In Search of Wine in Ladakh -Hitchhiking from Wanla to Garkon in Winter

Slept 12 hours straight on the first night in Wanla. Woke up to a bright and sunny morning at 9 am. Feeling nice and warm, temporarily forgetting it is the end of December and bitterly cold in Ladakh. Little discomfort in the night due to the smoke of the kitchen rising up to the first floor where we slept. Local Ladakhi compost toilet located just outside the house. Sat in the sun with the family, played with their sheep and clicked a few pictures. Admired the fort and monastery at Wanla but decided against going due to the uphill climb. Anyway, its only day 2 of this winter trip to Ladakh and we are not well acclimatised yet to go on strenuous ascents. And the minor breathing troubles in the night have served as a warning to me.

Domkhar
Happy start to the day – The stream at Domkhar where we waited after the first ride.

Heard stories from the family about the damage to the crops due to flood in Indus river resulting in landslides. Lady of the house gave us tea and aloo curry with chapati for breakfast. Hungrily wolfed down the breakfast heartily, paid money to the homestay family (they initially refused), filled our bottles with water and after confirming that it was (almost) impossible to make it to Lingshed Monastery in this weather, bade goodbye to the homestay. Lingshed Gompa is an old and secluded monastery that has long been eluding me and since the way to Lingshed was across Phanjila, I started getting a bit optimistic when we had reached Wanla!

Walked to a nearby bridge in Wanla, passed a frozen stream on our way. The parts that are in shade are frozen, while water trickles slowly in the parts exposed to the sun. We are already feeling a little jaded, even after having slept for half a day! The wind is too cold while the direct sunshine is too warm, even in winter. It is classic Ladakh, we have tried to be too smart by not acclimatising on the first day and now even walking on a plain surface with our backpacks is proving to be strenuous.

Skurbuchan
The smiling, old grandma of Skurbuchan.

We spot a lovely compound with golden, crimson colours. Click pictures of what is also a camping site for hikers/trekkers/backpackers during the summer months. It is already 10:30 and we have no plan in mind for our second day as well. Lucky to get a ride out of Wanla within 10 minutes of us standing on the road. We think about going to Alchi to see the monastery. I have seen it on my first trip to Ladakh in the summer, many years ago. Alchi lies at an altitude of 3100m and would serve us well for the second day of this winter trip, especially since we haven’t acclimatised. The little plan we devised included going to Likir village after visiting Alchi and then finding a homestay in Likir or around to stay for the night.

Skurbuchan
A munchkin also waits with us.

The mention of wine came up and I immediately thought about Dah-Hanu, Biamah, Garkon (also Garkone, Garkhun) and Darchiks from the winter of 2015. Check this post for an encore from that epic trip to Ladakh in January! In that continued frenzy, we got down at the diversion of the road to Batalik before reaching Khaltse. Our fate was sealed! No sooner had we got out of the first vehicle, a brand new Xylo was heading our way and we flagged it down. They were a small family with cute kids heading to Domkhar and were happy to give us a ride.

We crossed the line of Chortens across the Indus river at Takmachik. Domkhar is locally famed for its walnut orchards and we were dropped at a bridge just before reaching Domkhar village. They were heading to Domkhar Barma village which is a part of Domkhar too. Domkhar is divided into three parts – Domkhar Dho, Domkhar Barma & Domkhar Gonma. So, technically we were in Domkhar Dho while Domkhar Barma was the higher altitude village where the walnut orchards were located!

Skurbuchan
Can you spot the Skurbuchan Khar in the picture? It is said to be a 11th Century Castle in Ladakh.

We sit on a stone by the road, near the bridge in the sunshine. I’m surprised to see a few Nepali-looking kids creating mischief with nobody to monitor them! Locals bring cows and dzo to the freezing stream where they drink plentiful water. It is past noon now and we receive a ride in a camper headed to Skurbuchan. There are two ladies and a man heading to a wedding thats happening somewhere near Skurbuchan.

We wait at the mane (chorten) in Skurbuchan. View of Skurbuchan Khar (Khar means Fort/Palace in Ladakhi) on the far right while the Indus river flowed on our left. The waters of the Indus were green while some trees glistened yellow with the flashing sunlight; a lone poplar tree looked immensely enchanting in the background of the impossible blue sky. New car SUV dropped us near the WET canteen before Achinathang. A proper shop with a canteen and 4-5 tables. Sun shining bright so we stand outside.

