Homestay Trekking in Ladakh
Trip Start May 31, 2008
33Trip End Jul 31, 2009
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Where I stayed
I have chosen to reflect on my trekking experience by expanding on the notes I made on my mobile phone at the time to remind me of what we had seen and done. I have done my best to change what was a fragmented set of first person perspective notes into something a bit more readable, but if things seem to jump around a bit in terms of context I can only apologize in advance...
Before I run through the trekking experience though, a quick couple of notes about the before and after..
On Saturday my friend Dr Dan from Leeds and I commissioned a Jeep to take us to Khardungla, 'The Worlds Highest Motorable Road' at 18380ft (5602.2 meters to be precise - apologies for stating we were going to 6000meters in my last blog - got my facts wrong there kids - sorry).
The experience was an unforgettable one, perhaps one of the ultimate thrills on two wheels. I was fortunate to have the confidence boost of being able to hire a Trek 4300, the same bike as I ride back home (an entry level mountain bike in the UK, a high end option in India!). The ride up was another hairy one, at times slow and arduous. Once up top, when the cloud cover crept over the sun, the weather was cold and there were still small patches of snow around.
The obvious benefits of the ride were;
Complete lack of effort required from start to finish
The sense of freedom and invigoration was unprecedented for me, so much so that I was singing to myself and the world around me at the top of my voice for much of the way down
It's hard to do justice to the experience in words. 'It ROCKED' pretty much sums it up. All this cost just less than ten quid and we also got to keep the bikes for the rest of the day to explore Leh on, which was a great way to see the place. Overall - highly recommended!
My plan for my last few days here in India is to see the Taj Mahal on a coach trip tomorrow and then to catch my train to Mumbai on Sunday, arriving Monday morning and flying out to Queenstown via Singapore on Tuesday night. The contrast from what I experienced over the previous five days trek in Ladakh will be about as big as they come I think.
This is a brief diary of the experience to try to explain why (please excuse some of the grammer and writing style - am not too confident on how to write this);
Chilling to Spituk via the Hemis National Park
Our trek was the cheapest way we could find to experience some of Ladakh outside of Leh, costing about 3500 rupees (41 quid) for five days and four nights with a guide staying in Ladakhi home stays. The six of us involved (Dan, Hayden, Lee, Tom and Eddie) felt this was the best way to gain insight into life in a Ladakhi village community.
The home stay initiative is designed to improve funding for conservation of the local environment (in particular the endangered Snow Leopard) as well as the local economy. In highlighting the direct correlation between nature focused tourism the Government run scheme aims to subsidize the loss to livestock farmers incur in preserving local predators such as the snow leopard by organizing the tourism to offset the cost of any loss. Thus a pest is turned into a friend and is hopefully saved.
Sunday, 6th July
An early start for the first day of the trek, our group convened outside the Shanti Guesthouse at 06:45 in order to go into Changspa for breakfast before meeting our guide at 8am and heading for the 9am bus.
After going to the Snow Leopard Tours office and being introduced to Jimmy, a Ladakhi from the village of Skew we set off down to the public bus station for our bus to the trek start point of Chilling
The public bus set off promptly and we were fortunate to all get a seat as it was fairly full and quite cramped. Not unusual for an Indian public bus I am told, but this was my first experience and as such was quite exciting.
The bus didn't take long before stopping to add extra cargo to the load. Before we had got to the outskirts of Leh city itself we must have stopped at least five times, with bags and planks of wood, large gas canisters and even hay bales being slowly piled on top of the bus and in the isle. By around 10am however we were off and were getting acquainted with some of the locals and a German couple who were going trekking also and who had previous experience of Ladakhi Homestay which we all discussed with them.
We must have been roughly about 15 kilometers out of Leh, probably an hour after we set off when I noticed a thick burst of smoke from the exhaust of the bus and the bus came to a standstill in the middle of a barren desert land. A little commotion ensued with the driver and some of my fellow trekkers getting off the bus to investigate. News soon came back that the bus had overheated and that we were a bit stuck
During this time it began to rain. Ladakh is an Indian state which is known for being one of the driest in the country, with 300 days of sunshine a year so I was a bit worried that we had all made bit of a mistake in deciding not to bring waterproof jackets with us for the 5 day trek. The weather soon abated though and there was a sense of relief when the second bus came to pick us up to take us to Chilling. Locals re-loaded the new bus and again we were on our way.
Hitting the crossing point of the mighty Indus river with the Zanskar (an amazing vision of two waters clashing at their meeting point) our bus rattled along the riverside roads at quite a pace. I realized I had been deceived in thinking that the Manali to Leh white knuckle ride was my last. It had not occurred to me that the 'trekking day' was going to start with another session of making peace with my maker...
In circumstances such as this - a foreign environment - one often uses the reactions of the locals to gauge the perceived 'threat level' - it helps you to make the assessment 'am I over reacting?'
