be compared to the Chadar Trek, this region of the Snow Leopard in Markha Valley is for those who prefer the calm.
There’s a little bit of mountain in all of us.