I was dressed and ready to go when Numgal knocked on my door at 7:00, bringing me a bowl of hot water and a pot of tea. Room service cannot get much better than this. When I entered the cook tent, Dorje ushered me to my same table. Numgal had prepared fried eggs, complete with toast and jam and had turned last night’s rice into morning porridge, flavored with the left over apricots. Dorje had steamed the puris, quite a feat considering we did not have a steamer.
While I enjoyed breakfast, Dorje loaded the donkeys. In Ladakh, sturdy cardboard boxes are scarce and it is easier to rely on old fashion methods of carrying goods. We had several tin trunks and many jute sacks. Because there is no packing tape, these sacks were secured by sewing them closed and of course, each time they were opened, Dorje would sew them back together. Our vegetables were stored in a slated wood crate and the eggs were placed in double sided egg cartons.
By 9:00, our small caravan was ready to leave, four donkeys, Numgal, Dorje, and me. The largest donkey had to carry my luggage and I sensed he was looking at me wondering why, even out here, I had to bring so much stuff. The baby donkey only had to contend with Numgal’s kerosene burner, bottles of extra kerosene, and the egg carton. When we reached the paved road, Dorje turned right and I started to follow him until Numgal pointed to a small path leading in another direction. Our trek was through the countryside and the road would be used only when necessary. I waved goodbye to Dorje and the donkeys and soon Numgal and I were walking along the edge of terraced fields planted with barley, wheat, and the brilliant yellow flowers of the mustard seed plant. Like every other Ladkhi morning, the sky was royal blue with a few fluffy clouds hanging over the snow capped peaks framing the distance. Once again, the clear air intensified every color in the landscape. We passed by a house and looking up, I saw a little boy wearing a monk’s robe, looking out the window. He called out “juley, juley” and I felt he was wishing me good luck. We were joining a morning in full swing and the people hoeing in the fields stopped and waved. At this time, the sun was still in a gentle mood, without giving any hint of what was to come. Finally, my trek had begun, and if joy had a sound, beautiful music would have resonated across the valley.
After about a thirty minute walk through this luscious oasis, my idyllic moment confronted reality. By definition, oases end in deserts. I had seen this same scenery from my balcony and many times from the van. But now I was standing at the edge of an endless stretch of desert, an ocean of sand extending as far as I could see and bordered on each side by barren mountain ranges. Numgal pointed into the distance and said we were heading toward a mountain pass, not yet viewable. At this point, my shoes were working out fine, as I had spent time breaking them in, the legs were going good, but my back was really hurting. I had given my original backpack to my temple guide and bought a new one which had a mesh backing, but unfortunately within thirty minutes I found out I was not capable of carrying it on my back. Numgal noticed my situation. Without asking, he took the pack and slung it across his chest. I sincerely apologized, but he said the weight was nothing to him and not to worry. While Numgal toted two packs, I was left with my water bottle, actually a refilled plastic coke bottle, and my camera. With my hat on and my cotton Khmer/Cambodian scarf wrapped around my neck, we entered the desert.
WALKING THROUGH NO MAN’S LAND
Once we got started, walking was surprisingly easy because the sand was so firmly packed, but how little I knew at the time that this terrain would not last. The land was totally barren, a desiccated place with not a thing attempting to grow. Wrapped in solitude, we were the only ones there. We were gaining altitude but the incline was so slight that it was hardly noticed. I thought we were making good time and thirty minutes later we had cleared the pass which was listed around 11,000 feet. The tour program described it as a “small pass” but for me it felt like success. We took a short rest. Numgal took my victory picture as I stood under the Buddhist prayer banner, and I placed a stone on the mani wall. These walls carry religious meanings and many times the stones are painted with Tibetan Buddhist symbols. People add stones in respect to the Buddha. Also, placing a stone on the wall is a way to confirm your existence in the presence of an unforgiving, indifferent landscape, where there is no other sign of life but yourself. From the crest of this mountain, Numgal pointed out our next pass. At best I could tell, he was pointing to mountains far in the distance.
I soon learned whenever we climbed up we would eventually be heading down. As we began our descent, we quickly found the previous hard packed sand had turned into loose gravel, which in turn evolved into large stones. Walking now became difficult and to add another degree of difficulty, the sun was warming up. Slowly we made our way down the mountain and at the bottom found ourselves in a ravine with a dried out river bed. With tall mountains hovering over us, we followed the path, which attempted to hug the contour of the mountains. We confronted rock slides, as if the mountains had discarded everything they no longer needed in order to annoy anyone who dared walk past. The path across the rock slide was so narrow that it could accommodate only one foot at a time. I was now walking through those barren mountains I had seen from the balcony, glowing golden in the early morning sun. Seen close up, experiencing their jagged stones underfoot, they certainly produced another point of view. Eventually, the path turned upward and when we finally reached the top, we rejoined the paved road and saw Dorje and the donkeys coming around the bend.
