Across Zanskar, I

Darcha to Padum

July 29, 2010

I practically fell out of the Tata in sheer joy of being free of its horrors. The overnight ride from Leh had been one of the worst experiences of my life. Packed inside a swerving jeep on small, bumpy roads that more resembled a donkey track than something fit for machine, the Manali – Leh highway was a joke, a farce, a means to inflict maximum discomfort on people who pay for the privilege. It would have been better to walk or take a horse. Fortunately the scenery was immense. We had left the barrenness of Ladakh for the greener pastures of Greater Himalaya. We were no longer in the rainshadow of the mountains. We were in the mountains themselves. Brian and I had amused the other passengers in the Tata by simultaneously vomiting on top of a 17,000 foot pass, more due to the quality of the ride than to the thin air. Neither of us had slept and neither of us had had anything to eat in nearly 24 hours. But here we were in Darcha, a collection of tin shacks by a river, with soaring, ice capped mountains overhead and, gasp, green things growing on the hillsides. It was in the upper 90s, which was almost pleasant after the frigid ride. The Tata raced off for Manali and Brian and I settled into a tin shack selling thukpa, a Tibetan noodle soup with mutton that was one of our favorites. We ate our fill and then retired to a patch of bare concrete in the shade to nap and recover in. It had been a hard ride.

We found, much to our displeasure, upon waking, that the Indian army had been busy blasting a road up the river valley we were planning to hike up. Although the stated reason for building the road had something to do with connecting an isolated region to the rest of India, it seemed that all weather access to the Kashmir battleline was a more realistic reason. As such, we walked out of town on a road and caught a rickety bus to the end of the road in a nothing town consisting of a few huts. We then walked the road, which was now gravel. We would be road walking for quite some time.

The valley itself was prefect. Or at least it was before the road was blasted in. Construction vehicles waddled past us. Workers hewed rock. There were a few mechanized implements, but the road was being built substantially by hand. The workers themselves were mainly Nepalese or from poor regions of northern India and they responded to namaste better than julet. We hiked up the road, following the raging river river than was 100% certain to flood and wipe out the road every few years, and ascended a valley so emblematic of the subalpine as to make even the most diehard Swiss or Frenchmen pine for the Alps. The valley was perfect. And the Indians were doing all they could to ruin it. We eventually set up camp in a field overlooking the river and started dinner. A group of three workers came over to see the strange people who carried things on their backs instead of with ponies and who were too poor to afford someone to cook for them. Indeed, one of their first questions was “Where are your horses?” We are our horses. This didn't go through so well. When we showed them our rice, lentils, and soya, they became more confused, for we were eating the same thing they were making back in their tents. Our tents, though, were much fancier. We exchanged what information we could and satisfied them that we were not actually insane. Just foolish. It was a good start to a long walk.

I slept deeply and long, tried from the worst experience of my life: The Tata ride from Leh to Darcha. Brian was tired as well, as I had to wake him from his tent after I finished my morning tea at 6:30. We didn't have a long day planned as our packs were heavy with food and we were still weak from the ride. A storm had come through during the night and the remnants of it were breaking apart on the mountains as we set off.

The valley was as beautiful in the morning, no, more so, than the afternoon before. The cold, crisp air and a rejuvenated body amplified the natural splendor that the Indian government was systematically killing. Of course, the road would be wiped out by avalanches and rock slides and shoddy work (maybe they shouldn't build the road directly over creeks?), but fat European tourists would still be able to take Tatas along the road and feel tough about it. Locals could sell them trinkets for a couple of months a year. There just wasn't much of a reason to build the road, though as a social works project it might have some value: It was putting hundreds of the most poor Indians and Nepalese to work for just-over-starvation wages. But the road would also destroy (has?) the trekking industry in the valley. But fat, waddling Euro families would surely spend some money.

This is a central problem of tourism: To promote a place and make it safe and easy for families, you normally end up destroying that very place. Not completely, not entirely, but mostly. Ask Glen Canyon. The Nepalese seemed to be doing it right, though this might be due to lack of funds more than enlightened planning. Bhutan seemed to be doing it right, though at the price of locking out all but the wealthy. I suppose the middle class could look at photos of Bhutan in a pretty picture book. Or on my website when I eventually save up the cash to go there.

We followed the road grade along the river, laughing at engineers who had designed a road that went within a thirty feet, and only a few above, a massive, glacial river that clearly overflowed on a yearly basis. Or when the road was built directly over a creeklet with only minor attempts at drainage. The road would be the worst kind of progress: It would kill the thing and not even work. The notion that the road would some how open up the outside world to the residents of the valley was just as laughable: There were a few herder tents and one stone structure, located at the county seat of Zanskar Sumdo. The Indian government couldn't even get phone service, let alone radio phone service, into the valley. So how did they think they'd get a road in there? We made a right turn and left the road bed, heading up a side valley that marked the reach of the road.

