Covering an area of about 60,000 square kilometers and ranging in elevation from 2,600 meters to 7,670 meters, Ladakh is sandwiched between two huge mountain systems: the Karakorams to the north and the Himalayas to the south. Ladakh is the Trans-Himalayan region, the region of impact when the Indian subcontinent collided with the rest of Asia 50 million years ago.
One of the several geographic regions formed as a result of this impact is the Rupshu, a dry, high-altitude plateau lying southeast of Ladakh. It forms part of the larger area of Changthang, which spreads east into Tibet for about 1,500 kilometers and whose landscape is characterized by rolling mountains, vast plains and massive brackish lakes. It is an area which, due to its remoteness and proximity to Tibet, retained much of the character of the Tibetan way of life, with regular trade and barter continuing and trade routes being utilized as they were since they were first discovered. These routes offer exciting avenues for anybody game for a high-altitude adventure and an appetite for some of the most incredible sights in this far-flung corner of the sub-continent.
The Border Roads Organization does a great job linking the frontiers of the country with their masterful artistry of making motorable lanes out of sheer rock. This appreciable effort of theirs is resented by only a few who, aided by sheer wanderlust, make the effort to travel to places not yet encroached by the bulldozer. Some trails, however, remain as pristine as they were when the first man walked them, and now, thanks to the roads, these routes are more accessible, even to the office busybee.
One such route connects the Spiti valley with Ladakhi Changthang, and is still used as the main trail for trade and travel in these areas. The Parang La (pass), at 5,600 meters, forms the source of the Pare Chu river, an amazing river system which rises to the north of the Parang La, traveling 30 kilometers eastwards and turning sharply south to enter Tibet. After flowing 85 kilometers through the plateau, it changes its course westerly to re-enter India near its confluence with the Spiti river at Sumdo, on the Hindustan Tibet road, 33 kilometers before reaching Tabo.
The Parang La is the traditional trade route between the people of Spiti, Changthang and Tibet. From Spiti, the trail begins in the high-altitude meadows of Kibber (14,000 feet), a two-hour drive from Kaza, the district headquarters of Spiti. Kaza is also the venue of the Ladarcha, an annual cultural fair which was initially a trading festival that took place in the surrounding higher meadows. Kibber is the breeding ground of the famous Spiti horses and also known to be snow leopard country.
Kibber has an ancient monastery worth a visit, and is also mentioned in most guidebooks as the highest motorable village, but now the road has apparently reached Tashigang, 18 kilometers uphill. On the way from Kaza to Kibber, one passes Kye village, which prides itself on being home to the largest monastery in Spiti, the Kye gompa is well worth a visit. From Kibber, which is also the roadhead on the Spiti side of events, the trail descends the scenic Kibber gorge and climbs to village Dumla, a small green bowl arriving in time for a last cup of butter tea for the next ten days. Dumla happens to be the last inhabitation till Karzog, more than one week's walk away.
A stiff climb above Dumla is rewarded with views of Parilungbi (Lingti valley) and Shilla, and the first day's camp is at Thaltak meadow below a small pass crossing the Thaltak La. Shilla (6,132 meters) remained an altitude record for 47 years after it was climbed in 1860 by a khalasi of the Survey of India. Inaccurate height computation contributed to the record until a modern survey reduced it by nearly 3,000 feet.
An early morning's start the next day begins with a gut-wrenching descent to Rongchu nalla, followed by a climb upstream for an hour. The actual climb towards the Parang La begins now with a climb on scree for nearly four hours. Camp at Bongrochen, meaning "donkey's corpse," does not come too soon as the altitude begins to take its toll on the system and the going, however exciting, does get a bit slow.
The Spiti side of the divide is extremely dry and sunburnt, but with hardly any snow conditions to be encountered. All along the route, one is held captive by the deep gorges and wind-battered rock formations, which characterize the first few days towards the Parang La. Bongrochen, the last camp before crossing the Parang La from the Spiti side, is in a bowl surrounded by high mountains on either side, and the Parang La is nowhere in sight.
An early start is mandatory the next morning, as the other side of the pass has heavy snow conditions. If one is lucky, a herd of sheep, who cross the pass with packs of barley strapped on to each of them, provide good company. The final gradient to the pass is extremely steep, and it takes a good couple of hours to finally haul oneself over the top. But once there, a complete change of terrain more than compensates for the lifetime it takes to climb over this 18,500-foot-high crossing. The pass on the Pare Chu side is snow-clad, and a broad valley greets you looking down towards the broad flood plain of the river.
There are a few well-camouflaged deep crevasses directly below the pass, which invariably claim a few sheep each year as they are shepherded over the "la." Spiti horses are taken over to the Changthang side, where they are sold to the Changpas (nomads of Changthang) for money or pashmina in return. Sticking to the right of the pass on the descent, one crosses the Pare Chu at the mouth of the glacier over a not-so-stable snow bridge. The horses need to be coaxed here, as they invariably show a little reluctance while crossing what with the river raging a few feet below.
