Woke up after a relaxed sleep in Garkon. We were staying at Master Sonam’s Homestay and our chief reason of being in the ‘Aryan Valley’ region was for the wine! Our breakfast consisted of shalgam leaves (turnip leaves) and rotis to be washed down with milk tea. It was very tasty and fresh and we gobbled up 2-3 rotis each. After that it was time to wander from door-to-door asking for ‘gun chhang’ or grape wine!
Diary Entry from the third day of my Second Winter Trip to Ladakh
We could only procure 1 bottle of gunchang in Garkon village after much searching across multiple households. It cost only 300 Rupees as a local had also joined us in our endeavour! The locals were surprised and proud when we told them that we were in this region primarily to taste and source their locally made grape wine. For the uninitiated, the bottle that we had procured was made from green grapes and can be called white wine. For the locals of this region, red wine is almost equivalent to a sacred product and they speak of it as a medicine since it is produced in minimal quantities due to less quantities of black grapes grown in the ‘Aryan Valley’ or ‘Brokpa’ also called Drokpa villages.
In my mind, I was almost certain that either the villagers had started making less ‘gunchang’ or they were keeping it for themselves for the Ladakhi Losar festival that was only another 2 weeks away. In either scenario, we gave up the thought of procuring more bottles of wine in Garkon and started walking toward the main road. Lost our way numerous times in the winding lanes. Finally reached the road. Keep a target of 5 vehicles for going to Darchiks village and give up within 45 minutes with zero traffic on this lesser taken Khaltse-Batalik road.
Locals had suggested we should make our way to Darchiks for maximum chances of procuring the gunchang or grape wine, as the village is located on a higher cliff on the opposite side and grows more grapes. After that the locals who had seen us lingering around, suggested that we walk to Garkon bridge (which was 1 km away from where we were) and ask at the only home there. We had begun to think that since we had chosen to undertake this truly offbeat journey, even the gods were wiling to help us at every step.
One camper guy who had seen us before appeared in front of us (as if by miracle); we narrated our prerogative of coming to the ‘Aryan Valley’ in search of grape wine and he instantly suggested a village called Hordass. I had never heard of Hordass before and when he mentioned his sister lived there, we quickly struck a deal of Rs. 200 for a visit to Hordass; procuring at least 3 bottles of gunchang and possibly one of red wine, and dropping us back to the bridge. And off we start for the exploration of the remote village of Hordass.
Beautiful road to Hordass. It is located on a hillock on the road to Batalik opposite Darchiks village. A sharp diversion on the road to Batalik takes us to the village of Hordass. Indus river looks beautiful on our drive, maybe I can also call it heavenly. It feels unreal, like a movie to be here in the cold winter month of December in Ladakh. From Hordass parking, I can spot a Buddhist Gompa. The village is a short walk away from the parking spot. Hordes village is small and is considered a part of Garkon village.
We walk in the stone lanes ducking in the slender paths and arrive at the camper guy Tsering’s sister’s home. His sister is happy to see him and we are ushered into the kitchen and sitting area. It appears to be an ancient home, a tiny kid and cat play with each other. A table is laid out with chacha (Tibetan Butter tea), apricots (chulli) and almonds derived from the kernels of the apricots (badam giri). We enjoy the graciousness of the Brokpas in this warm and sunny village while Tsering is on his way to every household in the village asking for Gunchang after his sister has indicated that they do not have any grape wine at their home.
Tsering emerged with 3 bottles in his hand and asked us for 900 Rupees. We gleefully handed him the money and tasted one of the bottles for authenticity! Apparently, the locals demand as much as 500 Rupees for a bottle of gunchang from other locals. Tsering had apparently persuaded the seller to give it for a reasonable price by narrating my story of having come to this region earlier in January 2015. We thank Tsering’s sister and say goodbye to the enigmatic village of Hordass. After a short drive, we are back at Garkon bridge and ask to be dropped on a part of the road where the sun is still shining.
Locals are sitting in the sun too. It is 1 pm in the afternoon. Wait for ride. Sun goes behind the mountain. Locals shift to a region where its still sunny; we shift with them too. Clothes are hanging on a wire; we wonder who must have washed them in the freezing waters of the Indus! A bridge is visible a short distance from where we are, and with the blue colour of the Indus seems very enchanting. We sit with the locals and chat, with no particular order of conversation. A few kids are playing with sheep and goats. No car has come our way in an hour today. And just like that, the sun goes behind the mountain once again and the direct sunshine in our vicinity disappears. The locals also decide to head back to their homes as soon as the sun is gone, and we are now on our own.
We have decided to keep a limit of 2:30 pm and if a vehicle doesn’t come by then, we would go to Dah village (Also spelt Dha village) and stay at a homestay there for the night. The villagers have informed us that the Leh to Garkon bus is plying on the same day and that means we will have an assured means of transport to get out of this region the next day (at least.) Just when we are mentally getting ready to load our backpacks, we get lucky again. An IB officer (Intelligence Bureau) officer’s gypsy appears at 2:24 pm. He is going to Achinathang and gladly offers us a ride till there.