We reached the river and crossed on a substantial looking suspension bridge. It was the most advanced example of Indian engineering that I had seen since reaching the country, though I suppose the open sewer in Leh was a close competitor. I was rapidly loosing my vision of India as a future technological giant. The bridge worked, but it would break or be swept away by the river in another year or three, especially as it was used by stock animals who were not strong enough to cross the raging torrent.

Above us we spotted a few very slow moving hikers with out packs, along with multiple ponies and a guide. They quickly rose out of site as we climbed the steep hillside. The view from the top was sublime. Another perfect alpine valley stretched out for as far as the eye could see, a pulsing whitewater river threading its way through the rocky sides of the valley, dotted with green, and crowned on the top of its granite, spikey walls with snow and ice.

We met the four trekkers as they rested, winded by the elevation. They were four Indian nationals out to see their country, an activity that I wholeheartedly supported. We had met no Indians on trek so far, either here or in the Markha. They were citizens of a country with one of the most perfect scenescapes in the world, but lacked the leisure time and resources to truly explore it. Indeed, the four were from what we would call the professional classes: A doctor, a banker, a lawyer, and an computer scientist. Their guide was of Tibetan extraction rather than Kashmiri, a sign that they had hired local. They, as most people had in the Markha, asked where our guide and ponies were. We gave our usual response, which brought forth laughter from them.

They were suffering from the thin air and, probably, a lack of fitness brought on by the places where they lived: Delhi and Chennai. I was sweating profusely while wearing as few clothes as possible, while they were bundled up against the biting cold of the 85 degree air. As one of them said, they have three seasons in South India: Hot, hotter, and hottest. It must be close to impossible to exercise and keep in shape in such places. We hiked on alone until we found the rubbish strewn campsite of Ramjak. We had been used to seeing garbage in the backcountry of India, but this was really pushing the limits of decency. Trash pits were dug for the cans and bottles, plastic or aluminum, and biscuit wrappers and toilet paper. The debris and detritus of trekking companies were omnipresent. It wasn't the work of whitey, as whitey was in the care of the company and the companies hadn't yet figured out that they could haul out what they hauled in. We located a section of ground that required only a small amount of trash removal to make livable and then settled in for the night. It was 1:30 in the afternoon.

Tomorrow we face the Shingo La, the highest pass on the entire Zanskar traverse, and one known for its bad weather and constant snow and ice. Despite the presence of the road, the trek has been wonderful so far and I'm looking forward to the rest of it. As we progress along we'll come more and more into the rainshadow, which will cause the land to brown out and the green to fade to beige. I felt a vague sense of regret with deciding to start our trip in Ladakh as opposed to Manali and Himachal Pradesh. The more classic alpine scenery that we were experiencing here was much appreciated after the desert of Ladakh. And Manali had to be a better place to spend time than Leh. Even Gary, Indiana, is a better place to hang out.

I lounged in the warm sunshine and gazed off at the mountains in the distance and thought about my future,both the immediate Shingo La and the more distant, and in more ways the more substantial, future with Shauna back in Washington. I had plenty of ideas of how to spend the last month of my summer vacation, and all seemed equally pleasant. I had beginners mind toward the relationship, and that was why it was going to work. And work well.

There were light, misty clouds when we left early in the morning. Our Indian friends were still asleep as they were going to put in another camp before going over the pass, a wise idea given the elevation and the rapid pace at which they had reached Ramjak. The valley seemed endless and no pass was in site, but that was not necessarily a bad thing. My altimeter slowly ticked upward as we crawled up and out of the subalpine and into the realm of the true alpine. Pure rock, snow, and ice, with little alive.

As we broke through the 15,000 foot mark and marched on toward 16,000 feet, I began to tire and labor. Brian outpaced me, reveling in the thin air that was dragging me down. We met a few people coming down who inquired where our ponies and guides were. Usual response. We slowly gained ground on a Exodus pony train, but for the most part we had the valley to ourselves. My pace slowed and slowed until it was barely a mile per hour as I broke the 16,000 foot mark.

The valley was constantly surprising, with pockets of gorgeous flowers carving out an existence for themselves in this hostile, though dramatic, environment.

Brian and I regrouped and took a break as a group of Tibetans came down from the pass, carrying a flag and as happy as could be. They were clad in whatever clothes they had managed to scrounge up and were heading for Darcha. Tonight. A reasonable, if long, goal. We could see the pony train struggling up through the snow above us. Brian and agreed to meet at the top, as I needed quite a bit more time to make the pass than he did, and there was a cold wind blowing, necessitating constant motion.

The purity of the alpine is not a reassuring quality. It is a fearful one, one that does not invite a person to linger or lounge. It is an abode that is best visited and not one to be domesticated, the living room of everything that is not the village, everything that is outside the bounds of settled, civil life.

But it is a place that one calls to some of us, bringing us to the hostile place to breathe the air and feel the sterility. It is a place, like the floor of Death Valley or, presumably, the ice floes of the Antarctic, that amplifies human existence. One does not feel insignificant in such places. Rather, one feels a sense of importance for no other reason that being alive.

