One of the key ways to discover Ladakh, according to photojournalist and author Sankar Sridhar, 31, is to stay off the beaten track. “Leh is a cultivated oasis and you will find everything—from imported beer to pizza—there. But the moment you leave Leh, Ladakh reveals itself as the desert it is and becomes an explorer’s paradise.”
Sridhar was just 13 when he started trekking on his own. In subsequent years, he learnt mountaineering, worked as a guide on many treks and explored parts of Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Ladakh. “Though both Himachal and Uttaranchal (Uttarakhand) are beautiful, you can only see up to the next hill. Ladakh is all about horizons…that feeling of vastness is evident there.”
Hit the road:The Tsomo-riri lake and Kurzok village. Sankar Sridhar
His book, Ladakh Trance Himalaya, documents Sridhar’s travels through the Silk Route (the Chadar trek), Changtang plateau, his interactions with the Changpas—the nomadic tribe of Ladakh—and records the few weeks he spent at the remote Phuktar monastery in the Zanskar region. “The book was written to document the Ladakhi tradition and lifestyle, which are disappearing rapidly as more and more tourists and travel agents find their way in,” he says.
Sridhar’s trails should not be undertaken by those who equate trekking with creature comforts such as porters and hot meals.
If, like Sridhar, you want to walk through Ladakh and explore the land, then stock up on supplies in Leh. “Since I hardly ever take a porter, I do not carry rice or heavier foodstuff with me. Potatoes, energy bars, chocolates and biscuits are all what my rations comprise. Also, water and fuel (kerosene) are precious commodities. Nothing much grows in Ladakh, so you are not going to find firewood easily. So carrying food that requires water and fuel to be cooked means you use up two scarce resources,” he says.
One of Sridhar’s favourite walks in Ladakh starts from the village of Kurzok, on the west bank of Tsomo-riri lake, and ends at the point where the Norbu-la pass gives unto Hanle valley. To travel to some parts of Ladakh such as Kurzok, tourists need an inner-line permit, available at the district collector’s office. There are no real trails beyond Kurzok, so stick to the bank of the lake. It will take 7 hours or more to reach the point where the lake begins to curl east. “The identifying feature is a network of streams that snake to meet the river. This is a good place to camp for the night, though don’t pitch the tent too close to the lake. It’s also the last place on the trek where you will get water, so make sure your bottles are full before you set out the next day,” says Sridhar.
Himalayan blue sheep. Sankar Sridhar
When trekking across Ladakh, it is best to get an early start. “Temperatures during the day cross 40 degrees Celsius through June to October,” he says. The destination for Day 2 of this trek is the far end of the valley, 8 hours of steady walking. The lake and area around is home to migratory birds such as Ruddy Shelduck, Crested Grebe and animals such as wild ass, fox and marmots.
After the third day, when you reach the point where the lake turns, continue to walk straight. Look for a single row of frayed prayer flags at the base of the mountain part of the Chamser-Lamser Kangri massif. “They should be easy to spot because they flutter wildly in the wind, the only movement you will find here.”
Camp near the flags and the next day—Day 4 of the trek—follow the faint trail that leads up the mountain. This is the trail that the Changpas use. “The Changpas know a little bit of Hindi thanks to the army presence in the area but they tend to ignore people. They live off the land—everything they need is with them. Rather than rushing to click their photos—they believe an image captures their soul so they are understandably wary of cameras—wait for them to approach you,” says Sridhar.
The Changpas are wary of being photographed. Sankar Sridhar
A word of caution: The fourth day’s walk will take longer than 10 hours, seven of these on a gradient that is inclined around 40 degrees. And the destination is on the other side of the mountain, beyond Norbu-la pass, at the top of the trail. The pass offers an unbeatable view of Hanle valley and, between August and October, this is where nomads gather to fatten their sheep for the winter.
To return to Leh, follow the same route back. In all, the trek took Sridhar six days of walking, plus a day each to acclimatize in Leh and in Kurzok.
Ladakh Trance Himalaya,
Tara Press, 150 pages Rs1,795.