Travel: No place for mere mortals

While trekking in the Ladakh Himalayas, Amar Grover learnt that life is harsh in India's most otherworldly district

Scanning the jumble of houses, I spotted a pair of mules munching on the flat roof. Their tails twitched contentedly. If I had a tail, it too would have been twitching - with relief. My pack bulged with a week's rice, dhal and soya, and my back was having none of it. The mules' owner watched my nonchalant approach. How does one casually hire a mule?

We ate a business lunch and drank fraternal tea. An hour later, his son cajoled one rather grumpy mule laden with my gear. We wound through a ravine and ascended the pass.

Ladakh is one of India's most otherworldly districts. High in the Himalayas, bordering Tibet, it has some of the country's most pristine landscapes. Sparsely inhabited valleys lie between stark mountains, whitewashed Buddhist monasteries perch improbably on crags and clifftops. Its culture and geography justify the name "Little Tibet", but this is no Shangri-la. Beyond the short blissful summers, life is harsh.

Trekking is increasingly popular, with tents, guides and cooks organised to the last spoon. Preferring a less organised approach, I had simply turned up at Lamayuru, a popular trailhead on the road between Leh and Kargil.

Lamayuru's monastery is one of Ladakh's loveliest and most famous. There has been one here since the 10th century, though the extant complex is just a few hundred years old. Frescoes of demons and spirits writhe across the walls of its prayer halls, and the drone of the monks fills dim rooms and corridors. Their lives seem as harsh as the mountains beyond.

It was harvest time, so my mule could only be spared for a day. Everyone was scything barley and millet. As we laboured towards Prinkiti La, or pass, crumbly hills closed in around us. Sonam, my muleteer was glad for the break; fields meant work and this was just a stroll.

At 3,700m (12,100ft) Prinkiti is a low pass by Ladakhi standards. Sonam indicated a faint col, Konzke La. "You cross in two days. Always cold," he said. I regarded this distant notch with amazement for it seemed a week away. Ladakh's crystalline air and lonely landscapes conspire to mock perspective.

Two hours later, we shuffled into Wanlah. A small monastery and ruined fortress loom over the village from a steep ridge. I went off in search of a muleteer called Dorje; voices soon hollered his name from rooftop to window to fields and back again. Dorje proved a shy young man and a small crowd watched our negotiations. He seemed ideal; he cooked, knew the route and was experienced. The schoolteacher described him as "hale and hearty". We fixed a price and agreed a 7am start.

Wanlah's only tea shop doubles as an inn. The one room has two beds and I occupied both. At breakfast, the chai-wallah nodded towards the door. I looked, and looked again. Dorje seemed to have aged overnight and gained around two stone; in fact he now strongly resembled his father, Tashi. A foal nuzzled my new mule. I hadn't bargained on a family affair.

Our little circus headed upvalley by the Yapola River, past gigantic boulders and drystone walls. An old man with a walnut face and brocade robes rode by, seemingly from the last century. There was one last village shop at Phanjila, shelves stacked with candles, drinks and biscuits; I bought coconut cookies. Tashi sauntered along, still wearing his heavy coat and woollen hat which was never, ever removed. We headed up a side- valley towards Hinju village and Konzke La.

Harvest, I decided, is Ladakh at its most sensual. Shaggy yaks stomp around threshing circles, ears of barley are thrashed with sticks and winnowed by singing villagers in twos and threes. Tashi's daughter - we'd stopped at her husband's home - dolloped rancid butter into a wooden flask. Tea was added and a robust brew infused with a plunger. Later, chang - the sharp milky beer of the Himalayas - was ladled into cups. Tashi's refills concluded with a spluttering display of affection, and I doubted our planned early start.

At 4,900m (16,000ft) Konzke La is the highest point of this trail; all but the fittest puff and pant in such rarefied air. I took it easy, the others slowly. The stark valley narrowed as Hinju fell away and even hardy strands of willow gave up the ghost. The thin steep trail zigzagged past wearying false summits. Elation was to glimpse limp prayer flags and rough cairns with goat horns that marked the pass.

