With my one-day preparation for this expedition I felt a bit respectful of what awaited us to get to Phuktal to electrify it: a day of cycling a 1,5 days of hiking to reach Phuktal monastery, working in the altitude of around 3700m and moving up and down 300 stairs, carved into the stone at the monastery’s precincts, one day hiking back (what we’d do in a 1,5 days before), countless hours of sitting on the bus, traversing through streams and balancing on edges of cliffs in Zanskar Valley.
Leh to Kargil: moonlike landscape
After we’d got José’s bag (the story mentioning the lost&found at Leh military airport is part of the Welcome to India story) we were good to go, so our drivers took us to Kargil as fast as they could. Now, the roads are winding and sometimes it seemed like only ONE car can pass, but we learnt to not to believe our eyes in these situations and rather trust our driver who drives those roads every month. But no matter how hard he’d tried, we still arrived around 10pm and knowing that we will cycle 40 km the next day, we kindly ignored the need of getting some sleep and hooked ourselves on the last available wifi.
Cycling in the Himalayas
This was the most challenging part for me and I was surprised how much easier it felt biking in the thin air of the Himalayas than in the gym in Bangkok, where I’d trained (for that one day). Especially having Rolf around who knows how to encourage people to go beyond what they think is their limit. Splitting into two groups, I took up the challenge though and joined the faster one and enjoyed the ride, shouting Jullay (Hello in Ladakhi) and Salam Aleikum when passing the villages in Sankoo and Suru Valley. I had the feeling that there are not so many occasions when a group of 30+ people passes through this remote area, so people were justifiably surprised and joyful about us being there. Now, for what it was, it was way easier to cycle in the Himalayas than in the gym – with an incomparably better view!
4000 meters above the sea level
Writing this post from the damp heat of Thailand, I struggle to bring myself back to the time when I felt cold – only 2 weeks ago! But time passes fast when you’re having a good time with good people. The ride in from before-Rangdum to after-Padum was spectacular, I wanted to the bus to stop at every corner, trying to snap pictures through the dirty window, flying from one side of the bus to the other. Luckily we had our pee breaks often in places with a great view, so we all rushed out of the bus, peeing or not peeing and took loads of pictures.
Life in remote parts of the world
Sonar, our driver, drives those roads in the Himalayan valleys 15 times in a season, from May until October/November when they close by snow and passing to the villages in Zanskar Valley is possible only by foot on the Tsarap river. One of surprising moments that will be stuck with me forever was of the beauty of communication between people living in these remote areas. Sonam detoured our bus to meet his mother who was waiting for him on the side of the road, because three days before he’d let her know he might pass by at some point. So she waited for three days to meet her son, although only for 5-10 minutes. Because time is abundant in the villages and precious when spent with people you love.
The locals welcomed us greatly everywhere we came. In Itchar village, everyone brought tea for us and we ended having 15 or so thermos bottles full of milk tea with which we were traditionally welcomed in all the villages we visited. That or the butter tea, which is a salty heavy tea meant for keeping people warm. It is an acquired taste and I think I’d need to drink it more to start liking it.
The local women put the best clothes and beautiful jewellery from the region and welcomed us, strangers, as friends. We were lucky to have guys in our team who spoke Ladakhi and understood the locals – the barrier between two different worlds was broken easily and fast. Some of the locals spoke some English, but most of the time, gestures and smiles were the main means of our communication.
There are too many memorable moments that I want to remember from this trek. Like playing with the school kids in the dusty room in Itchar, watching Itchar women spontaneously perform traditional singing and dancing, drinking a home-brew from my hand as part of the welcoming ceremony at Cha, looking ahead and seeing the winding path in Zanskar valley and looking back and seeing the snow-covered heights of the Himalayas behind, receiving numerous Khata as welcome gifts (particularly beautiful from the monks in Phuktal), watching a cultural show by the villagers who’d trek for a day to Phuktal to celebrate the grid installation with us, the look of Phuktal and Zanskar valley when the lights were on or the countless hours of talks and laughs with Maj, Rolf, Rolf, Graham, Lee, Melinda, Neelima, Sneh, Varun, Jaideep, Aditya, José, Ciara, Becky, Sanjna, Kate, Lynn, Athina, Christian, Reanea, Paras, Tashi, Padma and our tour guides and cooks (I hope I didn’t forget anyone…).
The place is important, but it would be nothing if I hadn’t people to share it with.