There’s nothing quite like walking into a snow storm on a mountain pass 3,900 metres above sea level with no shelter in sight, no companion – and wearing a pair of shorts. Perhaps I’m embellishing the actual danger I was exposed to slightly, though only to reflect my paranoia in that situation. Never before have I genuinely felt like my life was potentially in peril and its existence could hinge purely on a decision between two bad options! As I later relayed my story of diabolical circumstances to locals and other travellers, I was most disappointed not to receive dotting sympathy but rather gruff responses like, “he can’t handle the cold”, “chickened-out” and “excuses, excuses”. Indeed, I probably panicked in the moment and took the conservative – though not necessarily intelligent – judgment to turn back. But lets start from the beginning…
The primary reason why tourists travel to Ladakh is to trek in the Himalayas. I arrived in Ladakh in early October, purportedly an optimal time to trek at the end of tourist season and just before the winter weather strikes. For pure convenience, I intended to sign-up to a 5-day guided group trek through the Markha Valley, the most popular trek. However, the travel agent, who coincidentally is sitting at the restaurant table right beside me as I type this paragraph, was irritatingly lackadaisical about confirming the departure dates and route plans, so I decided to cancel my involvement in the group trek. And since many backpackers complete the treks independently, I thought why shouldn’t I do the same and save some money too?! At my lovely guesthouse in Leh, an affable German named Harald, a veritable encyclopaedia on trekking in Ladakh, strongly recommended the Sham Valley as an alternative option for independent trekking. He vouched for the authenticity of the homestay experiences in the Sham Valley, in comparison with the overly-touristic Markha Valley, and noted that no mountain passes in the Sham are above 4,000 metres (versus the highest pass in the Marka at 5,300 metres). Convinced of its relative ease, I committed to trekking in the Sham Valley; though I inadequately prepared for the resulting weather...
I departed Leh brimming with confidence that I could complete the 4 day trek in 2.5-3 days; as I would not be delayed by frustratingly repetitive and unnecessary breaks of slower companions. The weather in Ladakh had been gloriously warm in the preceding days with a blazing sun and uninterrupted blue skies, so I anticipated the same conditions would prevail throughout the trek. Ignoring the manipulative advice from taxi drivers, I caught the supposedly non-existent morning bus (the seating arrangement was obviously custom-made for the four-foot tall local populace) to Likir, the first village in the Sham Valley. I walked to Likir’s gompa (Tibetan Buddhist monastery), which was annoyingly a one hour detour in each direction from the village. The monastery is rather large and seemingly floats above the surrounding terraced landscape at the bottom of a valley. Unfortunately by this point I was becoming rather gompa-ed out, because Tibetan Buddhism has not really demonstrated a flair for architectural variety throughout the ages. I returned to Likir village for lunch, but was disappointed to find that all the home-stays and restaurants were closed. This did not bode terribly well for the villages I intended to stay at in the Sham Valley. I settled on purchasing a packet of cream biscuits from a tiny store for my sustenance for the day.
I commenced the trek through the Sham Valley from Likir toward the small village of Yangthang. German Harald had led me to believe the trails would be potentially difficult to find, but it was actually rather easy and intuitive. The trek was also physically easy, with only minor ascents and descents. The Sham Valley is essentially a series of interconnected valleys separated by passes ranging from 3,500 metres to 4,000 metres, rather than a neat, continuous divide between the mountains. I couldn’t label the Sham Valley as the archetypal Himalayan landscape; the mountains are completely stripped bare of vegetation, which expose their ochre red bedrock. The only traces of life are the clusters of trees surrounding the trickling streams and the omnipresent cows that are inexplicably sustained by the mountainous desert environment. In the mid-afternoon, I approached a farmstead where the local family eagerly welcomed me in, no doubt to acquire some business. They attempted to convince me to stay the night by suggesting Yangthang was at least two hours away, but I politely declined and paid for the chai they forced upon me. Hardly to my surprise, the remaining section to Yangthang only took one hour to traverse and I arrived just before the temperature plummeted with the Sun departing the sky at 5pm.
