Breakfast was a bottomless tea flask, home- made chapattis, butter and jam. Dad was going to Leh on the 9am bus and we were going to walk up to Likhir Monastery further up the valley which is one of the most active in Ladakh, with more than a hundred monks in residence. It dates back to the 11th century and the Gyalukpa order was later established in the 15th century by Lama Lawang Lhotos it said in the brochure.
Dad waved to us from the hill where the bus waited while we huffed and puffed to meet him there, so that he could show us where to find the path up to the monastery. It did not look far in the crystal clear air, but took us three hours, losing the path twice in that time. Much of the time we walked along the edge of irrigation channels built from stone along the contours of the valley sides. Water was conducted from many kilometres higher up to be distributed on the terraced barley fields of villages and farms. There was no need of pumps to lift the water; everything was done by gravity and had been done so for centuries. These aqueducts are a testament to the incredible effort made by the Himalayan people to eke out a living from the harsh environment they live in. Other than the tiny irrigated fields and orchards there was barely a sign of greenery on the slopes of the steep mountains all around.
Walking along these channels on top of the walls meant we were climbing almost imperceptibly towards the monastery although we could not see it until we climbed further up the slope and back towards the main path. Most of the fields around the monastery provide an income and food for the monks. We saw monks and villagers working side by side to bring in the harvest. The barley is cut with little hand scythes and left in bunches then turned to dry. Later the bunches are tied together and piled on the backs of people who carried the stack to another place to be threshed, sacked up and distributed. They looked like walking haystacks, especially from the back. I wondered what the donkeys were for; they seemed to have a life of leisure tethered to a stake in the middle of a field.
Nothing had changed for centuries; it was like wandering through a mediaeval feudal village, apart from the clothes people were wearing. Rows of harvesters squatted amongst the golden waving fronds, sometimes singing or chanting to lift their spirits, swinging their scythes to the rhythm. Purple mountains towered in the background with a patch of snow on Stok Kangri shining like a jewel in the crown. We rested in the shade of a wall and drank in the peaceful scene for quite a while.
We walked back into the 21st century at the monastery, climbing up some steps and hitting the tarmac road, where some jeeps were discharging sightseers and a roadside cafe beckoned us in for refreshments. They were building a completely new wing onto the monastery, but with traditional materials of rock, mud and wood so that it blended in seamlessly with the existing style of the building. The old building crafts were alive and well, despite the convenience of concrete and steel. The 20 metre tall Buddha statue was also undergoing a restoration with bamboo scaffolding all around to enable the gold leaf to be applied. I doubt whether the somewhat garish paint they used for the decorations was traditional.
These ancient buildings always look bigger from a distance than they actually are. Built in a monumental style and perched on top of a rocky outcrop, the massive walls sloping in towards the top create a false perspective. From afar there seem to be several layers piled on top of one another like a wedding cake, but in fact the layers are seldom more than two storeys tall and the layered effect is due to the contours of the outcrop they are built on. Then when you enter, you suddenly realise that these building were made for small people, the doors and windows being proportionally smaller too. We had to duck through doors built in the 11th century and bend down to peer through the windows.
Our eyes were assailed by a confusion of extraordinary images as we entered the temples, most of which we did not understand. Strange objects, deities and effigies were enclosed in glass cabinets with photos of the Dalai Lama and other high ranking Buddhist monks propped up next to them. Bizarre, sensual, sexual and violent images were painted on the walls. A bull-headed black monster with multiple limbs and bulging eyes was both dancing and copulating with a blue-skinned woman. Necklaces of human skulls featured prominently as did lions, rats, elephants and strange hybrid creatures. I even spotted a lion tattoo on the arm of a deity [They’re pretty cool these Buddhists]. The weirdest thing of all were the woollen cloaks of monks arranged in neat rows like squirts of Mr Softie ice cream, along what can only be described as pews. They looked as though they had been there for centuries. Did they contain the shrunken remains of monks?
In fact the monks had gone to lunch, but one’s imagination can go into overdrive when confronted by this cacophony of fantastic imagery.
