Last night’s supper was a robust affair. A delicate spicy/sour vegetable soup with crispy poppadoms followed by platefuls of fat pasta in a vegetable stew. Tom thought it was more like gnocchi and it had that same dense chewyness to it. It was all cooked and served by the lady of the house in the tiny corner kitchen which all Ladakhi houses have, tucked away amid the gleaming pots. It was to be an early start as it’s the longest hike of the whole trek – around 21K – and Sonam wanted to be off while it was still cool. We made plans for breakfast at 05.30 and settled down for an early night.
Well I may have had worse nights, but I can’t remember one. By the look on Philippa’s face this morning I know she’s never had a night that bad. It began with a hysterical dog literally outside our window that barked and barked and barked. And barked. Then barked a bit more and barked again. That would have been bad enough but we were also plagued with some kind of tiny biting fly that went up our noses and in our eyes and bit any exposed skin. They were only gnat bites but each one was like the prick of a pin. We tried covering our heads but it was too hot. Sleep was pretty much impossible. I may had got an hour or two when the dog was too exhausted to bark, but I’m not sure Philippa slept at all and, frankly, we couldn’t wait to get up and go. Tom reckoned he’d had about two and a half hours sleep in his room. We arrived early for breakfast in the kitchen/dining area which was warm from the the fire under the range. Our lady host was focused on cooking flatbread for us, kneading the dough and spinning it flat before throwing it onto the hot plate. We each had a couple with honey and jam for breakfast; P and I sitting silent and exhausted and wondering how we were going to get through the day.
It was good to be off in the cool of the day. Sleepy partridges wandered across the trail and the sunrise began catching the tips of the mountains across the river. It was an uneasy start though. None of us had had enough sleep and P’s back was playing up. Sonam carried her back pack for her but there was a real feeling that this trek might be over before it began. There is no real leeway when you are hiking at these altitudes. But with the help of Mr Ibruprophen and a lot of water we kept going. Tom, in fact, was absolutely fine and seemed like he could have jogged the whole route, but P and I maintained a slow steady pace at the back.
It was at least a fairly level trek along the Markha river, creamy with silt.
This was an important trade route back when Laddakh was a kingdom and we passed the jagged remains of houses once owned by the nobility, perched on high clifftops to oversee traders moving below. Pointed stupas shadowed our route, some ancient, some merely old.
They are the focal point of reflections on the dead. Sonam told us that the remains of holy men were buried in the oldest stupas but ordinary folk built them to house sacred texts and to be a reference point for their worship. Behind them are low rectangular rock constructions, covered with flat stones inscribed with prayers.
The lettering is beautiful, some is Tibetan which Sonam could read and some was in an ancient Nepalese script which he couldn’t. We passed several of these on today’s trek and all were covered in prayers.
The sun eventually moved over to us and even at 8am it was searing. We plodded on through a vast landscape that denied us any sense of progress. We were stick figures on the broad rocky flood plain. Sometimes we passed through groves of trees and wild roses where the air was refreshing and cool. Eventually we came to a “tea tent” by a spring where we filled our water bottles and relaxed under a canvas shade.
We are all drinking as much water as we can. Staying hydrated is apparently the key to avoiding altitude sickness but none of us can manage the recommended five litres a day. During the day none of us really has an appetite either. We get a hearty packed lunch which usually consists of a small boiled potato, a hard boiled egg, a Ladakhi flat bread with a slice of processed cheese, a juice box a chocolate bar and a twist of salt. None of us has been able to finish this at one go. That said, we are eating vast platefuls of various vegetarian dishes in the evening.
There was a small group of horses at the spring loaded with what looked like camping supplies. They were dusty little animals with colourful embroidered blankets and wooden saddles. A couple of foals with them were sleeping in the sunshine.
They eventually moved out in a line with a horseman riding at the back whistling at them occasionally.
We gave them a few minutes and followed on, passing more big chalky stupas and low piles of prayer stones.
Occasionally we passed shepherds huts built into the rock face. The piles of thorny brush on the walls of the corals next to them suggested they were still in use. A little further on Sonam pointed out a “latto” belonging to one of the villages. It’s the shrine where villagers conduct regular rituals to ensure that their community is protected, or prosperous or is safe from wolves – or whatever the need is at the moment. This one was surrounded with offerings of red painted ibex horns.
Sonam told us there are wolves in this valley and they are now protected, but he took us past a stone wolf trap that had been in use generations ago. It was a circular shelter built into the slope so a wolf could jump down and get any food placed there but wouldn’t be able to jump out. And then, said Sonam, the wolf would be stoned to death.
We stopped at another tea tent for out lunch, this one run by a cheery older woman with a face the colour of a hazelnut and a few, gleaming teeth. “Julley! Julley!” Everyone is so friendly and welcoming. Her house had a satellite dish, solar power and a brilliant solar water heater which most of the homestays have. You pour cold water in one end and extremely hot water comes out the other almost instantly. All of this kit has been provided by the local government.
Our destination – Markha – wasn’t far now. At one point we had to take our boots off and cross the river, knee deep in surging water. It was refreshing on a hot day.
And finally, after seven hours of walking and a slow ascent to 3760M we reached our homestay – and it was still only half past one. This homestay was a lot less primitive than the last and clearly more of a business. We began, as seems to be the custom, with welcoming cups of tea (mint or “milk”) before finding our room – a large space with mattresses covered in rugs arranged around the edge. P and I plunged into them and snoozed. T did something electronic.
When we surfaced sometime later our bags had yet to arrive and Sonam was puzzled. “I hope he hasn’t lost one of his horses”. The tonkle of bells announced their arrival sometime after five. These horse caravans service the whole valley and the horseman had to drop a child off at one of the villages. Our bags were just part of his load today. It was so good to have a wash from a bucket of solar powered hot water change into some mostly clean clothes and feel a little bit fresher.
We’ve met an adventurous bunch of travellers in Ladakh. There was a couple we met in a Leh coffee shop who’d been travelling around the world for three years in a Landcruiser with a living space attached. Were they going to travel like this indefinitely? “No” she said firmly. Her husband had clearly been about to say something different and closed his mouth. Discretion being the better part of valour and all that. Camping behind our homestay in Skiu and again here in Markha were Jerome and Tasmeen who hitchhiked most of the way here from France. They set off last year and had nothing but praise for pretty much everyone they’ve encountered along the way – especially in Iran where people were queuing up to offer them a bed for the night.
Our beds for the night were a whole lot nicer than last. The rooms of course are very basic – and somewhat shabby here – but there were no bugs and no psycho dog and we all slept.