Matho–Gangpoche

Diary

Almost fail to get to the starting point as there is no sign of the promised minibus at 0857, but shortly after nine Yangchan (guest house family daughter) shows up and confidently asserts that the bus marked 'Sakti' is going to Matho. And so it proves: we are off within ten minutes. Initially there are only about five people on board, but more flag down the bus as it descends out of town, until it is full and standing. Most are clearly going to the same school and when someone starts up a Buddhist chant, everyone joins in. The rhythm has a five-bar pattern: 1 1111 1111-1111 1111-12

The chant goes on for the best part of half an hour as we trundle down the edge of the fields of , only stopping when the majority of the passengers (including Yangchan) disembark at the school. The bus terminates shortly afterwards at an arch marking the entrance to Matho village.

By the arch is a sign marking a footpath up to the gonpa, or rather, describing the project of building the footpath and its estimated cost; the fact that the destination is marked being an accidental advantage. The footpath winds past a bunch of chortens and lhathos before being blocked with willow sticks. There not being any particular reason I can see for this, I step over the sticks and proceed up to the gonpa. At the other end, by the road up, is another stick barrier, this one with a clear stile-like opening. Mysterious.

Take the stairs up to the main part of the gonpa. There are a few westerners about and a monk collecting Rs50 from each of us. It seems he is the sole custodian as he will not leave more than one prayer room unlocked at any one time, and having already shown the visitors the gonkhang, he's not going to unlock it again for me. But the other rooms have some interest: in particular a new status of Vairocana surrounded by three-dimensional lotus thrones, all on plant stalks which intertwine to cover nearly the entire back wall of a two-story shrine room. On each lotus throne is a statue of some deity. The sort of thing I've seen before in paintings, but this is the first fully 3-D assembly of deities I've seen attempted.

There is a room with oracles in but only the Ladakhi guide is invited to look in there. The rest of us are shown into a small museum with the usual figures, bell/dorje sets and scriptures. Some of which are admittedly interesting. One thangka is labelled '16 AD', but this is probably a typo for '1600'; another is labelled '2100 AD'. But we can say at least that some of the stuff is jolly old.

Several of the shrine rooms have thangkas hanging from the beams or the side walls, but few are in good repair: most are really quite hard to make out owing to the layers of grime and soot on them.

Eventually decide that the monk has shown us all I'm going to see. The woman with the Ladakhi guide goes in search of a toilet, whilst I leave the gonpa in search of the way down. Since this gonpa, unusually, is fenced all around with pickets, I end up retracing my steps to the road, although not before having a nose at a meditation cave nearby: apparently Matho Gonpa was built because of the cave, though I can't tell if this is the one or not. Hardly matters I guess.

It's clouded over whilst I was in the gonpa, which I'm not compleining about as trekking uphill is more pleasant when it's not too hot. Take the next road up the valley, which proves to be a mistake: it winds up the edge of the fields before giving out halfway up. I end up following random paths up to an irrigation channel which I follow towards the river, crossing from one side to the other, pushing back bushes and other assorted undergrowth, trying not to dislodge stones which have been carefully placed to ensure that only those fields get water whose turn it is today. At least there are fine views of the village from up here.

But eventually I reach a point where the irrigation channel meets a proper track. Here there is a sign detailing the work of building a footpath along the channel, along with its estimated cost and work time in man days. This project seems not to be finished: so far it consists of about fifty metres of spiky boulders laid in a rough rectangle.

The track I have reached seems to be the end of the road I should have been following: I can just see the end of the asphalt section. Following this up the valley soon leads to a house with a large mani thingy and a shady tree: but I can't rest as there is also a noisy dog who has decided to bark until I leave. Shouldering my pack for a little longer I carry on until the track loses itself in the boulders of the stream bed: making out (or perhaps imagining) a path I carry on up to a large tree painted red underneath a prominent lhatho. Here I recross the irrigation channel and rest for an early lunch.

From this point the path up the valley becomes clearer, either neatly built up on the streamward side to provide a flat trackway, or in stonier parts with the boulders removed to either side of the path. This carries on for a couple of km where the path decides to climb up a small rocky buttress. At the top I see the girl with the Ladakhi guide (two of these, in fact) coming towards me. They must have driven to the end of the road and had a walk up the valley. Either that, or they are magic.

Soon after this there is a bend in the valley marked with a large lhatho, which forms the entrance to the gorge section. The path is less clearly marked from here, and involves a lot of tiresome walking over rounded stones. The gorge twists this way and that, but is rarely less than 100 m wide, and there are always a few spreading trees dotting the valley floor to provide some shade. Not that I need shade today: it's clouded over, and there have even been spots of rain.

