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‘Land of high passes’

Avid Gisborne traveller Jane Griffin realises a long-held dream to go trekking and sight-seeing in Ladakh, Northern India. She shares her story with the Weekender.

I flew to Leh via Singapore and Delhi along with my partner-in-(travel)crime, fellow Gisbornite Kay Bayley, and met up with a former colleague Tony Hyde over there.

The flight from Delhi to Leh is spectacular. It takes you over the Himalayas and culminates in a sweeping descent over several high ridges to Leh airport, situated alongside Spituk Monastery in the Indus Valley.

It's remote and it feels even more so when you realise that the reassuring text you promised to send your husband confirming your safe arrival is never going to be sent! Why? Because phones only work with a local SIM card and it takes at least seven days to set one up as it has to be approved by the Indian Army. Ladakh is a strategic area due to its border with Tibet and China which necessitates a high military presence. So, in order to communicate with the outside world, we had to content ourselves with sporadic internet at our hotel.

Leh, at an altitude of 3520m, is the heart of Ladakh and a hub for trekking, rafting, yoga and meditation. The population is 70 percent Tibetan Buddhist, 30 percent Muslim and 100 percent friendly. In the narrow streets you are likely to be greeted with a smiling 'julley', Ladakhi for hello.

Ladakh is a high desert land, much of which resembles a moonscape with occasional patches of green where apricot trees and barley grow. It is dotted with monasteries, and fluttering prayer flags form part of the landscape. The monasteries (gompas) perch on hillsides and tower above the villages below. Some of the older gompas (such as Lamayuru) were built in the 11th century and it is here that you can see that earthquakes are a rare occurrence in Ladakh. For their age, these structures are in remarkably good condition and their interior walls are still covered in their original painted murals. Ladakh means 'land of high passes' and we were fortunate to experience travelling over the three highest motorable passes in the world.

Due to their altitude, they took our breath away, both scenically and literally! At 5602m Khardung La is the highest pass. In the company of many Indians riding Royal Enfield motorbikes our small car, which took three of us around the country along with our guide, negotiated the tortuous road to the summit where there was a rapid donning of warm clothing and clicking of cameras before descending to the Nubra Valley below. Our lodging for the night was in a beautiful tented camp in Hunder.

We had hoped to ride camels through the sand dunes in this valley — however, a dispute between two villages had made that area a no-go zone. Fortunately we were able to visit and photograph a different herd of camels further along the way.

During the course of our trip, we also travelled over Chang La Pass (5360m) to visit Lake Pangong and Taglang La (5328m) to Tsomoriri Lake. At 130km long and 6km wide, Pangong is the largest saltwater lake in Asia. Only a third of the lake is in Ladakh with the remainder being in Tibet. These lakes are hauntingly beautiful and our sense of isolation was heightened when staying in these remote valleys.

We travelled on just about every road that was able to be driven on in the whole of Ladakh although there is still a vast area with no road access at all. In fact, during the winter months, some of the rivers freeze over and are used for the transportation of people, on foot, and goods, by sled. Intrepid trekkers also use these routes.

The road signs alone could tell many a story: Don't be silly on the hilly; Be Mr Late not late Mr; After drinking whisky driving is risky; Safety on roads is safe tea at home.

A book has been published about these pearls of wisdom the title of which is 'Peep Peep Don't Sleep.'

Before leaving New Zealand we had organised to do part of the Markha Valley Trek but heavy rain during our time in Ladakh caused landslides and flooding and also swept bridges away. This was merely disappointing for us, but devastating for those whose livelihoods were affected.

Fortunately, we were able to do a four-day trek on the other side of the valley which took us over Shang La Pass at 5000m. For the most part the weather was fine and provided clear views over mountain ranges as far as the eye could see.

Our tents were pitched in scenic campsites, one of which was on a high plateau surrounded by mountains and, more closely, grazing sheep. The sight of grass must have been too much for our packhorses as one of them made a break for freedom overnight and took a bit of rounding up the next morning.

At this location the local shepherds were examining a donkey and foal in a stone yard. A vet from another group of trekkers was able to use our supply of Betadine to treat an open wound on the mother donkey's back and we left the remainder of the antiseptic cream for further treatment. The loss of this animal would have dealt a great blow to its owners so we hope the treatment worked.

One evening the weather closed in and trenches had to be dug around the cooking/dining tent in which our chef produced delicious meals for us, including hot chips at one meal as a nod to our Western tastes.

Later that night I experienced a scary moment during a visit to the toilet tent which collapsed around me in torrential rain and pitch darkness. There were a few cattle grazing outside the old stone wall around our campsite and I thought one of them had invaded our campsite and crashed into that important facility. Fortunately that was not the case. It was just bad weather and bad timing for me.

As we descended from the higher altitudes of our trek, challenges were posed by river crossings which involved changing from tramping boots into waterproof sandals and leaping across rocks and powerfully rushing water with the assistance of our capable guide Chiita.

Each stream had to be carefully studied and evaluated before the crossing point was decided upon. Happily we made it unscathed to the valley below.

— To be continued

Lake Pangong, 130km long and 6km wide, the largest saltwater lake in Asia. Picture by Kay Bayley and Jane Griffin
Local women spinning prayer wheels at Lamayuru Gompa. Picture by Kay Bayley and Jane Griffin
Lamayuru Gompa (monastery), built on a rocky hilltop, dates back to the 11th century. Picture by Kay Bayley and Jane Griffin
Kay and Jane at Shang La Pass, 5000m above sea level, the highest point of our trek. Picture by Kay Bayley and Jane Griffin
A view of the town of Leh from Stok Palace where we visited a museum. Picture by Kay Bayley and Jane Griffin
A woman working in barley fields beside Lake Tsomoriri. Picture by Kay Bayley and Jane Griffin