It is not an importance born and cultivated to be ego satisfying or one that inspires arrogance. No, it is a sense that to be alive is an important quality and that to be alive is better than to be dead. Barren, lifeless places teach us this better than anything written, drawn, or recorded. And, besides, the alpine is a beautiful place to visit in fine weather.

I was faced with a final steep climb, the one that I had seen the pony train laboring on. And steep it was. Steep isn't good at 17,000 feet. But a slow pace can conquer much, just as water carves a path through the hardest stone. I reached the top of what I had hoped was the pass to find Brian sitting on a rock, grinning from ear to ear. I wasn't the only one appreciating the land.

We were not at the pass, but rather at the far side of a snowy plateau. Indeed, the pass was the plateau. After a brief rest and a nugget of yak cheese we continued on through the snow and rock, following the tracks in the snow, tracks made by very, very tired ponies.

The pass was another 25 minutes away, festooned with prayer flags and beneath many 20,000 foot mountains that seemed impossibly close. The sun was shining and we managed to find a place out of the wind to rest for awhile and appreciate the scenery.

The pony train was here resting as well, though they moved off the pass, struggling through the snow, within a few minutes of our arrival. And then we had the place to our selves, to appreciate and to gawk at. It was easy to be a fan of the Indian Himalaya on a day such as this. We spent nearly ninety minutes sitting in the sun. It was well worth it.

We followed the postholes left by the ponies in the snow down the cold slopes and within a half an hour we were off the snow and dropping rapidly from the lifeless alpine and into the increasingly barren landscape. The Shingo La, it seemed, was the start of the rainshadow.

After muddling around the lower slopes, the trail led out to a huge U-shaped valley with a massive tower of rock in the distance. Two rivers joined in near the base of the rock, forming the settlement of Lakang Sumdo. I sat in the sun for a while to look on it. Ant like dots were strung out along the trail, which I presumed were the clients that belonged to the pony train we had been running into all morning.

It took another two hours to hike down to that base of rock, two hours which was filled with amazing views and lots and lots of pink hikers, some bordering on the absurd. One woman was dressed in full on traditional Swiss climbing gear, complete with elfin hat and funny leather leggings. She carried a walking stick that, she said, had been carved by local craftsmen. It looks like a stick someone picked up by the side of a creek and stripped the bark off of. She would have fit right in in a Ricola commercial. As I descended, I came across a mime heading uphill. Not in black, mind you, but a man completely frozen in mid step. Behind him was a guide, also frozen. I paused for a moment and scrunched up my eyes at them, wondering what they were doing. The guide eventually looked up at me and smiled. I walked past. The man never flinched. He was, apparently, too tired to move upward and too stupid to sit down and rest. Brian and I reconnected at the base and wandered over to the river to look for a spring, for the torrential river was flowing quite brown, with plenty of sediment for our bowels. I've taken in plenty of Colorado River water and have no desired to drink more of it. We managed to follow some horses over to a flat, grassy area and eventually located a spring, though one filled with algae. It took only a moment to clear it and we had as much clean, cold water as we wanted.

We set up camp and filtered water for our afternoon activities, all the while trying to avoid the sun: My thermometer read 107 in the shade of my vestibule. As we sat a Ladaki teen came over to collect 100 Rs a piece for camping fees, which seemed reasonable to us (about $2). However, he also wanted to collect 100 Rs for each tent we put up at Ramjak, which seemed rather far fetched. He even had a receipt book for us. It might have been perfectly legitimate, but paying to stay in a trash heap seemed to add insult to injury. The Ladakis hadn't seemed to latch onto the Nepalese method of extracting foreign currency from palefaces, which is to actually offer something, like food or lodging, in exchange. Rather than charging a small amount to camp, it would have been better to charge a lot for meals and a bed. But that required capital. Nepal is one of the poorest countries on earth, but they manage to do it.

My body was feeling the difficulty of the trek over the Shingo La. The altitude was hitting me a lot harder than Brian and I found myself well behind him all day long. It wasn't fitness, as I had completeld several 200+ mile, 24 hour bike rides earlier in the spring and had been thumping along hiking before hand. The altitude, though, was not an equal opportunity sapper. Tomorrow, though, should be mostly downhill as we descend the valley toward Kargyak and, after that, a detour to the famous cave monastery of Phuktal. As fabulous as today was, the beating my body was taking was going to start wearing on me eventually, and that would be a bad time indeed.

The blue skies and warm air of the previous day had vanished with the setting sun and we were faced with low, overhanging clouds and spittles of rain. It didn't matter much to me and I found that the dour weather suited my mood just fine. It wasn't that I was sad, but rather than I wanted to be contemplative for a while instead of feeling like the prom queen. Shauna seemed to dominate every thought and colored every image I came up with. This spilled over into a conversation with Brian about perceptions and the role they play in relationships with others, both positive ones and negative ones.

