Southern Passage To Tsomoriri

 (A trek from Kiber in Spiti valley to Tsomoriri lake in Changthang plateau in Laddakh, via Parang La pass.)

Tsomoriri means ‘blue waters’. It is a beautiful big lake at the average altitude of 15000+ feet in southern Laddakh, close to the international border with Tibet. It can be approached from north, from Leh Manali Highway or from south, across Parang La pass (18,300 ft), from Spiti valley. Both ways, one has to trek for about 7 to 10 days. And both ways, one has to cross some high passes, for which Laddakh is famous- ‘the Land of high passes’. Here is an account which might stimulate the explorer in you.

Why do men climb mountains? Motives can be subtle, insidious and sometime simply puerile. A famous mountaineer, when asked why did he climb Everest, said gravely ‘..because it is there’! In my case, trekking was just a respectable excuse for getting away from everything and to be quiet. And this is why, I do not take any porter or a guide with me.

In August 2006, I had trekked to Tsomoriri from the north (see the sketch map). This year (summer 2007) I researched the southern route. I came across 3-4 good travelogues on web, giving the description of the route. And then, I was ready. But couple of nights running, I had strange dreams.

(the region) (the trail)

21st July 2007

I am kicking my feet against the hard blue wall of ice- but unable to get any purchase. My ice-axe is holding firm on this frozen wall above my head but my feet are not following the example. I don’t have crampons[1] on. I am in plain trekking shoes and that is why I am slipping down again and again. I am tiring with every effort…
Way up, I can see a little light through the hole- yes, the hole which opened up under my feet as I was happily trundling along this glacier atop Parang la. I can feel panic rising to my temples-my head is throbbing- I am alone and ill-equipped to deal with this crevasse- What now?

This was one bad dream I saw just before leaving on this ten day trek in the western Himalayas. There was another similar one:

I am wading through a mountain stream – and suddenly I miss my footing and am being swept off... in the rushing torrents. There is no one even to see this accident and commiserate; Not even birds or fishes- it is a freezing stream in a high altitude desert in the Western Himalaya. As I am being swept away, I am ruing the fact that I never learned proper swimming...

Solo treks are an opportunity to confront such fears and visit ‘the snout of the glacier’ from where such existential fears emanate constantly in our mortal life.

Pare-Chu, the wandering river: A small river, originates at Parang la: Pare Chu. It flows east, enters Tibet near Chumar village, turns back after a while and re-enters Himachal Pradesh in India, near Kaurik (Spiti) . In 2004, the sudden bursting of an artificial lake on this river, caused havoc in Himachal pradesh. Four major bridges across the river Satluj were swept away.

There are many bus stands in Shimla: but the ‘Main bus stand’ is the right choice if you wish to get a proper seat in a bus going to Rekong-peo or Kaza- the first leg of the journey. There are night bus services also. This is the road which goes east towards Tibet- enters Spiti from south, moves northward towards Lahaul and links up with the Leh Manali road, near Rohtang pass. It follows the Satluj river for a great distance and then, the Spiti river for another half a day.

21st July 2007

Kaza is a small tribal border town in the Spiti valley. Many western tourists are thronging here after it was opened to them recently. They still need an inner line permit though. Israelis are around in large numbers. Young people- who probably never had to fight Hamas, the same way  their parents did. Out for just a good time.

Kibber is another 20 km from Kaza. Resembles a painting of a hill village by a six year old: many shoe-box kind of flat drab houses, almost identical, on a bare mountain side. A big monastery atop the ridge. Here are approximate travel times by bus:

·        Shimla to Rekongpeo: ten hours

·        Rekongpeo to Kaza: ten hours

·        Kaza to Kibber: under one hour

22nd July 2007

Kibber village has only 3 guest houses offering basic hospitality. The monastery here is reputed for old Thanka paintings. The cook cum manager of the guest house I stayed in, pointed out to me a small tourist party, camping out in the field across the road: they are going to Tsomoriri- follow them.

The first and last village on this trail is Dhumle; There is a dirt road leading to this village but I took a short cut- which crosses a gorge and climbs the ridge on the east of this village- and descends on the other side to our first camp site: Thāltak. Altitude 14806 ft. The other tourist party is moving very slowly. Finally, when I meet their guide, he says: The lady (the tourist) is not feeling very well; we are turning back tomorrow! I was a little concerned: now onwards I would have to do my own trail reading.