Aryan Man
A gentleman sports the perennial flower of the Brokpas, the monthu tho.

There are a lot of locals around and everyone seems to be enjoying eating something at the canteen. We realise we are hungry too and with still no decision on a place to reach before the night, it might end up being a long day! Chai, maggi and omelette is all that the canteen guy can manage. I’m not a big fan of maggi but that day there was hardly any chance of a proper meal and anyway we were still waiting for a ride to take us to one of the ‘wine’ villages in the Brokpa valley (or Aryan Valley, if you prefer!) and as close to Batalik as possible.

Indus Café
The Indus Cafe does a good job with the tea and snacks and also has a useful shop with necessities.

It was around 2-230 in the afternoon and an army camper from Kargil came by and dropped us at the turn-off to Hanu Yongma (Or Hanu Yokma) near Hanu Thang and Hanu Gongma. There was a hairpin bend at this point and an aptly named – Indus Café located on the edge with a vantage view of the Indus River. Long wait. Sun is behind the mountain and it feels increasingly jittery (and cold) to imagine if a vehicle didn’t come soon. Brokpa (or Drokpa, or Aryan, or Dards) locals are sitting in the restaurant / café run by the Army.

I’ve seen them before but they look fascinating with their button earrings and colourful flower headgear! Some are eating samosas while others are making phone calls. We share a samosa and chai while standing on the road. There are 2 vehicles that come in an hour and while the heart wants them to continue straight to where we wanted to go; they swerve just in time to head to Hanu Yokma (Hanu Yongma).

Garkon
A kid in Garkon village peers into the phone camera.

Its a funny thing; this hitchhiking business – even though you may spend the entire day on the road waiting yet you can’t afford to let your guard rest for even a minute. Like Murphy’s law, a vehicle appears when you least likely think it will. 

The Indus café also sells necessities in the canteen and we buy some toffees that will help us in walking without catching up on our breath, if need be (yes, I’ve found toffees to be really helpful for walks in high altitude regions). One of the army officers comes and picks up some packets of biscuits from the shop, the street dogs are alert and crowd around him to feast on the offer. Another army guy lights up a small bonfire aided by clothes soiled in kerosene and stands by until the dogs go back to their slumber again. The fire runs out soon; it is almost 4 and still there is no vehicle. In the absence of the sun there is no saying when it becomes too cold – especially with the freezing waters of the Indus to our left.

Garkon
Cricket is a hit everywhere across India!!

We decide to ask for help from the Army guys with regards to finding a night stay / homestay if we are still stranded here after 4 pm. Luckily, a carrier appears. All of us stand on the road and make sure it stops and does not continue merrily on its way without us! Everyone jumps in the rear part of the vehicle in the open air carrier while the locals are kind to let us sit in the front. This jeep is going to Sanjak and I am immediately reminded of Chigtan Khar (or Chiktan Khar). In the winter of 2015, I was unable to reach Chigtan and I have never been able to fulfil that wish of listening to Mr. Musa speak about the rich history of Chiktan Khar, on all subsequent trips.

Darchiks Village
The road snakes up to the village of Darchiks that is located on the left bank of the river Indus.

The carrier jeep crossed the bridge of Sanjak around 4:30 pm in the evening and we were in the market enquiring about homestays. Locals told us that the only homestay in Sanjak somewhere near the bridge was closed for the winter. We entered the only sizeable looking shop in Sanjak – a general store on the main road where the owner clearly told us we were better off going somewhere. As always, I didn’t give up and asked the other locals on the street if it was possible to get to Shakar Chiktan and find a homestay there? Alternatively I asked if it was possible for a local family to host us in Sanjak as it seemed like a big village with more than 25 homes.

We were greeted emphatically with a no and maybe that was one reason for feeling unwelcome in Sanjak. Sanjay, Shakar Chiktan and around are entirely Muslim villages in this part of Ladakh. Balti Muslims inhabit this culturally rich area of Ladakh. However, in retrospect it was good that the denial was certain and it helped us to make a quick decision to get out of there. We quickly walked across the Sanjay bridge over Indus river to think about an alternate course of action of where to stay for the night. It felt like déja vu all over again. Suddenly I was back to the frozen winter of 2015 when I had walked on this road alone.

Aryan Man Brokpa
The locals in these villages wear buttons in their ears. Such a strange tradition for us to notice!

