First hike in High Himalayas – the beginning of a grand love
Love-at-first-sight is a peculiar sensation, which I have felt many times in my life (though mostly temporarily). Flying over the mighty Himalayas, my anticipation was reaching its zenith. Our little airplane made a tight turn between mountain walls to land at Leh airport in the early hours of June. The plane landed, I climbed down the stairs with my kids in tow, retrieved our bags, and walked out of the airport. I was so ready for a pounding heart, sweaty hands, and to fall in love with Ladakh instantly.
Leh – a high-desert city in the Himalayas at 11,483 feet. The capital of Ladakh – the Land of High Passes. It was our very first trip to Ladakh – to Indian Himalayas. I was expecting a clean, quaint, mountains-hugging town, a town I was supposed to love at first sight. But, alas, I did not feel any love at first sight for Leh, no sensation, nothing, nada, zilch! Rather, it looked sad and dusty with a backdrop of brown mountains, devoid of much life. It was coming out of its slumber, stray dogs stretching their backs, shopkeepers sweeping the front of their shops. My kids’ faces did not express any emotions. Perhaps they were trying to be kind to me; they had been witnessing my overflowing excitement since we took off from Delhi.
Over the next couple of days, I tried to stay optimistic about our twenty-day plan to explore Ladakh. In the morning, we walked through the narrow, maze-like lanes, peered inside souvenirs filled shops, played with and fed the beautiful but dirty stray dogs, ate Ladakhi food, and talked to tour operators about our trekking options. In the night, we faked cheerfulness over facetime with my husband, discussed possible treks we could do, and tried to sleep through the loud fights of the beautiful and fierce dogs. Gradually we were understanding Buddhist ways of living by observing peaceful, content, and happy Ladakhi people, following simple rituals of circling around the huge bells, listening to the flattering sounds of praying flags tied on every building, and reading books. Ladakh was busy preparing for 13 days of ceremonies and rituals known as the Kalachakra. This sacred event where key Buddhist teachings are passed on to devotees will be held near Leh next month. The whole region is looking forward to welcoming and listening to HHS Dalai Lama.
Leh – Likir Gompa
On the third day, we were dropped by a 4WD off at the Likir gompa (monastery) about 56 km from Leh, with our backpacks, two hikers from Switzerland, and one from Canada. Likir Gompa is the starting point for our first hike in the high Himalayas. We were to hike the next three days, hiking 32 km in the lower part of Ladakh, Sham valley. Trek’s official name is Sham Valley trek, commonly referred to as “Baby Trek” for being the easiest one in the region. Baby Trek was recommended to me by every tour operator immediately after they saw two skinny 10-year and 7-year kids trailing behind me in their offices.
There we were, the three of us, at the Likir gompa at noon in the blazing June sun. It was the first monastery we set foot in, and also one of the oldest monasteries in the region, dating back to the late 11th century. Likir monastery has two assembly halls and a courtyard, which are gurded by a large 23m gold-gilded seated statue of Maitreya, the future bodhisattva. The monastery was closed, all the monks were busy in Kalachakra preparations. We spent considerable time admiring colorful frescos (thangka paintings) of the Guardians of the Four Directions and wheel of life mandala, which was explained to us by the caretaker.
Likir Gompa – Yangthang (Day 1)
I had decided not to go with a guide in the spirit of hiking independently. After all, it was just “Baby Trek.” I was miserably off. We started around 30 minutes after our fellow hikers to maintain a respectful distance. Today we had to walk only 10 km to our destination – Yangthang (3677 m). The sky was clear blue glass- not a single cloud. The sun was shining high, and we were out of the village, away from the stream and trees, walking through the silence of the barren mountains, kids sharing stories from school, and singing songs. Listening to the sounds of our boots, licking our dry lips, drinking warm water every 15 minutes, and drenched in sweat, we kept walking up the mountains. Eventually, kids had stopped talking and singing.
By now, I had a dull inkling of being lost. There was no path, no cairns, and I hadn’t seen anybody for the last two hours. We were running low on our water supply. The heat was rolling over us, and there wasn’t even the tiniest patch of shade on those shimmering mountains. People told me about short-cuts which villagers take, but I didn’t see any. After some deliberation with little hikers, we unanimously decided to climb up to get a better view to help us read the sketchy trail map. To our relief, we noticed a narrow zig-zag road from above and climbed down to walk along with it. It was the newly constructed connecting road between the remote villages and I think villagers were still not used to it. We shortened our walk by skidding down the dusty slopes between road’s zigs and zags. Though exhausted, once again kids were animated and enjoying dirt skiing albeit without skis.
Seeing a green patch in the distance was the most beautiful sight so far on this trail and made us resume singing “hard sun” of Eddie Vedder. It took us an eternity to walk all the way down to the valley, and cross a stream over a bridge to reach the oasis, a small village called Sumdo. All we needed was some shade and cold water and entered the first house we saw. Freshly whitewashed and partly under construction, sitting next to the green fields of barley, it became our refuge. Our hostess was kind and non-judgemental and welcomed us like an old friend. Kids were offered cold water and ushered to a room with mattresses arranged on the carpet lined floor, where they would sleep for the next two hours.