I have tried to make sense of the images I saw in these Gompas but after doing a bit of research found the incredible complexity of it all too much to comprehend. It seems to be a blend of ancient beliefs and different sects of Buddhism with their own paths to enlightenment and their own particular symbolism. Throughout the ages there were many contradictions and disagreements between the various schools of Buddhist philosophy and every monastery would have their own local variations in their temples. If you had been raised in this culture it would all be part of your everyday life, but it would take me years of study to begin to understand.
There was also a little museum with ancient Thankas [religious paintings such as Mandalas on cloth] and strange old artefacts; chain mail, swords, guns, manuscripts, religious items made from human bones and so on.
In the courtyard was a public tea urn and we helped ourselves on this hot afternoon. We were the only visitors at this hour but then a tall, tanned European, perhaps around forty years old, loped towards us and said hello as he came through the courtyard door. He was Dutch and, drinking his tea, told us he walks nearly everywhere, occasionally hitching a ride with a truck driver. For years he had travelled in this way all over Asia, with a small backpack and a little money earned by teaching and doing odd jobs. You would think he would have learned the art of patience and taking one's time by now, but he was restless and rushed off to the temples. When he discovered they were closed for lunch he shouted goodbye to us and said he could not be bothered to wait and would walk back to Leh [which had taken us 4 hours in the bus]. His basketball shoes were worn out and had split at the soles.
We followed him out and saw him taking a short cut across the terraced fields towards the only bridge. Our path was less steep and he soon disappeared up the valley side and towards Likir and the main road. It was around 30 degrees C and we hoped to find a cafe open in Likir village but were disappointed. So scrambled back across the steep gorge to our lodgings and crashed for a couple of hours. The visit to this Gompa was our test to see if we could handle the altitude [between 3500 and 4000 metres]. We had walked much further than anticipated, but took it very slowly so had been out all day. After tea and an amazingly ample dinner of Samosas, Momos and barley pasta with Sitoo [vegetable curry] we were exhausted and had an early night once again.
Breakfast was the same as yesterday, as was the packed lunch Sonom gave us for our walk; Chapattis and jam. With our fairly heavy packs we climbed up to Pobe La, at 3550 metres [or 3747 m according to the text]. Or was it Chagatse la at 3610 metres [or 3650 m]? We were discovering that the brochure and map were not very consistent. The morning was cloudy and cool so progress was good as we levelled out onto a twisting road with staggering views all around.
At Sumdo, a tiny hamlet of no more than two houses, we stopped by a rushing stream to bathe our hot feet and eat our lunch. The bridge had been rebuilt very recently after the damage of the previous year. A couple of French trekkers were just leaving this cool spot as we arrived and fifteen minutes later two young Israeli guys came from behind us for a chat. We were not the only trekkers on this route, but by far the oldest, which perversely made us feel pretty good.
As is the way of treks, we had to climb to the next pass, which was higher than the first. The path led up through a gulley which was sheltered from the cool breeze and in the high altitude sun became scorching hot. Nell was struggling and I, even though I was used to walking in northern Australia, really felt it too. Climbing in the rare air, Nell developed a system of counting the number of steps she could manage and then taking a breather. Each slope was different of course but the system helped us to concentrate on moving with the minimum effort, refining our technique as we placed one foot in front of the other and being able to increase the number of steps accordingly.
We passed a number of remarkable pillars of rock capped by a hard layer, which, when the softer rock was eroded away produced giant mushroom shapes. The colours of the earthy mountains ranged from pale yellow to pink, green to white, often with sharply defined edges where convoluted layers with certain minerals provide the pigmentation. The rocks were shattered by frost into tiny particles which slide down into steep, vee shaped gullies cut by streams and rivulets that eventually end up in the soup like river Indus. These were the living rocks of the Himalaya, always moving upward, twisting, cracking, shifting, sliding, eroding and blowing away again.
This was to be the overall impression on our walks between tiny villages tucked into the valleys. A continual magnificent display of the Earth’s crust being transformed into this lunar landscape without the stabilising roots of vegetation slowing down the process. Each new day was as spectacular as the last as the clouds added their own contrast and colour to the drama of light and shade under the ultramarine sky.
