DAY II: Bakula Campsite to Tip Yokma
The alarm was set for 0645 hrs and we welcomed the day with a cup of hot tea sitting inside the sleeping bag. The night was super cold as frost had crept up slowly and covered the entire tent in fact the interiors of the tent too had a light layer of frost, something like a thin crest pizza and i think this was the highest cold that i had experienced till date. The mercury had fallen drastically in the night and by a modest count the temp would have been hovering at around minus thirty easily on that morning. The thoughtful gears that I had invested in made their presence felt as my body was able to withstand the cold during the night reasonably well. (More on this at the end)
Post a hot breakfast consisting of broth called thupka made up of vegetables cooked in water followed by a cup of hot soup and locally made biscuits we were ready to roll. There were various patches of ice , in places it was deep ice with a good grip while in some places it was like glass and the reflection bode ill to anyone who kept his foot over it for there was absolutely no grip. Mostly we walked in a sliding manner and it is very imp to use a heavy walking stick to check the ice ahead else if would just break the moment one put its full weight on it. There was so much to see as the texture and pattern of the river, the gorges as well as the ice kept changing every few hundred metres.
After an hour and half we reached Shingra , an alternate campsite for Day I . The river took a pretty turn out here, the walk continued and soon we reached Tsomopal Dhar where there is huge cave which is again used as an alternate campsite depending on circumstances. We had a break here and had an early lunch and rested for some time prior to proceeding ahead to Hottong.
There is a small waterfall out at Tsomopal Dhar, which has an interesting tale. In the bygone history, the people of Zanskar , Nerak region had no water streams and were facing dire problems. Hence a lama (religious leader) decided to journey to Tibet to find a way to get back water. Out there he met higher beings who agreed to help him and gave him a box stating that the same to be opened only at the place where the lama wanted to water to flow. The lama started his journey back and travelled days till he reached Tsomopal dhar and seeing that his journey is nearing to an end, his curiosity got the better of him and while he was resting in the cave, he opened the box. Inside he saw that there were two fishes and one jumped out, he immediately slammed the cover of the box shut, however one fish had escaped and disappeared in to the ground. From that place a stream of water started flowing and the same flows till day irrespective whether it is winter or summer there is no freezing of the water.
After Hotong the gorge became narrow as well as trickier and at places we needed to climb up the rock face and then descend down view the ice was just too tricky to trust. The weather turned bleak with snow on the upper reaches as we trudged in silence out here deep in the bowels of the earth. The chunks of ice kept floating sedately on the river oblivious to those who walked the banks. They were so graceful that it reminded me of the geishas of the Japanese culture renowned for their grace and symmetry while giving performances. There was something so eerily similar to them. The silent swoosh of the ice clumps that brushed against the river bank as they continued their way towards whatever destiny had in store for them was heard so distinctly considering the quietness that was omnipresent all around.
To experience what i am writing one needs to be in that place in that moment, words don’t do justice even a fraction though we do try all the time. The end for the day was close by, it was past five in the evening as we moved ahead, the exhaustion visible in the way we moved ahead. The destination was Tip Yokma , a celebrated campsite of this trip which marked the tipping point of this trek. The criticality of Tip Yokma can be gauged by the fact that one crosses to the other bank to access the camp site and also for proceeding ahead and in case the ice on the river breaks out here while one has crossed over then he is stranded on the other side, for the route to retracing back no longer exists.
As darkness descended we reached the campsite and the end of a super long day. Tip Yokma is definitely unique and there are numerous caves all along the valley rock face which are utilised by the support teams of porters to light roaring fires and keep the cold and darkness at bay through the night.
DAY III : Tip Yokma to Nerak Campsite
It was an early start for the day with the destination being Nerak campsite. The sky remained overcast throughout and today the path was trickier with long stretches alongside the river bank with a width of hardly a metre and to top it, the ice was super smooth.
The way points enroute were Yokma Do, psums chumo (juniper tree), and finally Nerak campsite. Way points like Yokma Do have a history of their own, tales speak of a certain Ladakhi King who while on his way through these regions stayed at this cave high up in the vertical rock face along with his cook and courtier as the night fell for which they had crossed the frozen river. However, during the night, the ice thawed out and in the morning the king saw that he was totally marooned inside the cave.
Hours turned into days and slowly the food carried was exhausted, finally as the hunger reached high proportions, the King decided to sacrifice and eat the least useful member of the group and this turned out in the present circumstances to be the cook. The cook hearing this prayed that night to his Gods to help him; for next morning he was supposed to be killed. Come morning, the King saw that the ice had once again frozen in the night thereby enabling them to leave the cave and cross the river.As a result even to this day no porter or trekker stays at this cave even if the river is frozen solid and night has fallen/adverse conditions persists .
One aspect I would like to bring out is the way the porters lug the loads, sometimes in excess of 30kgs itself. Now we are not talking of backpacks or ergonomically designed loads rather bulk boxes or sacks. these are carried using sledges which are fashioned by them locally which are pulled thereafter manually. At places where one has to detour and leave the ice, the sledges are so fashioned to inculcate slings which allow the entire sledge along with the load to be hosted onto the shoulder as then the porter then climbs up the mountain side in search for the alternate route. Only those who are experienced can do this kind of load pulling, for the strains on the shoulders as well as the technique of a heavy load sliding behind oneself while moving on slippery ice is a different ball game in itself. But they have a happy grin on the face and are at home in these sub-zero temperatures moving along the trek route.
The ice is a devious being , waiting to drag the unsuspecting trekker down as one is mesmerised by the landscapes and vistas displayed at every turn and it is so natural to lower the guard and focus as to where the step is being placed , is it slippery rock solid ice or brittle weak ice with swift flowing waters below and the trail has been frozen with all its undulations , twists and turns , a real challenge in itself considering that there is considerable distance between the guide /porter and the trekker, hence lessons have to be learnt on the go and all as quickly as possible.
Ahead of Nerak campsite the Zanskar continues and the trek moves ahead for those who wish to reach the village of Padum thereby reaching the end of the Full Chadar trek, for then one retraces the same route back till chilling. One has to cross the Woma gorge in this sector which is the trickiest part of this full trek where in the trekker has to walk on iron poles jammed into the vertical rock face view this year the ice has not formed at this sector of the Zanskar resulting in deep water flowing below.
Padum can be reached in a day trek from Nerak campsite and also the trail up for the Lingshed village also comes once this gorge is crossed. Considering the present condition, I decided to abort the goal of reaching Lingshed village and decided to instead trek up to Nerak village.
There are many trail paths leading ahead of Padum too, for there are a series of valley systems up ahead. These include the Lunak valley, Sham valley, Stod valley etc which are interlinked and have their own tales and historical places. Padum forms a part of the Lunak valley which moves towards Darcha and further down Manali. Phuktal monastery is a part of this valley. Sham valley consists of Xanga, stongdey and is the actual valley link connecting Leh to Zanskar region using the zanskar river. Stod valley moves towards Kargil and consists of the famous Pensi La high altitude pass
More on this further tale , to be contd in the next segment…..