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Happy days! Trekking with local children in Ladakh

Remembering Naturetrek’s Very First Departure

Client Gill Lee fondly recounts travelling on the very first Naturetrek tour (to Kashmir and Ladakh). Tents, cancelled flights and food for the trek washed away by a river – travel in the 1980's was slightly different from nowadays, but it was certainly a great adventure!

Kashmir and Ladakh – July 1987

Looking at the photographs of Kashmir and Ladakh there are so many contrasts: the bustle of Srinagar and the peace of Lake Dal; the fearsome frontier guards and the placid local people; the three taxi drivers who took us over the 11,580ft Zoji La, coping with fallen rocks and large lorries on a very narrow road cut into the hillside. From the lush meadows of Kashmir we entered a much drier Ladakh amongst magnificent mountain peaks, many snow covered. The fascinating villages with their little shops offering exotic foodstuffs contrasting with the simple life of the elegant Gouja people in the hills. What seemed like harsh conditions did not discourage the wonderful array of alpine flowers. We had Griffon Vultures overhead and the delightful River Chats close by – and the ultimate rarity: Red-flanked Bluetail within yards. Wonderful!

Where to start? At the beginning and go on to the end!

In 1986 we booked to travel to Kashmir and Ladakh with a new travel company called Naturetrek. The holiday was advertised as “A 23-day holiday to discover the birds, plants, mammals and cultural aspects of the Vale of Kashmir and Ladakh incorporating a 6-day trek in the Kashmir Himalayas, and a 4-day trek on the slopes above Ladakh’s great Indus Valley.” Sounded perfect to us and so we booked. Little did we know that we were booking the holiday of a lifetime.

The arrangements were to make our own way to Delhi where we would be met by David (Mills). The group consisted of Ann Brodick, Andy Callow, John and Cesca Inskipp, Barbara Muston, Vera Smith, Carole Squires and ourselves – Tony and Gill Lee. I might add that we all got on so well that we met up again the following year for a ‘get together and training session’ in the Lake District in readiness for another wonderful holiday with Naturetrek in Morocco!!

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Group photo, less Gill Lee who took the image

We arrived in Delhi after an 8-hour British Airways’ flight from Heathrow and continued on to Srinagar with Indian Airlines where a truck was waiting to pick us up. My abiding memory is of arriving at Lake Dal to be greeted by a host of Black Kites! They were everywhere, on the advertisement hoardings, on telegraph poles – Tony (my husband) and I had never seen so many. Then we were taken by shikara across the lake to our ‘hotel’ to acclimatise for the next few days – a houseboat called the New Moon moored on the far side of the lake with Hari Parbat Fort set on a hill in the background. I wasn’t sure what to expect but it surpassed all my expectations, it was sumptuous! The rooms were constructed of the most beautiful and intricately carved walnut wood, like lace. What a wonderful place to acclimatise!

I remember the continual procession of boats calling at the houseboat – the owners trying to tempt us with their wares, from jewellers and flower sellers to ever optimistic and persuasive tailors. Also, the ‘weed men’ whose boats looked about to sink under the weight of the wet weed collected from the bottom of the lake, presumably for use as fertiliser. 

During our acclimatisation period on Lake Dal we enjoyed several shikara trips – so relaxing and fascinating. One evening we went to the former grounds (now a public park/garden) of Pari Mahal Sufi College: a ruined college built by the eldest son of Shah Jahan. Another visit was to Dachigam National Park to look for bears! I was more than a little nervous, particularly when our guide appeared armed with a rifle ‘just in case’. I was secretly relieved when the only trace of bears that we saw was a fresh poo! In the Daily Telegraph of 10th September, after we got home, there was a report of black bears raiding maize fields and mauling farmers in Kashmir. So there had been a genuine chance of seeing bears – phew!

All too soon it was time to set off for Leh, capital of Ladakh. BUT ….  to our consternation the flight from Srinagar to Leh was cancelled! We heard that it was due to a thunderstorm in Delhi that had grounded all flights. It must have been a huge hitch for David but, ever resourceful, he organised three taxis for our journey to Leh and what a journey – 2½ days of spectacular scenery. 

Our taxi stopped in Kangan making strange noises but the driver said not to worry, got out holding a hammer and proceeded to belay a pipe underneath! Whatever he hit, it worked and we continued on our way to Kangan, Sumbal and on to Sonamarg on narrow hillside roads with steep drops. I remember one occasion when two very large lorries met, we thought ‘no way’ but sure enough with patience, inching forward and lots of voluble chatter and waving of arms, they made it with a whisker to spare.