Yang Tang Tokpo lies in the river valley below Yang Tang, and was completely hidden from our view as we approached along the road, so we asked directions from someone at one of the basic campsites provided for those trekkers who did not stay at homestays. As we reached the rim of the gorge we looked down on a patchwork of small barley fields with the harvest neatly arranged in rows and the river cutting between traditional whitewashed farmhouses; a little microcosm of old Ladakh, hidden away from the world and without visible signs of the 21st century.
The bridge here had also washed away and not been repaired yet, so we had to cross over the river to our homestay balancing on rocks and some logs that had been placed there for temporary access. A woman in her late thirties waved to us and led us towards her house above the river. The family was engaged in harvesting apricots but were having lunch in the shade of a tree. We had arrived in the middle of the day and Dolker, the woman who had greeted us prepared some lunch of tea and Tsampa [a dough of barley flour] with mashed tomato and onion. She made her excuses and took a tray of food out to the family.
Nell was eager to see the harvest so after lunch we headed out to where Tashi, the father, was perched in an apricot tree, bashing the branches with a long pole to knock down the fruit. His son Gurmat was collecting them in tins and emptying those into a triangular, wicker carrying basket. There were only two tins and when we started to help Gurmat fill one, he went back up to the house and came back with some more so the work could be done quicker.
Gurmat was around 17 years old and could speak some English, fairly typical of young people and children in the region. His parents could not, so he was our interpreter for the length of our stay. We discovered that he had a younger brother and sister but they were at school in Hemis, the next village along our trekking route about 4 hours away at our pace. They board there during the week and walk home on Saturday afternoon for a day at home. Apparently some children walk there and back every day if their families could not afford the boarding fees.
The apricots were carried up to the roof which was thankfully only a few steps up at the side of the house, where grandad Stopgas was pitting the fruit by hand and building two piles. The stones would be crushed to produce oil used for massage and cosmetics and were in fact the main income from the fruit; the flesh was dried in the sun on long planks of wood, to be eaten in the winter. [We always carried a bag of dried apricots with us on our trip to India as snacks, but they were dryer and harder to chew than those you see in supermarkets, which have preservatives added]
When all the apricots had been collected from that particular tree we helped Stopgas with the pitting and sorting of fruit. Despite being amazingly practiced and rapid, he was getting behind as the supply increased. I lost count of the Number of times I threw the stones onto the wrong pile trying to keep up. Nell then helped with the shelling of small green peas which were to be our dinner later that evening.
Sharing work like this made us feel closer and more at home with this lovely family. We chatted for a while over many cups of tea and Stopgas played his double barrelled flute for us which we recorded and filmed. That evening with the haunting, wavering sound will be in our memories for ever.
Dinner was homemade [of course] barley pasta with veggies [peas, carrots, cabbage and turnip], mild curry with chilli powder to taste, tea... We chatted some more. Spoke about the terrible floods two years before which washed away some of their paddocks, bridge and most of their livestock. They got no government assistance to rebuild. Life is very hard for subsistence farmers. They were glad of our visit to help re-establish the farm. Grandad Stopgas listened to the radio and twirled his prayer wheels. The Ladakhi governor was spouting tourism politics at the opening of the Leh Festival; “More eco tourism was required.” I hope he meant the kind we were engaged in, where most of the money went to the poor farmers.
Yang Tang to Hemis
Brekkie at eight was the usual plus the obligatory packed lunch. Gurmat guided us to the start of the trail where we meet the same Frenchies with their guide plus an Aussie with two other young French people. They soon left us behind as we slogged up another hot and steep gulley with the road zig zagging nearby. We saw a bus and a Ute [Aussie for a pickup truck] and that was all.
At the pass we could see both ends of our day’s trek. Both Yang Tang and Hemis seemed ridiculously close in the clear mountain air. Had we really slogged for hours to make so little progress? It was hot and dusty, our feet were throbbing, Nell was overheating and as were resting at the edge of the Hemis valley a woman approached us with the promise of showers at her guesthouse nearby. We still had several kilometres to walk to a homestay so it did not take much persuasion to follow her.
