Donkey Crossing

Welcome to Donkey Crossing! Donkey Crossing is an on-line account of one Limey and one Yank living one Dream. From September 2006 until the end of 2007, we plan to visit friends and family on five continents and immerse ourselves into various cultures, natural phenomena and ways of life. We hope you enjoy our tales and visit often! Cheers, Jason and Rachel Napoli

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Trekking India's Himalaya with Five Ponies, Two Pairs of Trekking Poles and One Pounding Headache

August is monsoon season in much of India and Nepal. Monsoon rains and trekking don't mix well, unless you're a fan of muddy trails, treacherous river crossings, mountains hidden in mist and leeches. Unwilling to have our trekking dreams thwarted by the seasons, we transcended the rains by venturing to Ladakh, high into the Himalaya in Jammu & Kashmir state.

Scenes like this one enticed us to beautiful Ladakh

We'd chosen the eight day Markha Valley trek for its reputedly varied and breathtaking route, winding high into the Himalaya, down into the Indus valley and into parts of Zanskar. We expected six to eight hours walking each day, starting at 3,200 meters (10,500 feet) and crossing two passes over 4,575 meters (15,000 feet). Having hired a solid team to accompany us on this high altitude adventure, we stocked up on drinking water, as well as band-aids and painkillers, anticipating blistered feet and aches, pains & strains.

It's amazing how much gear it takes for one couple to trek in the Himalaya for eight days.

Here we are with Dhondubtsering, aka "Dhon", our Tibetan guide, on day one of the trek. Our clean and fresh appearance didn't last long.

Bikas Lama, or "Lama", played the dual role of Nepali music loving youth and Head Chef. In retrospect, it would've been fairer to photograph the tasty fruits of Lama's labor rather than his fairly basic and rather scummy looking kitchen tent. Lama fed us a veritable feast every day, including fantastic veggie curries, delicious rejuvenating soups and energy boosting carbohydrate concoctions.

Tsering Gurmey, known universally as "Our Pony Man", was an ever smiling presence. His kind temperament was particularly appreciated at 6:00am every day, when he appeared at our tent door with steaming spiced black tea.

We were secretly disappointed to discover our gear would be hauled by five ponies, having hoped there would be at least a donkey or two on the team. We were tempted to adopt this donkey, but he'd already been 'hired' by other trekkers.

For the first couple of days, we hiked through the Indus Valley gorge, then climbed to Yurutse village, soaking in the barren yet dramatic surroundings. On day three, we found out why our tour agency had placed the Markha Valley Trek in the "demanding" category. We slogged our way up an obscenely steep ascent to Ganda La, our first major pass at 4,900 meters (16,075 feet), gasping and stumbling along. We basked in the glory of making it to the pass long enough to take in the superb view of Stok Kangri mountain behind us and the Zanskar range ahead, before being urged onward by the cold wind and lack of oxygen.

Burnt rose red and orangey brown cliffs provided a striking backdrop to our Markha Valley trek, a recurring presence through changing altitudes and terrains.

A quick photo at Ganda La pass before continuing downhill to greener and more oxygen rich ground.

From Ganda La we began a long and scenic descent to Skiu, where we found the Markha River flowing and crops growing in the valley.

Crops, especially barley, grow on every farmable surface near Markha Village. The green fields provide a pleasant contrast to the naked, rocky mountains.

This barley is almost ready for harvest. We munched a local toasted barley snack called "Yosa" while we walked.

Bordering Tibet to the east, it is not surprising that there is a large population of Tibetan refugees in Ladakh. Their presence and influence is visible throughout the region, particularly through the plethora of Buddhist symbols and shrines.

We trekked past many stupas (also called chortens) like these, built by local Buddhist families.

Perhaps even more beautiful than the mountains themselves are the mani (prayer) walls. They are abundant throughout the Markha Valley, many simply consisting of hundreds of flat rocks, engraved with Om Mani Padme Hung, the well known Buddhist prayer. Larger stones often bear passages from Tibetan Buddhist Scriptures. The mountains provide the perfect backdrop for this particularly exquisite mani wall.

These prayer flags bring both color and blessings to the region, and to those who live here.

Although Jason and I had booked a private trek, one of the highlights was meeting locals and other trekkers. Nicola, from Heidelberg, Germany, was also doing a private trek. She walked at our pace and we enjoyed each others' company, so we soon became trekking buddies, sharing snacks and conversation.

Dhon leads, with myself and Nicola following close behind. The co-ordinated t-shirts were unplanned.

We had fun with these two Brits, Rob and Richard. River crossings with them were particularly entertaining, as they both attempted the first one barefoot. Jason and Dhon ended up throwing their own sandals back, after they'd successfully crossed, to save our friends breaking their ankles or getting swept downstream.

There's nothing like a glacial river to make life feel like an invigorating, fast moving adventure.

Jason demonstrates an altogether more civilized method of crossing the Markha river.

These cute local children distracted us from our aching limbs as we took a break in one of the trail's many "tea tents", operated by local women.

There is no denying that trekking in the Himalayas is hard work. Walking up and down steep rocky paths would be taxing in any environment, but the lack of shade, proximity to the sun and oxygen deprived elevation along our chosen route made for some physically challenging days.

Our smiles conceal the pain!

Since this was about the only patch of shaded grass we encountered in eight days, a lunchtime snooze proved irresistible.