As we walked down we saw a man on the far side of the river waving his arms above his head and shouting in Ladakhi at us. We stood and pondered and walked some more. The man waved and shouted some more. Eventually we were able to make out one word: Horse. We looked around and found four horses wandering around on our side of the river, apparently the man's. He wanted us, it seemed, to somehow drive them across the river to him so he could avoid the ignominy of walking a mile back up the valley to a bridge and then walk back to the horses, who apparently had been ridden across the river by the man the night before and then decided to re-cross without him. We dropped our packs and tried to live up to our western histories as cowpokes.

Herding horses that don't want to be herded is not an especially easy task, especially by people who are not on horses, ATVs, and are unfamiliar to the horses. We tried the encirclement method to trap them against the river, but this was a terrible failure given that the horses could just out trot us. After several mis-starts, I took up the Ladakhi method of getting animals to do anything, which is to throw rocks and shout. That actually did work and I started to get positive results with well aimed rocks tossed in front of the animals or behind them, depending on where I wanted them to go. The horses lost their fear of being hit (the Ladakhis are not so shy about it), and we lost them once again. After 30 minutes of herding, we gave up. Even if we had managed to drive them to the water, there was little chance we'd have been able to get them across the river as they were not wearing a saddle and I wasn't about to try to push them across. We waved at the man and returned to our packs.

We returned to the trail and our conversation for a while, but quickly broke into our own solitary thoughts. Thinking is like that. It isn't a collaborative affair. It isn't something that is done with others. After you've had your think, then you can share it with others, learn from them, and modify your own thoughts. But the start, the formation, and the thesis, have to be done alone if it is to have any meaning. Shauna was on my mind, and I wanted to think over her without anyone else around. It didn't seem like a long trek to the village of Kargyak, but time had passed and it was nearing 11 as we started breaching the outskirts of the village.

The massive valley meant that land was not at a premium in the village and hence the sprawl. But the sprawl wasn't composed of teriyaki joints, dry cleaners, and Starbucks, but rather of religious monuments. It seemed like a good sprawl to me.

The village proper was quiet, with no one stirring. Except for packs of kids who raced to us demanding balloons, pens, and rupees. The adults were off working in the fields and nothing was open, though we eventually found an old man who was working as a sort of immigration agent and promised to round up the owner of the parachute tent, who was apparently not working in the fields, but sleeping somewhere. Brian handed out some balloons, but apparently wanted money instead. None was forthcoming and then seemed to revert to playing with the balloons Brian had given then. The children of the village had been reduced to beggars already, the willing victims of the trekkers who came through and didn't think about what they were doing.

The parachute tent eventually opened and we settled in for tea and noodles. It was also the headquarters for raising money for the local school, which was being built according to plans donated by some Czech architects and coordinated by a local woman, whom we also met. This was the place for giving, not to the kids directly. The kids would be quickly ruined with the continuance of the trekkers, though maybe the soon-to-come road, if they could get it over the Shingo La, would destroy the trekking industry and hence the begging. We spent an hour in the tent drinking tea and talking in broken English with the owner and various guides who came through. All, of course, wanted to know where our ponies were. The large Exodus group showed up, prompting us to leave. The kids were clutching 10 and 20 rupee notes.

We left the main village with the intention of camping nearby, but the village went on and on and on and the weather was fine, causing us to walk on. I noticed a black shape nearby and turned around to spot a black dog with a wolf-like look to him slinking along behind us. This was how we met Wolf Dog. At first it seemed that Wolf Dog just wanted something to eat, another beggar from the prosperous village, he wouldn't come close enough for us to feed him, not that we had any intention to do so. We hiked on for an hour to a spring, which we rested at while filtering water for the rest of the day and the upcoming night. We had finally got beyond the village and camping options were numerous.

We eventually found a willow plantation along with well constructed rock walls, behind which we could shelter from the wind, for a campsite. The owner, we were sure, would be by eventually for the 100 rupee camping fee. Across the river was another stunning river valley running into the Kargyak. The map showed it running up to glaciers and high alpine playgrounds. With more food, we could have spent five days exploring. But there was none to be had. A lost opportunity, magnified greatly since the valley got no space in either of our guidebooks.

Brian and I passed the late afternoon in conversation, an activity that we seem to due a lot of due to our short days and early starts. The days are hot and the afternoons are not good for hiking and by 2 PM we seem to be in camp or nearing it. Camp chores never take long with us and there is only so much that I can write in my journal. Hesse is wonderful, but I was on a strict 20 page per day diet, lest I run out.

We spent the hot afternoon in the shade of the rock wall talking, our only interruption being the visit from the two men who seemed to own the plantation and wanted their 100 rupees, which we eventually brought forth, though not until they explicitly asked for it. Not out of any sense of meanness or being cheapskates, but rather to step through the dance of finances in the developing world. It didn't matter where we would have camped in the valley. Someone would have found us and asked for money, claiming the land as their own.