The shower turned out to be a bucket of hot water in a shed, but hey; this was luxury compared to an icy cold runnel near the house! We needed a wash badly. For 800 Rupees we got 3 delicious meals, including lunch as we arrived, the shower and electricity in the room. That is good value for an extra A$2.50 but I regret that we had not gone to a SLC homestay where the money was evidently more needed and used for a good cause. We ate with the family as in a homestay. The owner is in military administration and works in Delhi for most of the year. We gathered that his wife manages the farm, as well as cooking for him, the guests and some Nepalese workers who were hired to help with the harvest. To the Nepalese, even the pitifully low wages in India was good money in comparison. The Nepalese were very dark skinned and slept outside whilst we read our books by the priviliged light of our electric bulb.
Hemis to Ang
A long gentle slope led us past barley fields and a stand of ancient Juniper trees. This was one of the last stands of these trees since the leaves were used widely as incense in monasteries over the centuries. The village community are now engaged in their protection. The first pass, Rhongi La of 3816 metres was already visible at the end of a long dry incline, some Stupa and prayer walls. This was an easy start. All the trekkers started at the same time, in the cool of the morning. There was the French couple with guide, then a couple of Swedish guys of our age, travelling very light with water, some toilet paper and lunch. We got to the pass and were overtaken by a German family who disappeared rapidly down the loose, brightly coloured scree slope before us.
A long, rocky traverse across a wild and remote mountainside led us to a shady spot at noon, to eat lunch and replenish our reserves for the formidable screed slope to the second pass towering above us. Nell battled up first; the soft sand yielding under our weight as we slide back a little for each step we take. Agonisingly slowly we reached another path much less steep. Then we realised that Nell had found a shortcut, more direct but much harder. The proper path seemed relatively easy now and we made good progress; Nell managing about 30 to 40 steps/breather and 20 to 30steps/breather on steeper bits.
We were proud of ourselves with the achievement. A 300 to 400 metre climb on soft screed, in burning heat, carrying packs and, most importantly, up to an altitude of 3845 metres is something to be proud of!
A long ramble down a dry eroded gulley later we were sitting in a parachute tea shop near Ang, being served cool drinks from the mountain fridge; a splashing mountain stream. Having carried a tent all this way we felt obliged to use it once at least, since this was the last night on our trek. We camped on a grassy bank next to Fridge Rivulet and a couple of tethered Dzos. We crashed out for a couple of hours then walked to the village, had fun with kids and spent an uncomfortable night under canvas. My advice is; stay at the homestays, don’t bother with a tent.
Reflections on the bus back to Leh
We were told the bus was 15 minutes down the valley, where the road was better. We could see the damage caused by the flooding of the previous year. In places the road ended sharply at the river bank and continued on the opposite side of the river, although we were walking along a temporary track.
There was no obvious place for a bus to stop even after 40 minutes of walking. Temishgan the next village was ahead and below us. “Yes, 10 minutes further” we were told by a woman. We panicked; the bus would have left by now.
Then a loud hooting from behind us! There was the bus, already quite full with passengers from Ang. We had not needed to walk anywhere. The trip back to Leh took 5 hours, a bumpy and precipitous road along the Indus River, where flood damaged villages cling to the edge of the gorge.
I thought about the simplicity of life we had left behind in the high villages and how the floods had caused such devastation. The shadow of climate change looms over them. The poor farmers seem so vulnerable. The floods would occur again and ever more severe; the glaciers are shrinking and their water supply would dry up. Centuries of labour to construct the aqueducts would have been in vain. Whole villages would be washed away.
What do Tashi, Dolker, Stopgas and Gurmat know of this? What is in store for them as they bravely rebuild their farm and lives? I would not speak to them of this while we sat together. It may have devastated them and shattered their hopes. Or did they know and had no choice but to continue as before?
But then I compared them with our western world and realised that they were better prepared than us. They are more resilient than us, the way they live; with a local economy, communal support and self-sufficient ways. They have that tough, inherited mentality of past generations surviving in this harsh environment. They also have the gift of happiness in hardship which is brought by acceptance and belief in a greater force than themselves. I don’t believe in deities or gods but I do believe in the worth of belief itself. Call it trust in the future, or optimism, or belief in the essential goodness of Man.
When rich countries are fighting wars over dwindling resources and food, they will continue to grow their crops and herd their beasts in some remote place where life is hard and happy. I hope that this way of life will not be lost for we can learn much from it and it will be good for the future generations of these wonderful people.