We arrived at Sonamarg at 8,905 feet but too late and we were not allowed to go over the pass – another hitch for David but he took it in his stride and managed to reserve tents for us all at the ‘Camp Hotel’. It was an early start next morning as we needed to be at the front of the queue to cross the Zoji La pass (11,580 feet) – we didn’t want to be behind the lorries! There was a very officious border guard and he held everyone up and didn’t let anyone through until 12.30pm! There was plenty to see and watch whilst we were waiting, a beautiful specimen of Dictamnus albus growing on a rocky island in the middle of the river which I did not expect to see; then the birdlife, gorgeous Citrine Wagtails and a Rosefinch, both ‘lifers’ for me. The border guard let all the foot travellers go first, then without warning we were off, the taxi driver wouldn’t wait and I remember David, I think it was, sprinting along at the side of the taxi before leaping in whilst it moved, luckily the rest of us were already on board!

The journey over the Zoji La pass was absolutely superb. The mountain scenery was incredible. The road had only been open for 10 days after the winter and huge cliffs of ice and snow, 20 feet high, edged it. At one point the rear of a lorry could just be seen, the rest completely buried. The driver was lucky, other lorries had been swept by avalanches to the bottom of the ravine and lay there as a stark reminder of the dangers. The road was not sealed and closely resembled a river bed, snowmelt water poured out from under the ice cliffs at the edge of the road, then on down the road carrying large boulders and other detritus with it making our progress difficult. We passed a ‘motto’ painted on a rock “LOOK YOUR FAMILY IS WAITING AVOID RASH DRIVING”. We stretched our legs at the top of the pass and amongst the snow and rubble found Gentiana carinata in full flower – one of many alpine plants that we saw during our holiday. On the way down the other side of the pass, we passed scenic villages; gorges opened up before our eyes, the rushing rivers swollen with snowmelt, then suddenly the vista was like a desert and, as we approached Kargil, there was even a dust storm! A dramatic change. 

We spent the first night at a tented camp at Pashkum before continuing our journey. After another long day in the taxis we arrived in Khangral at 10 pm. David held negotiations with the owner of the Manchooki Tea Stall, Mr Mohd Mussa, and before we knew it, we had cups of tea in our hands whilst we waited for supper. It seemed as if the whole village arrived, with donations for our meal, curious to see the travellers! Rice pilau for 10 was the order of the day and excellent it was too! And so to bed – six of us went up a home-made ladder onto the roof of the café for the night, the others opted to sleep on the floor in the room where we had eaten. We were glad to rest our weary heads, it was to be another early start (5 am) the next day. As we drove out of Khangral the local shopkeeper was already busy weighing an egg and serving a customer!

The way to Lamayuru led ever upward through the amazing arid scenery of the Zanskar Range until we reached the top of the Fotu La (13,430 feet), the highest pass on the Srinagar to Leh road, the inevitable prayer flags fluttering in the wind at the top. Once over the top, we lost height quickly. The Handra Loops looked rather intimidating as we made our way down the twisting, twining road – again mottos painted on rocks warned of the dangers of careless driving. Through villages where all kinds of goods from vegetables to shoe repairs(!) were on offer; local costume was worn by most villagers, the women wearing high-crowned hats and long dresses. It was like a live, open-air Geography lesson with culture thrown in and absolutely fascinating. Towards the end of the day, we arrived at our destination the Yak Tail Hotel in Leh.

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Naturetrek co-founder and Managing Director, David Mills (left) with our host for night one at Manchooki

Whilst in Leh it was a delight to have a free morning and to be able to mingle with the locals selling their colourful wares at the side of the main street overlooked by the Old Palace and Gompa. One very special visit for me was to the Tikse Gompa (Monastery) built on a hill overlooking the Indus Valley. It was a stunning place and I remember particularly the superb ‘Future Buddha’ which spanned two floors in height, the wonderful wall paintings and the prayer wheels. We saw the library where memorials to past Head Lamas lined the walls in their small compartments. From the upper floor of the Gompa the view out over the chortens, rice fields and threshing areas to the encircling mountains had to be seen to be believed. Amazing. What very special, long-lasting memories we were gathering!

