Not certain whether to go to Alchi or Likir today but when I show up at the minibus stand the only minibus in evidence is the Alchi one, so the decision is made for me. The journey takes about two hours. Lots of army camps ('The Clue Finders') between Leh and Phyiang, also between Nimmu and Basgo.
At Lama Guru, supposedly blessed by Padmasambhava, or Rinchen Zangpo, or someone like that, there is now an army-built Sikh gurudwara, but we go by too fast for me to read the explanatory signage. The road then veers off the direct route to Nimmu (which is too steep) to curve round and down, passing the 'Magnetic Hill' where signs encourage drivers to park and experience a wonder of nature. (A short stretch of less steep downhill, which you would probably confuse for flat or even uphill considering the lay of the land). The bus driver is not interested in this experience, though he does have to avoid someone who is.
Before Nimmu is the Zanskar turn-off (Chilling 28 km). Nimmu is a nice little place with an Urgyen Gompa, signed in the opposite direction to where it is marked on the map. Then come the army camps again, and some large mani walls. The largest one, incorporating two giant chortens, is placed across the bottom of an alluvial fan coming from a ravine in the hills. I've heard some mani walls are actually flood protection measures, but this one doesn't seem to protect much, and being built right across the path of the potential flood water doesn't seem the best idea either. It's been here for 400 years without being washed away, but I'm not sure what that proves.
Another mani wall a little further on has 3 chortens rather than 2, using the set which you find in rigsum gonpo monuments: a blue octagonal one (i.e., reconciliation with dissenters / piety), a white square one (i.e. enlightenmnet), and a yellow round one (i.e. victory, long life), the white one being placed in the middle. The coloured ones especially stand out in the landscape. I wonder if this is a relatively new innovation. The coloured chortens I've seen tend to be newer, and many of the rigsum gonbo I've seen in Leh have just used white chortens. Another clue is that the colours match the colours of the deities painted behind the chortens when they're kept in a rigsum gonbo lhakhang, i.e. Manjushri (blue), Avalokitesvara (white) and Vajrapani (yellow) CHECK
Through Basgo, which has an impressive fortress I shall try and visit properly someday. A group of Western motorcyclists have stopped at a roadside cafe. Then up a set of hairpins to a smoothly-sloping barren field, just like the one between Phyiang and Nimmu, which the bus makes heavy weather of but eventually leads to the Likir turning. Thence the road turns down a gorge past a surprising grassy area with a few cows and their keepers (and their keepers' tents).
Before Saspol a turn-off announces the Alchi Hydroelectric Project. The dam is marked on my map but not the road to it. The sign says the project generates 15 MW of power, but this seems very low.
Through Saspol, which I'll return to later, and the bus negotiates a needlessly tight turn to bump down to the bridge across the Indus which leads to Alchi. A few hairpins, partly to get up the cliff on the other side, partly to avoid a couple of 108-chorten rows, ruined as always. This seems to be a monument type that nobody bothers with anymore.
At the end of a small plain (Zampa Thang, 'bridge plain') the road begins to coast down into Alchi village. At this point people start getting off, stopping the bus ever 50 yards or so until finally we reach the bus stand with (almost) only westerners left on board. There are several foreigners here already, most numerously a Dutch group of maybe two families bargaining for trinkets. I sit down for an apricot strudel, but pass on a hot drink as they are asking Rs80 for it. Have plenty of water in the pack effectively warming up in the sun.
The attraction here is the Alchi Choskor, which is a 900 year old 'monastery' with wall paintings that predate the Tibetan Buddhist influence, preserved mainly through neglect after Alchi's main monastery was built further up the village. The Choskor is really a collection of shrines and monuments, the only residential building being much newer. The whole lot is under the care of Likir monastery and a smiling monk has been deputed to take Rs50 from foreigners, or Rs20 from Indians, to view the paintings. I park my pack and poles with him for a moment while I go in.
I am by no means an expert on this sort of thing but the paintings in the main shrine room are very impressive, hundreds of buddhas and bodhisattvas arranged in regular rows, each wall focusing on two to five different images repeated endlessly. Then between these in alcoves on each of the three walls are two-storey-high statues, briefly labelled in Tibetan and English (though the descriptions have come in for some editing: 'God' scribbled out and replaced by 'Buddha', this in turn edited to 'Bodhisattva') The fourth, entrance wall has a protector deity painted above, as I am coming to expect, not that I can identify him.
The second shrine room is even more impressive, though severely darkened with age, each wall entirely covered with one or two giant mandalas of intricate form. Rows of squid-shaped chortens (not always 108) depicted within the outer crossed vajras. Inside grids of deities or scenes encapsulated in circles. Very tantric.
Discover within a crumbling arch stupa a second, painted stupa, and further Buddhas and friends lining the inner walls. Photography is strickly prohibited in the temples, but this isn't a temple, so I snap away, hah.
The remaining two or three shrines are atmospheric enough but the paintings are newer and generally not well done. Some are downright embarrassing, enough to justify the strick prohibition against photography; not just slapdash detail but whole walls where the mesmerizing regular grid of Buddhas has been redone at a slightly different scale, or worse just painted wherever they would fit like a pile of marbles. Another concern is that many of the walls of the various rooms are cracked or bowed alarmingly.
Discover here that one half of the detachable waist strap on my bag has detached itself and is now lost. Remove the other half and store in a pocket (to be lost later.) Make a forlorn trip back to the bus, but as I expected it's not to be found there.
May as well start moving. Behind the Choskor on the other side they are building a visitor centre and car park, which are accessed by road from the other side, bypassing the village. Probably a sensible decision, though I don't imagine it went down well with the sellers of trinkets lining the route down from the bus stand. The new facilities aren't finished and the car park and road are deserted. Set off along this to the bridge across the Indus. The map suggests a trail on the other side leading to Saspol, but first there is the small matter of about 12 hairpins to get out of the valley on to the crag.
