My Lahauli friends chide me for being too upbeat about trekking to Zanskar, all by myself. ‘Even we locals don’t go alone’, they say. The trek path begins from Darcha on the Manali-Leh route, just an hour’s drive away from the district headquarters of Keylong. Cloudy weather has caused the atm machine to not work for two consecutive days. Armed with a meagre sum of four thousand rupees, I leave for the journey of a lifetime. I have acclimatised well, roaming around the villages near Keylong, Lahaul.
This was originally published in Hindustan Times Brunch Magazine
It is pitch dark and the only local on the bus asks me to knock on some door to find a place to stay for the night. It is an eventful beginning, in Rarig Village. I am welcomed inside the first home, given tea and food and feel even more confident about trekking all the way to Padum, the biggest town in Zanskar.
Clouds gather in the evening at the campsite of Chumi Napo, there is a Zanskari family and some locals who look at me wide-eyed when they learn that I am trekking alone and not carrying either a map, a tent or a sleeping bag. The Zanskaris call themselves ‘Zankarpa’. The stout dhaba owner expresses concern and asks me to reconsider my decision. He is kind to me after gulping some glasses of chaang (barley beer) and says ‘I will tell everyone who passes this way to take care of you.’
The locals in Keylong had told me ‘If you walk fast, then there are villages every four to five hours.’ A village in Zanskar means anything from a one room home to a cluster of flimsy structures. I have inadvertently carried a laptop briefcase with me alongwith my backpack. A horseman going to Kargyak has agreed to carry my bags for three hundred rupees. It is a good harbinger, I have found company (or so i think) right at the beginning.
It is an insane two hours when I lose my way after crossing a very chilly, snow-bound Shingo La (5095 metres). I am wearing shorts because the dhaba owner at Chumi Napo has told me there are many water crossings and getting wet means I could fall sick. Howling winds blow and it is indeed very cold in the absence of sunlight. Snow has covered the landscape. There is a glacial blue lake at the top. ‘Khi khi so so largyalo’, the horsemen yell at the summit of the pass, I join in the prayers to the mountain gods and tie the Lung Ta prayer flags that I have carried all the way from Keylong. There is a certain calm at the highest point on the trek and I stop for a breather. The locals march ahead and I promptly lose them in no time. It would prove to be a big mistake.
My heart beat zooms, the half liter water bottle is empty and horrific scenes cross my mind. Mountaineers talk about hallucination, perhaps it is this. There isn’t one living thing around, not even flowers. I feel the effects of AMS with a dizzying headache. I somehow recollect my composure, turn back and gulp some water from a muddy stream and look at the watch. It is only half past one, I calmly tell myself that I have five-six hours of daylight left to find my way out. Giving up meant certain death. While I retrace my path, I find a cave room; in the worst case scenario of me having to spend the night at this insane altitude of approximately 5000m.
And then, luck intervenes; my roving eyes spot an ever so tiny yellow tent at the base of a faraway mountain. I rapidly descend toward my target only to be stopped dead in my tracks by the roaring waters of Tsarap Lingti or Lakhang Chu (Chu means river in Zanskari) which originates at Shingo La. The solitary dhaba owner of Lakhang has sent horsemen to help me cross the river on horseback. I collapse on the mattress in a mixture of relief, shock and contentment. They give me black tea that I sip groggily in the parachute tent of Lakhang (Funny that one tent comprise an entire village!)
Next day, the valley flattens out and with a gloriously shining sun it turns out to be one of the best days of the trek. It is a riot of colours; ochre, purple, orange, maroon among lush green circular valleys. Wildflowers of various colours bloom while the river quietly flows. Yaks roam wildly munching on grass under the shadow of the mighty Gumboranjan peak. The sight of the first village in Zanskar, Kargyak makes me ecstatic. Every family owns horses in Zanskar; a family’s wealth is measured in the number of cattle they own. The hamlet is a pretty cluster of whitewashed houses interspersed with green and gold swaying barley fields amid the stark, barren landscape.
I do a little dance of happiness and scream in delight knowing I shall get get food to eat. There are beautiful inscriptions on mane stones which are piled on top of each other, and lined up before and after every village with huge chortens. The valley is so remote that barter trade with traders of Changthang went on till as late as the 1980s when the Zankarpa exchanged salt from Changthang with barley from Zanskar.
I don’t quite believe it; the locals keep asking if am a foreigner! They say no one treks alone on this path – Let alone an Indian. It is the 1st of August, the entry register in Kargyak Village (where you have to write your details) contains names of a handful of people who have crossed the 5095m high Shingo La in 2015 – all of them from other countries.
Word has spread in the valley, an Indian is trekking alone and people instantly recognise me whenever I approach a habitation. Days pass slowly in the midst of stunning scenery, amazingly warm people, swaying golden barley fields, dramatic windswept landscapes and some of the oldest Buddhist villages. By the time I reach Purne, I am left with only a thousand rupees in my pocket. This is the land of the pure, there are no worries, I tell myself. After having come this far, I am not going to let anything be a downer.
The cave gompa of Phugtal, perhaps the most remote monastery in the world is only three hours away. The path has been rendered difficult after the devastation from the waters of Tsarap Chu earlier in May. After walking along steep precipices of jagged rocks, I find myself adjacent to the river with a dangling bridge as the next step on the trail. The monastery has stationed monks on the other side to impart some faith to travellers. It is scary. One guy from New Zealand has already been swept away by the waters of the Tsarap Chu. The monk waves and urges me to not look down and simply cross the bridge, nonchalantly. Cross I do, after damaging my fingers with the mesh wires.
It is as unreal as it had seemed in the pictures. Phugtal Gompa is idyllic and calm, built like a fortress on a cliff with mountains of various colours in the background. I feel lucky to lay my eyes on this rare structure supposedly built around 2000 years ago. The afternoon prayers are to be held at three o’ clock in the Dukhang (prayer hall) of the monastery. The monks see my bleeding fingers, I say I will be back someday to attend the prayers and walk away just before the ceremony starts. I just don’t have the heart for it, my mind is preoccupied with crossing the swaying bridge on the way back. I am very close to Baralacha La, the pass that lies at the crossroads of Lahaul, Ladakh, Zanskar & Spiti.
So near and yet so far.
The high ranking lamas at Phuktal monastery gift me a cap out of respect for having come alone on the treacherous path.
I peel peas that the villagers bring from the fields in exchange of food and shelter in Purne village. It takes a lot of resilience and many instances of good fortune for me to reach the village of Ichar, still without a penny in my pocket. I stay there at the six hundred year old home of a local and eat fresh organic food to gather strength again to walk to Raru and then finally onto Padum.
I am seen as a mini celebrity by the time I reach Padum (with torn shoes and what not!)
The locals that I exchanged numbers with called me in December and confirmed that it is indeed true; I happen to be the only Indian to have trekked the path from Darcha in Lahaul to Padum in Zanskar in all of 2015.
Oh, and I was an asthmatic two years ago on full time medication. It had been a lifelong dream to slow travel to Zanskar, perhaps the last vestige of Tibetan Buddhism in its true form that resulted in this epic journey – without a guide or a porter.