The IB officer has some work in Biamah (Also Beema, Biama, Beama) and halts there. I notice the changed landscape of the village as compared to 2015. Widespread destruction in Biamah due to overflowing of the Indus river. A small pond has formed around the road in Biamah; it is semi frozen and a part of it reflects a snowy peak. I ask someone and they inform me that many homes were devastated when the tragedy happened in Biamah village. Maybe the kind family’s house where I had stayed in January 2015 was also washed away. All in all, I could barely even recognise the village and wondered what climate change and ecological disasters could mean in a sensitive place like Ladakh.
We start moving again and chat with the IB officer with regards to his work. The driver looks at us with suspicion but doesn’t interrupt the conversation. We reach the Achinathang office and are offered tea and biscuits. An unplanned day had meant we haven’t had any lunch and are unsure where our next meal is going to be and are happy to accept their kind offer. An unpleasant interrogation is also held by a stationary officer but the kindness of the IB officer and his request of not publishing anything of the nature of their work means I cannot divulge any details. He directs the driver to drop us near the TCP (maybe Transport Control Post).
As soon as we are dropped near the TCP post, close to the dhaba canteen and the shop we spot a camper and a 2 people heading towards it. We rush to the camper and even though there is little space in the front sitting area, the camper guy doesnt refuse us a ride! Apparently the circumstances have been very conducive for us. The camper guy had seen us getting down from an Army vehicle, and when we were asking for a lift – the check post Police officer had also asked him to take us. Later the camper guy said, ‘Thinking you were from the army, I had to give you a lift because there was no option!’
He said that he was heading to Skurbuchan. Even though Skurbuchan would be in the middle of nowhere, we were happy to cover whatever distance we could cover. As always, when I am on a hitched ride I try to make nice conversation with the hosts and it usually helps lighten the mood. Once we had reached Skurbuchan, the camper guys took a detour to a godown to unload and load some goods and informed us that they would be Domkhar and possible even Khaltse. We are in a lot of strife with no space to sit (especially with our heavy bags) but there is no other option and with a joyous heart we arrive at Khaltse Dhaba at 4:30 pm.
There is an option of having food right there but we decide to stay hungry and get another ride in the direction of Leh. The plan is to visit the monasteries of Alchi & Likir and I’ve figured that Saspol would be the best bet for us to stay for the night (if we manage to get there and find a homestay). It seems like our lucky day and another ride comes by in no time. It is a brand new Innova Crysta going to Leh. The owner is a taxi guy driving the car and he hails from Stok village.
It turns out that he has purchased the vehicle from Jammu and is driving straight to Leh from Jammu. He is hungry and stops the car at a dhaba after Khaltse. He invites us for momos and thukpa if we are interested but we decline the offer (our minds are preoccupied with finding a homestay as close to Saspol as possible.) It is nearly dark at around 5-530 pm and even though its a really comfortable ride, we are a little uneasy since it is highly probable that we wont find a homestay in Saspol.
We reached Saspol Market at 520 pm in near darkness. Upon asking the locals, they suggested a confirmed homestay by the name of ‘Onpo’ located around 1.5 kms ahead of Saspol. The Innova guy was super helpful and asked us to hop back in the car. He had been driving for more than 1 day straight from Jammu and must have been really tired. We saw the lights and a signboard indicating ‘Onpo GH (Guest House). He waited for us to go inside the house and only then moved the car. We thanked him profusely for all the help; and he had even said we could drive with him to Stok village and stay there for the night if we couldn’t find a suitable place to stay.
Our screams of ‘jullay, jullay’ surprised the lady inside the house and she opened the door and invited us in. We were pleasantly surprised with the warmth of a solar heated hall where the daughter and husband of the lady were seated. She served us cha-cha (Tibetan Butter tea) and dried apricots (chulli). Since they had not brought up the issue of discussing the price of the homestay, we had deemed it prudent to leave it to the ‘goodness of strangers’ in Ladakh. After all, this was one of the prime reasons we were able to undertake this journey in the dead of winter.
Dinner time was even better. Fresh palak (spinach leaves) had been procured from the greenhouse and the lady made tenthuk. Food was served at 730 and we were so hungry that we instantly asked for second helpings because the tenthuk was so tasty. With so much kindness bestowed upon us, we gifted the family a bottle of gunchang which they happily accepted but informed us that they had given up drinking because of their exalted status (Onpo is a noble last name in Ladakh). Hearing this, we gulped down a glass each and relished every drop of the fabulous grape wine.
After the dinner, we went out to wash the hands and pee. A million stars shined in the sky and beneath the bare poplars, it felt like a miracle to be able to see the colourful milky way with our bare eyes. The husband showed us our room for the night stay which was a hall in the adjacent building. We were freezing after entering the hall that seemed to be constructed in concrete. The blankets provided were plentiful and warm; we snuggled in bed and shivered throughout the night for a really cold time. I had woken up at 6 and kept waiting for sunrise so that the sunshine could bring some much needed warmth but it wasn’t to be.
It was to be just the start of an intensive cold wave in Ladakh, while our travels continued to Alchi, Likir, Basgo and beyond!