I spent an hour fiddling with the stove before I was able to get it to run for the fifteen minutes we needed it for to make our evening meal of rice, red lentils, dried onions, and soup packet flavoring. We ate while watching the sun go down on the valley walls. The day was working us over. Both Brian and I are used to hiking out the day, to making the most of each span of daylight, not sitting around by rock walls talking. There was a limit to our ability to sustain this, as pleasurable as it was as a change of pace. The altitude and my inability to truly adjust to it were limiting how much we could do. We were descending in elevation and I was feeling worse, which is not to be expected. Even walking on flat ground was starting to bother me. Sitting didn't. And so we sat a lot and talked. Hopefully tomorrow would go better. Hopefully. Tomorrow.

It just wasn't going to be a good day. The sun was shining, which meant it would be hot. I hadn't slept well and the stove didn't work, forcing me to fiddle with it for forty minutes in order to boil water for tea. Even the sunshine on the mountain, looming on my front porch, didn't do much for me. I was tired.

As usual we had the trails to ourselves at our early morning start time of 6 am. The ponymen for the Exodus group were stirring, though most were still sleeping. The big group had stopped at a river confluence about a mile from where we had camped and were still snoozing away. Their handlers were just beginning to get the fires stoked for their breakfast.

The confluence of rivers was an important one, for up the other canyon was a pass, and on the other side of that pass was another, shorter, higher way into the region. Brian and I had considered taking that route, primarily due to its being more sporting and avoiding the road, but decided against it due to high water concerns and snow issues. Judging by how much snow was on the Shingo La, we had made the right decision. Several guides we had run into yesterday confirmed our decision.

Our route took us past the Wolf Dog, across the river on a bridge and then through a sequence of fords as we made our way up to a small plateau that looked out above the river valley and the settlement.

I began to tire almost immediately, only 90 minutes into the day's hike. I felt like I had forty pound weights on my legs, shackling then to the ground and keeping me from moving with anything resembling ease or pleasure. I struggled forward, pushing myself along the path for the only reason that there was no other way to move forward, and we had to move forward.

I was in a foul mood as we dropped to a river and then sharply ascended to a prosperous looking village perched on a cliff side, safe from the floods of the river below, and watered by cleverly built irrigation ditches from minor, cascading streams. The adults in the village were working in the fields and the children were out in force. One, two, four of them pounced on us, asking for pens, money, balloons. Brian wanted to please, but I couldn't stop. I kept moving down the track. Brian was quickly surrounded by every kid in the village. Eventually, as he later told me, he simply gave out his bag of balloons and left. It wasn't enough for the kids and they tagged after him, with more panhandling for rupees and pens.

The sun was out and it was hot. Despite the lower altitude of about 13,250 feet, I was laboring even on the flat sections of land. I stopped to drink water frequently. On any incline I had to move at a snails pace with a distinct feeling that I was only using one lung. Brian caught up and was worried, watching me stumble and shuffle my way along. He offered to take my pack, but I didn't think that it would help much and simply needed to get to Purne, where we would be staying for the night. The heat and sun beat me, pounded me, amplifying the suffering that was coming from my lack of energy. I didn't know what was wrong with me, but it wasn't the altitude and it wasn't a lack of fitness or an overly heavy load or an overworked body. As I breathed, I simply wasn't processing the oxygen. The trail dropped to the river several times and then climbed high one last time.

The descent into Purne was steep. Very steep. And hot and dry and dusty. The worst was gazing at the steep, though shorter, ascent on the other side of the river into Purne.

Purne was a village owned by two families who had set up shop at the confluence of rivers, one of which led to the famous cave monastery of Phuktal. Everyone who comes to Ladakh has to go to Phuktal, an easy day trip from Purne. The tourist part of the village consisted of several stone and adobe buildings with willow roofs set in the middle of green, grassy fields littered with tents. Brian and settled in under the shade of a tarp porch, packless and happy. The sign told us we were at Norbu's Guesthouse. I would have been just as happy to be at the Palace Hotel. It was only 1:30 in the afternoon, but it had been one of the worst hikes of my life.

As I rested and drank tea and a soda*, I began to feel better and the thoughts of ending the hike at Padum began to disappear. We had a rest day tomorrow, with a pleasant hike to Phuktal and a lot of gawking to do. Many trekkers began coming in, though they were all in organized tour groups and hence stayed in their groups. We had originally planned to camp, for 100 rupees each, but when we found that a room was only 300 rupees, for both of us, we decided to take the room instead. Wolf Dog came loping into town. Brian entertained the village kids with balloons. They hadn't begged, they hadn't panhandled. They were regular kids. Locals and guides came and went and we found ourselves having more to talk about with them than with the Euros who floated through in tour groups. A few braves came over to chat, but we mostly spoke in broken English with the Tibetan stock women who ran the place. Rigzen was a fine woman, but oddly enough not married and without children at the rather old age of perhaps 25. She made us a large dinner of yellow rice with local greens, topped with two fried eggs. Much better than our usual fare.