I checked the watch, it was almost 5. We have decided to walk on the Batalik road towards Biamah, Dah-Hanu, Garkon villages and hope for a ride. There’s a weird looking man walking just behind us; we notice that he was also on the carrier that dropped us to Sanjak. After his attempts at making small talk with us, we decide to let go of the eerie feeling and just stand at our spot beside the flowing Indus river until the man disappeared from our view. And immediately, it felt like a fresh lease of life began flowing through our veins as soon as he went away; as if a negative force had been averted.

Garkon Village Homestay
Dried apricots (chulli), almonds (giri) and the precious grape wine at the homestay for us.

Even though the light was deteriorating very quickly now, fear wasn’t a part of our thinking right now. Our backpacks felt heavier by the minute and the unabated cold winds blowing increased their intensity as if they were punishing us for a dream too big! Just as the (shit) scary feeling is about to hit us, luck comes to our rescue again! The nearest villages are still 2-3 kms away, and we are still banking on a miracle in this secluded and remote region of Ladakh!

A camper is coming from the other side and with no option in our minds, we stand in the middle of the road and beg for it to stop. A friendly young soul looks at us and tells us that he has seen us on the road, the previous day! This vibe delights us and he immediately asks us if he could be of any help? I immediately exclaim that we know of a homestay in Garkon and it would be best for us if he could drop us to Garkon village. Now, Garkon village was around 14 kms from where we were and for him a round-trip would mean a lot of time and also fuel.

Hordass Village
A house in Hordass village where we had gone to search for wine the next day!

Over the years, Ladakh has become among the friendliest destinations in India chiefly due to samaritans like the camper guy! He could have asked us for any sum of money and with nowhere to go we would have to give it; but he only asked us for the cost-covering sum of 300 Rupees. We thanked him immensely and quickly hopped into the camper; our hearts wild with excitement as it was still daylight and we would be in Garkon in no time.

Ladakh door
A poignant frame from Garkon in Ladakh.

I heaved a huge sigh of relief after arriving in Garkon. It was a familiar feel but the village seemed to have changed a lot since 2015. I asked the locals about the homestay that I had known from earlier and they directed me to Master Sonam’s house since that was the only functioning homestay right now. We walked the twisting paths of Garkon village to reach Master Sonam’s homestay and thankfully he was at home! It was dark now and we had nowhere to go otherwise.

Master Sonam’s house seemed like a concrete structure; we removed the footwear outside the home and walked inside with trepidation. Grandma was sitting in a Brokpa attire in the kitchen – common room and a bukhari was warming it up. What if Master Sonam quoted us an extravagant price for the homestay? Our fears were soon put to rest when he showed us a cosy room (with an attached bathroom) on the first floor and quoted 600 per person including all meals. Happily we put our bags in the room and came down to sit with the family!

Batalik Road
It felt like a dream; the road to Batalik with the blue-green Indus is totally magical.

We are served dried apricots, almonds and other dry fruits in a plate and butter tea is aplenty in a thermos. It is a very comfortable homestay with a warm, homely feel. Sonam Masterji chats amiably with us and asks us what will we have in dinner. As always, we tell the family that we are happy to eat whatever they would cook for themselves. Two well-fed cats roam around the living room and warm themselves up lounging around the Bukhari. I remember seeing cats in every Brokpa household even on my last visit to the Dah-Hanu, Biama and Garkon region.

I’m quite hungry and am delighted when food arrives; dinner comprises of dal, rice and a curry of vegetables grown locally – potatoes, carrots and cabbage. They also give us a special masala that is a favourite of all Ladakhis but we pass it as the food is already delicious and any addition to it may spoil the taste. We wolf down the food and thank the family for being so considerate and kind. It wasn’t like I had forgotten the fact of why had we chosen to reach the ‘Aryan Valley’ with no plans, it was to procure the locally made grape wine and I wasn’t going to let my desires die so easily.

Brokpa Monthu Tho
On a sunny day in Hordass village.

I saw Grandma was eating sattu and chatted to Master Sonam about traditional foods of the Brokpas and about my experience in Garkon 2 years ago. One thing that had changed greatly from 2015 was that I had not seen even one woman wearing sheepskin in Garkon. I brought up the topic of wine and Sonam ji was happy to serve 1 glass of home made wine to us.

As I savoured each sip of wine with the delicious dried apricots, my heart exclaimed ‘It is best to follow your heart.’

Check out these other posts :

Lessons of Life at Pangong in Winter

Practical tips for winter travel in Ladakh

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