This morning, my guide (Ishey) and porter (Deachen) picked me up from my guesthouse around 7:30 am. I left a load of belongings with the guesthouse owners for safekeeping during the trek, resorting only to the absolute essentials. We set out by taxi to drive towards the mountains, on the mostly rocky (and very bumpy) road to Chilling (3210 m), which took several hours.
At one point that offered a stunning view of turquoise water against the mountain backdrop, Ishey asked the driver to stop so that I could take a photo. I pulled out my little Apeman camera from my jacket pocket, ready to start snapping away, and, much to my horror, the camera did not turn on. I had fully charged it the night before (or so I thought), but obviously something had gone awry. Power outages intermittently occur at my guesthouse, which could have been the cause, or maybe I accidentally turned off the switch that powered the outlet. Either way, like an idiot, I had forgotten to charge the backup batteries and didn’t bring a backup camera source (iPad, phone), choosing to leave them at the guesthouse. Maybe the altitude had gotten to my head.
Luckily, Deachen offered to snap photos and send them to me, so all photos of the trek posted here are courtesy of her. She had brought her phone and charger (more on that later, but the homestays all ended up having electricity). This was a relief, and I wouldn’t let my oversight ruin my experience. We continued to ride past the bluest waters, purple-streaked rock faces, patches of green trees with little homes nestled among them, and a few groups of people working on the road or passing in another vehicle. The sky was bright blue and the sun was blazing on my side of the van. The driver stopped at a pulley station for crossing the river, a few people standing by to operate it. One by one, we loaded ourselves, along with our backpacks, into the basket to be hauled across the river below.
After all three of us were safely over, we began walking, Ishey leading the way. With the exception of a few small hills, the path was mostly flat. We rested at a prayer wheel, which Ishey turned clockwise, and then walked around the first stupa (both customary practices).
We saw “thavo” (not entirely sure how to spell this term), basically the Buddhist version of an inukshuk, and passed locals in colorful clothing, whom Ishey would each time greet with a warm “Julay!” and speak with them briefly in Ladakhi. We also came across stone homes with farms (and some with solar panels), growing barley, wheat, peas, cauliflower, carrots, onion, apricot, apples, walnuts, etc. All the farms had dzo (a cow/yak hybrid), horses, dogs, goats, donkeys, and cows.
We arrived at our homestay in Skiu (3350 m) very early in the day (noonish), leaving plenty of time to rest and chat. We waited in the living room while our host prepared the bedroom and his son (I assume) prepared hot chai.
The afternoon was mainly spent staring at the poplar and willow ceiling planks, lying on a mattress topped with a rug, talking with vibrant and curious Deachen, who is 24 and from a village east of Leh called Tharuk. I learned that she is a passionate ice hockey player, even participating in the world-record highest altitude hockey game. Hayley Wickenheiser, the former captain of the Canadian women’s national team, recently visited Leh (in January) to coach the Ladakhi women’s team (Team India) for one week. Hayley is fundraising for the team to travel to Canada for the Wickenheiser World Female Hockey Festival this November. This is a great opportunity for the team, who only have two months of time on the ice to practice in the winter. Deachen also met Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau in February, and now me, her third Canadian.
I also learned that Ishey has been a guide for the Ladakhi Women’s Travel Company for 11 years or so. She comes from Markha Valley (which we will visit), but lives in Leh with her husband, son, and mother.
For supper, we ate a simple vegetable soup along with a traditional Ladakhi dish called chutage, which consists of balloon-shaped wheat pasta in a sauce with spinach, carrots, and other vegetables. It was nourishing and simple, what I would categorize as comfort food. I finished it off with a butter cookie (because, vacation).
We went to bed early (around 8:30 pm). It took me a little while to actually fall asleep, and I woke up around 1 am or so having to use the toilet, as is my habit. Unfortunately, the toilet trip is a major operation up here: putting on a coat, warm pants, and boots; grabbing a flashlight, toilet paper, and garbage bag; and heading outside in the cold to the wooden shack with a hole in the floor (composting toilet). I have grown accustomed to rustic toilets with no amenities from previous trips to Thailand, but the whole experience is still relatively uncomfortable, especially when you factor in the coldness and darkness.
I awoke again around 5:30 am to the sun peering into the room and mist hanging densely over the mountains. The matriarch of the household was already outside, beginning the day’s work crouched over a stove, making chapati (roti) for breakfast. Today, we will walk for 6-7 hours to Markha Valley. I prefer to have full trekking days, so I’m looking forward to the longer stretch.
I feel pretty good aside from a stuffed-up nose, which is likely from the carpets in the room Deachen and I are sharing. We will have breakfast soon and then be on our way.