23rd July 2007

The trail descended into a gorge: Pariluingbi river gorge. It moved up-stream for about 2 hours and then you climb a lateral moraine on the right, to reach the second camp site: the base camp of Parang la. There was a faint but discernible trail. On the moraine, water from melting ice higher up, often seeped deep. Here and there it rose to the surface: two or three such water holes were close to the camp site. Otherwise there was nothing else in this high windy field, full of pebbles and stones of all sizes, shapes and colors, surrounded by jagged ridges. I looked at my GPS as I stumbled up to the camp site exhausted: Altitude 16681 ft.

(Water hole)   (trail across Pariluingbi gorge)

24th July 2007

The trail climbed steadily up towards the pass- the location of which you could now guess. Since the pass is a north-south one: this side being south facing, was almost totally free of snow- except for one band of snow, which cut across the valley, almost like a garland. Not much of a problem to cross it. But the north side is supposed to have a four km long glacier. I sat down frequently to catch my breath. The view of the unending ranges to south was majestic. Finally, I heard and then saw the fluttering prayer flags atop the pass. Altitude (Parang La pass): 18343 ft.

(a snow band garlanding the upper slope) (Prayer flags atop Parang la pass)

The descriptions I had read were right. I looked down: the north side had a lot of soft snow and a massive glacier. Its surface was criss-crossed by many glacial streams and pools; Walking on it, meant getting feet frozen and soggy. Also, where the glacier ended, it may be a steep fall to the floor of the valley. And then, of course there was a remote but significant chance of meeting a crevasse. The time was about 1 pm. Another 2-3 hours and it would be freezing and windy at this height.

Fortunately horsemen and porters had made a trail high up on the lateral moraine. I saw a faint line on the right of the glacier among the rocks. After walking on fresh snow for sometime, I was able to get on to this safer trail. There were inconspicuous cairns to mark the poor trail amid boulders. After many hours of walking on shale, stones, pebbles, ice etc. the trail brought me safely down into the valley- but I still had to cross the glacial stream.

It was about 5 pm and due to high snow melting rate in the afternoon, most streams are in spate around this time. So was the case with this one- the baby Pare-Chu. I selected the right spot for crossing over; put on my sports sandals, took out the ice-axe for support and stepped in: small rocks were coming down like bullets with the force of water; I  took a second step and my right sport sandal was whipped off my foot, by the strong current in a flash. I retraced my steps to the bank, put on my trekking shoes and re-entered the stream. Hardly three steps in the stream, I toppled backwards!

I had opened my legs in a wide ‘V’ for better balance: the water entered the ‘V’ with inconceivable force and suddenness: I was spun round like a top- and before I realised it, I was 15-20 feet down stream in a blink! The backpack somehow stayed on my back and acted like a float- as well as a cushion, protecting my back and head.

A wild flailing of limbs. A sudden gasp. Next moment I was on the other bank lying on a boulder three quarter dead. I heard a voice in my head: Doctor, follow the ‘Hypothermia protocol’! Soon!

I felt cold, weak and very Old! But I was on the other side- was I not? Even if the manner of crossing was somewhat unconventional and not very dignified! I moved to a dry, less windy spot- changed into dry clothes, ate some snacks and walked on to the campsite. Once in the sleeping bag, I felt comforted. Altitude: 16145 ft. I had minor nasal bleeds and an early morning bout of breathlessness, around 2-3 am.

(A cairn marking the trail on the lateral moraine) (The 4 km long glacier) (North side of the pass)

25th July 2007

Next morning I examined myself carefully for injuries. There was a little crick in the right knee- some bruises and grazing of knuckles on the right hand. I stirred in my sleeping bag. Alone in a vast valley. I decided to just rest. I could not see the trail onwards across the wide dry river bed yet.

As the sun rose, the spot became unbearably hot; strong UV rays seemed to pierce through the tent. At 16145 feet, I had to remove all the layers except the shirt, to keep cool. This is one of the paradoxes of Laddakh: You can be very hot and very cold in just a matter of hours. I did some reconnaissance of my surroundings, looking for the trail ahead. Over the geologic ages, the river must have cut through the valley- like a stream of hot tea, flowing over a block of butter. Add to this, the action of frost, wind and sun. And the result was- huge cathedral like erosions on the banks and up on the mountains. These structures appeared like ramparts of some ancient forgotten fort.

