Saspotse–Ulle Togpo

Diary

I sleep well, though in spurts: every two hours or so I wake up, note the new position of the moon in the sky, now lighting up the whole valley, the new stars fighting to be seen. Eventually a deeper brightness arrives, and before long the upper parts of the ridge opposite are shining in the dawn light.

It must be about 6am so I get up, refill water bottles, and have a stab at making breakfast. I will definitely be making some form of trail mix next time: although the cheese has mostly hardened overnight, it's still pretty gross. Next task is to get my sleeping bag stuffed into my pack like it was before. This is a tricky operation as the sleeping bag's compression sack is slightly wider than my rucksack when fully compressed.

Just before 7.30 a bus appears and trundles down the road before me. I hadn't noticed a bus from Leh to Saspotse, but there was one to Hemis Shukpachan every other day: perhaps this is its return journey?

Collect poles and walk back down to the road and across the bridge to meet the sun on the other side of the valley. The village is at the top, slightly set back from the fields. A small gompa or perhaps mud-fronted meditation cave overlooks the village from some way up a crag. It looks like a peaceful spot, though even here a new house is being constructed in the fields, concrete frame a infilled with mud bricks.

The circular road descends to meet the main road, which had crossed the stream somewhat lower down to bypass the village, then begins the ascent to the pass over to the next side valley of the Indus, the Ulle Togpo. It's a gradual climb, asphalted all the way; a couple of Contract Carriers pass me on the way up. A mule path climbs directly up the valley from Sumdo; the road, having detoured via Saspotse, is now at a higher level and can traverse the landscape on a high shelf. Looking across the Saspol Togpo towards Likir, the shelf clearly continues, dividing the mountains to the north from a smaller range between here and the Indus. In fact this shelf, that between here and Likir, and the large sloping plain between Likir and Basgo seem to form parts of the same structure, a wide strath tilted by ten degrees and forsaken by the river, later cut through by swift side streams.

The rocks round here show contrasting colours. I am passing under maroon cliffs, but the valley down to Sumdo is golden, and whitish knolls appear by the yellow cliffs to the south, each one topped with a splash of red like a cherry Bakewell. Reaching the pass (Charatse La), the village of Yangthang appears in the distance on a great mound of grey shale; behind the fields, the slopes are orange, streaked with purple.

From here a path descends the valley. I am heading downstream so I take this, although it's not entirely clear from the map where it goes. At one point I make the summary decision not to ascend into the village, and as a result get a little bit lost in the marshy woods at the bottom of the valley, where the drained irrigation water collects. But at the bottom the various water courses funnel together and I find myself on a clear, well-maintained path down the side of the main stream.

The next 2 km or so are lovely: passing down a deep gorge, crossing the stream on sturdy little wooden bridges, ascending over bluffs, or descending beneath sheer cliffs as necessary. Then I reach a place with a small apricot grove, opposite a single old house with its lhatho and a string of new-looking prayer flags. Here the path drops to the riverbank and promptly runs out.

Downstream, but higher up the right side of the valley, a silent JCB digger marks the position of a track. However the track gets no further than a protruding rock spur; the path I am on, correspondingly, gets to the bottom of the same spur but provides no way to ascend to the level of the track. We are at an impasse. The work done to build the track has, I imagine, sent a deal of shale down the slope, obliterating the track. Look around for a good while to see if there is any better way down. I did just pass a young man, the first pedestrian I'd seen all day, who was going up to Yungthang, so if he didn't start here he must have known a way through. It is a puzzle, and one to be honest not helped by my misplacing myself on the map.

The only option I can see is to cross the river with the help of a fallen branch, and follow a path on that side down for a few hundred yards. Though I had hoped this path would lead all the way to the next place, it peters out after a few hundred metres and leaves me needing to make another river crossing (a bit sketchy) and then traverse loose shale slopes up to meet the track having wiggled its way down closer to the river level. Still, after five minutes on this track it meets an asphalt road signed 'Ridzong' upwards and 'Yangthang' back the way I had come. This sets me straight in the matter of the map, and though I think of going up to Ridzong (a km or so away) I eventually decide to leave that for another trek.

The road soon enters a greener part of the valley, with trees of various kinds although few fields. Here is a nunnery related to Ridzong, with a standing prayer wheel. A nun hears the bell when I spin it, and peeks out from the compound, but I am soon on my way.

Soon enough the road has left the green space, and although there are still trees by the river, the gorge is generally bare, made of steep ribs of purple rock. Almost invisible on one of these ribs, way up in the air, an old chorten, some whitewash still clinging to it. I feel the day already becoming hotter.

An irrigation channel leaves the river and begins to run beside the road: the first sign that there are fields ahead, above the Indus. The gorge turns sharp left and suddenly the greenery is visible below; also, a steel bridge of military type which is causing some congestion ('1 VEH AT A TIME')

I round the last bluff and suddenly am in the Indus valley once more, opposite the terraces of Gera. Almost immediately on reaching the main road (12:30), a minibus appears. I don't even have time to reach the next shady spot to sit and wait. The bus is empty but for one Indian passenger. It transpires it's not a real bus at all, or rather, it's a normal minibus but on extra duty having ferried a group of trekkers to Lamayuru. Now it needs to be in Leh to form the 2:30 departure to Karu, and is running a little late, so it is with unusual speed that I make the distance back to the minibus stand in Leh. The driver seems happy with the Rs100 I give him (this had been the fare to Alchi, so it's not unreasonable), but I nearly end up in Karu anyway as a storm of people board the bus as soon as it arrives, not waiting for me to get off first.

I thought I felt okay on the trip back, but the climb back to the guest house is a struggle. Lots of BJP bunting and discarded party hats. PM Narendra Modi has been in town; he is officially opening the Alchi dam project today.