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Travel Story : Crossing the Himalayas on Foot : Outer Tibet to India :: From the Planet Pilgrim World Traveller Series

Crossing the Himalayas on Foot

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  Chenrezig :

Divine Protector
 of Tibet 

Hemis Gompa [Monastery] near Leh,
Ladakh [Outer Tibet] , India 

the Divine Within

the Reincarnation
 of Shakyamuni Buddha

Chenrezig (The Buddha), Divine Protector of Tibet

  Chenrezig :


Divine Protector
 of Tibet 

the Bodhisattva 

the Divine Within

the Reincarnation
 of Shakyamuni Buddha

Ladakh and Zanskar are two valleys in Outer Tibet. Yves and Glen are two erstwhile adventurers. The former is a French geologist I met in Leh, the capital of Ladakh and the latter is an Australian artist I met while staying the night on a railway platform in Jammu, south of Kashmir in India. This story begins in Ladakh, which is politically part of India. However, this part of the world is decidedly Tibetan in terms of its culture, religion, language, geography and racial population grouping.

Themisgam, a Village near Leh, Ladakh, India
a village in a typical valley near Leh
Leh, the Capital of Ladakh, India, although culturally and geographically part of Outer Tibet
the high, remote Capital of Ladakh

The three of us had just finished a two-week trek through the medieval Markha Valley before preparing to cross the Himalayas on foot in June and July of 1984. Our departure from Leh was two days after that year's public holiday for the Sikhs' Guru Nanak which fell on Thursday the 14th of June. On the first night out of Leh we slept in the eleventh-century Gelugpa (yellow hat sect led by the Dalai Lama) Monastery at Alchi. This gompa (or monastery) houses an impressive, typically blue-haired statue of Shakyamuni (the Buddha) as well as beautiful statues of Chenrezig (the Tibetan reincarnation of Shakyamuni and the divine protector of Tibet), Maitreya (the Future Buddha) and Manjushri (the Buddha of Wisdom).

From Alchi we hitched a ride on a truck to the monastery of the red hat sect or Kagyupa. This is the eleventh-century Lamayuru Gompa. From here we travelled further west towards Kashmir to the Shi'ite Muslim outpost of Kargil. Kargil was adorned by thousands of pictures of the Iranian Shi'ite leader, Ayatollah Khomeine. When our bus departed for Panikhar, from where our walk over the Himalayas was to begin, most of the passengers intoned the Arabic phrase "Allah o akbar" (God is great) in unison.

Lamayuru Gompa, Ladakh - Buddhist monastery in Outer Tibet within the territory of India
The Legendary 11th Century
Lamayuru Gompa, Ladakh
Two Ladakhi Ladies
Local Ladakhis
who chuckled as we woke up

From Panikhar we walked over a pass to Parkatchik, on the northern tip of the Zanskar region which is on a southern extremity of Outer Tibet. That night we slept in a hay loft. After a fever in Lamayuru and suffering from a restless night of bed bug bites in Kargil, it was difficult getting started the next morning. We trudged along the dry and barren valley to a deserted place called Sematongse. Here we slept on the bare earth under the stars in a roofless stone shelter. Abandoned, derelict, crumbling houses and shepherds' stone shelters were our usual accommodation each night on this trek.

A few days later we crossed Pansi La or Pansi Pass at 4406 metres to sleep in yet another stone shelter open to the stars. It was on the southern side of the pass , just past the huge Drung Drung Glacier which flows down from a catchment beginning at a 6537 metre high mountain peak. I traded my thongs (open footwear) for tsampa (barley flour) and chang (white barley beer) in the village of Abrang. Like most villages in these valleys, it consisted of the typical mud brick, flat-roofed Tibetan-style houses with low ceilings, smokey rooms and an open hearth burning dried yaks' dung. There was some greenery of vegetable and barley fields, watered by little channels dug from the shallow, pebbly river. The local Buddhist monastery always dominated the village landscape.

The dusty trail to the local town, Padum, was not yet open to the trucks that plied it because of the snow-covered and ice-covered mountain passes and impassable sludgy dirt track ruined each winter by the snowfall. A couple of days and a couple of shepherds' shelters from the southern side of Pansi La, we experienced the relative super comfort of the ironically-named Greenland Hotel in Padum, the capital of Zanskar with a population of 8000. We actually slept indoors on folding beds!