Unfortunately, in spite of several days acclimatizing in Leh, Jason's body had trouble with the high elevation along the trek. He developed a persistent headache which worsened with each climb. By the fifth night, we reached Thochuntse, where we camped in a high, exposed valley, nursing Jason's pounding head.

In this stark spot, Jason tried to get comfortable in the hired sleeping bag that was a foot shorter than he is, while I washed clothes in the ice cold river.

The next morning we set off towards Nimaling, the highest camp site of the trek at 4,700 meters (15,420 feet), and starting point for climbing to Kongmaru La, a 5,306 meter (17,408 feet) pass. It was a gorgeously scenic hike with jaw dropping views of Kangyaze Peak. Despite Jason's thumping head and feverish chills, he still managed to take the stellar photos you see here.

The mighty Kangyaze and her reflection.

In spite of a determined physical and mental effort, Jason's body refused to continue, and Dhon initiated a pony rescue. Nicola and I waited with Jason, constructing a sun shade with trekking poles and a bandana (proving our merits as potential contestants for the next series of 'Survivor'). For two hours we looked after Jason, feeding him water and sugary snacks, while treating him with Nicola's aspirin. We'd long since exhausted our supply of painkillers, even though we'd brought enough to kill a horse, never mind a headache. Eventually Dhon appeared with a fairly uncooperative but nevertheless adequate pony. Onwards and upwards to Nimaling.

Jason straddling his pony with "Nurse" Nicola and Dhon "Quixote".

Neither of us slept much at Nimaling, a particularly bleak camping spot, the only facility on site being our kitchen tent. Even Lama's tasty dinner failed to entice Jason out from his sleeping bag. The next morning, the rescue pony was put to work again, carrying Jason up to Kongmaru La. Once over the pass, Jason was back on his feet, relieved to make the final descent of our trek.

This heroic pony looks a bit weary after carrying Jason up to this 5,306 meter pass. Somebody give him a carrot.

We were extremely grateful to Dhon, whose expertise not only with our route, but also dealing with altitude sickness, saved the day. He carried Jason's water supply, constantly monitored his symptoms, orchestrated a rescue operation and ultimately brought both of us down from the mountains safely. Dhon's weakness for a rum or three in the afternoons didn't detract from him being an excellent guide, who treated Jason more like a brother than a client.

Dhon in his element in the mountains. He has 13 years experience as a guide, but cannot start his own tour company in Ladakh because his parents are Tibetan refugees, meaning he has very few rights. He will climb Mount Everest for the first time in October, guiding for a charity climb. We wish him a safe and successful expedition.

Our descent from Kongmaru La involved a seemingly endless downhill trail of scree and red dust.

The scenery on the way down didn't disappoint, with jagged formations and neon shrubs amongst the rock scape. I even spotted a herd of Himalayan Blue Sheep. They resemble something between goats and deer, and aren't blue.

Covered in dust and boasting bulbous blisters, we spent our last night at considerably lower altitude. Lama cooked us a special meal and we gave our crew a bottle of rum, which made things a bit more festive.

Lama produced pizza, "baked" potatoes, stuffed peppers, various curries and even a chocolate cake. Particularly impressive since he was working with a couple of kerosene burners and pressure cookers. Not an oven in sight.

The rum loosened everyone's vocal cords and we took it in turns to entertain each other (and humiliate ourselves a bit) with songs. We had a Nepali song from Lama, Ladakhi songs about ponies from the pony men, who overcame their shyness under peer pressure, plus a Tibetan love song and a Hindi song about intoxication from Dhon. Then it was our turn. Nicola sang a German folk song, then I did a couple of verses of On Ilkla Moor Baht 'at, followed by Jason's rendition of Take Me Out To The Ball Game. It was quite a party for about half an hour, before the three tired trekkers crashed from exhaustion and chocolate cake coma.

The mess tent. Left to right: Nicola's cook/guide, our pony man, me, Lama, Dhon, Nicola, Nicola's pony man.

Our wake up tea didn't appear until 7:30am on our last day, giving us a luxurious lie in. We walked along the Martselang Valley for a couple of hours, which felt pleasantly undemanding, towards the jeep that would take us back to Leh.

Four happy hikers enjoying our last day together.

Looking back, although our Himalayan trek wasn't always straightforward, it was certainly unforgettable. It felt like we'd hiked halfway to heaven (with a little taste of hell at Nimaling). Back in Leh, we savored the luxury of changing into clean clothes and dining on good food, without an ex-army mess tent in sight.


Anonymous Emily said...

Brah-VO to you both for making that trek. I use your blog and your worldly experiences to check myself sometimes when I'm feeling down. Reading your blog and seeing the pictures of some of the remote places make me feel lucky to have what I have and to know that soo, soo many do so much with less. For example, your cook. I'm a bit envious of his skills- but I'm now motivated to produce abundant treats for my family on a kerosene burner- err- my stove. How inspiring! Good job on the hike, guys!

2:52 PM  
Blogger Matt said...

Jeez, Napco. Playing with fire on this one for sure. On my first trip to Telluride (elevation 8750, peaks at over 12,000) I ended up in the hospital with altitude sickness and was told that it could have been lethal. But then again, what were you gonna do--get in a car and drive down?

Astounding images, worth coming back to for a gander of the infinite and the monolithic, something bigger than us all.

Congrats on making it over! More inspiration from the likes of you two...

1:09 PM  

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