August 3, 2014
The path leaves the road just above my guest house. up past scattered, recently built houses; one building site; one extension. The track stops at a concrete structure (probably water storage) but a path carries on towards the clear pass. The top is about the same level as the top castle on Leh hill. The valley on the other side is dry; the path contours round to ascend another fork. At some points the path runs along the dry stream bed: it's sometimes difficult to tell when the path leaves the bed and returns to solid ground.
A few dogs are barking up one side of the hill. They were alerted by two people who are climbing the path a few hundred yards in front of me. Hard to see what sustains them up here.
The path steepens to negotiate a second pass. At the top I meet the two people I'd seen from further back: a European woman and her local guide, who is talking about his grandfather's dementia. He greets me and says I should have my girlfriend with me.
Leaving the mini tour group I follow the path which turns out to cross a third low saddle rather than go straight down this valley, which looks to be rather sandy. The next one is narrower and the path down it is more distinct. Only occasional plants - Tanacetum gracile #472 (check), Echinops cornigerus #444, both common in Ladakh. A yellow lizard with prominent red cheeks runs across the path in front of me.
After 20 minutes or so this valley meets a larger one coming from the left. The map marks a path along this valley from a slightly higher pass above Leh. May try this one later in the season, but for now I turn downstream. The valley is still entirely dry, but the path is distinct along one side of it and the going is easy. The mini tour group choose to stick to the dry riverbed: hopefully the conversation has turned to more positive subjects. A small grey lizard almost as wide as its length beetles across a rock beside me.
Before long I meet the end of the sandy valley and the main stream curves left. The trees of Sabu are now visible over a shoulder. Passing a chorten and small mani wall, I decide to scramble up the rock eminence on my right to get a view of the village. There is a Tibetan flag flying up there. I see the mini tour group coming down the valley, skirting my vantage point and heading across the desert towards Ayu Gonpa, where they disappear.
Looking back towards the village, I see a procession of about 10 monks and a few dozen villagers heading out into the desert. By the time I have picked my way back down the rocky knoll they have stopped and are clustering around something. Probably a grave? They are there for only ten minutes or so before the villagers drift away. Most of the monks linger.
Cross the bridge (opened 25 December 2013) into the village proper. It's a spread out place without a clear nucleus, and the gonpa is right on the opposite side of the valley, a cluster of buildings looking out over the Indus valley. A new prayer hall is being constructed; the old one is locked and nobody is about. The gonpa is built beneath extensive ruins: a fort or town. The ruins are hard to see when not on the skyline; the skeins of prayer flags give away their location. Rock faces beneath the ruins are etched by the weather to look like carved stelae. One rock has been crowned with a column of balanced stones to form a natural chorten, then painted red.
Follow the road back through Ayu, past its even smaller gonpa beneath its own small set of ruins. The road passes by an orchard which turns out to be part of a nunnery; above ths building, on its own rocky hill, is a small hermitage with a couple of rock paintings above.
The road meets the main Choklamsar bypass, and becomes dustier. More construction is going on here, a few houses, a row of shuttered shops, though few pass by and fewer stay here: there is no water. The largest buildings around here are a set of concrete blocks behind a barbed wire topped wall: perhaps a military compound or a boarding school.
The bypass meets the main road to Leh at the bottom of the Tewar gorge. It is being widened so there is space to walk on the unfinished dirt carriageway while trucks and contract carriers pass by on the asphalt. It's still not very pleasant, but the gorge is the only way back into the Leh valley. It's only a kilometre long, then I see on the right the 'Great Illumination' chorten marking the end of 's mani wall, the longest in Ladakh at 850 paces. The picture in shows the wall standing alone in the desert; now, and for the moment, the 'Great Illumination' chorten marks the end of the built-up area of Leh, with houses built along the whole length of the wall on one side; on the other, only a few houses have been built, probably because they are isolated by the wall.
Grey-speckled white lizards hide in the whitewashed stones as I approach. At the top end of the wall, the 'Victory' chorten is now a home for nesting sparrows. It's a slight scramble from here, as a pipeline is being laid, over to the 'Great Illumination' chorten of the second wall, this one the second longest in Ladakh, built by a century and a half later than the other. The side of this wall away from the city is squeezed up against the mountainside; nevertheless small houses have been built up the slope.
I imagine all the European travellers following these walls from the gorge towards Leh city over the years. Few fail to mention them, as they were then on the main road, forming its central reservation. Now the road takes a different route, to meet the airport road before curving up to the bus station; so the walls are almost forgotten, a footnote in the guidebook.
The 'Victory' chorten of this mani wall is now right opposite Leh bus station, and I continue up through the market to find a grateful plate of rice and salt tea.