Leh–Sanitse La


Abortive start this morning as all the breakfast places in Changspa have now closed for the season, so I have to return to the Pumpernickle to get some porridge. This sorted, I set off up the valley via Karzoo and the Tsetan, then take the higher road past the Tisseru into the Gonpa'i lungs. The trees are noticeably yellowing now but the sun is just as hot as in July.

Just before the Phyiang La turnoff, before the new chortens, I see several monks in the valley in small groups. I catch up with one but he doesn't say what they are doing, merely going for a walk.

The chortens turn out to belong to a largish farm compound where the track up the valley ends. I follow foot tracks skirting the compound wall in the hope that the path will continue, when I am greeted by the owner of the compound. He has Ladakhi features and a very posh English accent, barely Indian at all. After a short conversation about Scotland he invites me into the house for breakfast and/or coffee. Having already had breakfast I accept the coffee part. The farm is his retirement project, it transpires, after a career in the army. Perhaps also an upmarket homestay/lodge retreat style place in the season, judging by brochures left lying around. His living room is rather posh, Ladakhi style but nothing like the sooty kitchens I've been in before, more like a professor's living room in England. The chortens are in memory of his parents; there is another to his wife just in front of the main house. Outside the season he likes to travel in South India, and recommends the Konkan railway to me, which is apparently quite new.

Taking my leave---it's already 11 am---I follow his advice and take an obvious path up the next valley to the left. This is Gingnyis, apparently. The path winds upwards between large terraces made of caged boulders, an intervention perhaps made to increase the supply of grassland. Further up the valley, just beyond a red-painted boulder with lhatho (which, as it faces up-valley, I only noticed when turning round to take a photo), there are natural grassy patches and no more terraces.

I climb steadily to a point where a tiny stream crosses my path. The main valley is mostly blocked ahead by a large moraine of boulders; the path climbs up the stream before mounting up onto the moraine. Somebody has wedged the top half of a soft drinks bottle between two stones to make a tiny artificial waterfall, which I make use of to fill my water bottle and have a cup of horlicks/tsampa by way of early lunch. It's a pleasant spot. The only sounds are that of the stream and the occasional chukor somewhere up on the slopes.

The pass is visible from here and looks deceptively close, but it turns out to be 800 m of climbing, and the best part of two hours has passed by the time I reach the top. The way up is clear in places, but it's very easy to miss the places where it zigzags, as more often than not the track seems to continue straight on, only to peter out a few dozen metres later. When this happens I make my own way up, eventually crossing the real path some way further up. Either I get better at pathfinding towards the top, or the number of tasty distractions for animals decreases, for I manage to climb the last 250 m or so entirely on what I take to be the true path.

The pass has a small outcrop on the top, crested by a single set of prayer flags. The view back over the Indus valley is tremendous: this ridge is higher than most of the ones to the east, so I can see over them all the way to the snow-capped mountains behind the Chang la, and across the Indus to Hemis and more mountains above Rumtse. Looking towards Phyang the view is of higher mountains, so I can only see the ridge in front of me, with the village of Murobok far below and the glacial valley that leads up to the Lasirmu La.

There is no path down to Murobok from here---the army farmer had mentioned that I needed to traverse to the right. The path from here is not obvious but three goat tracks are visible on the next shoulder, leading around three crags at different levels. I decide to go for the top one, planning to contour round to the Sanitse La.

The path is indistinct but followable all the way to the shoulder. I don't see any paths down to the other two levels, however, and beyond the shoulder (which is covered in cow dung) there is no obvious path forward, or indeed down. The Sanitse La is visible, however, so I make my own way across the slope. Though rocky, the ground is firm and not too steep, with plenty of small alpine shrubs. I make it to the Sanitse La, which has a large cairn on an outcrop, but no prayer flags, or for that matter any sign of a path in either direction.

I weigh my options. It's already 1630, and I was originally intending to come down the west side of the pass---there is a place down in the main valley which looks like it would make a decent campground---but on the other hand, I'm going to have to scramble down whichever side I choose and I would quite like to see the other way back to Leh, whch also has its own attractions, like pizza.

Eventually pizza wins out and I set off down the steep east side of the pass, trying to pick out a sensible way across the slope. At one point I pick up a well-used path which leads down to a tiny spring, but no further. I try to avoid the stream bed itself, being steep and bouldery, but eventually the valley narrows and a crag forces me down to a place where it looks like animals also make the crossing.

Downstream from here there are more crags until the stream meets the main valley (which is only a few hundred yards longer than this one); the bottom is bordered by low cliffs which would force me into the stream, so I decide to keep my height and contour around above the break in slope to the west side of the valley, following goat tracks where I can. There are a couple of sketchy moments but eventually I get round the shoulder and begin a slow descent towards a flatter place I can see some way off. Eventually, climbing up a little, I meet a well-used path heading further up the slope. I hadn't seen any sign of this in the side valley, but then it's very hard to see a path when you're below it, and it's probably a cow track anyway, which just leads into the valley then fans out in search of juicy shrubs.

Nevertheless having found a path I stick to it as it descends, finally meeting the flatter area which proves to be a real campground with a few herdsmen's shelters. From here it's easy going all the way down the valley, which is good news as the shade has already reached the top of the opposite side. I yomp down past more ruins, a boggy bit, some boulder fields, a couple of horses. A valley comes in from the left. Here the valley is exactly the right angle to reveal the Tsemo castle above Leh in the distance.

By the time I reach the irrigation canal which serves the army farmer's compound, the last rays of sunset are illuminating the clouds. The green area the monks were walking across earlier proves to be rather boggy and in my haste to reach the track I get my feet thoroughly muddy, having managed to avoid it for the whole walk so far. The light fails but now I'm on familiar ground, and the road is easy to follow all the way down to the Shanti Stupa and the Sikh pizza cafe.