We'd driven to Zingchan, avoiding the 10 km stretch of road from Spituk described aptly by one of the guide books as a 'masochistic slog'. I understood the description: for much of the way the road was a sealed, winding strip through a searing desert, utterly devoid of shade -- the sort of environment in which fresh apricots shrivel and desiccate in minutes. The same would happen to exposed human skin. Further towards Zingchan the valley narrowed. Steep, rocky mountainsides showed upended, folded, twisted strata; little grew except harsh low shrubs, well spaced. Only a few willows at the very bottom of the valley along the river looked anything like lush.
Suddenly Stanzin stood and exclaimed, pointing across the stream. There, only about a hundred metres away, coming down the mountainside and apparently contemptuous of our presence, was a band of bharal. After a quick look through the binoculars, I handed them to Stanzin. The ponies we'd passed earlier had begun to catch up, though, so we moved on. Despite the heat and the altitude, I felt good, and we reached Rumbak in well under two hours, after several stops for photographs and to inspect more bharal, a red-billed chough, and more chukar.
The woman at the homestay has enough rudimentary English for a conversation.
'Married?' she asks. 'Children?'
She tells me she has three children; the eldest, seven years old, goes to school in Leh and comes home for holidays. Here she looks after her two-and-a-half-year-old girl and one-year-old boy. She seems gentle and thoughtful. I ask whether she ever sees Shan, the snow leopard.
'Never,' she says, but she means now, in summer. 'Only winter.'
I wonder where they go -- deeper into the mountains, higher, where it's colder? Or are they still here, hidden deep in caves during the heat of the day, only coming out in the relative cool of night? I want to believe one might still be here, perhaps even having watched us walk up the valley, but I know this is wishful thinking. Wherever they are now, they're not here, and as the new road extends further up the valley, will they finally stop returning in the cold months?
Later the woman brings me a small, handmade, felted toy, instantly recognisable with its cream body, black spots, and long, black-tipped tail. Two nights, she says, to make this Shan.
Perhaps, after all, I have seen the snow leopard.
The four o'clock light on these sere mountains surrounding the Rumbak Valley looks as old as Time. Cloud shadows, sunlight, white clouds, the rock red or pale dun or even almost white. The willows along the river bend and sway in the wind; the wind which sets the prayer flags fluttering, sending prayers to heaven. I don't even know what mine should be.
At five in the morning I get up, pack the camera, binoculars, bird guide, and a partly full bottle of ORS, which has resumed its disgusting taste. Stanzin offers to accompany me but I can see he's desperate for sleep and, besides, I prefer to walk on my own, at my own pace, unpressured by any goal other than to stroll around, looking. Above the camp and information signs at the junction, I stop and sit. Below, on a a patch of close-grazed grass, the crazy Swiss or Austrian man who'd arrived lost at Rumbak yesterday evening lies in his sleeping bag on a groundsheet, surrounded by his mountain of gear. He'd been carrying an enormous, protruding pack on his back, a similarly large grubby yellow sack dangling from one shoulder, and a smaller pack in front. He'd looked like a malformed Bactrian camel.
Not much seems active: a black redstart, a Eurasian magpie, a mixed flock of hill and rock pigeons, chukar in several places. No sign of bharal or any other mammals. I continue down the valley to the chorten with the bharal skulls at the entrance to the gorge and linger, trying for a photograph that might be more than a record shot. All the energy seems to have drained from my body.
I return, very slowly, to the room at our homestay where Stanzin still lies asleep. Last night on the way back from our evening excursion he'd remarked how he'd had only 2-3 hours' sleep the previous night. The poor guy must have been exhausted, but to his credit he'd hidden it well -- at least until this morning.
The woman at the homestay dresses her one-year-old boy and stands him in front of her, encouraging him to take a step. This, though, is one too far. I ask if he can walk.
'No,' she says, smiling and shaking her head.
His balance suggests that step won't be far off.
The three Indians here with us, husband and wife Dev and Nehar, and Muddin, join me for breakfast of something resembling puri and something halfway between an omelette and scrambled egg. The puri leaves my fingers greasy; my omelette has a slight off flavour as if one of the eggs was a little older than desirable. The woman brings seabuckthorn jam, though, and this, with its sweet-sharp flavour, suits the oily puri very well. Last night I chatted with Dev and Nehar, both of whom speak excellent English. They're keenly interested in wildlife of all kinds, not just the charismatic megafauna, and they exhorted me to visit India's north-eastern hill states, Assam in particular. They knew their birds, too, and we swapped notes on what we'd seen in the evening, with the notable bird in common being the beautiful red-fronted serin.
