I have always been a mountain goat. Watching fluffy clouds floating by, having a cup of chai at 5 am in my tent, watching a bazillion stars at night, watching sheep and horses being stupid in the wild, makes walking for hours and smelling my stinky socks all worth it.
But when it comes to treks, I am super biased. If there isn't a lake on the trek, I ain't going. I love the idea of walking for hours and chilling by a lake, skipping stones, being goofy with the team. The colour of the lake sometimes change depending on the light and sometimes you see ducks or birds fishing in the lake. It's all so epic.
So when it came to walking in the heart of the valleys in Ladakh, I did not know what to expect. I just knew there were epic mountains and there would be goats and I just had to go. I met with the team the night before the trek, and laughed out loud because it was just gonna be four girls and two of our guides. I knew right then it's going be a fun bumpy ride, and I was so right.
The first days are always hard, you start walking and curse yourself "why do I do this to myself...why why why" but the minute the landscapes surprises you, or someone does something stupid like smell a scorpion plant that stings you, you grin to yourself and know exactly why you do this. So on our first day, we all walked and complained and eventually made it to our homestay in Yurutse.
Our trek leader, Sandeep, knew exactly how to break the ice. He first made fun of how all of us were limping, and then casually told us about everything that can go wrong in the mountains and kill us (AMS, HACO, HAPO) and finally to distract us from hiding under our blankets, insisted we play a game of cards. We laughed our hearts out mostly because Sandeep kept loosing, and a zillion rounds of the same game and laughs later, it was time for dinner and bed. We all knew each other by then.
We had Ami, the coolest person on the trek, just because she brought homemade gujju food enough to feed an army. Samriddhi and Aditi, best friends since college, on the first trek ever, who actually wanted to do stok kangri, but thought maybe that's too ambitious. We also had a local guide, Rigzin, who would start blushing every time we'd mentioned the love of his life (Sonam) and then there was Sandeep, our goofy trek leader, with whom you can never have a dull moment.
We all knew the second day was going to be a long hard day from Yurutse to Skyu but we wore our smiles and fed our bellies and were ready to go. It turned out to be a hell of a day because of the distance we had to cover and the change in altitude since we had to go through a high pass. We had to walk uphill for what seemed like an eternity and that's where I smelled the scorpion plant, only to get stung and get a red nose and have Sandeep and Rigzin laugh out loud and hifive each other and yell at me for not asking them about the plant before smelling it.
Although we were going up a steep slope towards Ganda-la, the views of stok kangri range and the shepherds chilling in the background with their yaks and sheep, was super epic. We had Himalayan crows (the ones with yellow beaks) flying over our heads and since birds kinda hate me (I have been attacked by birds twice already because I was way too close to their nest) I asked Rigzin if these crows attack people. After messing around with me for 10 minutes he told me they don't. We crawled our way to the pass, struggling to breath but by the time we reached the top, we had a soldier down. The air was quite thin, and Aditi couldn't stop crying because of her splitting headache. Sandeep, completely melted at the sight of tears and took out his medicine bag right away, told all of us to drink up our fluids (juice, water whatever we had), and gave Aditi some ORS. We were sitting next the Mane wall that was protecting us from the chilly wind, and within 20 minutes our brave soldier felt better and was ready to go.
We started our descent, and after a few hours of that, it was time to hop over streams. We'd cross a stream, splash water on each other, occasionally get our shoes wet and before we knew it, we'd have to hop over the stream again. Our feet had started giving up after a few hours of walking and that's when we started playing antakshari and it worked like a charm. At one point we were trying to remember the name of a movie, we knew the actors and the songs but for the sake of humanity, we couldn't recall the name of the movie, and Sandeep wouldn't let us move forward without it. After a quick brainstorming session, we realized it was 'Kante' and feeling a sense of accomplishment we moved forward.
Something like this always happens on treks. Sometimes I spend my entire day recalling the lyrics of one song, that given the choice, I would never download on my iPod, but while trekking your brain plays tricks on you, and you can't get over the fact that you don't remember the song from that old movie you saw a zillion years ago and you keep singing it over and over again in your head. Anyways, after multiple stream crossings, probably 15 times or so, we reached our next stop -Skyu. All in all, it took us 13 hours to reach Skyu, because everyone walks at a different speed. We were all smashed by the time we got to the homestay and all we wanted to do was rest our feet and our souls.
Since we had a tiring long previous day, the next three days were quite easy. We had to walk for 4-5 hours each day, sometimes less but it was better than walking for 13 hours. We'd take longer breaks, make fun of Sandeep and his inability to sing, have maggie at rest stops, talk to the locals and the shepherds, and try spotting Pikas and marmots.
Omg the Pikas, if I was writing a book, I'd dedicate one entire chapter on them. They are one of the cutest animals on earth, and the best thing is, they whistle and tease you. Every time I'd hear them whistle it would make me smile. They look like a mix between rabbits and guinea pigs. And when the wind blows, if you notice them, they sort of hide their tiny legs under all that fur, and all you see is a furball moving it's whiskers and staring at you.
They are chubby but run quite fast, Samriddhi was able to capture a picture of this little guy eyeing us.
At the end of every day, we'd sit in a cosy corner in the kitchen of our homestay and play cards till dinner time. We met two other trekkers at a homestay in Markha, and we played dumsharaz for hours, girls vs boys, laughing till our stomachs hurt at the inability of the boys to enact the movies we'd give them. The girls won, but the best thing was that our hosts had a good laugh watching us play.
Because of swollen feet and blisters on their feet, both Aditi and Samriddhi decided to turn back from Markha. However, when we met them back at Leh after the trek and they told us all about their journey back, and how much they enjoyed the rest of the days. The selfies, the model poses at different locations, the pictures of animals they saw on the way back were all sufficient to confirm their fun walk back. Back at Leh, they were both jumping about and giggling endlessly, all their pain and blisters had disappeared or just stopped hurting.
From Markha, it was just me, Ami and Sandeep. The last two days were quite tough for both me and Ami. I had a stomach bug and it just absolutely drained me. And Ami hurt her knee during the descent from Kongmaru La, which made it difficult for her to walk for a long time. We helped each other through the pain, and after a long long walk on the last day, made it back to Leh. The minute we sat in the car, which picked us up from Chokdo, all our pain had disappeared. We were over the moon that we finished the trek, although not having showered for 7 days, we were pretty stinky and had dirt under our nails. But none of that mattered, we had just finished a trek that felt so challenging at some point and so easy during others.
What I am taking away from this trek is beautiful memories of the landscapes, picturing Pikas whistling about in the valley, the laughter that followed at the end of each day while playing games, the warmth and hospitality of Ladakhi families we met on the way, the rosy cheeks of the kids we played with at rest stops, all the pain we'd complain about every day, and a sense of achievement that comes after each hard trek.
It was painful, and epic and so wonderfully wild.