Then, an almost supernatural stillness. Beneath razor peaks encased in ice or flecked with snow lay vast folds of rock tinged mauve and jade. Ladakh is composed of extremes, opposites: intense summer sun can burn fair skin in minutes, winter sees absurdly low temperatures. There are either lush irrigated fields or desert, with just a village wall between the two. Warm and clear when I arrived, Konzke La turned raw and cloudy in half an hour. It is no place for mere mortals and we plunged into the Sumdah Valley without delay. Just two villages endure its isolation. We walked for hours without seeing a soul. Shepherds' stone huts and pens were empty, grazing having ended before the onset of winter. The trail meandered through clumps of willow, crossing and recrossing the stream many times. It was late afternoon when the fields of "Great" Sumdah appeared like oases. A welcoming committee of children cheered our arrival.

Ladakhis are exceptional hosts. They welcome strangers into their homes and provide fodder for their mules but they don't fuss. It is a dignified hospitality, but they always plonked me down before the stove, the warmest part of homes that even on summer nights are invariably cold.

I was tearing into a packet of biscuits when startled by a sepulchral voice: "Oh young of Ladakh, turn away from cigarettes and strong drink, the harmfulness of packaged foods..." They fell around laughing at my amazement; then the cloth was whipped off the stereo. Solar panels are used to power dim tube lamps. This family managed to get a few plays of the Leh Nutrition Project's "Awareness Raising Songs" from a day's sunlight.

The songs - sung in Ladakhi and spliced with morose English commentary - praise wise old traditions and encourage self-sufficiency. For all its harshness, Ladakh's is a fragile environment, and purists might balk at the meal my hosts cooked that night featuring rice and lentils, foods which cannot be grown at this altitude. Ladakh is slowly losing its hardy self-reliance, a price of development.

Ten of us crouched about the stove as night smothered the valley. A knob of butter anointed the rim of a jug from which chang flowed freely. Tsampa, the ubiquitous roasted barley flour of Ladakh and Tibet, was spooned into cups of butter tea, and changed-up Tashi scolded me for not having more. To many Western palates, tsampa tastes like soil but it is the ultimate survival food; you don't even need to add water.

Another day, a final pass. We hoped to reach Chiling that night. Somewhere across the river, we needed to find the path to Dundunchen La. Were it not for my trekking book, we might still be blundering about.

Halfway through the climb, I reached a herders' camp. All was still. Not for the first time a voice startled my reverie, singing from within the pen. A shepherd beckoned. His companion sat in a dark cell making cheese, the wooden whisk spun with leather thongs. They gave us creamy yak yoghurt buried with an inch of tsampa,and for once I truly relished its nutty flavour.

The curse of most passes is not the stiff climb but the immediate knee- cracking descents. Dundunchen La was exceptional, 4700m (15,400ft) of sweeping views and near-level trail for 30 minutes. Tashi pointed out a faint line on distant mountains - the Leh-Nubra road, reputedly the highest motorable road in the world. Closer to, the Zanskar river snaked between the dun flanks of tomorrow's valley.

After a merciless descent, Chiling appeared and we found lodgings within minutes. The house had a cavernous kitchen, its stove embossed with beaten metal designs and studded with turquoise. The women chewed tsampa dough like goats and my cook watched me cook with rapt fascination.

Next morning I distributed my food and fuel. Chiling's famous metalworkers were harvesting their fields rather than tending their furnaces. Tashi set off to recross two passes. He hadn't been much of a guide and was even less a cook. But, as the teacher had said of his son, he was hale and hearty. And, hiking alone to the main road, so too was I.

TREKKING IN LADAKH

GETTING THERE

Indian Airlines flies from Delhi to Leh for about pounds 80 single. Book at the same time as your international flight to Delhi through a travel agent.

GETTING AROUND

Regular buses travel along the Manali-Leh highway, one of India's most spectacular and highest roads, and a trip - the journey takes two days - is well worth doing at least once. The Leh-Srinagar road is open to Westerners but the Foreign Office advises against travel to Kashmir.

For independent trekking, there are many private companies that can arrange mules, guides, cooks and tents in Manali and Leh. Many quote up to $25 to $30 (pounds 15 to pounds 19) per person per day. Alternatively, ask locally at trailhead villages for muleteers. Most know the popular trails and are willing to cook. Mules cost around Rs200 (pounds 3) per day. Buy your food, kerosene and stove in Leh/Manali.

Most trekking groups camp by villages. Stick to the designated patches or ask permission. Staying in homes is only realistic for solo trekkers or couples.

FURTHER INFORMATION

July to mid-August is peak season. Late August/early September sees far fewer trekkers and is a good time to go before temperatures plunge.

Recommended background reading includes Leh & Trekking in Ladakh (Trailblazer Publications) and Trekking in the Indian Himalaya (Lonely Planet).

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