I washed my two blood stained hankies. Nasal bleeds are due to cold dry air and altitude. Liberal application of Vaseline to the inside of nose is the recommended treatment. Finally, I buried my head in a book. Towards the evening, I again went out for a walk- and noticed a fine line on the opposite mountain: ha, that must be the trail!

(Cathedrals) (A typical campsite)

(The trail in wilderness)

26th July 2007

Today I had to cross Pare-chu again, so I got up early in the morning with some trepidation; Walked across the vast river bed, came to the stream, took out the ice-axe for support, faced up stream and waded through. I had no problems this time. On the other side (true right of the Pare-chu river), I found the trail. It turned gently east.

Many small grassy campsites are there on the banks of this vast dry river bed. I wanted to cover as much distance as possible, since my stove was giving trouble. After walking for about 25 km,  I came across 4 colourful tents under towering ‘cathedrals’. The porters were busy cooking for the foreign tourists, which appeared to be a family. Since they were travelling in the opposite direction, the porters and the guide asked me about the condition of the trail and the pass. They offered me gur-gur tea (Yak butter salt tea) and Khichri, which I accepted gratefully. And yes, they told me abut the last major crossing of Pare-chu near Norbu Sumdo, where the trail turns north, for Tsomoriri.

At visceral level, I was getting ready for this big show down with Pare-chu! Because I knew that at that point, it is not just a stream: joined by many tributaries, it becomes a river, spread over 50+ feet ..

I walked a little further and camped in solitude. Altitude: 15194 ft.

(Yellow tent under the cathedral) (An unwilling horse) (Pare-chu river)

(An evening by Pare-chu river)

27th July 2007

The stove situation was causing me worry. My appetite had returned with all the walking! I wanted to get to a spot where I could ask and get some Tsampa (roasted barley flour) from nomads, if my stove were to conk out completely. But where were they? The landscape was bare. Nothing moving, except clouds against an intensely blue sky. The last group of porters had told me that I might find them south of Tsomoriri, 3-4 days hence. Could I do it in 2 days?

I started early in the morning. There was a fork in the trail: one climbing up. Other just hugging the stream. I followed the lower one: came to a point where the trail was swallowed up by the rushing water: Saw some foot marks clambering up the steep side, as if to bypass this bad section; I followed the example and clambered up about 30 feet, then  discovered it was going absolutely no where!

Now, I could go neither forward nor turn around; at my feet, about 30 feet below was the rushing Pare-chu! Moral: When you come to a fork in the trail, don’t let your tired legs do the decision making: use your brains and follow the upper trail!

I turned around and retraced my steps, from my high perch- with a prayer. As I was about to climb the higher trail, I saw two black dots moving in the distance. Two porters going to Kibber village stood face to face with me few minutes later.

How is the river crossing? I asked anxiously.

-Oh no problem. We crossed it yesterday evening around 5 pm.

But is it not better in the morning when water is low? I persisted.

No- the melting water from the glacier takes about 12 hours to get to Norbu Sumdo. So, water is higher in the morning- not evening. Anyway, when we crossed it last evening, the  water came up to our thighs. But do take care- it is a wide stretch, choose your spot carefully…

Finally, I reached the cross over point - Norbu Sumdo. No, there was no sign to mark it. I just saw a small group of porters and couple of mules, gingerly moving up and down on the other side of the Pare-chu river; apparently they were searching for a suitable spot to wade through. This gave me the indication that this must be the spot for crossing over.

I hurriedly moved towards them, looked at the wide stream with rising fear. I requested the porters, who had crossed over to my side meanwhile, to help me cross over by putting my back pack on a mule. But that would mean unloading the mule first. No, no- they responded with alarm. They did not hide their consternation at my foolishness of wandering about alone. Finally I requested one of them to hold my hand and help me across- just in case.. This was based on the practice of the locals to make a human chain and cross dangerous rivers. But the young porter shot back: How do I come back alone then? I realised that he was more scared than I!

Leaving me to my fate they moved on. I decided to take the plunge. Feel the fear and do it anyway. With my ice-axe as a third leg, I waded through cautiously. Also, very prayerfully. I was across without any accident. I turned around and waved to the three porters who stood on the far side, still watching me, mouth agape, both shocked and fascinated.

