After the third lopsided sphere of donkey waste scraped the side of my shoe, l made peace with the cycle of natural waste and trudged on, dragging my foot in silence. Although, considering that we had been traversing the side of a mountain in a desperate attempt to reach what we thought must be a village- and water- for the last hour, my inability to talk may have been more a physical necessity than stoicism.
A few days before, we had spontaneously decided to go on what our guest house manager, Zahir, described as a ‘baby trek‘ in the heart of the Himalayas from the tiny village of Likir to the tinier village of Tingmosgam, which would take three days and require us to spend two nights in even tinier villages in between. When Dan asked of what- exactly- a ‘baby trek’ consists, Zahir assured him “You know a baby? What kind of trek could a baby do?”
So, early that morning, our taxi driver dropped us off on a dirt road, winding precariously around a steep mountain,with nothing but mountain desert as far as the eye could see. We had been confused. “Aren’t we supposed to start in Likir? At the monastery?” Dan insisted.
“No, this is where the trekkers start. Walk.” our driver said pointing at the ledge.
I rocked back and forth on my feet, but Dan was not one to be trifled with. “No, we asked to be taken to the monastery at Likir. This isn’t a monastery and this isn’t Likir.”
“This is where the trekkers start.”
“This isn’t Likir.”
“Hm, okay.” said the taxi driver with a shrug.
Without another word, we piled back into the car. The taxi driver turned his head around in what I assumed would be an attempt to engage conversation with us but then the car lurched backwards. We were driving in reverse. On a rocky dirt road. On the side of the mountain. I closed my eyes.
What felt like ten minutes later, but couldn’t have been more than thirty seconds, the car stopped again and I opened my eyes.
“There’s the road to the Likir monastery” he said, pointing at an even less defined road going up the side of the mountain. Dan opened his mouth to argue, but before we risked another ride, I quickly breathed “thank you,” grabbed my bag, and was out of the car. Dan followed me onto the road.
Within a minute, the taxi driver was gone and we were walking the original road he had pointed us down, ignoring the fabled monastery, picking our way around the infrequent but generous piles of donkey nuggets on the way. In the future, I would learn to love, look for, and relish each pile of those glistening brown orbs, which I will explain later, but at the moment, I was doing my best to avoid them.
We had been advised to walk no more than fours hours a day, because of the toll high altitudes had on physical exertion and had planned to only go so far as Yangthang or Hemis Stupache
n that first day and spend the night at a homestay, which we were almost more excited about than the trek* itself. Based off the “map,” we had, which was simply a picture of a larger map that I had taken with my iPod, now running dangerously low on battery, there were various villages scattered around, although not necessarily directly on, our path and we hoped we could stop and buy some snacks for the trail as we hadn’t eaten breakfast that morning.
Before I go on, several odd things should be sticking out to the reader, and let me head off those readers who will soon be rolling their eyes at what seems an inevitable outcome of these things: 1) we didn’t have a guide or a map or a clue about where we were supposed to be 2) we didn’t bring any supplies and assumed any random village would have some ‘snacks’ 3) we hadn’t eaten breakfast and 4) we planned this voyage into the Himalayas- the Himalayas- on a whim a few days before. To those skeptical and astute readers (and our frowning mothers), we admit freely that the ensuing events were all our fault and only offer as the barest of excuses that we had been told that this was a “baby trek” that required nothing more than some gym shoes (which I also, technically, wasn’t wearing.)
A few hours later, after many beautiful pictures and many exclamations over various plants, animals, and photo compositions, we had yet to see a village and Dan was getting hungry. We both were hungry, but Dan’s hunger is an insidious, vampiric, and dark companion that turns a pleasant, thoughtful, and enthusiastic young man into a brooding creature of despair. It was at this time that I was noticing “the change” (and our dwindling supply of water) that we came to the foot of a mountain- and a fork in the road.
Let me again freely acknowledge that both these problems were self-created. Had we brought a real map, presumably it would have told us which way to turn and had we brought or eaten food, the matter many not have appeared so desperate, but we had brought neither and we stood at the fork in silence. My attempt to quote Robert Frost’s poem** was met with a look of deep disdain and we again faded to silence. To the right, we saw the green steppes and white-washed mud bricks that suggested a village- but a village that neither seemed particularly inhabited nor en route – and to the left we saw a dusty road, going, seemingly, nowhere in particular. Both routes required us to climb the mountain, a feat we, dimly, hadn’t considered when embarking on the ‘baby trek.’
We turned right, toward the promise of a village and sustenance, and began climbing. One would think that we had simply, though laboriously, to arrive at the village and we would ascertain a) where we were b) where to go and c) whether we could get water and/or food. One would have dramatically oversimplified the matter.
We trudged over the increasingly rocky road as the green glimmer of civilization became increasingly larger and the pain in our calves and thighs became increasingly bothersome. After an hour of labored breath in thin air, we had reached the green patch and a stream coming down the mountains. Glorious green patch! Which had now resolved itself into a series of wheat fields and mud- houses disappearing into a pass between two mountains. But, alas, we slowly realized, the houses closest to us were uninhabited and a green patch alone could not tell us where we were or direct us to water, and, unfortunately, the densest area of houses was still another 500 feet up.