But we were here to trek! On the way to our camp at Tingmosgang we visited Alchi Monastery – all the time watched by groups of children who were as fascinated with us as we were with everything that we were seeing. The whole village turned out to watch as we settled into our camp in an orchard, they couldn’t believe that we were going to sleep in the tents! The next day we set off for Hemis Shukpachan and our next camp. The scenery was once again spectacular and the going was tough, very dry, steep and a narrow track leading through the snow-capped mountains, a grand but desolate scene at about 13,000 feet. Then, to our surprise, we heard haunting music. Rounding a corner in the track we met two children, neither could have been more than 10 years old. We were told that they were on their way to school and would make the return journey home in a few days; one was playing a flute, the source of the lovely music. How long it would take them to get to school goodness alone knows! 

Norboo, who was our local guide, invited us to visit his mother and family; what an opportunity to see inside one of the houses. We had tea and chang with them and then visited his ancestral home where his uncle lived. We were intrigued to find that the family temple formed a major part of the house. Norboo’s auntie, cousin and sister had all put on traditional dress for us, their headdresses covered with turquoise which indicated the wealth of the family. All too soon it was time to leave.

Our final camp was in an apricot orchard at Rizong, a beautiful spot; I think that it was here that David surprised us all by producing porridge for breakfast! It seemed very bizarre but a great treat! We visited Rizong Gompa. At the bottom of the track leading up to the monastery there was a pile of logs – firewood! Norboo and several of our group carried logs up to the Gompa for the monks. Chang was served to us out of a large ladle by a young boy, it took such concentration and he didn’t spill a drop. 

The next morning we said goodbye to Norboo and a memorable trek in Ladakh. It was time to transfer back, across the Zoji La again, via Lamayuru, the Namika La and on to Pashkum for the night. A 3.30 am start was the order for the next day – who said that the holiday would be easy?! When we got to Gumru at the start of the Zoji La there was a huge queue of lorries but our intrepid drivers drove along the very edge of the road, between the lorries and the drop to our right and somehow we reached the front! We had time to stretch our legs and explore the area – and were rewarded with more birds – Brandt’s Mountain Finch, White-capped River Chat and Grey Wagtail. Then it was over the Zoji La again; the lorry that we had seen stuck in the ice and snow cliff, on our way to Leh, had been dug out and the ice cliffs had shrunk slightly but the ‘road’ was even more like a river bed! And so back to Kashmir for the second part of our holiday.

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Rooftop accommodation en route to Leh

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Trekking with local children in Ladakh

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Victims of the October 1986 avalanche revealed as the snows recede on Zoji La

Sumbal was our destination for the night. Again, a wonderful campsite with stunning views of the mountains. The scenery was much greener now that we were back in Kashmir; I was hopeful that this meant we would see more flowers and birdlife. The signs were good with Plumbeous Redstarts nesting under an overhanging rock and Kestrels on their nest on the cliffs above the river. A Kashmir Pied Woodpecker, an Indian Small Cuckoo and a Kashmir Roller also put in appearances. My ‘birding’ list was growing! 

Our next target was to be Somnus, a climb of 4,000 feet, a daunting thought but it was well worth the effort. On the way there were new and special sights to remember, including a rare White-bellied Redstart which obligingly came out of the undergrowth and sat on a sawn-off tree trunk for me to take a photograph! We met a charming group of Gouja women and their children – smiles all round. The flowers did not disappoint and wonderful specimens of Dactylorhiza hatagirea, Anemone tetrasepala and Aquilegia fragrans stand out in my memory. We still had 1,000 feet to go when, to the great excitement of the birders in the group, we had wonderful views of a Red-flanked Bluetail. The icing on the cake for me was my first ever wild Corydalis cashmeriana, it didn’t matter in the least that it was rather a poor specimen with only one flower, it was one of the plants that I had come to the Himalayas to see!! In a short space of time we reached camp and what a site – at the head of the valley nestling under the surrounding mountains, there were so many species of flowers (including excellent Corydalis cashmeriana!) I didn’t know where to look next.  Above the camp site was the most incredible area, like a platform of rock over which water spilled at a depth of an inch or two. It was home to literally thousands of Primula rosea growing in every nook and cranny, not only that, in the drier areas there were also carpets of an Androsace species. A botanist’s paradise!

That evening we had a memorable campfire, looking forward with eager anticipation, wondering what the next day would bring.

