Manechan–Sumda Chungun


Wake up at five to six as the light begins to return. The clouds have returned so i can't tell when the sun officially rises. Make breakfast of weird saffron flavour horlicks (now tempered with ngamphe) and set off down the valley. The path continues along the terrace for a while longer before descending to the stream and crossing again. The stream is noticeably larger and I can only cross where it's split into several channels. The continuous rock wall on the right side briefly parts to spit out a side stream from a vertiginous gorge.

The valley beginds to widen and an irrigation channel appears to my left. The path appears to climb up to follow it, but the channel proves to be damaged and there's no way along it, so I have to pick my way back down to the stream level and follow it downstream toward the village. Later a more promising path mounts up the left slope, and at the top of the shoulder the fields and houses of Sumda Chenmo come into view. The path skirts the village, beneath the gonpa, which is shut---but then it's not yet eight o' clock. There is a large prayer wheel which I give a spin. A plaque behind the wheel commemorates Maria de Lourdes Morro Mas, a Catalan of my own age, who died here in the flooding of 2010. I didn't realize the floods had had effect this far from Leh.

According to the map there is a pass you can take from here direct to Sumda Chungun, but there is litle sign of a path, so I decide to take the valley route as recommended by the book. The path is by now very clear---it's the only way to get to Sumda Chenmo, so it's well used by both people and animals. Yellow numbers appear on rocks beside the path from time to time, reporting the distance (as it turns out) from the Sumda Chungun/Chenmo junction. Clearly there is a plan to build a proper road up here.

The path contours round the left side of the valley, well above the fields where villagers are already working on the harvest. Slowly it descends, until the valley is too narrow for fields: willow trees and rosehip-like bushes in autumnal green and yellow fill the stream bed. I see a path rising up the bare mountainside: this is the way to the Dungdungchen La and Chilling, but I have decided not to take that option, instead following the valley down to Sumda Chungun.

I cross the stream on a newish-looking bridge whose supports have already been partially destroyed by the stream, presumably in winter: today it looks pretty placid. The path then rises high above a gorge of purple rocks interspersed with orange veins of harder quartzite: one of these rises a hundred metres or so above the stream, a huge vertical quartz slab. There is a small terrace here and another way up to the Dungdungchen La: unusually, there are broadleaf trees on the terrace, and for half a minute there is a feeling of an English woodland walk, before suddenly returning to the sun and the rocks.

Another bridge, and the path continues on the left bank. The valley gets narrower and narrower, until eventually the path is forced down to stream level: here the gorge is no more than 10 m wide, and I have to cross and recross the stream several times to make progress. According to the trekking guide, there are bridges here, but there is no longer any sign of them, or any real suggestion of where they might be usefully put. This path clearly needs very regular maintenance. I assume it's the villagers of Sumda Chenmo who have to do it---although they do have the alternative way to Chilling. The yellow numbers still occasionally appear, even within the gorge: I have no idea how they are going to fit a jeepable road through here.

After the gorge section the path climbs up the left side of the valley once more. I fail to notice this at first and wade down the stream a few hundred yards, until I notice the path above me made up with willow poles and stones. There's a wide V-shaped stretch before another gorge section with more river crossings, followed by another section on a built-up path 40 m above the stream. Here previous incarnations of the path can be clearly seen, each one in turn partially washed away and rebuilt higher up.

At last the gorge turns a sharp corner and I pass beneath a rudimentary arch of prayer flags to find the yellow number '0' and an asphalt turning circle. But I'm not going down the road today: instead I turn up the side valley, for this is the way to Sumda Chungun. This valley has a different character from the Chenmo gorge: it's a regular V shape all the way up to where the fields begin, but its bed is significantly steeper. Yellow numbers accompany me up this valley too: again, but for different reasons, I'm not sure how the road will manage to get up.

After lunch in a willow grove (punctuated by disconcerting falls of pebbles from above) I head on up towards the village. The path is sketchy in places but nowhere particularly exposed: the worst that would happen would be slipping five metres down a shale slope and landing in the stream. It's not long before a string of prayer flags marks the point where you can first see the village gonpa, and again not long before I find myself sitting by the gonpa itself looking back down the valley.

Soon a passing villager has located the man in charge of the gonpa, which he does by hollering repeatedly at the valley in general until somebody replies. The gonpa is well worth seeing, apparently it is a similar vintage to Alchi (and Wanla), but instead of a 'sumtsek' it has a standard prayer hall, the back wall of which is covered with relief carvings of deities. There's an old mandala on the left wall too, but it's too dark to see much of the detail.

Having seen the prayer room I assume this is all there is to see but the man directs me to keep my shoes off and shows me into one, then two side chapels containing two-storey high figures. One is white and two armed, one is yellow and four armed (one arm in a 'stop!' gesture). They tower above me as in each case there is barely a metre of space between each one and the back wall of the room they're installed in. In the white figure's room, a square of plaster has been carefully removed from the right wall to reveal old wall paintings of a regular array of Buddhas, similar to the ones at Alchi. There is clearly much more work to be done.

Leaving the gonpa, it turnds out that the custodian is also the homestay host for the village, at least for today, and I am soon installed in the guest room of the house beneath the gonpa. One night's camping out is enough for me, and it means I get a proper dinner: skyu, a Ladakhi form of gnocchi stew.