As the sun began to drop a group of three Kashmiri stock men came riding into town on ponies. Clearly important men, these highrollers instantly commanded attention from the locals, who scurried and hurried to fetch things for them. They took a room near ours and had hot water brought for washing. A kid goat was slaughtered behind one of the buildings, a rather unusual occurrence in a Buddhist village. I watched the cleaning with minor interest after watching my uncle do the same to a wild boar we had hunted earlier in the summer. I wasn't sure who the highrollers were, but the villagers of Purne were clearly out to make a good impression. The smell of the curried goat brought forth hunger once again. I retired to the room instead of staying to see the feast come out. Shauna had been in my mind all day and seemed so far away. With the difficulty of today, all I wanted to do was to return home and be with her, rather than slogging along desert trails in high heat while trying to operate on a single lung. As I lay on the bed in the dark I thought about her and our life together when I got back to the States. It was a comforting thought, but an agonizing one at the same time. Thunder rolled outside.

The rain and thunder went on all night and into the morning, turning the front yard of the guesthouse into a mud pit. Brian was already up and about when I made my way over to the shelter of the kitchen and found a chair waiting for me. Rigzen brought a large thermos of milk tea over for Brian and I. I think she liked us because we played with the kids and talked with the people who lived in Purne as opposed to staying with people who's skin tone was the same as ours. The rain continued down, heavy at times, and pounded on the Exodus group, who were intent on keeping to their schedule and were thus packing up for the hike to Phuktal. Brian and I drained 15 cups of milk tea and asked for another thermos. Rigzen smiled, though more at Brian, I think, than me. The highrollers came out as well and had western boxed cereal. Brian and I ate chapatis with fried egg. The humor of this was not lost on either party. An hour after the Exodus group left the sun came out and we set off for the monastery as well.

It felt great to be walking without the pack, high above a brown, murky river with steep canyon walls and blue skies overhead. The trail itself was Grand Canyon-esque, writhing and twising and following the complicated walls, occasionally diving to the water and then climbing steeply back up. My body felt much better than the previous days, though it was only a 75 minute hike to Phuktal.

As advertised, Phuktal was built, carved is a better word, directly into the wall of the canyon, commanding a powerful view of the river and a surrounding village that had sprung up some time after the establishment of the monastery. Many centuries ago monk was wandering through the area and came upon a large cave high on the canyon wall. It was winter time and he needed shelter from the elements. Inside of the cave he found a spring which, much to his amazement, was not frozen during the Himalayan winter. Preferring the isolation of the cave, the monk settled in for a long meditation session and eventually founded a monastery in the cave. Over the centuries the monastery grew outside of the cave and onto the cliffside itself. It now holds many monks and is a focal point of the area for tourists and locals alike.

A few tents were pitched in a lower area that also had a guesthouse and a small cafe run by the monks to generate some hard currency. We passed by and hiked up the steep tread into the monastery complex itself. Several monks came by to chat and see what we were all about. One old monk came over to examine our hiking poles and seemed rather impressed that mine could collapse in on themselves for easy storage and to adjust for the height of the walker. This, it seemed, was a rather impressive characteristic, especially in comparison with Brian's non-telescopic poles. Young and old, the monks came by at least for a look, though it might have been that we were sitting on a perch along a popular walk way. A bell rang. We were next to the kitchen.

We spent the better part of two hours at the monastery and then headed back to Purne and the guesthouse for the rest of our zero day. I felt especially fine on the walk back and celebrated the fact with a beer at the guesthouse, which prompted a mid afternoon nap. When I emerged from the room, it was stormy and nasty out, with the crack of thunder heard now and then. Much mud. Our Indian friends that we last saw on the far side of the Shingo La had come into town and were staying in their tent on the grounds of the guesthouse as the rooms were all full. They seemed in fine spirits. The highrollers came back and we found out their story. The main man was the central development officer for the region, based out of Kargil, a Muslim town in between Leh and Srinigar. He and his coworkers were here on an inspection tour to find out what was needed in the valley. An educated, polite, and thoroughly civilized man, he did his best to fend off the requests, some of which were rather emphatic, from various locals who would come over to ask for something, at times with tears in their eyes. He had not wanted the kid last night to be slaughtered, but the villages did it anyways, out of sense of respect and hope, perhaps, for the bestowal of some boon. He took a dim view of the future of the valley and wished that the villagers would move out of the mountains and into the Indus valley, to the towns their, where the government could provide aid to them. Having seen the towns in the Indus I could understand why no one wanted to move their. The official also told tales of price gouging and exploitations by, not of, large tour groups, which he seemed to despise more than Brian or I did, which was considerable. The large groups were run and staffed by people from outside the area and would sweep through like a cloud of locusts. Their animals would eat the little forage and they would contribute nothing to the local economies Rather than pay villagers for camping, as we did, they would offer a few rupees, or none at all, and camp where they liked. There was little that the villagers could do about it.