Yangthang is a pretty village of white painted, slate roofed stone buildings perched high above the confluence of two trickling streams (which presumably rage in spring). I stayed at Padma’s Homestay and was the only foreign visitor lodging in the household of 12. I was surprised to be given a separate bedroom with a comfortable mattress and powerpoints, though I wasn’t thrilled by the paper-thin plywoods walls (rooftop add-on) and consequent lack of insulation! While ambling around the village, I was pleased to encounter a Swiss couple; quashing my fear of being the only tourist attempting the trek. Before darkness cloaked the valley, I braved the plummeting temperatures to have a cold bucket shower and then hibernated in Padma’s dining/living area for the rest of the evening. The warmth of the kitchen welcomingly heated this richly furnished stone-walled room. A row of low tables with corresponding cushions were arranged along the length of the room, while a large cabinet at one end proudly displayed the family’s collection of huge Ladakhi pots, decorated tea thermoses and other accoutrements. Several members of Padma’s household spoke English and they were substantially more worldly than I anticipated. Most of them actually lived in Leh or Jammu for work or study; they simply return to the home village for the weekends. In the wintertime, Yangthang is inundated with snow and they claimed that the elusive snow leopard is often sighted nearby.
The Swiss couple informed me about a detour to Rizong Monastery, which I had no previous knowledge about but promptly decided to visit. In the early morning, I hiked down a valley leading from Yangthang to Rizong Monastery, scrambling up and down pathways traversing loose scree and hopping from stone to stone across the relatively dry river. The scenery was much more impressive than the previous day, with sheer cliffs of red ochre rock imposingly defining the narrow valley. I arrived at Rizong in the late morning. Aside from the magnificent setting and the monastery’s scale, I wasn’t overly impressed by Rizong; it was just another gompa. The unnecessary venture to Rizong left me significantly off course, requiring me to cross a mountain pass on a very steep and dusty trail. The weather remained stubbornly overcast and cool despite the recent tendency in Ladakh to clear and warm by midday. The 90 minute ascent to the pass was tremendously scenic with the exposed rock of the mountains appearing to fold over each other. When I finally reached the pass, I was dispirited to see the Sham Valley draped in thick, ominous black clouds. But I could also see my target village and figured it was about one houraway, factoring in the astonishingly steep trails I would need to descend and then briefly ascend. So I pressed on, hoping like hell it wouldn’t rain before I arrived in the village.
I wasn’t threatened by rain though, but rather a snowstorm. Suddenly a piercing wind blew a gust of ice into my face. Perplexed at first, I scanned the valley and realised there was a thick wall of snow hurtling in my direction! I was shocked and horrified by this most unexpected development, especially since I was wearing just shorts, a T-shirt and a light jacket. Advice from Lonely Planet flashed through my mind: its not recommendable to attempt mountain passes at 4,000 metres and above in Ladakh without a guide because the weather can change so rapidly. The temperature certainly changed rapidly, as I was now freezing from the pummelling wind and the snow saturating my flimsy clothing. On the verge of panicking, I had to make a quick but rational decision between two undesirable options. I could risk hiking through the storm for nearly an hour to the village, the closest form of shelter, or take the much longer route back to Rizong and hope the storm fails to cross the mountain pass. I chose the later option, because I was already familiar with that trail and I decided staying in the Sham Valley with wet and insufficient clothing would be futile anyway. So I scampered back to the pass while the wind and snow’s increased in fury, half expecting the fear of death would give me another gear to power through the exhaustion of the ascent (mythbusted). When I reached the pass, I began jogging down the trail and was relieved from the unbearable wind. The black clouds though had breached the pass and continued to dump snow on me. However, the snow seized once I was 100 metres down and 20 minutes later, the sun blazoned in a bright blue sky. Dejected from the ordeal, I was intent on abandoning the trek and returning to Rizong to take onward transportation to Leh. I like to think this was a wise decision, because black clouds hovered around the pass thirty minutes later.
The other guests and staff at my accommodation in Leh hardly expressed convincingly genuine sympathy for my hardship when I returned. Perhaps that’s why the guesthouse felt like my “home” in Ladakh. I would like to note that none of the others bothered trekking simultaneously or later, because of sheer laziness… or wisdom.
That’s all for now,