In fact, it brought the part of the trek that would take us over the Jugemarec La to Sekiwas. In the morning the pony men were to be seen high up on our route cutting steps and a path for us through a snowfield! It was not going to be an easy walk. I was more than a little nervous as Tony suffered from vertigo and the path was not wide and snaked up and across the snowfield, falling away sharply to the right down the mountain. Needless to say we made it – Tony concentrating hard on my heels and not looking to left or right! The ponies followed picking their own way across the snowfield. As we reached the other side, I noticed a plant growing up above on a rocky outcrop which, on closer inspection and to my joy and excitement, turned out to be Paraquilegia microphylla. Perfectly at home and flowering profusely as it tumbled over the rock, another very special plant on my ‘tick’ list! We carried on over the pass with some difficulty, the snow there had just started to melt and the route across was inches deep in snow and snowmelt – two steps forward and one step back in wet slushy conditions was the order of the day. It seemed to take for ever to get over the pass and then it was down slightly to our camp at the side of the river. The river was in full spate due to the snowmelt and to our surprise we saw that the pony men had laid out the vegetables and some of the food on mats on the opposite side. It turned out that most of the food for the trek had been washed off the ponies’ backs when they had crossed the river and the pony men were trying to dry what was left!!

The view from the camp was, once again, spectacular with Kolahoi (17,700 feet) in the centre of the range of mountains surrounding the camp. Washing facilities were bowls of warm water put outside each tent, rinsing water came straight from the river – Brrrr! As dusk began to fall one of the pony men came to our tent and asked me to go with him as they had negotiated with a local shepherd and bought a sheep to replace some of the lost provisions. I went with him and came across the rest of the pony men skinning the sheep. I don’t know why I was asked to watch, maybe they thought I would be squeamish! Fortunately, I had trained in domestic science and was quite used to cutting up carcasses etc. I found it fascinating. We enjoyed the resultant meat for several days in casseroles and stews.

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Drying some of the vegetables that we managed to retrieve from the river

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Buying fresh supplies from the local Gujar tribesmen

The next day, as the river was still in spate, we crossed the torrent on pony-back. Our walk down to Lidderwat camp was full of interest. At one point Himalayan Griffon Vultures wheeled and circled overhead before coming in to land, ‘bouncing’ across the rough terrain to feed on a yak carcass. Nature in the raw! In stark contrast we saw a Blue Rock Thrush sitting quietly on the rocks at the side of the river. Beautiful!

Our walk took us further down the valley and we saw two shepherds about to cross the river with their flock of sheep. The river was too much of a torrent for the animals, how would they cross? Easy, the men carried them one by one on their shoulders over the river; it must have been an arduous and very tiring task. We reached the village of Aru where we watched a group of men, who were building a house, sawing timbers into planks. The timber was set at an angle, one man stood towards the top of the inclined timber and another underneath it, they worked in unison using a ‘frame’ saw to cut the timber. Lidderwat Valley was absolutely beautiful. Pastures filled with many and varied flowers reminding me very much of the Swiss Alps. The bird species were numerous and included Plumbeous Redstart, White Wagtails, Citrine Wagtails and Dusk Grey Bush Chat. Spectacular mountains formed the backdrop to the view down the valley and Golden Eagles soared above. Who could ask for more? We had a wonderful evening round the camp fire, the pony men joined us – Ahmed persuaded David to get up and dance and soon we were all singing and dancing by the light of the fire.

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White-capped River Chat

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Plumbeous Redstart

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Citrine Wagtail

Our final camp was on an island in the middle of the river, the sound of the water lulled us to sleep.  The next morning we walked down to Pahalgam where we were met by the Exodus ‘bus cum taxi’ for our transfer back to Srinagar. The trekking had, sadly, come to an end but our holiday had not yet finished.

In Srinagar we were able to explore the Old Town, including a visit to the peaceful Jami Masjid Mosque where we climbed up to the top of the spire to view the bustling town from above. We also had a very relaxing shikara trip to Manasbal Lake with its exotic Lotus blossoms. Back at the houseboat John (one of the group) had a shave to repair the ravages of trekking!! It was fitting that our final night of the holiday was spent on the houseboat on Lake Dal. 

Before we knew it, it was time to pack and leave. It was a very sombre group that climbed into the back of the truck for the journey back to Delhi and our onward flight to Heathrow. The usual chatter was silenced as we all contemplated the memories of our ‘Holiday of a Lifetime’!

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Following steps cut in the ice by our pony men to get us all safely up to the Jugemarec pass in Kashmir

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Crossing the Jugemarec pass

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