India, Days 24-25: Shingo, Chilling, and Leh

I’m picking up where Dante left off in telling about our trek. The fourth day of our trek we hiked from Shingo to Chilling, where we could catch a bus back to Leh. Fortunately, Adi woke up feeling much better that morning, and I’m pretty sure our hostess took full credit (after force-feeding Adi the night before). It was a long and tiring day, but again through some amazing scenery. The most exciting part of the day was crossing the Zanskar River, which you do in a little basket attached to a cable that goes across the river. There is no bridge at the moment, so the basket is your only option! When we finally found the place to cross, there was no one on the other side to pull the basket across. We weren’t sure it would be possible for someone inside the basket to pull themselves across, and we weren’t sure what to do! We didn’t want one of us to get stuck out in the middle of the cable hanging over the river. We finally managed to flag down a construction worker from the other side of the river who helped us over.  I was the first person to get in the basket, and although I was nervous at first, I quickly realized the basket was pretty sturdy and quite enjoyed the ride!

On the remaining part of the walk to Chilling, we met a woman with a young son who said she had a homestay, so we followed her to her house. Although it was probably the “poorest” family we stayed with, based on the size of their house (primarily the size of their kitchen), our room was still comfortable and dinner (dahl, greens, rice, and a delicious cheese/mint sauce) was delicious and offered in larger quantities than we could eat. Breakfast was also generous portions of roti (bread), with a curd-tsampa (barley flour) mix to dip it in. Maybe not something I’ll eat back home, but certainly an authentic Ladakhi breakfast!

It also happened that Saturday was Adi’s 30th birthday, and Chilling had a small store selling drinks. We bought a Godfather beer (an Indian brand that is not too tasty, but better than nothing!) to share among the three of us to celebrate her birthday. We also lit a candle and put it on top of a chocolate bar we bought, and sang to her. We really had a great time with Adi on the trek, so it was fun to celebrate with her in whatever way we could.

The next day, we caught the bus back to Leh, and managed to stay awake long enough to watch the World Cup final with our Dutch friend Gijs. It was a crazy night (no restaurants were serving beer, and we were told it had something to do with the phase of the moon, but that they could also get in trouble with the police…still haven’t figured out what that was about), but fun to watch with a rowdy crowd, even though the Netherlands lost.

Even though we have now covered the main events of our five-day trek, I think this is one of the parts of our trip that will be hard to adequately describe in words (or even show in photographs). The Markha Valley in Ladakh is truly the most amazing place that I have ever been. The natural environment is absolutely stunning. Having grown up in Tennessee, I’ve always had a preference for areas that are green and lush in spring and summer. Yet this high altitude desert is beautiful beyond description. The rocky mountains are so colorful – mineral deposits create splashes of purple, turquoise, and red. Wild roses grow along the snow-fed streams, and small plants and flowers take a stubborn hold in the dusty soil. And towering just beyond, in all directions, are breathtaking snow-capped peaks (literally and figuratively, being over 3500 meters in altitude). Given the altitude and the lack of pollution, the sky is a deep deep blue.

In addition to this natural beauty is the amazing Ladakhi culture that exists in the Valley. Dante mentioned “towns” in his post, but the small inhabited areas are really villages at the most. Rumbak, the largest village we stayed in (other than Chilling, which is a little bigger because a paved road goes there), consisted of 9 houses. As he said, the Valley is not accessible by road, has no running water anywhere, and no phone service (either land or cellular). Electricity is provided mostly by solar power, which heats water and lights a few small bulbs. To western eyes, the environment might be considered “inhospitable,” yet these people have lived a sustainable life off the land for hundreds, maybe thousands, of years. Their clever use of mountain streams in summer to irrigate their fields makes each village a green oasis in the middle of the arid mountains (a very welcome site to any weary hiker). Ladakhi houses are built of bricks, made on-site with mud, and are large and comfortable. Soft rugs line the floors of the kitchen and bedrooms, and there is lots of room (and endless cups of tea) for guests. Ladakhi toilets are dry composting toilets, which not only don’t smell much (not nearly as bad as portopotties in the states), but also result in fertilizer to use on the fields. Every Ladahki house has a beautiful vegetable garden, in addition to their fields and livestock (cattle, sheep, goats, etc).

Ladahki culture is primarily Tibetan Buddhist, so you see signs of the religion everywhere (stupas, mani-walls, monasteries, prayer rooms in each house, pictures of the Dalai Lama). It is hard not to feel a sense of spirituality when passing these sites, in such beautiful settings. Ladahki men and women work side-by-side, both in the house and in the fields. In each home we stayed in, both the husband and wife helped fix dinner, and were also out in the fields or garden during the day. Although it can be easy to idealize such cultures when looking in from the outside, everything we have learned about the Ladahkis shows that they are also a happy, fun-loving people. They live physically difficult lives in some ways, yet have built a culture and society that incorporates lots of time for fun, including festivals, relaxing with family, playing games, and chatting with friends. They are clearly happy people, who welcome guests into their homes with incredible hospitality and generosity.

Dante and I are off to meet Adi for dinner in a few minutes, since we fly out of Leh tomorrow. I feel that there is so much more I could write about our time here, but I will have to save it for another post or conversations once we get home. Julley! (Ladakhi word meaning hello, goodbye, thank you, you’re welcome…) :)

4 Responses to “India, Days 24-25: Shingo, Chilling, and Leh”

  1. Tony

    Wow, Dante should know better that they aren’t villages. The progression is cottage -> hamlet -> village -> town. :-)

    Btw, I posted this one at home, did it end up as spam?

  2. Suzanne

    I think you two need to write a book when you get back – in your spare time. :) You are both great writers and your descriptions are compelling. Actually, the Indian Tourism Development people should hire you!
    We get really excited when we see that you have submitted another blog. It makes our day. Please keep them coming as often as possible!

  3. Dante

    @Tony, yep, this comment went through just fine. Sorry for the misrepresentation of a village. I think you ‘get it’ all the same.

    @Suzanne, thanks! we’re enjoying hearing from everyone from home!

  4. Tony

    That’s the order in civ 4. Has being in India put you that far out of touch? 😛