Yurutse: A ‘one home’ Ladakhi village in Markha Valley
A local has been kind enough to walk with me to Rumbak, I have been warned against venturing out alone. It is January cold and a woman has recently been mauled by dogs on the same trail. The cloudy skies give way and it is snowing furiously in the evening when the kids decide to give me a tour of the ‘eight-home’ Rumbak village. I am deep into the snow leopard territory of Hemis National Park. It feels nice here, everybody knows everybody and I have endless invitations for butter tea. My homestay in Markha Valley is cosy and the owners are warm.
The moms are happy to get rid of the mischievous kids and send them to accompany me while we trek in Markha Valley. The winter is brutal and unforgiving at these high altitudes. The sun constantly battles with the clouds. First our trail climbs up on a slender path and then after a long descent brings us to a wooden bridge that looks picture perfect. The winter has cursed the gushing stream to freeze under the deadly spell of cold. Not a shrub of grass grows, the only colours are some maroon tones of faraway mountains and endless brown barren slopes and intermittent azure of the skies when the clouds gave way. I am sweating inside my eight layers of clothing but dare not stop and rest for fear of catching a cold.
We are walking on fresh snow on a frozen river. The water inside my plastic bottle is rapidly freezing too. The temperature easily drops to -30 degrees in the night in Yurutse, I am told. The kids have spotted a herd of Argali on a nearby hillock. I zoom my camera lens to click some photographs. A screeching wind hisses through the valley. The majestic mountains are glowing after the fresh spell of snow. I feel humbled and small among these mountains of gigantic proportions. After walking through a maze of magenta coloured mountains, I spot a chorten made of mud. And there it is, a solitary house standing amid the snow covered panorama.
I am looking at the entire village of Yurutse – A single, traditional Ladakhi home and I must add, ‘pleasantly interrupting the lifelessness of the desolate landscape.’ At 4200m or 13800ft above sea level, the thin air makes me feel as if I am dreaming and making stories in my vivid imaginations.
The kids rush faster to meet their friends, leaving me behind. A huge cloud has covered the sun, making it frigid. I have acclimatised well, but the extremely chilly air makes it difficult to breathe. The occupants of the house usher me inside the common room that is being kept warm with a bukhari (traditional heating system).
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I am sitting with Nyima, Stanzin, Norbu & Tundup who have walked with me from Rumbak and three little children of Rigzin Dorje, who is the owner of this house. Butter tea flows freely, I happily lap it up. I know it is good for body warmth and also to provide much needed energy. The kids feast on Parle-G. It is around noon and I am offered lunch. The inhabitants of the house tell me, ‘Food is scarce here. If you had come without the kids, we might not have been able to offer you even tea.’ I am a guest of honour in this valley, my heart already belongs to these kids from Rumbak. What would I be without them?
I ask if they have some ‘yak butter’ to sell and happily buy it at 400 Rupees a kilo; they clarify it is Dzo butter. The ladies of the house are expert knitters too and I buy some woollen socks to be carried back home as presents for my family. Rigzin is a shy man who talks less, I have to coax him to show me around ‘the village of Yurutse.’ There are three buildings in total, out of which one is a newer annexe meant to provide as a homestay for the many trekkers that traverse the Markha Valley trail in summers. Yurutse is a popular stop as it lies right at the base of Ganda La (4980m).
There is nothing here. It is a village in absolute wilderness with no facilities to speak of. The nearest neighbours are two hours away in Rumbak. Yurutse has only solar powered electricity and the nearest motorable road is 15 km away in Jingchen. The only option is to walk through the mountains and valleys in case of emergencies, to reach Leh in another hour by a vehicle.
Rigzin tells me, ‘Only hard-core trekkers or stupid people come to Yurutse in the winters.’ I wonder which of the above two categories best fits me!
Ladakhi schools close for the winters from December to March and hence the kids are all home. Rigzin’s children study in Lamdon School in Leh. He tells me the house might be 300 years old, the mud and stone architecture seem to nod in agreement. Windows are placed in every room for sunlight and the horns of Argali, Ibex or Bharal are stuck outside doors to ward off evil spirits.
It would be so easy to forgive Rigzin if he thought living this was way is too difficult. He works as a guide in the summers while alternating as a farmer growing barley and many other vegetables in his sloping fields. Markha Valley Homestay Association has fixed that tourists be charged Rupees 800/- as homestay, and that is Rigzin’s major source of income in the summer months. All his supplies are brought from Leh, and carried on ponies from the last road-head of Jingchen to Yurutse.
Finally, Rigzin opens up and lets his heart do the talking. He is happy to have fresh air, pure water in Yurutse and gathers immense satisfaction from growing organic vegetables in his farm. He exclaims that he feels proud to earn enough to feed his family and educate his kids. He saves the best for the last ‘If I don’t live here, who will?‘
Yurutse village fits into what the textbook definition of remote stands for. Rigzin is part of the third generation of the family living here, this house in Markha Valley has been privy to many a trekker’s travails and the feeling of joy too.
My teeth start chattering, it is time to go back to my homestay in Rumbak. The kids have found a piece of iron to tumble down the slopes to skate on the frozen river. They want to teach me too.
I have mixed emotions going back from Yurutse. The colourful prayer flags called Lung-ta flutter rapidly. I am still wondering which one I am ‘Hard-core trekker or stupid wanderer.’