On the third day Roi adjusted to the elevation and duly proved it by climbing to the temple overlooking Leh. We explored the huge Leh palace and returned through many back alleys to the center of the town. We entered a travel agency asking about a bus to Lamayuru. The agent smoothly talked us into renting a car with driver who will not only take us to Lamayuru but also all the way Wanlah saving us the first day and a small pass.
The drive north to Lamayuru took us through extremely arid landscape dotted with tiny green oasis villages topped with whitewashed, red-roofed monasteries. The road passed numerous huge army camps but as they are much less picturesque it is better not to dwell on them. We stopped for a short break to enjoy the vista of the chocolaty Zanskar and Indus river confluence.
We stopped again in a large village to enjoy our first legendary apricots. We encountered these tiny delicious fruits again and again on our trip and I will describe them later on.
The final part of the drive took us through a moon like landscape until we arrived the huge and impressive Lamayuru monastery perched on a big hill.
After we explored the building our driver took us to Wanlah and brought us to a magnificent homestay.
A homestay is a regular peasant house which takes in hikers for a fee. This includes dinner, breakfast and a packed lunch for the way.The fee is fixed and rather steep for local standards – 800 rupees per person but the experience is definitely worth it. The food was always excellent (and there is nothing that can be purchased en-route anyway). The first hand encounter with friendly Ladakhi farmers is an unforgettable experience and the rooms are cozy and convenient. Sometimes a (cold) bucket shower is included.
We decided not to start the trek right away but to spend a day and explore the Shilakong canyon. We walked along the river meeting friendly farmers cutting their corn.
After passing a small and deserted hot spring resort we entered a magnificent canyon.
At first we thought we could jump over the stream but we soon realized that we will not be able to avoid getting our feet wet.
We followed the canyon up for two or three hours enjoying the water and dramatic cliffs around us. Towards noon we got tired and found a shady spot for a short siesta. As we woke up an hour later we discovered that the level of the water rose considerably. This is a recurring theme in Ladakh. The water in the rivers originates from glaciers and the later during the day the more melt water gushes down the riverbeds. We encountered this problem later in the trek in the Markha valley where we had to attempt an adventurous ford late in the afternoon. Here the water level was not too deep to return and Roi enjoyed the exciting and turbulent fords. On our way back we stopped at the hot springs and had a thorough soak after we managed to fill the bath.
The next day was our first proper trekking day on the Hidden valley trek described so well in our Lonely Planet trekking guide from Wanlah to Hinju. Unfortunately we soon realized that the 4WD road was extended all the way to Hinju so that most of the walk was on a dusty dirt road. We even got a lift for part of the way but we mostly hiked the 13 km between the villages gaining 600 mt. (from 3150 to 3750) to improve our acclimatization. En route we rested by first an impressive Mani stone wall.
In Hinju we found a nice homestay in a house built like the entire village on the sheer cliffs of the valley. The house had two levels and we stayed in the upper one. The toilet was a particular experience. Normally Ladakhi toilets are a room with a hole in the floor. Here due to the vertical nature of the house it was a dual level toiled so using the top one we had to take care that nobody was occupying the bottom one…
As it was a short day we had plenty of time to enjoy the small stream and fields. We also realized that the next day will be exceptionally tough all the way up to Konze La (4900 m) and so we hired a donkey and driver to carry up most of our belongings.
After yet another delicious breakfast we set up the magnificent valley which became more and more rugged as we approached Konze La. It was the most strenuous part of our entire trip. Not only did we have to climb almost 1200 m but we were still not fully acclimatized and Roi suffered from some nose bleeding. With the help an Uramox pill and frequent stops we finally reached top of the pass. We rested savoring the unbelievable vista enjoyin the blue Aconitum violaceum flowers and cooked some lunch.
Blue Aconitum violaceum on Konza La
All of a sudden Roi started to feel unwell so we rapidly packed our stuff and briskly ascended to the other side of the pass. We ascended some 400 m until we reached a big rock. Under this rock a tiny fountain trickled with excellent tasty water. This was a good place for a long rest. Roi recovered and we resumed to walk down the wild valley bottom. We met our first huge Yaks and finally arrived at a small enclosure. This was an excellent campsite. Luckily we did not camp too close to the enclosure as in the morning the Yaks came for a visit.
This was our first night in our tent and the only one we slept very far from anybody else. As it was a one-man tent it was a bit cozy but nice and warm. This Big Agnes Seedhouse tent accompanied me on numerous solo hikes and is very light but durable and a perfect shelter from the elements. In Ladakh we had only one rainy night and it kept us warm and dry.
The morning was pure delight, watching the daylight slowly creeping through the jugged mountains.
I woke up early to take photos while Roi waited to crawl out only once the sun reached the tent.
After the little prince enjoyed a blooming wild rose we continued down hill crossing small side streams.
Shortly before reaching the Sumdo Chinmu village we observed a promising side stream. We left our pack by a huge boulder and followed the narrow canyon until we reached an impassable water fall. This magic isolated spot is not described in any book and we felt it was our very own discovery. We even saw a Wallcreeper.
We returned to the main stream and followed the aqueduct to the Sumdo Chinmu. Here we rested in our first parachute tent coffeehouse. The menu was sparse, as there is no road here and everything has to be carried over the mountains by donkeys.
We even stopped for a siesta in the shade of the willows by one of the water canals dug in the field. With renewed energy we left this small green spot resting on a bluff in the middle of the immense dry landscape.
We reached the valley floor and here the easy part ended. We now had a steep two hour climb to base of the Dung Dung La where we planned to camp. We reached the campsite joining two large groups of organized hikers with their pack animals.
The climb to Dung Dung La (4719 m) in the morning was a piece of cake compared to climb to Konze La and the view was even nicer. The sun was surrounded by a colorful coronae.
The descend into the next valley was lovely at first but felt endless. All the streams were dry and it took us a very long time until we reached a tiny well, propped up with a plastic bottle. Water never tasted so good.
We rested well in a nearby enclosure under huge trees and continued down. We eventually reached a lovely stream with beautiful water and seepings from its walls. As we followed this stream we found our first apricot trees and enjoyed a delectable treat. At the end of the gorge the 1300 m descend finished opening into the fields of Chiling. This small and lovely village feels as if time has stopped. While there is a road reaching it it has not yet lost its very primitive charm. The entire population was busy harvesting an processing the seemingly endless abundance of apricots growing on its huge trees.
Processing means removing the kernels (used for food and oil) from the pulp used for drying. After settling in a cozy homestay we set to explore the village to go “shopping” (In spite of the road the little shop had surprisingly, or maybe not so surprisingly, hardly anything to sell) and to bounce flat pebbles on the Zanskar river.
We returned to our homestay and had dinner with entire female population of the house as well as the teacher and the nurse. All able bodied men work out of the village so that only women, young children and old men remain at home in summer. Today the teacher (woman) and nurse, who rotate for their dinner among the different families joined “our” family for dinner. Women who study to become teachers and nurses are conscripted to different remote villages.
Here our “Hidden Valley” trek finished. The next day we marched five km uproad and crossed the Zanskar river on a makeshift pulley to start the Markha valley trek.