They leave this morning to walk at a leisurely pace back down to Zingchan, wildlife viewing on the way. The walk in along the same route the previous day, Nehar said, almost killed her. I've enjoyed their good humour, their appreciation of all kinds of wildlife, their down-to-earth attitudes, and their excellent English which meant I could have a good discussion, and I'm sorry to see them go.
In the middle of the morning we walk a long way up the other tributary in the direction of the Kanda La. Small skinks scuttle for cover; a brown dipper flies along the stream and calls; a pair of red-billed choughs won't allow me close enough for a good photograph. The sight of the choughs gladdens me. Stanzin calls them crows, which in a sense they are, but the usage reminds me how anything resembling a crow -- ravens, rooks, the many types of crows, the choughs -- are all known by everyone except the bird people as just 'crows' and, more often than not, disliked or even hated.
On the way up the valley I stop to talk to the crazy Swiss or Austrian man. In fact, he's Swedish. He fries chipped potatoes over a small, efficient fire, not to eat now, he explains, but to carry for lunch; he wants to conserve his supply of firewood for when he's higher up where wood will be scarce. His big yellow sack apparently holds a supply of firewood. He's heading for Skiu and the Markha valley, he tells me, adding that the pony man estimates 5 hours so he'll probably take 15. His straggly beard has been singed by his fire, the shrivelled tips of his whiskers a fried-chip colour that looks like the tar stains of a bearded chain smoker. When we return towards midday, he's entertaining three local people and shows no sign of packing to begin his walk.
Soon after dawn a black redstart hits the window of the room where Stanzin lies asleep and I sit, only half awake, wondering whether to get up and what to do if I do -- go for a walk? Write, crosslegged and uncomfortable at one of the low tables? The redstart flies off. Perhaps it was just snatching an insect. I get up and go next door to squat over the small rectangle in the compacted dirt floor, trying not to breathe the ammonia fumes from the open-air dung pile below. Afterwards I walk up the hill to the main building to write, only to be promptly served an early breakfast. The Swiss man joins me. In the direct way of many people with only basic English but a keen interest in their guests, the homestay woman asks what the man does for work, how old he is, what's the nature of his relationship with the woman, how old she is. In turn, he asks how old she is. Twenty-eight, she says. Her husband works in Leh. When the doctor arrives, the homestay woman enquires whether she has children.
'No time,' she replies, but she clearly has a way with children, picking up the one-year-old boy and cradling him and playing with him.
We leave at 7.45 a.m. under cloud that keeps the temperature bearable and, in a stroke of excellent luck, stays with us all the way to the pass with only brief breaks when the sun's intense heat reminds me how lucky we are. Where the trail begins to climb more steeply, Stanzin comes running back to urge me on; he's seen some big birds; vultures, he thinks. At first I think he's right, but when I get the binoculars on them I see they're not vultures at all, but some kind of megapode. They're big, beautiful birds with greyish backs and chestnut stripes along the flanks, and later, at Changma camp, I get the bird guide out and discover what we've been looking at are five Himalayan snowcock.
Stanzin easily outpaces me but, by simply not stopping to rest, I outpace everyone else on the route -- the two groups of French people and the battalion of Israelis trekking independently. 'Outpaced' is a relative term, however -- I don't recall ever having walked so slowly in any mountains. About five minutes from the summit of the La, Stanzin comes running back down, insisting on carrying my pack. He's delighted; 'You are the fastest!' he exclaims. I think he must feel his status among the locals has increased by having the fastest client, but although I admit some satisfaction, it feels largely pyrrhic -- mostly what I feel is relief at having finally reached the top.
After three quarters of an hour, a tetrapak of mango juice, and a small bar of chocolate that sticks uncomfortably to my teeth, we begin the descent. The contrast between the ascent and the descent could hardly be more striking; suddenly I feel almost back to my old self. Stanzin decides to take the shortcut -- directly down a very steep path of deep dust, and after a moment's hesitation I follow. It's just like a New Zealand scree run, except the substrate's deep, fine dust instead of shingle, and we drop rapidly -- maybe a few hundred metres in a matter of minutes. The shortcut meets a dusty, winding trail that leads down a steep gully, down which we trot at a good pace, and I manage to keep up with Stanzin. We reach Changma camp just under an hour after leaving the pass.
About the time I wake, two Indian guides arrive. They've somehow lost their clients. Long discussions with Stanzin and the young camp manager ensue, until the guides finally set off up the track. Five minutes later, the lost party arrives: six Germans. Stanzin whistles and shouts and beckons, and the guides eventually return. The leader of the Germans isn't happy. He insists they camp here; they're not acclimatised, he says, and the next camp is too high. The guide points out that the camping equipment is with the ponies; he blames the pony drivers for not stopping and says that for him to go ahead and bring the ponies back down will take at least three hours, by which time darkness will have fallen and the Germans will be freezing. Returning to Stok, from where they've just come, is the only option.