A little walk- brought me to the Norbu Sumdo. It is a ruin of a small rock shelter, on a wind swept plain, on the junction of Pare-chu and Phirtse phu river. Pare Chu continues eastwards to wards Chumar village in Tibet. I turned north.

From here, the land rises in a gentle plateau to the banks of Tsomoriri lake. On both sides, there are mountain ranges. Small streams flow down out of these ranges and drain into the lake. This is why the water is not saline- unlike Tso-Kar lake, further north. But many of the streams were dry, and suddenly I realised that I had no water and my surroundings were becoming drier and drier. An hour before, I had passed Kiangdom, which is a grassy campsite in this desert. But it did not occur to me to fill water then. My GPS showed that lake was at least 20-25 km away but I did not expect a desert here. The range of the mountains to the south kept on changing shape; Hours passed by, and there was no sign of water. It was time to pitch tent and call it a day- but without water, how can you camp?

I stood for a while – scanning my surroundings, then, I saw in the distance a blue line. Water! I moved towards it steadily, in spite of limbs getting numb with weariness; It kept receding and reappearing in the undulations of the intervening land. I arrived at the southern banks of Tsomoriri only after another two hours. The water was full of black insects. To be on safe side, I pressure cooked the water. But all said and done, I noticed in the fading day light that it was a beautiful spot: a vast stretch of meadow, next to the blue expanse of the lake- fringed by snow capped mountains. Altitude: 14886 ft.

I had often smiled inwardly at the Buddhist prayer wheels. What a mechanical device to pray! You just keep turning it around! What effect can such mechanical prayers have? But on the two occasions of river crossing in the previous days, and again that evening, I had realised that all the praying I had known hitherto, were no less mechanical. Only when our life is in real danger, we pray as we should. Only when I had come out of the stream, had I noticed that I had been praying, non-stop and very earnestly!

28th july 2007

In search of water, I had made a detour on the previous day. So, today I reverted to the main trail, at the west bank of the lake. Now I just had to move along the bank of the lake to reach Korzog village- where, I could imagine hungrily, fresh Momo and Thukpa awaited me! But this was not easy: The bank had many twists and turns and the trail was often buried under the debris falling from the mountains.

The water displayed many shades of blue. Nearer the banks, lighter and even green at times, depending on the depth, to deeper and intense blue towards the central part of the lake, ringed by mountains in various shades of brown: it was worth noting that the lake was huge: 25 km by 8 km. No wonder, it takes almost a whole day, walking from Kiangdom to Korzog, both on the same bank. Tsomoriri has an altitude of 15066 ft. near Korzog village. Even when you laugh, you have to take a deep breath soon after- air is so thin. Blowing your nose too is a big effort for the same reason. Of course some acclimatisation does take place after the first few days and you feel better.

I saw two or three kinds of migratory birds on its bank, busy raising their youngs. Also, a group of wild donkeys - locally called Kiangs. Finally, I saw a low, flat roofed white building, next to the lake, with Buddhist prayer flags atop: A meditation complex built by a Lama. A little more grind on my tired legs and I saw Korzog village. At last!

I bypassed the camping ground near the stream, crossed the footbridge and climbed up to a central clearing in the village, just next to the monastery; A big white tent made of Parachute fabric – yes, this was Tsering Hotel, run by an energetic Laddakhi lady from Leh. There were seats arranged in a semi circle, along the periphery. Next to central pole, was a waist high work surface: constant cooking went on here. Next to it various merchandise were on display: Chewing gums, biscuits, chips, cold drinks cooling in a bucket of water, soap, Kingfisher beer, potatoes, onion, fruit juice pouches from Srinagar, Hand knitted socks and gloves, fancy peak caps, Cooking oil packs, other odds and bobs required by trekking parties planning to cross Changthang plateau.

(wild asses- Kiangs) (Camp by the lake)

A lad called ‘Chhotu’ – looked like a native of Nepal or Bihar – was constantly running around, attending to various needs of the customers. Many people from Nepal and Bihar were working here on various construction projects. Most people sported a faded hat or cap, sitting jauntily over a weather beaten face- often smiling! Once in a while, a ‘serious and important’ looking man would walk in: He would be the police or ITBP personnel or some petty official, who had come for his evening dose of drinks; Chhotu or Ms Tsering would pour him a peg, which he would quietly finish, with an omelette and retire for the night.

