Phyiang–Leh

Diary

Take a taxi with Chris to the gonpa. Nobody is about and the gonkhang is locked up. There are beds of sunflowers and a carefully tended pot plant display around a flagpole. As we leave the gonpa one monk looks out of an upstairs room in the large new building. Not completely deserted then.

Walk up the road which runs along the side of the valley, unfortunately meaning there is little shade. On red-washed crags above, a lhatho with what looks like an electric light. Pass a shrine of curved horns, two pairs significantly larger and more knobbly than the rest. Villagers resting in the shade while their animals graze bid us jullay.

The bridge is from 2013, as usual accompanied by a sign announcing the work, its sponsor and exact cost, this time in response to the floods of 2010. The river has been partially channeled with concrete walls; there is no sign of the path, perhaps it has been effaced by the work, so we move up the river boulders slowly.

Over a bluff there are some fields on this side and the path appears between a pair of dry stone walls, but after the fields it becomes indistinct once more. But it's not difficult to follow the valley so we continue up to the point where the map shows the valley narrowing.

Here a great moraine(?) of grey debris splits the valley in two. The village of Murobok is visible above us on the left, but we follow the dry stream bed to the right of the moraine, which soon veers right and begins to climb. Very little vegetation; lizards are everywhere.

The way up the stream is fairly easy, only one sizeable step to be negotiated until we reach a point where a side valley from the right meets us. Taking the left fork, we carry on until we reach a tall pile of balanced stones on our right. We are now at 4130 m according to my GPS and the map, which is higher than either of us has ever trekked before (Chris' record being Jebel Toubkal, 4095 m or so, only a few weeks ago)

Rest with some sweets. Sour lemon requires a particular technique. Sucking gingerly results in all the sourness hitting you at once. You must bite into it directly. We have been resting pretty regularly all the way up; oxygen is in shorter supply here.

The cairn seems to be indicating to climb a side valley which is more of a rock chute dotted with tiny bushes. Chris pronounces it doable and checks that the next valley is no easier, so we start up. It is a long slog up pretty loose ground. Even sticking by the craggy bluff on the left it's generally more reliable to stand on the plants than the stones. The ascent takes the best part of two hours, and halfway up we spot the actual path, which had been skirting the (true) right side of the valley above the stream bed and then zig-zags up the slope at the end. Just where the map marked it, in fact, but entirely invisible from below. I feel almost like returning and destroying the misleading cairn. The lesson for today is: if a laden pack animal couldn't do it, it's probably not the path.

But we eventually manage to traverse up to the pass without causing an avalanche. There is a short string of prayer flags attached to a new-looking willow pole. Chris makes a cheesy video diary and we take some selfies. The view from here is stark: only a couple of trees visible in the Phyiang valley on one side, the rest of the field a succession of ridge and crag; on the other, a sliver of green marking the lower Leh valley and the rest of central Ladakh beyond. It has clouded over, for which we are thankful, and we can see storms over some of the ranges, possibly snowing, though none stay in the same place for long.

The next patch of country is a confusing mass of valleys and ridges, mostly well below us, which all eventually funnel down into a side valley of Leh which holds a military camp. There are many tracks below us, some from wheeled vehicles: presumably the result of exercises. None of these tracks come up near our level though.

Our path skirts all this at the high level to leave by another pass a hundred metres or so below our present level. From here the path is clear and the going easy, though in places we rely on the regularly-placed cairns (ofen just three or four stones) to get us across boulder fields. The plants on the south-facing side of the pass are noticeably different from the ones on the north: greener, thicker, some with actual leaves. Even a couple of rose bushes snag our clothing.

The path is cleverly arranged to pass between the rocky ridges and is nowhere particularly exposed, gradually descending as we round the end of the valley. The shoulder we had seen from the first pass turns out not to be the way out, but the second one is the true ridge, and a clear path leads down into a straight, V-shaped dry valley covered on both sides with tussocky grass. At the bottom a line of stones has been placed to bar the way further up the valley, and further stones have been formed into the shape of an arrow to indicate the turn. I can imagine easily missing it if I had been plodding up the valley. If only a similar device had been available on the other side.

This valley is much greener than the one we had come up, though still dry. As we walk down there are occasional patches of thicker grass, and a few larger plants. It's easy going, and it is not too long before the valley widens out and we see the trees of Gonpa'i lungs before us. A couple of dogs greet us: the first mammals we have seen since leaving the Phyiang valley ten km ago. The light is beginning to golden with evening and the sun picks out ridges one after another as the clouds pass; it's a dramatic effect. The dirt track down the Gonpa'i lungs is empty apart from two courting couples each in their own vehicle: a secluded spot for a sunset tryst.

It seems further than I remember from here down to Changspa but we make it before the light fails for a much-needed bottle of apricot juice. We'd not eaten on the entire walk, and breakfast had not been substantial, yet I hadn't felt hungry, and now I was almost too tired to eat. Not quite, however; just about managed to get through a bowl of egg thenthuk before retiring.

It was a good walk today; exhilarating in parts, tranquil in others. Got some glimpse of the silence for which Ladakh is famous. Next I will try and go somewhere entirely on my own: Chris is focused on getting up Stok Kangri before he leaves at the end of the month, so he's going to do Markha with a group, which will be a somewhat different experience. For my part, I must remember to bring food next time. Biscuits were dry and unappealing. I'll see what kind of trail mix can be devised from the wares of the dried fruit sellers.