At this point, the climb, the thin air, and the hunger crashed over Dan. “I just don’t know what to do!” he exclaimed in desperation. “We missed breakfast, Dan. We’ll be okay” I assured him with strained laughter, secretly agreeing with the sentiment. “We’ll…just keep going.”
But here the matter was not so straightforward. We started taking a footpath into the green patch, or as I should probably refer to it now- “the village,” but after a dozen yards it dissolved into a patch of boulders. We retraced our steps and attempted a second foothpath ‘into the green’ and again we came to a dead-end, where we saw some shaved wood and a dirty, abandoned yellow t-shirt. “At least we know there were people here kind of recently” I suggested halfheartedly. Dan would take no part in my amateur archaeology.
We sat down and drank some water, catching our breath. “Alright,” he said resignedly. “It looks like we’ll have to climb.” He said pointing to the series of boulders directly up the mountain that seemed to eventually come to a more substantial road. I shook my head in disbelief, but Dan was already ten feet up perched on a rock.
Eventually, we reached the center of the village, which still seemed fairly vacant, save for the occasional distant “moo.” Dan went up toward the stupa and I went down toward the “moo.” After a few minutes of chasing each other, thinking each other lost, we found each other and finally caught a break. Water! A spout of water. In a world where running water is most definitely not the norm, this both meant we could fill our water bottles and that people had to be nearby. I diligently filled our water bottles and began to ‘steripen’ them, when an old woman came towards us, laughing and looking skeptically as I stirred the UV light in the water.
It’s important to mention here, what really deserves a whole post in the future, and that’s the particular way men and women interact in India. In brief, they don’t. Dan, phrasebook in hand, went up to her smiling. “Juley!” he said, a standard Ladakhi word that means “hello,” “goodbye,” “how are you,” “thank you,” “excuse me,” and “pardon.”
She smiled at him briefly, considered the matter, and then walked away and began to speak to me in melodic Ladakhi, with a considerable amount of good natured laughs and smiles. I smiled back. Dan continued.
“Where is Tingmosgam from here? We’re on our way to Tingmosgam. Where?” he said pointing.
She glanced at him again and then turned back to me and spoke in even more rapid Ladakhi with few askance glances at Dan as if to say “This guy..”
Dan continued, realizing English wasn’t going to cut it. “kyaa aap ko Hindi an gre zee aa tee hay?” he said reading from the phrase book.
She said a few more words to me and then begrudgingly faced him and spoke again in Ladakhi.
“A school?” Dan said. “Where?”
Wait, what?Dan understood something?
He turned to me “There’s a school up there. Maybe someone there knows English.”
I felt suddenly inadequate. Did Dan just pick up some Ladakhi?
We said “juley” about five more times to the old Ladakhi woman and trudged up to the schoolhouse where we found our savior, Dolma.
Dolma explained, in fluent English, that we should have gone left instead of right, that we needn’t go back down the mountain but simply take the road right over there, which would meet up with the original road and we should find a nice homestay in Yangthang easily within two hours. She also asked us where we were from and welcomed us heartily.
Dolma lived in a village in the heart of the Himalayas, inaccesible except by foot and spoke three languages and I was still struggling with Spanish. Again, I felt inadequate and resolved to play some duolingo as soon as I could. But, now, knowing where we were going and having climbed a mountain, we continued on the road Dolma pointed out, suddenly revived. Even Dan’s Hunger failed to keep us down as we happily continued on the road to Yangthang, again noting the animals, vegetation, and photo compositions that we had remarked on earlier.
We arrived at Padma’s homestay tired and hungry, but hydrated and happy two hours later, where we enjoyed wonderful Ladakhi hospitality in a traditional home. We discussed the family buddhist traditions, enjoyed delicious Momos and curried vegetables, talked with a fellow French hiker, Matilda, and fell asleep in a simple room with the most immediate, breathtaking hotel view I’ve ever had in my life.
I only later discovered the drawbacks, attempting the “local toilet,” in pitch black in the middle of the night, an adventure of which I will spare you the details. Little did we know that our endeavor that day would seem but a slight misstep compared to the ten hour ordeal we would endure the next, in which roads, sun, and common sense would completely disappear.
Stay tuned for Lost in the Himalayas Part 2!
* I assume, and I can’t be sure, because we have been without internet for weeks now, that “trek” is the Britishism for “hike,” as I’m pretty sure I had never used that word before and now find myself- and everyone around us- using it constantly. It makes sense-considering India was imperialized by Britain- that Indians use British phrases such as “Way Out” for “EXIT,” “lift” for “elevator,” and even occasionally “loo,” for bathroom which I find adorable. In the same vein, and I’ve found this in several countries I’ve been to, no one understands what I mean when I say “restroom.”
**”Two roads diverged in a wood… I took the one less traveled by and that has made all the difference.”
- Climber returns after Himalayas success (timesofmalta.com)
- Trekking in Himalayas – Feel the Pleasure of Life (indi-eye.com)
- Top 10 Mountain Treks: (#10) Gokyo Ri (adventurebeforeavarice.com)
- Deoriatal, Uttarakhand (travelbioscope.wordpress.com)