I too ordered my food with great anticipation: Momos! These are finely shredded vegetables or meat wrapped in dough, which is then lightly fried or steamed. Very popular. Some of the faces seemed familiar; they too looked at me for a fraction of second longer and then smiled:

Were you not here last year too? About this time only?

Yes! Last year I came here from the north- via Rumtse. I smiled back and responded.

And this year?

Well- this year I came from the south. From Kiber in Spiti- across Parang la.

I began to feel the excitement, well known to travellers as they start their stories of strange lands, people and adventures. But wait, more questions were coming.

Are you with a party?

No.

Where are your porters and guide?

I had none. I trekked alone. I surveyed the incredulous faces around me as the cold winds sweeping down the mountains merrily drummed the tent.

Most of them were surprised. Some had the expression: This is highly irresponsible deviant behaviour in an elderly gentleman. Just imagine- roaming around like this! I am 50 and look 70 and am quite proud of it. But I did not want to be censured by these very well meaning kind people and so did not launch myself on a colourful recounting of my adventures! I just smiled and attacked the momos with an earthy relish.

Wind up

29th July 2007

I had walked about 110 km in seven days. Had crossed an 18300 ft pass. The trek was over. Now, a different kind of adventure awaited me. How to get to Leh and from there, home?

There were two ways: If I could get a lift via Tso-Kar lake, I would reach Leh without any problem. But few tourists were going that way. They were going via Māhi bridge on the Indus river. At Māhi bridge J&K police asked for Inner line permit, even from Indians. I had none. I made up the mind of a wavering driver on 30th morning, to take me and dump me at Māhi  bridge if there were any complications. There were none and so we drove on to Leh; We saw Chumathang on the banks of Indus river, famous for hot springs.                                                           

In Leh, I stayed at Rainbow Guest house in Changspa for a few days. A hot water bath. Proper medication for my grazed knee and fingers. Wonderful food. And beautiful mornings and evenings in Leh valley. Shanti stupa overlooking the town. Into this perfect holiday- emails made their way one day and I was back in touch with the world of appointments!

The GPS which I had to use sparingly in the wilderness- I had to use somewhat desperately in Changspa, almost every evening: The lanes are all crooked. After sunset there is not much street lighting; there are few public signs or people to give you instructions. To return to my guest house every evening, I had to use my GPS!

(the Leh town from Shanti stupa) (Shanti stupa)

Yes, you don’t talk to anyone for days- and don’t even realise it.. I was talking to another tourist in a chance conversation. This is what he commented. And then I realised that that was exactly what had happened to me in those seven days. I was quiet. I was quiet!

But an inner dialogue had gone on. I had talked about many things to myself- work, life- and what lies beyond both. It was a good walking meditation, in the fashion of old ‘Lung-gom-pa’: Lamas covering great distances while in deep meditation, giving semblance of levitation.

There is a one day Manali (Tata Sumo) taxi service from Leh. It leaves about 2 am and is in Manali by 6 pm. A distance of 400+ km over 4 major passes are covered in 16 hours. A tiring journey. I got the Dehradun bus from Manali soon after. I was home next morning. Humid hot Herbertpur- but home too! Invigorated and calm.

“The best journeys are those which bring you home!”

Aerial Insights

6th August 2007

I look at my computer screen excitedly-

Yeah- that does look like the wide river bed- and that Parang La? Cant believe it!

I am using Google Earth (free version). And in spite of connectivity constraints, I am able to see the spots I had been to. I transfer longitude-latitude data from my GPS for the 6 campsites and the Parang-la pass manually to my computer.

Lo and behold- it pinpoints the spots on satellite images and I can see the 4 km long glacier, I carefully circumvented and also the stream, I took a tumble in! It shows on its own, places like Dutung and Norbu sumdo. Both are not at all inhabited. They are just campsites in wilderness. I can see Tsomoriri; even the trail which I used last year! Leh valley and Khardung la pass..

I never thought technology would make such strides in my own life time! But are we changing as fast as our technology?

A last word of caution: please take couple of porters, if you trek this route.

(A google earth image, showing the route and the camps: ignore the red line)

(sachin)

Sachin is running a ‘Self Help group’ for people who stammer in Herbertpur, Dehradun. He is a trained mountaineer. For more information on this trek, he can be contacted through emails: satksri@rediffmail.com, satksri@gmail.com

(Thanks Marian- for patient editing!!)



[1] A metal spike worn under shoes to get a grip on hard ice.