Gangpoche–Stok

Diary

It's not long before dawn begins to break, first a red-bronze glow on the high clouds, then an intense yellow, then finally sunlight on the snowfields of the mountains rising behind the campsite. Frost has settled on my bivy bag and pack: I hadn't expected it to get so cold, given it is still only August, but my sleeping bag was up to the task.

I prop myself up on my elbow to watch the herdsmen waking. My neighbour and host emerges from his tent to present me with a hot cup of black coffee. Once the sun has reached the campground, melting the frost and drying it almost immediately, I begin to pack away my stuff. A cup of sweet tea, then a cup of butter tea follow. I feel guilty, but my host refuses even another dried apricot.

At seven I'm ready to head on up the pass so I give my thanks to my host (resolving next time to bring something useful up with me, like coffee powder?) and hit the road. The path is clear as it climbs up the pasture. Four or five large cairns are visible on the skyline beside me. A marmot runs off the path and stops on a rock, watching me. I pass a large burrow: perhaps the same marmot.

I meet a group of the cows and dzos up by some old ruined herdsmen's shelters; a little further, where the path dips to cross a stream, I see a trekking party's campground. The group seem to be having breakfast in the largest tent. Two small tents have been erected for use as toilets. I expect they will pass me on the way: I am not moving very quickly.

On the other side of the stream (this one being the 'right' stream from earlier) the path heads up a side valley, but becomes indistinct after a while. I find a place to climb out of the right side as I think I can see the path heading for the pass above me. I tack up the slope until, 100 m or so up, I cross the path once more. It had clearly left the valley somewhat earlier but I hadn't noticed. Another large cairn watches over the path as it passes, by now somewhat below me. This seems to be a common pattern. On the path itself the route is marked by simple cairns of three or four stones; larger cairns a metre or so high tend to be erected overlooking the path, rather than on it. The cairns I saw clearly against the sky earlier today are now barely visible on a minor ridge, way below me.

By now I have to stop for a rest every few hundred yards, but there are few places to sit. Quite often I feel worse starting off again than I did before stopping. Nevertheless I make steady progress. Below I see the trekking group making their way below the cairn. They must be at least half an hour behind me, so I guess they won't catch me up after all. Soon the plants have given way to the purple gravel slopes of the pass itself and I emerge on the top. La so so! 4975 metres according to my GPS, a new record for me (not, as always, counting the stop at on the way here.)

Rest here to take a selfie and have second breakfast of namkeens and a dried apricot. My camera's auto focus seems to be intermittently on the blink, which is a little worrying as it refuses to take a picture unless it thinks it's in focus. I hope I haven't bashed it too much. Also the lens cap has disappeared. Must be somewhere on the mountain side down there.

The pass is steeper on the other side, starting with a series of zigzags before settling into a steady descent. I feel like I'm flying down compared to the slowness of the ascent. It's hardly any time before I come to a valley junction (and probably camp ground, though nobody is here) with some more ruins on a piece of flat ground opposite. There's no rolling pastureland on this side of the pass, just the complex of V-shaped river valleys. A path rises from the ruins up towards a shoulder: perhaps a short cut to the next pass in line, the Stok (or perhaps Namlung) La. I'm not doing another pass today, however, so I stay on my side of the stream as the path contours round above the cliffs.

At this point I hear a pinging noise and my sleeping bundle gives way. The 'guy rope' I'd lashed it to my pack with has frayed and snapped. Lucky I wasn't using it as a guy rope. Discover that I can just as well attach the bundle directly to the shoulder straps of the pack. One bulldog clip is unaccounted for: another piece of litter to chalk up to my account.

Over a bluff, the next landmark comes into view: Stok Kangri base camp, which consists of a large marquee with flag beside a couple of rows of blue sleeping tents. There is a wide track leading up the valley from here, and trekkers are already streaming down it towards the camp. Although a path seems to ascend from here over the first set of gorges, I decide not to risk getting lost and cross the stream to meet the main track from the base camp down to Stok.

This track follows the pebble bed of the stream through the gorges. Though (or because) wider than the Matho valley, it has barely any vegetation all the way down. The track is relatively busy: not hard, considering I didn't meet or follow a single other path user up till now. Here there are regular groups of people, normally with local guide, sometimes with a train of pack animals.

The path climbs a low pass to cut off a wiggle. Here I rest and have third breakfast. Someone offers to take my photo but my camera being attached to the pack, they have to settle for using my phone.

Pass another ruined fort on the top of a sheer cliff face. This is the Stok mon mkhar of which I have read. It's larger than the Matho one, but just as inaccessible looking, at least from this side. The path picks its way around the bottom of the cliff. If I hadn't been expecting it I probably wouldn't have even looked up that far.

Further gorge walking (at this point I begin to lose track) past some rock-art of chortens, up another small pass, down past a round watchtower and at last the Indus valley comes into view, with the fields of Stok village in front. It looks no distance but is probably a good 3 or 4 km to the first house of the village, which is strategically placed at the end of a droving funnel, and advertises homestay and taxi numbers. In fact, at the roadhead, a cafe seems to be doing a roaring trade at the expense of taxi drivers, most of whom I guess are waiting for their charges to return from their walk up the valley. Certainly the demographic of the last bit is noticeably different: I passed several Western families without any camping gear, who are clearly not going to climb Stok Kangri today, nor even go over to Rumbak.

Asking about buses in a cafe full of taxi drivers being a pretty pointless exercise, I shoulder my pack and walk down to Stok Palace where there is a museum. Again, the single attendant insists on locking every room behind her, so you can only visit the room she is in; at least this time, she seems to accept that not everyone arrives together, so I bow out when she unlocks the room I had started in, for the benefit of later-arriving tourists. The best part is the view from the cafe on the terrace: from Shanti Stupa and Leh all the way down the Indus to Stakna. Even in today's haze you can pick out most of the sights of central Ladakh from here.

Get absolutely no sense from the cafe man about buses. There are no buses, he says, but you can get a taxi from the road for 30 rupees. Which road? Main road. Well the road I just walked down is clearly not a main road, and certainly not well endowed with taxis. And so I end up walking down the same road for another 6 km, through the desert, all the way to Choglamsar bridge, where there is a queue of shared taxis, one of which takes me back to Leh for 20 rupees, despite me nearly shredding his padded roof with the tips of my poles.