As the sun started losing its ferocity, we started gaining our spirits. Refreshed by water and tea, kids befriended their donkey and little boy. Our host, Sonam offered to drive us to Yangthang; perhaps he was concerned about my kids and not impressed by my navigation skills. It was a no-brainer decision to drive rather than hiking along the road in dark. His rusty truck with peeling green paint was loaded with our backpacks while we sat snuggly in the front, talking to Sonam about Ladakhi simplicity and bliss. We reached Yangthang homestay just in time for dinner. Everybody, including Swiss and Canadian hikers, was in the dining room and we joined them. It was a long and exhausting day. Our host confirmed that we must have walked more than 15km. Oh well! a lesson learned without any damage is a good lesson.
Yangthang – Hemis Shukpachen (Day 2)
The next day, after recovering the shock of the traditional Ladakhi toilet, which is basically a hole in the lower level room, where human poop mixed with cattle dung transforms into fertilizer, we started upbeat and early. The walk was easy that day (as it was yesterday), with a gentle ascent to Tsermangchen La (3,874m) followed by an equally gentle descent down to Hemis Shukpachen. We walked along the cascading stream shaded by the thick green trees. The calmness around us began to spread into our hearts. Leaving the trees behind, keeping our pace steady and bodies hydrated, we slowly climbed up towards the pass. I heard the sound of wind thrashing the praying flags tied on top of the pass. Picking up the pace, soon we reached the top. Blue, white, red, green, and yellow flags with sacred symbols greeted us joyously. Surrounded by a sweeping vista of the barren landscape, humbled by the simplicity of Ladakhi life, captivated by dramatically rugged mountains and mesmerized by flapping sounds of praying flags – I felt a profound bliss, a deep connection – a beginning of a grand love with Ladakh.
Walls of colorful arid mountains, the fragrance of incense and butter lamps in gompas, fluttering colorful praying flags, slowly clockwise spinning praying wheels, wrinkled faces with twinkling eyes and kind hearts, simple living with nature, gentle greetings of “Juley” have been silently working their way in the deepest recesses of my heart. It was the beginning of my love blended with reverence for Ladakh. It is the kind of love that never fades or loses its luster. It only grows more with the passage of time.
Hike down to the village was easy, which stayed in sight the entire time. Hemis Shukpachen is a charming dash of green with sparkling brooks surrounded by shady willows, cedars and barley fields. It did not take us long to find a homestay. To our surprise homestay had a flush toilet and regular beds. Swiss and Canadian hikers had found it before us. Rejuvenated by momos and tea, we set out to explore the village. Kids were delighted to see and touch the donkeys, calves, kittens, and Himalayan bunnies with spooky dark red eyes.
In the evening we were joined by another couple with a guide. The next day hike to Temisgam was next to the road and kids were not very excited to walk. We discussed our options with the guide and agreed to wait for him the next morning to come back after dropping off the couple. Swiss and Canadian were also not thrilled to walk next to the road in the hot sun and decided to join us back to Leh.
After a satisfying, delicious dinner, lying on a comfortable bed, I reflected upon our first genuine encounter with high altitude desert, my first time walking in the Himalayas with kids, our first time together to reach 3,874 meters the highest point so far. Memories of the angry sun, dry throats, and cracked lips were already receding. After all, we did have a memorable time.
Hemis Shukpachen – Leh (Day 3)
The guide came back around noon the next day for us. He drove us to Leh with a detour to Alchi village to visit enigmatic and only gompa built on level ground. About 900 years old Alchi gompa has some of the finest examples of Buddhist art. We ducked through a small and exquisitely carved door into one of the most outstanding temples of Alchi complex – Sumtseg (means three-storied building). It’s interior was dark and perfumed with the scent of burnt butter oil and incense. It took a while for eyes to adjust and jaws to drop down by the surrounding art. Slowing we started to register everything – walls covered with hundreds of Buddha’s paintings in ocher, black, green, azurite, and gold, about 17 feet high painted statue of the Bodhisattva Maitreya on the back wall, two statues representing compassion and wisdom in niches on sidewalls. We lost track of time as our guide explained to us the meaning of different scenes from Buddha’s life embellished on elegant drapery worn by the deities.
It was disheartening to see mud lines running over those paintings, which have been preserved for almost a millennium by the low humidity of high-altitude desert. The onset of warmer weather in the past three decades is slowly and irreversibly damaging its fragile structure. We left Alchi with a humble reminder of Buddha’s teachings about the impermanence of everything.
That night I slept with an invigorated heart and renewed resolution to make our every moment in Ladakh an unforgettable. The next morning we shopped for traditional Ladakhi robes and jumped right into its inviting and gentle culture. We spent the next four weeks exploring Leh and surrounding areas, soaking up spiritual vibes at monasteries, savoring traditional Tibetian food, bantering with locals, hiking in the mountains, rubbing shoulders with monks at Kalachakra, and visiting Hemis festival to get a closer glimpse of Ladakh’s soul. In those four weeks, Ladakh slowly worked its way deeper into my heart and took a firm hold there. It was not a “love at first sight”, it is a love developed slowly to last forever and now Ladakh is my happy place on this planet, a place where my soul lives.
Enjoy the story, here is another one from the trail – First backpacking in Patagonia
Read hiking with kids for useful tips to start hiking with the family.