Shingbuk–Riyul

Diary

A cold night, made worse by the north-south aspect of the Shingbuk valley: the sun does not melt the frost from our tents until well after eight. But it's an intense sun, and as soon as light floods the valley the temperature mounts. We set off, and follow the right side of the valley as the stream dips into a V-shaped channel. As we get lower, the valley gets drier until we reach a small mani wall at the end of the enclosing hills from where we have a superb view of the Tso Kar basin and the mountains surrounding it. Suraj points out the Horlam Kongka La on the other side of the lake, which we will be crossing tomorrow. Katka balances her camera on the mani wall to take a group photo.

Crossing a low pass and dropping down the hillside we come to the first black-top road we have seen for three days, and (as it turns out) the last we will see until we have left Tso Moriri behind. This road connects the Manali-Leh highway with Thugje, and apparently also Tso Moriri in the other diretion, though it seems not to be the quickest way there, as we will not be coming back this way. Below the road are enclosures built of stones, for animals, and partially-underground stone structures for humans, looking very similar to Skara Brae, or at least what I have seen of it. Apparently they erect tent roofs over these before hunkering down for the winter: the earth providing some amount of insulation. There had been a similar 'village' of this type just above Kyamar. It doesn't look like a comfortable winter is to be had here, although there is at least water, courtesy of a new-looking pump.

The track next skirts a fenced enclosure, which Suraj says is earmarked for agriculture, though there is no sign of much improvement. I'm not sure either why anyone would want to force agriculture on such obviously marginal land, except out of sheer stubbornness.

We are now at Pongunagu, where there is a small stream, an old chorten with resident crows, and a row of fixed tents for overnight trippers. By the stream a group of four men are playing some kind of dice game which is a bit like Ludo without the board. Suraj tries to explain the rules but is mostly unsuccessful. A couple of families live here, at least during the summer, running a tea place out of parachute tents. Katka and Anna befriend the small daughter of the family, who tries out their trekking poles for size (too big, even after adjustment)

We now have to follow the jeepable track wround Tso Kar itself, although no traffic passes us in the couple hours this takes. We are overtaken by the Swiss cyclists, who have perhaps visited Thugje village on the way, as they started off before us. A few people in a truck are gathering salt from the lake. There are a few gulls flying around the shoreline, but aside from this the valley is silent. The lake varies in colour from bright turquoise to deep lapis, ringed by a bright white crust of salt. It compels attention as we circumambulate: almost a feeling of sacredness, although in this case we are circling the wrong way round.

Finally we pass a spur of the nearby hill, marked with a set of old chortens, and our tents come into view, together with those of the cyclists. The campground is just above a wide expanse of marshy tussocks where the horses are already grazing. The view is fantastic, comprising the whole lake, with Thugje village opposite, and the little monastery above it; the mountains behind, including our path from the Shingbuk La, and one peak which Anna decides is exactly the same shape as Slovakia's tallest mountain. We are all agreed that this is a much better place to spend the night than either Pongunagu or Nuruchan, the standard camping grounds, both of which are some distance away from the lake.

As we arrive Trinley, the horseman, points out a pair of black-necked cranes in the distance. It's apparently unusual to see these, and sure enough, soon a passing car stops and disgorges two or three tourists with rather large zoom lenses, who proceed to stalk the cranes. The cranes take this with good grace and walk nonchalantly (but purposefully) away from the road toward the lake for twenty minutes or so, before deciding to take off and fly round to the edge of the marshes where they wouldn't be followed.

My own attempts at wildlife photography were disappointing, though the black necks can be made out, which is after all their defining feature.