It was fortuitous that we had arrived in Padum in time for the festival at nearby Sani. People from all over Zanskar congregate in the town and women visit the gompa in their most ornate headdresses, heavily-studded with huge chunks of coral and turquoise from mines on the northern side of the Himalayas. We witnessed the arrival of the donkey carrying the holy scrolls of Tibetan religious texts ceremonially delivered to most Tibetan religious festivals.

Believers spun prayer wheels clockwise as they walked clockwise around the monastery walls. They also walked in prayer beside the long walls of prayer stones. These walls and chortens, which are holy monuments shaped like inverted cones up to about five metres high (in little villages), make the entrances to all villages. Each stone in a prayer wall is inscribed with "Om Mani Padme Hum", a ubiquitous Buddhist chant synonymous with Tibet itself.

In Padum we finally had some fresh vegetables again to cook curried vegetables with our rice. The portable kerosene stove was worth its weight in gold. It was the fuel which weighed us down. Our packs were fairly equal in weight with each one being about fifty-five kilograms at the start of the trek. It's a lot to carry for about three hundred kilometres across high-altitude, stony mountainous terrain!

After a few days in Padum we continued on through the valley from shepherds' shelter to shepherds' shelter. The sweet boiled lollies we'd purchased in Padum proved very valuable in the remote villages. Twenty small lollies could be traded for a kilogram of tsampa which was usually Rp.4 (four Rupees) per kilogram. This was worth about 25 cents (U.S.) at the time.

The sky dominated the evenings as we chatted by a chattering stream or lay on the ground sheets in our sleeping bags, watching the falling stars. Without electricity, electric light and motor vehicles, the stars seemed brighter and closer. Living outdoors obviously accentuated our focus on the stars. Our roof was usually the sky in the stony desert valleys of Outer Tibet.

We occasionally stayed in a gompa or with a family in their home. The generosity we received more than deserved the unsolicited donations we gave them. Our visit to the classic Phuctal Gompa carved into the mountainside typified the hospitality experienced during many of our monastery visits. We sat with one of the head monks drinking salty butter tea and feasting on tsampa butter dumplings amidst a sea of butter lamps, brass gongs and intricately embroidered tankas (which are wall hangings depicting scenes from Buddhist mythology).

A month after leaving Leh, our party was on the verge of crossing the pass in the heart of this part of the Himalayan mountain chain which marked the geographical point where Tibet meets the Indian subcontinent. On the last couple of days of climbing higher into the mountains, we traded our bright yellow vanaspati (cooking oil) plastic bottles and our bright red plastic kerosene bottle for tsampa and yak's curd. We traded with local Kargia gadis (shepherds from Kargia) who were taking their yaks, cows and horses into the high pastures for the warmer seasons.

On the last night before the crossing of the pass, we slept in a stone shelter with a roof in La Kung. It was on incredibly cold ground by the broad, shallow and icy headwaters of the Zanskar River. The air reminded me of Niemerling just before we crossed the 5406 metre (18000 foot) Konmaru La in the Markha Valley. On that trek we spent two weeks walking to the legendary Hemis Gompa, directly south of Leh.

At Niemerling we also slept at almost 5000 metres in a shepherds' shelter with a roof that seemed like the lid of an ice-box. We began our ascent of the 5096 metre pass, Shingo La, at 6.30a.m. to take advantage of the firm icy snow before it melted on the surface. Fording the freezing river was an ordeal. Our bare feet had to be massaged back to life after turning blue. Our hard slog through the snow and ice culminated in our arrival at the top of the edge of the roof of the world. We ate dry coconut as we sat among the streamers of prayer flags protecting the travellers and the valleys to the north, while transmitting their message of peace to the world.

The trail led into the land out of the rainshadow. We'd entered the valley of Lahaul, with the pass marking the dramatic difference between the desert climate and barren terrain of Tibetan Zanskar and the green and rainy Indian valley. After two more days' walking through the rain, we finally arrived at a cable trolley across a river. This was certainly a contrast to the thin, swinging rope bridges across the Tibetan gorges. Darcha in Lahaul proved to be the frontier of "civilization" with a bus which came to the end of the road.

Desert wilderness, remote villages and horse and donkey caravans now seemed to be features of another planet or another continuum. The bus took us to Manali in the Valley of the Gods, the Kulu Valley with its pine forests , its video movie houses and its Tibetan refugee enclave.

The crossing of the Himalayas on foot reminds me of what Glenn said as we stood at the top of Konmaru La looking west towards the fabled Indus River valley and the snow-capped peak of "White Kali" (6100 metres), a mammoth symbol of the potency of nature. He observed that "it exemplifies man's (sic) innate struggle against his obligations and reasoning."

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