The official also had information about the road that was going in. Despite the presence of the military (who seemed to be doing the building, or at least the supervising), the official said that the road was a civil affair and meant to satisfy the needs of the local population. In winter, you see, the villagers are completely cut off from the outside world and need to be able to come and go much easier than they have for the last 800 years. I didn't bother to bring up the problem of snow removal and avalanche mitigation, neither of which would be done. Nor of the shoddy construction of the road or lack of engineering that was going on. The official seemed genuinely concerned for the welfare of the people in the mountains, but the approach to development in the area sounded much like the American government's approach to “developing” the American Indian by herding them on to reservations. It certainly didn't work for us.

The night wore on and we spent most of it talking with Rigzen and her sister and father, who was the owner of the guesthouse. We seemed to have made a favorable impression on everyone, especially in distinction to the Exodus group, who seemed more intent on getting hot water for baths than on finding out who they were staying with. We have another two or three days to Padum and our own showers and a resupply. Unless the remaining stretch completely lays me out, I am continuing on our trans-Zanskar trek to Lamayuru and, eventually, Leh, that shithole. I miss Shauna all the more today as this is her birthday. I'm very glad that I'm her now, as I do not think the area has an especially promising future given the trash problems, the behavior of the large tour groups, and the coming road. The time to see it was a decade or more ago. The thunder and the rain continued.

The rain pounded down all night long and it was misty and muddy in Purne. Our Indian friends were under the front porch of the kitchen, quite wet and tired from a night spent in a leaky tent. We took a relaxed approach to the morning and drank three large pots of milk tea while waiting for the skies to clear, which they eventually did. We, and the locals, were a bit concerned about the condition of the trails given the large amount of rainfall that the area had seen in the past few days. A desert land does not react well to hour upon hour of heavy rain. We eventually settled our bill with Rigzen. For two days of lodging, food, beer, soda, a few gallons of milk tea, and two pairs of socks that she made, our bill came to 2604 rupees, which we thought quite the bargain. Rather than extract 400 rupees for two people to camp for two nights, the people at Purne had gone toward the Nepalese approach: Do a bit more and get a lot more in return. We paid more, but got a lot more and it was cheap in comparison to any other place.

The walk out from Purne was quite dreary: Follow the gorge, plunge down and the climb steeply up from time to time. Stare at the brown. Repeat. The river was swollen and moving swiftly and I found myself wishing I was elsewhere for most of the hike. The browning out of the land didn't help, nor did my lack of lung capacity. My energy was low and moving was hard. The river was running high enough that at one point we had to hike in the river itself for a hundred foot stretch, as the river had overflowed its banks and come up to the level of the trail. This didn't bode well.

We had been planning to stop at the hamlet of Pepul, but when we arrived we found nothing but a toilet paper strewn rubbish heap, with a sort of building selling the usual things. Selling, that is, if there was any one there. Three Germans had set up tents and were apparently heading upstream. We rested for a few minutes and then headed down to Dorzong, which had to be a more pleasant place to spend the night. Then again, an outhouse on the Appalachian Trail would be cleaner. Dorzong was only a forty minute or so hike down the canyon and we found a friendly bridge caretaker there, who collected the usual 100 Rs per tent per night fee and then promptly crossed the bridge and went home. The water on the other side of the bridge had come up well above the level of the trail, forcing him into a difficult rock hop to get to the other side with dry feet. A pleasant, piped stream came down to the campsite, completing the polar opposite picture from Pepul. Of course, there was no opportunity to buy a Coke or beer here, but it was a fair enough trade.

Stove issues plagued dinner, forcing me into a 45 minute repair and cleaning session, which I managed with only a few minor outbreaks of complete rage, frustration, and feelings of seething hatred towards whoever invented kerosene. The stove fired eventually and we were able to choke down our lentils, rice, and soya chunk, though we didn't have much time to enjoy a post dinner lounging session as the rain soon came, driving us into our tents for the night.

I awoke with a start at the lightning and the crash of thunder, though that wasn't why I was sitting up. The tent had been flashed repeatedly and the rain was hard, but that wasn't it. It was a voice. It came again. And again. I couldn't understand what it said. It was a man's voice, and the man was clearly in some distress. He spoke little English, but he kept saying river. River. River. We were high enough above the level of the river to be safe from flooding, so it seemed that the water had come up enough to make getting to the other side too difficult. We tried to communicate for a bit, but there wasn't much I could do for him. My tent was only large enough for one and there was shelter at the bridge house, or another thirty minutes down the road at Ichar. He eventually left and I went back to sleep, listening to the rain beating on the tent fly.

The rain continued heavily during the morning, forcing a delay on us for our short day. We were not exactly sure how short it would be, since we had no idea where we would spend the night, whether in the upcoming hamlet of Reru, or in Padum, or in some in between settlement. The road had extended well up the valley and we were almost immediately walking on crushed rock. Many Indians from the central and northern parts of the country, along with plenty of Nepalese, lined the road, fitting bits of rock into the road bed by hand, using a chisel and hammer as their only tools. It was not pleasant work, especially for a road that could never function reliably. The engineers here still had not figured out water control.

