Momentarily lost in the tiny village of Hemis Shupachan, I turned down a stone alley and bumped into an old local. He greeted me warmly and asked where I was from.
“Australia? Which city? Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra?”
“Wow, you know your cities. Have you been to Australia?”
“No! But Ricky Ponting is my friend!”
For those who don’t know, Ricky Thomas Ponting AO was the captain of the Australian cricket team from 2002-2011. I was big into cricket as a kid, but that was a long time ago. My heroes were fast bowler Dennis Lillee and wicketkeeper Rod Marsh. But the legendary pair had retired in 1984. Of course I’d heard of Ponting, but I had long since lost interest in cricket (except at the beach). I wracked my brain to think of an Indian cricketer who actually played this century. I didn’t want to run the risk of causing offence by naming a Pakistan or Sri Lankan player – they take cricket extremely seriously on the subcontinent (and yes, most Pakistani players have distinctive names but it’s easier to confuse a Sri Lankan name for Indian, if, like me, you have just the barest grasp of the topic).
“How about that guy Tendulkar, he’s amazing?”, I offered, thinking he was a fast bowler. “Oh yes, the greatest batsman of his time!” said my new friend. I breathed a sigh of relief. Yes, I’d mixed bowler for batsman. But he was both Indian and he only retired last year. And on top of that, he was really bloody good, perhaps the best Indian player ever. What a stroke of luck! And it was well received: this was the beginning of a great, if shortlived, cross-cultural friendship.
Hemis Shupachan is the second village on the fairly popular “Sham Valley Trek”. Some agencies in Leh call it the “Baby Trek” because it really is pretty easy. But that shouldn’t deter you, because it is also beautiful, and interesting, and a perfect way to acclimatize yourself for later, more challenging treks. On this afternoon, I was looking for the way to a nameless 4,000 meter (I estimated, anyway) hilltop, precisely for that purpose.
We talked about cricket a bit more and then my new friend told me of his visit to Europe. He’d spent three months there, and had clearly had a ball. “From Paris, I went to Brussels by T….G….V….”. He spoke the letters slowly, with reverence, then added “Ooh la la!” After a huge grin, he made sure I knew “that’s French”. He’d visited Spain, he’d spent time in Switzerland, and all of it thanks to friends: “I never spent two rupees from my own pocket. I am such a lucky man”. He was a really nice man, too, and I enjoyed his company. We discussed the ridgeline on the far side of the valley, and he agreed that my proposed route up past a stupa was achievable. We shook hands, and wished each other the best.
I scrambled up a pretty steep, sandy hillside, careful not to set off a slide below me. It took a moment or two to learn the way the sandy, rocky surface reacted to being walked on, but it was strong enough and the faint trace of a path gave me extra confidence. Inside half an hour I had reached the stupa above the village. My altimeter read about 3,800 meters. Once at the stupa, it was an easy and enjoyable walk along the ridge top to a pass, where I pushed up another steep slope towards the top. Out to my left, above me and much more surefooted, was a herd of what I think were Asiatic Ibex. We looked at each other for a bit, and went on our own way.
At normal altitudes this walk would be a snip, and even after just a few days at 3,500-3,800 I was already feeling comfortable. Four thousand meters is obviously nothing in a place like this – the hill didn’t even have a name. But for someone who lives at 44 meters above sea level, 4,000 is not to be sneezed at. I wasn’t puffed when I got to the top, but I was pleased to be there.
We were trekking with an outfit called the Ladakhi Womens Travel Company, the first company in Leh to be run by a woman and exclusively use female guides and porters (though we didn’t use porters on our trip). This was, and still is, a pretty big deal in a still conservative society that has what many westerners (well, us, at least) consider quite chauvinistic views about gender roles. Male guests (like me) are permitted on these tours if they’re accompanied by a woman (as I was, with Yon). The other people in our group were both nice – a woman from New Zealand and another from France, both younger than us. A pair of Swiss women about our age were doing the same route with another of the company’s guides, and we fell in happily with them. Everyone was friendly and good company.