Hairpins are particularly annoying to the walker, as there is rarely official provision for them, meaning we have to walk far further than necessary; conversely, the unofficial short cuts are extremely steep and run for the most part over dodgy loose shale. I manage one short cut, though even then nearly come a cropper when the route suddenly steepens and I have to improvise a way of zigzagging across, not pleasant with a pack on.
These hairpins are also unusual in being supplied with street lighting, basically unheard of in Ladakh, even in large parts of Leh. The lamps are clearly here only because the electricity is generated at the dam just up the way. Though I'm not sure they work: each one's junction box is swinging open, bare wires poking out.
Finally reach the top. There is a slight glimpse to be had of the lake formed by the dam, but no viewpoint as such, and functional compounds have been built on either side. Up here there is a lonely substation, complete with obligatory sign declaring the project cost to whoever might wander up here.
A few more wiggles and a path becomes clear to the left, leaving the road, which presumably carries on to where I'd noted the turn off to the dam earlier. I want to go direct to Saspol, so make the assumption that this is the old trail marked on the map and head on.
The path runs along a shelf of land beneath the peaks and above the river cliffs. The views of Saspol, Alchi and downstream are fantastic throughout. There is no shade, however, and I have forgotten my hat. The only plant life round here is a sort of creeping shrub with strange red-and-white spotted, curled 'flowers'. One gets a nitrogen boost from me as I pass.
Eventually the path meets a dirt road, and the dirt road ends at a ravine, and a path descends the ravine to a bridge. There is plant life here: seabuckthorn bushes, willow trees. Then an irrigated field and a line of apricot trees. Scrump a few apricots. Not quite ripe yet, they are tartish and lovely. This is the beginning of Saspol.
Soon meet the main road and walk down it in search of the turn up the Saspol Togpo. A few women and children sit by the road selling apricots. One, in conversation with a male friend, wears a traditional perak studded with turquoises. By the village prayer wheel I rest and succumb to the apricot hard sell. 5 for Rs5. Try to explain by gestures that I don't have pocket space for more than that. These are undeniably ripe and juicy, but this has given them the sweeter, apricotty taste that I'm still not a fan of.
Opposite the prayer wheel is a likely-looking track which I follow up to the local school (kids are half singing something with occasional shouts from the teacher) and gompa, which is built of packed mud against the rock, but is in fact only from 1993. Nobody is about, so I descend and carry on up the track which bends up the valley.
Saspol has paintings too, in a series of caves, but they are not here: I think they are on the other side of the valley, where there is another gompa-like building. But I can't get there from here, though some workmen with a JCB seem to be remedying that situation if only I had the time to wait. The track on ths side is a firm, graded dirt road, and after a km or so I meet a group of German motorcyclists and support vehicle coming the other way, all labelled 'Bhutan - Tibet - India', whether a specific expedition or just the name of the organizing firm I can't be sure.
This is, however, the only traffic I see as I make my way up the valley towards Sumdo. There are bushes and the occasional tree around the course of the river, which flows along merrily, but out of the immediate area the slopes are barren. I'm on the sunny side of the valley and it is very hot.
At one point the valley narrows and there is a way down to the riverside. Find a spot shaded by thorny bushes to take off my pack and have late lunch. The cumin cheese I bought has melted somewhat, disappointingly. It's a messy business but I manage to eat enough of it to squash the rest into the plastic leftovers box. I do have to ignore the warnings to 'remove coating before eating', whatever coating it was has disintegrated and isn't easily separated from the rind, which itself shades gradually into the cheese part. I just eat it all.
Fill up water bottles and discover another disappointing fact: the 'fits all' filter doesn't fit the water bottle as the opening is too small; worse, the water bottle crumples if you try to hold the filter to it. Guess I will have to buy a (pirated) Sigg bottle in Leh. The water at least is cold and refreshing and probably not soapy: only Sumdo and Saspotse are upstream.
Sumdo ('confluence') turns out to be a single house, which may be advertising camping, or may have thought better of it (some of the painted signs have 'camping' crossed out). There is a tattered old parachute with a similar painted sign to 'parachute restaurant, sign painted 2013', but no sign of life. Perhaps it only serviced treks for one season. Certainly it's not the classic get-away-from-it-all trekking route it may have once been: the road I'm on has been asphalted for the last km, and the map indicates blacktop all the way to Likir in one direction and Hemis shukpachan in the other.
Halfway up another switchback I spot a path that is likely the original route up the valley, though now it's just a shortcut, its gradual slope and compacted surface give it more presence than the opportunistic ones I saw earlier. It meets the road where the latter bends round the top of a crag: only one place for the route to go, so the road takes precedence.
It's another 5 km or so to Saspotse and I'm getting increasingly tired and hot, having to stop every few hundred metres. At long last I reach the upper bridge where the road gives out. According to the map a trail carries on from here up the valley all the way to the Lago La and thence Nubra. It's not obvious, though there are tracks leading up above the intakes and maybe along further that way. But the light is failing and Saspotse is as far as I meant to come. Find a spot to unroll bedding protected by a spiky wild rose bush. No roses are evident, unlike in Lahaul, but the spikes are diagnostic. A hundred m away is a large rock with carvings of ibex on two sides. I will completely forget to photograph it tomorrow morning. I bet it is super old.
Even though it's only eight p.m. I feel like sleeping straight away. The stars start to come out, but before long the full moon has risen; although I can't see it yet, it lights up the sky and the upper parts of the ridge opposite, the shape of the ridge on this side projected against it with sharp relief.