Eventually, after a second disembarkation from the bus to watch the driver 'get busy', our group were all very relieved to reach Chilling and our home stay in what could fairly be described as a timeless little spot. What struck me immediately was how very simple living in a Village is.
After a roam around Chilling itself and a look at the local temple our group was separated between two homes, the two couples accommodated in a house next to ours. Dan and I were shown to our host's house for the night. We were introduced by our guide and shown to our rooms and were soon eating dinner with the residents and a German couple also staying in the house. We were served a traditional Ladakh dish of wheat Pasta type called 'Chutaki' a Yellow Curry ish sauce flavored things with local vegetables mixed in
As we all sat on the floor to eat (no tables or chairs in the main room of the house) I couldn't get over how peaceful it was. There were no distractions, no TV, not even a radio. Over dinner we tried to find out about the family home which housed two old grandparents living with the host couple who were themselves parents to four kids living away from home. I was amazed to hear that the family had lived in the house for 600 years, over fourteen consecutive generations. It was still a very basic home and it was easy to think that not much had ever changed there - one might imagine the house reconstructed in a place like the Jorvik Viking Centre and looking appropriate!
After a good sleep I investigated the dry eco toilet which was very clean. The toilet is a simple hole in the ground which you squat over and then shovel some earth over when you're done. The waste is used as compost, most efficient. Breakfast was Chapattis served with home made butter and jam, again with the Germans, followed by trekking to the box-pully river crossing! A good walk for 3hrs, the sun was hot when we arrived at our next home stay at Kaya
This time it was 2 rooms with 3 mattress per room. After exploring Hayden and co found walking sticks for the next few days but were told off by a local Grandma. Natural resources are a serious asset here and not to be used willy nilly!
I read Dan's 'The God of Small Things' for a while having stupidly thought I wouldn't need to bring a book and then we all gathered for dinner. Out guesthouse Wife served rice, spinach and dhal. She had a 3month old baby with her who she breast fed while we al ate sat the floor. The baby was born in the hospital in Leh and was a day sleeper - unfortunately for Mum.
The house has had government subsidized solar power which is used for lighting. This has been in use for 7 years, candles and kerosene was used before this. Atmosphere was lovely at the house and as we played cards together we were aware of a gathering and the noise of a party in the kitchen / living room. Found out later this was a meeting of the local woman's group.
Another good sleep and another breakfast of fat chapattis with jam (local Seabuckthorn jam this time - delicious!)
I randomly met a traveler from earlier up the road, a Kiwi Nick from the Shimla to Manali bus at the Shingo Parachute Cafe. It's always funny how you bump into people. Arrived at Shingo and stayed at a new home stay which was only opened this season. Desperate to get clean I decided to get a wash and felt just about the most 'at one with nature' I ever have. The mountain water is so clean you can drink it from almost anywhere without boiling it and after first asking the home stay owner I was directed to a stream where I washed my hair and sat down in my pants in the water and cleaned myself up with a bar of soap. It really was most invigorating and most excellent to get clean after nearly three days!
Had a nice evening walk with Hayden+Lee to explore what seemed to be the most beautiful place yet, had another evening meal of 'Chutaki' and then our group celebrated Haydens birthday that night with some beers and cards
Left beautiful Shingo and headed to Rumbuck. Went up pass, Kanda La(4900m) - a hard walk. Dan and I pushed ourselves up the mountain, leaving the others, we were pleased to beat the Germans who had set off early and also the Spanish, getting up to the summit in about four hours with stops. We saw Marmots in their burrows (like a cross between a Beaver and a Wombat) on the way up which was a real thrill for me as I hadn't seen much wildlife as yet. Trekked downhill to a Parachute Café and just avoided a rain shower, the 2nd of the trek. Rumbak homestay village seemed very big compared to the others. I got the feeling that because the village was the biggest yet that the place was a little more developed. There seemed to be a lot more livestock integrated into the village with outhouses flanking the villages homes, a small medical centre was at one end of the village and there was also a Tibetan Prayer wheel in the middle. Our family even had a transistor radio in the kitchen which was thus far unprecedented and almost felt like an affront to the senses after such basic living and tranquility previously.
Dinner was Rice, Dhal and Veggies. Had a last night of cards together in the room Dan and I shared which was great fun (Black Jack the game of the trek). Our final sleeping configuration was three rooms for two people in three separate homes.
Commenced our final day with a breakfast treat of home made Curd with our Chapattis and Jam. We trekked through most of the morning over lots of river crossings to our final finishing point and our jeep Jingchen. We passed what must have been around 50 trekkers with their associated caravans of support teams (campers - not homestayers) which was a bit of a surprise to see so many. My legs were quite sore after the previous days summit climb and although I felt a sadness to be leaving the beauty of the mountains and the basic but effective lives of Ladakhi villagers, it was a relief to get to the car and be whisked back to Leh for a well earned bit of R & R and a Tuna Sandwich with Chips and Salad!