The route takes you west of a town called Likir, itself about 2 hours’ drive west of Leh. Over four pretty laid back days – some days we didn’t hike more than a few hours – you traverse the valleys and passes north of the main valley of the Indus River. The terrain, stark and beautiful, is also easy, and the altitude (excluding my side excursion) doesn’t get above about 3,800 meters. That’s why they call it the “baby trek”, though part of me thinks that’s a ploy to upsell younger trekkers to something harder and more expensive. The Sham Valley trek is definitely worthwhile and (like I said) a great way to acclimatize effectively. [Note: some people will suffer at these altitudes regardless of their fitness. Altitude sickness affects different people at different heights. You *must* spend time in Leh acclimatising first, for at the very least a few days, especially if you flew in. And there is only one way to treat altitude sickness: lose altitude]
Outside the small villages, there is almost no shade on the entire route. It’s hot here in the summer, and on our first day one of our little crew suffered badly with heat exhaustion. She’d just arrived “in country” and was vomiting for most of the first evening. That first day we’d walked during the hottest part of the day; from then on we made very early starts.
The landscape is so stark, so dry, and so lifeless that the small villages seem like oases when you reach them. In fact, they too are very dry, and their green fields are the result of very careful irrigation and water conservation.
We chose the “homestay” option, and given the heat I’m glad we weren’t camping. At each village, we stayed in a guest room in a traditional Ladahki house. The homes were much cooler than I imagine a small tent would have been. They have no running water in the house, but there’s plenty of water from nearby streams. The first place had a diversion channel so the water flowed right past the partly outdoor kitchen (it virtually never rains here, so an outdoor kitchen is perfectly serviceable). Toilets were “long drop” pit toilets, clean and very well designed. There’s a pile of soil in the corner and a shovel, and when you’re done you “flush” by sending a shovelful of dirt down the hole. A few years later, what’s down there is shovelled out and used as fertilizer. Nothing much is wasted in this place. Each place had intermittent electricity, and each had a solar panel which was efficient enough to charge a battery that could run one or two low energy lights for the regular intervals where the mains failed.
We ate Ladakhi cuisine in these guesthouses. It’s tasty, if carb-heavy, and pretty simple. Everything has to be made from scratch, and the vegetables were all pulled from the garden each day. Typical fare was dhal with rice, or “thukspa”, a Tibetan style noodle soup, or “momos”, the Tibetan take on Chinese-style dumplings. There was also a generous supply of freshly made chapati bread.
There are some lovely old monasteries around the Sham valley – Temisgam was one, just a few hours walk from Ang – but there are also a few new ones being built. We stopped at this one along the way.
Village life was slow and friendly. Ladakhi has a wonderful word – juley, pronounced joo-lay – which means “hello”, “goodbye”, “please”, “thank you” and “welcome”. Thanks to the friendliness of the Ladakhis and the word’s multiple uses, you hear it a lot and you don’t really need to learn any other words. We stopped in at a tiny store by the road in Ang, run by a former policeman (I saw his medals pinned up on the wall). Juley, he said. Juley, we replied. We pointed at what we wanted, handed over the money. Juley, he said. Juley, we said. Everyone smiled, and we sat under a tarp he’d strung up and enjoyed the view as we sipped Mountain Dew (again!) and ate McVities Hobnobs. Three young guys arrived and bought a beer to share. Juley, juley, juley, as they were welcomed, greeted him, greeted us, had the greetings returned, and bought the beer, thanked him and received his thanks. It was a lovely feeling, repeated not long after when we left and “juleyed” our thanks and farewells.
But the stark landscape is what I remember most. Dry as a bone, hot, and scarcely a drop of water outside the green little villages. I came to understand very clearly why prayer flags decorated the passes and dotted the high points above them. Our guide told me: “they are there to give confidence. When you are walking, and maybe you are tired or lost and you think you cannot get there, you can look up and you see these flags. And you know someone else went there, and then you know you can do it”.
(Clip: get a feel for contemplating wind-blown prayer flags (15 secs))
We returned to Leh happy, tired, and sadly covered in insect bites from the last guesthouse (an occupational hazard of trekking in a place like this). Baby trek? Perhaps. It was pretty easy. But worthwhile? Most definitely.