When we reached Lehker, we had to make a choice: Canadian or Swiss. We’d had two foreign couples sitting near us on the bus, and had had interesting conversations with both of them. When a local told us that we’d just passed our destination, all six of us scrambled off the bus, dodging flying propane tanks from the roof, and found ourselves in the rain staring at the bus’s receding taillights. The choice came when the Canadians with their comfortingly familiar accents and understanding of pop culture references decided to try and find a guest house they’d read about, and the relatively exotic Swiss couple went for the closest guest house they could find to escape the rain. We chose adventure, and went with the Swiss.
Sitting down to our evening meal of rice and dahl (lentils), we compared American and Swiss food, culture, and politics with our new friends Nicolas and Caroline. They were on their second trip to India; their first had been a yearlong stint
in Chennai where Nicolas was a student and Caroline, in one of the many such instances that make us feel like self-centered slackers, had been a volunteer midwife at some local hospitals. They were planning to do the same trek as us, plus a continuation of several days and over a very high pass. We got along well and decided to head out together the next day.
That morning we weren’t sure that we’d be going anywhere, because a nice little storm blew in and carpeted the ground with snow. It was cold and windy, and our basic trail runner shoes and lack of gear had us wondering if the trek was over before it had even begun. Luckily, though, the sun was soon shining and as the snow melted we found ourselves walking past the huge outdoor Buddha statue at the Lehker gompa. We made our way through green fields and orchards where we stopped to gather fallen apricots with an elderly man who showed us how to choose the best ones. The path headed uphill and, breathing heavily in the thin air, we made it to the top of a steep pass and savored the downhill section. The mountain scenery all through the day, and indeed every day of the trek, was jaw droppingly amazing, and we marveled to each other that this was hands down the most beautiful setting we’d ever hiked in.
Mid way through the day we opened up the sack lunches our guest house had packed us and found the stale bread and rock hard biscuits inedible, so when we came to a tiny settlement of a few houses we were happy to accept the offer of chai and cookies from the woman frantically waving us down. Nicolas and Caroline, who had been ahead of us, had ended up at the woman’s toothless next door neighbor and apparent business rival. They were the only two people we saw in the village. After our bellies were filled with chai and we’d tried and failed to break through the Ladakhi-English language barrier with our host, we tracked down our hiking buddies next door. The normally more linguistically adept Swiss were having no better luck communicating with their host, as they kept having apples and toasted grains thrust upon them despite their protests of fullness. Having spotted some carrots and onions being carried about, they also suspected a stew was being prepared. The day’s walk being only half over, we decided to make our escape.
We were pretty worn out by this point, and certainly not sufficiently acclimatized, but we managed to crawl our way up
one final pass to make it the tiny village of Yangthang where we spent the night. This picturesque and pastoral little hamlet seemed to contain about twenty five residents, most of whom spent their day working in the fields or working with the various farm animals wandering about. We really liked our guest house here; it had an incredible view from the rooftop terrace area and we’d barely set down our packs before someone delivered a hot thermos of tea.
One of our favorite aspects of the trek was staying at these small guest houses, which were really just large family homes with an extra bedroom or two that could be rented out. They cost next to nothing: about $5 per person with three meals and unlimited tea included, and we really got to experience Ladakhi living. In the evenings we’d hang out in the traditional kitchen with the family, sitting on cushions and watching the mother cook us very simple but delicious meals from scratch which we ate off of low tables. The kids would either be doing homework or helping with family chores, and if grandparents were around they were usually drinking butter tea while they spun a kind of hand held prayer wheel. Everyone seemed to be happy and healthy, although the constantly working women invariably looked much older than they really were.
The next morning we set off on a day hike to Rizong, where we would check out the local gompa and then return to
our guest house before nightfall. We packed the essentials but not a lunch, as we were assured that we could buy food at the gompa, and set off on the route following a small river that showed evidence of recent flooding. In fact the flooding had been very bad, a result of a huge rainstorm that came through several weeks earlier causing landslides and flash floods. It had also almost completely wiped out the trail to Rizong, so we spent the day walking through the riverbed and across steep rocky slopes, along with the occasional wobbly tree branch over the river, which we had to cross over and over again throughout the day.
It was fun but tiring, and we staggered uphill to the Rizong gompa fueled by a small breakfast and the odd windfall apricot we’d found along the way. We were ready for a mid-day feast, but unfortunately it was not to be. For reasons we were never quite sure of, Rizong had no food available, and it wasn’t until we’d tracked down a monk to show us the interior Buddha statues that we managed to beg some butter tea mixed with sampa (barley flour), a staple of the monk’s diet but only semipalatable for westerners. We
were so hungry by this time that it actually tasted pretty good, and drinking butter tea with a Ladakhi speaking monk in a medieval looking wood fired kitchen was a pretty amazing experience in itself. Afterwards we met up with a kiwi volunteer teacher who showed us the way from the monastery down to the Chullichan nunnery where she’d been living and teaching for the past few weeks. We wound our way down a gully filled with silt and rocks, which before the floods had apparently been an orchard, quite a blow to this isolated area where agriculture doesn’t come easy. The return trip to our guest house seemed to go a lot faster than we’d expected, and we felt we’d earned our dahl and rice that evening.
The next day we set out for Hemis Shukpachu, a slightly larger village where the 13 year old girl from our guest house in Yangthang walked two hours there and back six days a week to go to school, after getting up early to milk the cow. It took us three hours to get there. Here we found our favorite guest house of the trip; a smaller home with a very agreeable family complete with ancient grandparents wearing the distinctive traditional Ladakhi clothing. That night we watched Nicolas help churn butter inside a wooden
barrel using a paddle that was threaded through two wooden rings and twisted by a cloth strap wrapped around it. We really enjoyed the atmosphere in the house, and were sad to leave the following day.
We were headed for the village of Temisgam, but somewhere along the way we made a wrong turn and realized we’d been heading downhill for far too long. Not wanting to backtrack up the steep hills we’d descended, we pressed on figuring we’d hit the road eventually and probably cut half a day off our trek, but when we got the bottom of the gully we’d been following we realized we’d made a serious miscalculation. We were overlooking what appeared to be a military base with no one in sight, and could either continue on or backtrack up several thousand feet of terrain to get back to where we’d started from. We chose to press on, and it took about an hour of some of the creepiest walking we’d ever done to make it through the completely deserted base. It looked like it was meant to hold several thousand soldiers, but we didn’t see a soul as we walked through apparent testing grounds (sticking to vehicle tracks and watching for unexploded ordinance, and listening to Nicolas say he could smell gunpowder) and toward the barracks complex in the distance. At one point we heard a helicopter and pondered the significance of being Americans trespassing on an Indian military base only a few miles from the Pakistan and China borders. The ladies of the group managed to stay a bit calmer than the men, and Nicolas and I heard some giggling behind us as we jumped at sounds like shell shocked veterans.
Eventually our ordeal ended when we came to the main entrance, where a few soldiers impassively watched us approach and then gave us a quick cup of tea and bustled us down to the highway. There they flagged down a passing semi truck and forced the driver to reluctantly accept four bulky hitchhikers and their backpacks into the cab, and we went for a cramped but short ride on to Nurla. This was a small crossroads town that marked the end of our trek; Nicolas and Karoline continued on and we made arrangements to meet up later in Leh. We hopped on a bus which played an engrossing Bollywood teen movie complete with the usual melodramatic fantasy scenes with song and dance numbers, and constantly teased the audience that the protagonists would finally kiss. They never do though; apparently it’s much too scandalous. After the three hour bus ride we still don’t know how it ends.