Within two hours we began to pass many camps and workers, though no tourists, which seemed surprising to us given the quantity we had been used to seeing on a daily basis. We reached Reru after another hour and wandered through its deserted streets, which looked more like a site for Pakistani target practice with mountain guns than a working village. Walls were knocked over and things seemed boarded up and closed. We eventually found a store that was open and bought some sodas from a friendly older woman. Pantomiming with her son, we learned that the road itself was closed, which we found somewhat strange given that we had met people two days ago who had been driven here. We sat for a while by the side of the road and pondered what to do. There wasn't much pondering to do. We could either stay in Reru or walk out. We chose, of course, to hoof it.

We hiked out under overcast skies. Road walking, for me, is always fun for about the first forty minutes, then it becomes hellish. I've had 60 mile road walks before, so I've had a lot of experience at it. We barely got the first 40. We linked up with a Ladakhi and, eventually, a monk, for part of the walk, which helped to pass the time. Near the town of Mune, we crossed a smokey hell of a paving operation. The paving was being done the old fashioned way: As painfully as possible for the workers. Fires were lit by the sides of the road and open drums of tar were set over them to heat. Workers, in the swirling gas clouds, would use mops (yes, mops), to try to push the molten stuff around on the road. It looked like in a few places the drums were just kicked over and then the mops applied. Nothing, of course, would be remotely level and the tarring would break apart in a couple of years after the freeze-thaw cycle had a chance to work on it. The suffering of the workers would go for naught.

The road became long. The sun came out and began to pound us. No vehicles, no traffic. We hiked and hiked on the the rotten road, paved at times and unpaved at others. Our feet began to sing loudly in that chorus of pain that roadwalkers know only too well. An hour, two hours, five hours. Finally a massive Tata came barreling down the road, driven by two men in Indian army uniforms and hauling a troop of workers for the road. They stopped and let us hop into the back with the workers for the remaining mile or two to their job site. We didn't get quite there, as a Tata jeep had gotten stuck in a river crossing where a creek had (surprise, surprise) washed out the road . We kept moving. An hour later another Tata came down from the mountains and stopped for us. It was the best car ride I'd been in since the last time someone picked me up on a roadwalk.

The truck was driven by a young-ish man who evidently was a sort of taxi driver in the area, ferrying tourists to trailheads and returning with whomever he could pick up along the way. Padum was only five or six kilometers further down the road, but we were so beat that it would have taken us another two hours to reach town. Although the town seemed fairly charmless, it was much less obnoxious than Leh and we heard a rumor of a bar in town.

Our ride dropped us off at the main taxi stand and we quickly found our way to the Mount Blanc guesthouse, which our guidebook said was run by an ex-pat Frenchmen. 450 rupees a night got us a swank two bed room with bathroom. The Zanskari owners seemed very nice. Once in town our stomachs overcame the weariness of the road and we set out for a feast. The Lhasa Restaurant was the perfect joint for us: Uninhabited by any palefaces and run by people who spoke no English. Thentuk, a brothy soup of vegetables and doughy dumplings, along with a big plate of momos disappeared in a rapid hurry. We couldn't completely gorge ourselves as we had arranged for dinner at the guesthouse in another two hours. I went in search of beer and found none. The town itself seemed like every other town down in the valley. Not much charm, pretty industrial, and filled with litter and vehicles.

There was an archery tournament going on for the youths of the Zanskar region, but this was much less interesting than it seemed. I watched a bit of it and found my obvious cultural bias to come out rather strongly. The archers used what looked like home made bows and shot at targets located approximately 50 feet from them. Using every a 30 year old bow in the States, any rube should be able to hit a pie plate at that distance. But the homemade bows launched projectiles that arched through the air and fell well away from the three foot diameter target. I watched for ten minutes and didn't see a single hit, though the competitors were having a riotously good time, which seemed to be the point.

The late afternoon faded into early evening, finding Brian and I in our rooms watching clothes dry and reveling in our non-stink. Although the shower was just a bucket of room temperature water, it felt good not to be greasy. We joined the multigenerational family for dinner, with Grandpa pouring me tall glasses of distilled rice wine named arak, which is the name for a similar drink in places like Nepal and all the way over in Syria. Dinner itself was delicious, with a tomato based curry with boiled eggs, spinach cooked in a sort of milk or yogurt sauce, rice, and lots of tea. But as the clock nudged toward eight, we found it harder and harder to stay awake and tell the family about our travels and listen to their tales of Israelis, Pakistanis, and living in a remote place. As I settled into the bed and pulled the scratchy blanket over the top of myself, I thought about Shauna, as I always seemed to, and the future for us. A lot was going to change in my life when I returned back to the States. And I was looking forward to every last little bit of it.