The leader flings his trekking pole down, swears, abuses the guide, and finally takes off his daypack and throws it at the low wall by the track, where it topples over into the dining area. He turns his back on the chastened guide and stalks off. No one does anything; everyone stands around. The younger of the two German women looks as if she's about to burst into tears.
Eventually I go over and suggest they might like to have some tea while they decide what to do. I ask how they're coping with the altitude. One of the German men shakes his head.
'Borderline,' he says.
I cautiously suggest that staying here might not be a good idea, and perhaps returning to Stok might be the best option. At least it's downhill. He nods and, glancing across, sees my bird guide in Stanzin's hands.
'You are an ornithologist?' he says.
Yes, I say, but not a serious ornithologist; I just like looking at the birds and other animals.
'You were on the Galapagos?' he asks.
I tell him yes, I loved it there, and he smiles and enthuses -- 'We too!' he says.
The young woman has the best English, and I commiserate with her a little. She seems to become more resigned to the prospect of returning to Stok. I suggest they could consider this good for helping them acclimatise, and she and some of the others laugh. The ice has broken.
They start the walk back to Stok, having seemed to appreciate my efforts, and I think they might even have looked forward to meeting us again tomorrow -- the older man asks if they'll see us as we walked out. Perhaps just having someone who understood their dismay and could offer a gentle alternative perspective encouraged them. The guide thinks I'm wonderful. I become his best friend; he thanks me profusely for having mollified his clients and shakes my hand several times. He continues to blame the pony drivers, probably with some justification; nevertheless, the whole fiasco could have been avoided with clearer communication among everyone right at the outset. This, however, is not as easy as it sounds when English is at best a second language for everyone and not one at all for the pony drivers.
At night the tent initially holds a little of the day's heat, and when that later dissipates I stay warm in the sleeping bag. Stanzin sleeps in the camp manager's stone hut, so I have plenty of room to wriggle about to find the right combination of depressions for my hip and shoulder; I keep waking to turn over, but quickly drop back to sleep. At 5.30 I get up and sit outside, prowl around a little, and watch the dawn sun light the most jagged rock formations imagineable. Black redstarts, mostly females, flit about all around the camp; chukar call and feed and fight nearby. No sign yet of Himalayan griffons, though. No bharal, no ibex, no argali, although I scan the high, rocky bluffs diligently.
Ten minutes down the track, Stanzin calls out and points. There, cruising the length of a high rocky ridge, soars a large vulture. Through the binoculars I search for the ruff of a Himalayan griffon, but this bird has none, nor does it have the right markings, and the wings taper distinctly. I'm confident I'm looking at a juvenile lammergeier. That's good enough for me. I high-five Stanzin and congratulate him on his spotting, and he grins broadly, happy to see me so pleased.
Where the track climbs to a knoll from where we can see Stok shimmering in the near distance, we stop and wait. Our driver isn't due to arrive for another couple of hours and we both prefer to wait in the mountains than in a town. Trekkers and climbers (essentially identical because Stok Kangri is just a long slog) pass in both directions; yesterday's Germans skirt the base of the knoll to avoid the climb, so we miss the chance to meet and chat. Given their slow pace, however, an interruption to talk might not have been desirable. Their guide had arrived at Changma this morning, still clearly thinking I was a wonderful person. He explained how the Germans had found a good homestay and had calmed down, even apologising for the abuse. I hope the rest of the trek goes well, so their memories won't be tempered by the unfortunate incident.
I photograph a small, beautiful lizard with bright orange on the sides of the neck, sulphur yellow beneath, black patterning on its back -- the same kind I'd seen near the steps to the palace in Leh. I haven't seen urial, ibex, or argali, but how many visitors pay attention to, or even notice, these small, beautiful things?
Back in Leh, the call to prayer begins. I climb through my window onto the patio and sit listening, looking up at the tall, slender poplars swaying and rustling in the warm wind at dusk, the bright gibbous moon casting faint shadows, the last light gleaming on the snows and glaciers of the Ladakh Range from which I've just returned. As always, the call haunts me, and I understand at last one of the perils of travelling: how strange and distant places and the people you meet in them can sometimes break your heart in a way that makes you think it might never mend.
1. I've skipped ahead in this narrative, otherwise I'll fall too far behind. As usual, these are just selected impressions. Prepared in haste; please excuse errors.
1. The Rumbak Valley from near the start of the climb to Stok La.
2. Chorten near Rumbak.
3. Ponies on Stok La.
4. Mountainside near Rumbak.
5. The chorten with the bharal skulls at the entrance to the gorge.
6. Mitra flag at Changma Chan camp.
7. Evening meltwater. In the mornings, the water's almost clear and slightly bluish, and it's easy to boulder-hop across the rivers. Very different by evening.