The donkeys did not like walking on the hot pavement and preferred to walk along the graveled edges where they could stop and nibble tasty wild flowers. Dorje now carried a stick to encourage them to keep moving. As for me, I had no trouble walking on the road; here at last I found solid footing while I enjoyed having this little part of the world all to ourselves. But this respite was short lived and heading toward that second pass in the distance, Numgal and I left the sealed road and began walking down what Numgal described as an ancient sheppard trail. We repeated the same process as before and the closer to the bottom, the looser the gravel, and the larger the stones. But this time at the bottom, we found a stream flowing swiftly with cold melted snow. Numgal pointed to a grove of willow trees alongside the bank and said we would stop there for lunch.
The green banks of the river looked like Paradise, but as any Buddhist knows, sometimes it is not so easy to attain. As we approached, we realized the willow grove was guarded by a wall of bramble bushes and very carefully Numgal and I crawled through. I collapsed on a soft grassy patch. It was 12:00. We had been hiking up and down mountains for three hours and Numgal said we had two more to go. Along with my pack and his pack, he was also carrying our lunch. This time the hardboiled egg was fantastic and I even enjoyed what had now become the ubiquitous boiled potato. He had made peanut butter sandwiches out of the left over puris and he also included two boxed juices. For a surprise, he added a few pieces of cheese. I shared a power bar with Numgal and hoped this supplement to lunch would deliver what had been promised on the wrapper.
The sun was high above, making its presence well known to those of us down below. Even the temporary shade of the willow grove could not keep us cool. I laid down on my back in the soft grass and placed my Khmer scarf, dripping icy water, over myself like a shroud. Only the wild mountain roses seemed to enjoy the heat and their deep pink blossoms radiated in the bright sunshine.
It was 1:00 when we began to climb out of the river bed, heading for the top. My Khmer scarf had almost dried off and I soaked it again in the freezing water, wrapped it around my head to try to stay cool, and said, “let’s go”. I didn’t care if I was confronting a high hill or a mountain, all I knew was the path went straight up and was covered in loose gravel, the kind where you take one step forward hoping you do not take two steps back. The sun had become a scorcher, as if it only had eyes for us and the oppressive heat and the steep incline made the walk up extremely difficult. Wrapped up in my scarf with only slits for eyes, my view of the world narrowed and all I was able to see was the ground below me, which I was conquering one painful step at the time. Even though the water dripping off my scarf had a cooling effect, the moisture attracted large flies that swarmed around me, making their nasty buzzing sound. Swatting huge flies was just another degree of difficulty as I trudged upward. Numgal kept turning around to make sure I was still going and when he got too far ahead he stopped and waited for me to catch up. There were no trees and we rested in the meager shade provided by a large boulder but the sun remained relentless and the flies every vigilante. I was eying my watch, trying to walk at least fifteen minutes before I had to stop but at times I had to stop sooner. I kept wondering when that power bar would kick in. Finally, about an hour later, I was able to see the top and eventually we were there.
Walking a short distance, we found ourselves at the pass and once again encountered prayer flags, chortens (stupas) and another mani wall. I placed a stone on the wall and thanked Buddha just in case he had anything to do with my reaching the top. Numgal and I ate another power bar, even though I was very dubious about their effect and he announced we had only one more hour to go. In the distance I could see another oasis, the location of our camp site. The going was much easier and soon we rejoined the sealed road. By the time we reached our destination I figured we had walked five hours.
OUR CAMP SITE
The camp site consisted of a two story house built into the side of the road where the guides would sleep and a finger of land surrounded on two sides by a roaring stream, where tents would be set up for the trekkers. This area was reached by crossing a small bridge constructed from perforated steel plate, probably left over from an Army construction site. By the time we arrived, Dorje had already unloaded the supplies, fed and tethered his donkeys, and set up my tent. He placed it next to the stream under a willow tree and from somewhere found a chair and a foot stool, which he placed in front of the tent. This was the first time I saw the tent. It was a tent for two, providing plenty of room for my stuff. I had brought an inflatable mattress but the one they provided was much thicker, almost a proper mattress. With carabineers, I attached my three flashlights to the top of the tent, allowing the light to shine down like a small chandelier. The rest of the day was “at leisure”, spent reading a book. There were no other trekkers in the camp site and once again, I found myself alone in this great expanse of nature. Even though the going was rough at times, I had survived the first day and was looking forward to the next.
I looked up to see Numgal walking toward me carrying the tea tray. He thought we should do tea earlier and poured a cup of cardamom tea and offered me more cookies. Looking up at the vivid blue sky, I felt at one with the world and at the time enjoyed the tea as if it was a fine glass of champagne.
As I was reading under the trees, Numgal and Dorje set up the kitchen area. It was agreed I would return at 4:30 to help prepare the lamb for tonight’s BBQ. They did not quite understand the term, but I explained we would cut the meat into cubes, put them on skewers, and cook them over a wood fire. As for me, the reading lasted only a short time and I soon found myself napping with thoughts of sizzling lamb. To be continued.