A Mukherjee World View
Trekking in Ladakh: Lamayuru to Lingshet and Back
By Anamika Mukherjee
When we planned a trek in Ladakh in August, it was with the supreme confidence that in Ladakh it never rains. Or at least, it never rains much. They build their houses with sand and straw (I’m not joking!) and those structures stand for hundreds of years, that’s how little it rains. So when it started raining the night before we left from Leh to Lamayuru to begin our trek, we shrugged it off as an isolated incident; and sure enough, the next morning, it dried up (somewhat).
It was a cruel joke. On 12 of the next 14 days that we spent trekking, it rained, and rained, and – just when you thought it had stopped – rained some more. We walked through rain, we ate in rain, we slept in rain, we woke up in rain, and, irritating in the extreme though it was, we answered the call of nature in rain.
It should have been miserable, but it wasn’t. Not because Ladakhi rain is any better than any other rain, but because Ladakh is the sort of place where it’s impossible to be miserable. Here are some of the dry and happy experiences we encountered.
Although this was intended to be a camping trip and we had our tent with us, the rain drove us to seek refuge in villagers’ homes whenever we could.
Now, in Ladakh, a village might be just a collection of ten houses and a few acres of fields scattered on a sloping hillside. And “houses” often are a pile of stones put together around an unpaved courtyard. Some villages are sandwiched between passes so high that in winter they are completely cut off from the rest of the world for six months at a stretch. And when the passes are open, it is a five-day walk to the nearest road head.
In this cold, dry area we found some of the warmest hospitality you could imagine. At Lingshet, where we spent two nights, we had another trekking party in the neighborhood, and we had made acquaintance with not only the German trekkers, but also with their Ladakhi staff. One amongst the staff was an old, toothless man with two donkeys, who passed the time of day with us.
He was long forgotten by the time we reached Photoksar on our way back, thoroughly wet and disgruntled after walking six hours through rain. We stopped at the village, hoping for a roof for the night, and the donkey-man greeted us like a long lost brother. He welcomed us to stay at his house, and was so eager that we hadn’t the heart to refuse.
When we reached his house, he showed us proudly into the “guest room,” clearly the best room in the house. It had a bare earth floor, with three dusty carpets covering lumpy mattresses on the floor. The walls were bare and cracked. There was a pile of very heavy, warm, extremely rough, and disgustingly smelly blankets along one wall. He grabbed the thickest and softest of these and spread it along the wall to provide a comfortable backrest. The one window had a significant piece of glass missing. And, by far the most ominous sign, there was a thoroughly filthy bucket in the middle of the floor, catching the worst of the leaks from the flat ceiling. In other parts of the room, the ceiling leaked directly onto the floor, whence, possibly, it continued on to the room below us. That night, it would clearly be a challenge finding sufficient dry space to sleep on. And the mouldy blankets looked so forbidding that I decided I would unroll my sleeping bag after all. (In spite of which, I somehow managed to get flea-bitten twice in the course of the entire trip.)
The room was so dismal that we would have preferred to set up our own familiar tent, albeit in the rain, but the man was so happy to be our host that to do so would have been positively inhuman. We settled ourselves down carefully, avoiding the drips as much as we could, and trying not to wet the bedding with our wet clothes. Tea was pressed upon us. Unnerved by the squalid air of dirt and poverty, we refused several times; but when our host had reappeared the fifth or sixth time to enquire whether we would like some tea, we gave in and consented; whereupon we were decorously served tea – quite good tea, actually – in delicate china cups complete with saucers and all!
Some time later, when the rain had let up, we wandered out on to the open veranda and stood gazing idly at the rather lovely view of the valley and distant hills. Promptly, the old man appeared and, like a magician, with great delight produced a pair of binoculars with which to better survey our surroundings. What a pair of binoculars it was – an original Carl Zeiss Jena probably dating back to the Second World War, all polished brass with everything in working order down to the lens covers!
The old man had been in the army, he told us, and somewhere he had picked up half-a-dozen words of English, which he tried out on his with some enthusiasm. “Problem” was clearly his favorite English word, which he used at least once every 15 minutes to enquire whether all was well. At some point he had lost most of the teeth in this mouth, which sometimes made it difficult to understand what he was saying, but “problem” came through all right and as long as we shook our heads and replied “no problem” all was fine.
At another village, Skyumpata, another old man was almost as proud to be our host. Though he had possession of all his teeth, and a few more words of English, he was more difficult to communicate with because he knew no Hindi whatsoever. His daughter-in-law knew Hindi, but her Math was a little weak; so it was the bevy of grandchildren who acted as cashiers and interpreters in our negotiations. All evening, as we sat in a room somewhat less sordid than the one at Photokasr, one or another of the children would come and stand at the door and stare silently at us, as though we were some strange other-worldly creatures. As night fell, their numbers swelled and later the village women banded together to troop upstairs and examine us. One woman showed me her child, who had a sort of rash on his back, and asked for medicine. Another wanted a cure for her toothache, which she had thus far treated by sticking two band-aids on her cheeks. The others just wanted to look at us. The old man wandered in around dinner time, examined my toothbrush and toothpaste, and then took me to the world map hung on the wall and quizzed me about all the major landmasses shown on it.
In this room, for the first time since leaving Leh, we found a TV. Most of these villages have no electricity, but a lot of houses have a solar panel and a good-sized battery (in some villages, these are provided free by the government) with which they can operate lights in the evening. Apart from lights, I had not seen any other electrical appliances. I would not have been at all averse to watching TV for one evening – we had already been cut off from the world for over a week – so I asked one of the grandchildren whether it worked. It would, she said, and they had a DTH (Direct to Home) connection, but it hadn’t been set up yet.
Next to the TV, by way of entertainment, lay a well thumbed book by Enid Blyton. Nobody can say she doesn’t get around!
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