Up early to take the Alchi bus to Phey....except for whatever reason, today the Alchi bus only goes to Spituk. And not only that, it doesn't even go to Spituk village but to the army camp on the main road just beyond Spituk. So I have to get off at the Spituk junction and schlep all the way through the village to the bridge.
I leave previously-trodden ground at the junction beyond the bridge, where the road bends right. It passes through fields and then mounts up onto the desert fans. Quite a few trucks come my way laden with gravel.
Three or four km further on I am gamely hiking along when a contract carriage stops beside me and asks if I am going to Rumbak. Well---it saves a whole day of walking, so why not? The carriage turns out to be carrying two men based in Rumbak, bringing a selection of rugs to the village for sale. The sort of gaudy fluffy rugs you get in Balkhang. Probably precisely where they came from in fact.
After Phey the Indus quickly drops into a gorge, or we climb up one side, one or the other, and the next 10 km or so are scenic but very dry. I spot the SECMOL campus spread out above a bend. Can tell by the solar installations and various other eco-stuff, otherwise I would have taken it for a luxury hotel.
We round a bend and enter the Zingchan valley. It's surprisingly green, and Zingchan itself is pleasantly situated among groves of larger trees than I've seen elsewhere---not just poplars, but proper thick-trunked trees. But we don't stop here, and for a moment I entertain the thought that the road has been completed all the way to Rumbak. But no more than three km further on the road peters out by a stream crossing and we are all disembarked. The rug wallahs retrieve their produce from the roof of the vehicle and I take my leave. They say it will take them 8 hours to get to Rumbak, what with the 50 kg of rugs they need to carry. Hopefully with my trusty Laufbursche I will be somewhat faster.
The track continues on the other side of the stream, with a collection of stranded vehicles parked nearby, waiting for the road to be repaired. I pass through a rock gate and up the valley. There are people working on the road, making it difficult to find the proper way: I see a terrace further up and make for it but the workmen shout and point out a bridge slightly upstream.
Eventually the track peters out completely, and I have to retrace my steps to discover the place where the path continues, dropping down to cross the stream and continuing on the other side. I pass a group of a dozen or so westerners coming the other way. Is there a lot of snow? Only right at the top, they say.
The gorge continues with occasional glimpses of the Stok range. At one point a large side valley comes in from the left, and there's enough space between the valleys for a small wood, a field or two and a house; I carry on up the main valley and eventually it opens out, filled with autumnal shrubs, and steep pasture-slopes above, with Stok Kangri looking on. It's a complete contrast from the last ten km. Here I find a tent-restaurant, sadly closed, and occupied only by an inquisitive cow (dzo?). A sign has been erected with a sketch-map of the vicinity: left goes to Rumbak and the Stok La, straight on to Yurutse and the Shingo La. I take the latter.
Not far onward I stop for lunch and to refill my water bottle. A small pony-caravan passes by; I thought I'd stopped off the track but they go straight through my scattered belongings to follow a path that mounts up the hillside. It's evidently a shortcut to Rumbak village, avoiding the cow tent.
I carry on up the braided valley, now beyond any vegetation excepting grass, until the point where I am to turn right for Yurutse. This is an obvious valley fork. A single house watches from the other side, guarding its two or three tiny fields.
The path climbs up to traverse the true left side of the valley. I spot a small group of trekkers rounding a shoulder in front of me, but when I turn the corner and Yurutse's single large house appears they are nowhere to be seen. A couple of blue tents have been pitched beneath the house: but it's a bit early to turn in. I pass by.
Passing a chorten I nearly end up following an irrigation channel rather than the path which runs above it, but realise my mistake just in time. The traverse continues, ascending slowly. A group of chukor, startled, gaggle across the path and up to the safety of the boulders.
The path climbs a side valley and before long I am surprised to see the parachute tents of Lartsa Ganda La---surprised because the map seemed to mark it further up. There is nobody around so I only stop to fill my water bottle. From here I can see the flank of Stok Kangri all the way to the summit, very close by.
The next camp is also surprisingly close, and I make the decision to get over the pass tonight and save having to camp. The book says it will take three hours which is comfortably before sunset. The path steepens, climbing another side valley before contouring round onto a high shoulder. I spot the group I'd been behind, way below me at the camp. They must have stopped for lunch at Yurutse. On the shoulder I get out my own trail food: dried sultanas and Ladakhi Fine Foods' barley/apricot kernel mix.
From here the path is less steep but there are still a few zigzags to climb before I get to the top. I get progressively slower until by the end I'm stopping every few steps, but it's only temporary tiredness: when I finally reach the summit (and organize the obligatory selfie) I feel much better. From the top the Shingo valley stretches dead straight in front of me, with the village of Shingo just visible before it bends. The mountains of Zanskar are spread out, though I am looking into the sun I think the highest (noticeably higher than the others) will be Nun-Kun, a proper giant with both peaks over 7000 m.
While resting at the top the group behind me catches me up. It turns out to be two Ladakhi men and one woman, not tourists, although they do take the opportunity for a photo on their phones. I leave them to this and yomp down the track. On this side the pass is much less steep: it's a long, steady descent to Shingo down a sandy slope dotted with shrubs. It takes two hours before I approach the first chorten in the village, having passed a couple of deserted camping grounds on the way, and the sun is about to set. A woman is washing kitchenware in the stream but is to engrossed to say jullay.
I follow a makeshift sign painted onto a rock that advertises a homestay on the opposite side of the stream from the village. Sure enough there is a single house with an encouraging number of pairs of shoes outside the door. The family seem to be extending the building. Already here are a quiet German(?) guy; a couple from Israel (at least, he is from Israel and she speaks Hebrew, but she also speaks English with a Canadian(?) accent); and a travel photographer from Indore. This is the first time that I have had any fellow homestayers, showing how popular the Markha trek is even at this time of year: although the Israeli couple have only come from Chilling, not Markha, and are heading in the opposite direction from the rest of us. It'll be a long slog up the Ganda La for them tomorrow.
Dinner is dal rice and subji as usual. The photographer goes out after dinner to try and get photos with stars, but I hit the sack almost straight away. It's been a long day.