Lamayuru–Hinju

Diary

Get up early to have breakfast in the room: a slightly weird combination of saffron-and-almond-flavour Horlicks powder and crunchy wheat 'porridge' which I'd concocted from the foodstuffs offered by Chospa in Leh. The powder, mixed with cold water, bubbles like some vile potion, but it's edible, if rather sweet.

As a result of my quick breakfast, and the household being mostly awake already, I'm out of the door soon after half past seven. I walk down the road to see a place to traverse the fields: the path to the Prinkti La goes up a side valley not far from the guest house. I find a dry stream bed with access from the road and some sign of usage as a path. A woman driving her two cows up the road loses one into the fields down this path and some kerfuffle ensues trying to get them back together again.

The path/side stream does indeed lead to the main stream, and a swift hop over brings me to the true path on the other side. A small group of chortens marks the way, which follows the left bank of the side valley above the intakes. One man is already working in the fields and jullays me as I pass.

Above the last field the path continues, steadily climbing up the left side of the valley. The ground here is a firm mud, or clay, similar to the stuff that makes the 'moonland' on the opposite side of the valley. The path has moulded itself onto the landscape, denting it where it crosses side stream beds. Next it contours across a 45 degree slope but there's no feeling of exposure as there is no danger of slipping.

Eventually the path reaches the top of the clay and soon the stream has come up to the same height. The path crosses the stream and runs alongside it for a while, among pleasant greenery. I stop to take some water from the tiny stream, which involves building a small waterfall in order to get the bottle to fill up.

The path crosses the stream a couple more times before deciding to stick to the right bank. Here an obvious track can be seen climbing the hillside ahead, but fortuitously I notice a couple of cairns and tell-tale footprints leading into a narrow dry gorge to the left. This proves to be the way to the pass, the wide track being used by shepherds and animals on their way to the pastures above. The gorge twists about between tall cliffs before the path eventually decides to mount up the right side where the gradient is shallower, zigzagging up onto a small plateau opposite the main pastures, which occupy a wide bowl ringed by mountains: in front low hills separating this place from Lamayuru, behind the jagged ridge which descends to the Fotu La. The Prinkti La is clear from here, a distinct narrow notch between two steep peaks, and the path tacks directly up the hillside to reach it.

From the top, whilst organizing a selfie, I see a group of trekkers who have stopped at the plateau for a break. They don't catch up with me however, and I don't see them again.

The pass leads into a valley no more than 50 metres wide, down which the path zigzags in a regular rhythm some dozen times before flattening out and reaching the dry bed of a stream. From here it's some three or four km of enjoyable yomping down the stream bed, or occasionally on a terrace, through moonlandish clay landscapes, until it debouches into the valley of the Shillakong Togpo. Because it's downhill all the way it's impossible to get lost although it is nevertheless somewhat disorienting following the valley as it twists about.

The main valley is a distinct change of scenery. Ahead and to the right are high and sheer cliffs of hard rock, in contrast to the rounded smoothness of the clay lands I've been going through. The river flows down a wide braided channel of rounded white stones, flanked with occasional trees. It has just exited an impressively deep gorge, but I'm not going in that direction today. Instead I turn left along a jeepable road towards Wanla, whose distinctive red-and-white striped gonpa is soon visible on a crag in the distance. Here I meet with the first traffic of the day, but it's hardly heavy, just two or three vehicles in the hour or so it takes me to reach Wanla.

The only sign of life at Wanla is a road building crew accompanied by a couple of children demanding chocolate. I shake them off by climbing up to the gonpa, which is also locked and deserted. An unusually professional information panel explains the conservation work done up here, partially funded by the German government. It's a Sumtsek like the one at Alchi, with three alcoves to hold massive statues, plus the entranceway, making the building appear almost circular.

There's a jeepable way down to the Phanjila road from the gonpa, so I avoid meeting the children again. According to the guidebook there may be a trekking path on the other side of the valley, but it doesn't look that way from here; there is some sign of a built way, but it's been covered by landslides in places, and I'm not sure it isn't an old irrigation channel. I take the asphalt road, which runs steadily up the valley as it slowly tightens. The river here is milky white.

After seven km the sign for Phanjila (or 'Fangila') appears, followed after a bend by the village itself. Which is disappointing to be honest: instead of the promised shops, guest houses and restaurants, there is a single lock-up shop whose keeper is sitting outside reading scripture, and does not sell food of any sort. I ask if he has sattu (ngamphe), which he finds very amusing, and climbs up to his room above the shop to get me a few handfuls in a small plastic bag. It's clearly from his own supply, and he doesn't want any payment for it. I buy some pan flavour Center Fresh to save face, which prove to be pretty disgusting, and probably not even biodegradable.

Refill my water bottle from a handily placed tap. The house opposite seems to be offering home stay, at least the word is painted in tiny letters on a nearby rock, but I decide I can go further today as it's not yet two p.m. Here I leave the 'main road' and enter a V-shaped side valley, following a track high up on the right hand side. An enormously long line of prayer flags spans the entire valley high above me, longer even than the one at Korzok. Below me is a continuous narrow strip of cultivation: the slope opposite is a smooth, shiny surface of scree. In the sunlight I can see the foot tracks of animals linking every tiny bush to its neighbour.

The valley narrows to a gorge with poplar trees at the bottom, then opens out slightly. Somewhere below me the stream meets another coming from Ursi: the road climbs up one side to meet this stream at a bridge. There are flattish terraces above , where trees can grow; this part of the valley is suddenly much greener. High above, up the side valley, I think I can see a couple of chortens which probably mark Ursi village. Just beyond the bridge, the fields of Ursi come down to the road: a man working there greets me and assures me that Hinju is only three km away.

The road forks here: I am not going up to Ursi, so I round a shoulder and find myself back following the barren right side of the V-shaped valley, willow trees hiding the Ripchar Togpo below me. The valley runs straight all the way to Hinju, impressive cliffs towering over on both sides. Finally, just after a steep ascent to a group of chortens, the village of Hinju appears ahead, houses clustered beneath the obligatory gonpa. A sign describes a system of rotation for homestays, naming each house with a column for the date. Unfortunately the date column is empty, and anyway the house names are not really very useful to me. A lot of the villagers are down in the fields harvesting, but the place is not entirely deserted, and I end up in the new-looking guest room built on top of one of the houses in the lower part of the village. It's not long before the sun has dropped below the high ridge to the south. Just time for some thick thukpa and reading practice for studious Angmo, the daughter of the household.