The gorge cuts through perfectly vertical strata which alternate between hard ribs and crumbly shale. At one point I look up between two ribs to see a ruined building wedged in the gap, twenty metres above me. Round the corner I can see more ruined walls, and right at the top of the sheer face, a ruined fort. The remains of plaster are just about visible on some of the interior walls. I can't imagine what situation can have arisen that makes this a useful spot to defend.

The gorge opens out at last, and the undergrowth thickens, to the point where I have to snap dead branches to get me and my pack through: the path has formed a tunnel, but only of pack-mule height. Finally, beyond a clearing with another lhatho, prayer-flags and a butter-lamp stove (extinguished), the stream splits into two. Here I find myself on the wrong side of the stream, and unlike previous occasions there is no bridge to help me across, so I have to resign myself to wet feet and splash across with poles.

According to my map I need to turn right towards the Matho La but the path carries on straight with no sign of a junction. Stop for a while and munch on roasted barley (zos) before going in search of the path. Although in the junction area itself there is no sign of it, walking round the shoulder reveals a path on my side of the stream which I follow in default of a better option, although the map shows the path on the other side.

The path climbs up between two ribs and drops down again, to avoid a point where the stream rushes hard against the rock face. Beyond this, however, it's easy going for another km or so before another stream crosing and the valley opens out again. Here the stream splits into three. The pass is at the top of the right-hand valley but there is no clear path up that way. Crossing the stream another time, I see signs of a camp ground and a cairn, but the only path climbs up the leftmost valley, surely not the one I want. On the plus side, this open area marks the end of the gorges and the beginning of the high pasture: the slopes between these valleys are smooth and covered with small alpine shrubs. So I pick the middle valley and climb up onto the ridge separating it from the right one.

From here I can see why the path doesn't go up the right valley: this valley runs parallel to the strata in the gorge section and has cut down significantly, to leave vertical cliffs on both sides. Going up there I would be trapped between the cliffs for several km.

High up on the ridge parallel to mine is a cairn. Not seeing much of a path across this undulating landscape I decide to make for it; it's not itself on the path, but the path up the left valley which I had previously discarded can be seen zigzagging up the next shoulder. There is an empty bottle of whiskey by the cairn.

It looks like if I followed my ridge upwards I would eventually meet the path, and after climbing for only a few hundred metres I see its destination: a green splash on the high hill with a sheepfold and a single tent. Having gone up the next ridge, I have to cross a stream to get there, but it's clear that this is the place I need to spend the night.

The camping ground is a flat, gently sloping stretch of turf irrigated by a channel taken from the stream. A few cows and dzos are grazing there. Approaching the tent, I'm jullayed by two men sitting out. Putting my pack down, I offer each a dried apricot.

The man who lives in the tent turns out to speak a little English. He is friendly and before I know it has invited me in for a cup of coffee. This place is called Gonpoche and it is his camp ground. But he won't accept any money. Occasionally he turns on his portable radio for five seconds, then turns it off again. To conserve batteries perhaps, or maybe just an ingrained habit. The coffee is milky and sugary and hot. Zhimpo rak. He offers me to sleep in his tent, but I try and explain that I like to sleep with a view of the stars. So he suggests that I camp above his tent rather than below, where I have dropped my bag. Perhaps because I would be sheltered by it? He also refuses to let me fill my water bottle from the irrigation channel, instead filling it for me from his bottle. (Next morning I see him refilling the bottle from the irrigation channel.)

It's only six p.m. but getting out my sleeping bag ensures I'll be warmed up by the time I want to sleep. Arrange my poles and water bottle to form a (very) low profile wet sock hanging device. The wind turns out to dry these rather effectively: by the time I am ready to sleep they are practically dry so I put them inside the bag not to blow away.

My neighbour and host comes to check on me and invites me to converse in his tent, which revolves around the usual nationality and marriage based questions. He asks if I have any English money to show him, but I don't. He gives me a small bowl of goat curd, which is actually very nice, like goat cheese but mild and sweet.

Somehow my e-reader has drained its battery, either that was happening anyway or maybe the way it was packed meant it leant on a button or something. But the solar power monkey doodad brings it back to life within twenty minutes so I can spend the time until the light fails reading about someone else's mountain expeditions.

During the evening the goat herds arrive, to be penned into the sheepfold for the night, and later, after dark, the black shapes of cows and dzo saunter down the slope into the camp. Unlike the goats, they seem to do this by themselves. It's a disconcerting sight watching these heavy ghosts pass by in near silence.

I must get six or seven hours' sleep in total but I wake several times, at one point scaring a cow who has wandered a little close. Initially the stars and Milky Way are blazing bright, but later the half moon rises and eclipses most of the constellations. Near dawn there is a loud report like a gun or explosive, and soon after the cows and dzo are on the move, back up towards the high pastures, a dark gliding of ponderous shapes.