The advantage of starting this trip from Spiti is that, after the first few days of continuous ascent, the descent is fairly continuous for the next few days, though not entirely effortless, making the walk really enjoyable. Camp is set a few kilometers below the mouth of the river at Dak Karzong, a green meadow on the banks of the Pare Chu. A chance meeting with a traveler from Karzog is not ruled out, though they usually are in more of a hurry, going the entire distance in four days.
The river begins to divide itself over several channels now, and the valley is nearly a kilometer and a half wide. Crossing its many channels is part of the day's work as we work our way downstream. The next two days are spent walking along the river through green meadows and wind formations (called "kathpa boozae") not very many people have seen to date.
A week after having left Kibber, we reach the confluence of the Pare Chu with the Phirtse Phu at Norbu Sumdo. A river crossing here brings one to an almost incredible change of landscape as we walk north towards the Rupshu plains of Changthang. Camp for the night is at Chumik Shilale, a parrot-green meadow set in wide green plains and low, rolling, sun-kissed hills. From now on, spotting the Changthang wolf remains a very good possibility.
At Norbu Sumdo, we part company with the Pare Chu, which flows south from the confluence to flow into Tibet, past Chumur, India's last outpost along its border with Tibet. Three years ago, I had visited Chumur as part of the first successful attempt to reach the base and make an attempt on Gya (6,794 meters), lying on the tri-junction of Tibet, J&K and Himachal Pradesh. Gya is also the highest mountain in Himachal Pradesh, a wonderfully elusive mountain and one of the finest rock-climbing challenges left. It had initially baffled a number of good-sized expeditions that tried to reach its base. Gya, or Kalcham Gyalmo, forms a grand backdrop as one walks away from Norbu Sumdo towards Karzog, remaining visible until we leave Karzog.
A few kilometers from Chumik Shilale lies Kiangdom, named after the abundance of Kiangs, the Tibetan wild ass found here. The walk toward Tso Moriri over a scree slope, with the lake and its delta visible, sends the adrenalin levels up as the enormity of the lake sinks in. Kiangdom lies at the southern edge of the Tso Moriri (15,000 feet), a high-altitude lake 27 kilometerss long and nearly 8 kilometers wide. This lake is the breeding ground for the bar-headed goose, the black-necked crane and the Brahminy duck.
Kiangdom needs to be visited in order to realize the immense beauty of this area, opened only in1994 to visitors.
The trail goes along the Tso Moriri until we reach Karzog, a permanent settlement and also the roadhead. The lake makes a fitting finale to a trek through landscape seemingly out of a picture postcard. A day or two spent here is a great idea, since it allows visitors to take in the sights and sounds of the Buddhist way of life. Another worthwhile visit is to one of the Changpa settlements in a bowl high above Karzog, where this hardy people lives in yak-skin tents and breeds yaks and pashmina, one of the trade items to go over these high passes.
A four-hour drive from the Tso, passing through equally scenic terrain, lies Tsokar, a salt lake which was once the source of nearly all of Ladakh's salt supply. The road climbs away from Karzog to Kiagar Tso, a smaller lake above Tso Moriri. According to locals, Kiagar Tso was part of the Tso Moriri until both receded. The motorable road passes through hot sulphur springs at Puga, which is well known for its healing powers, as several locals and people from Leh will gladly testify.
The dusty road climbs on to Polo Gonka, a small pass before the descent to the huge bowl of Tsokar. Large salt mounds litter the lake, and the water is expectedly extremely uncomfortable to taste. There is one convenient spot to camp next to a fresh water source on the banks of Tsokar. It is not surprising to see Kiangs run along and overtake the vehicle one is traveling in.
On the opposite bank from the campsite is the village of Tugche, which boasts of a massive wolf trap and an ancient monastery. From the monastery, one can see the watermarks of the lake, which at one time was nearly 200 to 300 feet higher than what it has presently receded to.
Four kilometers from Tsokar, one meets the main Manali-Leh highway before the climb to Taglang La, the world's second-highest motorable pass. A comfortable four-hour drive away lies Leh, the capital of Ladakh, the highest and largest district in the country. It's a fitting end to having experienced firsthand the enormous scale and the rugged, weather-beaten beauty of a region that remains much of a magical mystery and, for some of us, the end of a rainbow.
From Delhi: Fly/ Drive to Kullu. Drive on to Manali. Cross the Rohtang and take diversion at Gramphoo to Chattru. Continue on to Spiti via Batal, Kunzum La, Losar and Kaza. Kibber is two hours from Kaza.
Hire a jeep from Manali to Kibber. For self-driven vehicles, high suspension a must.
** A longer drive from Shimla to Kibber via Rampur, Kalpa, Tabo and Kaza is also a possibility**
July to September (depending on the opening of the higher passes)
Permits for foreigners (minimum 04) required to be processed at DC Office, Kaza. Permits for Tso Moriri to be arranged to reach Karzog.
Good acclimatization a must for this trip. Take at least three overnight stops between Manali and Kibber.
Making arrangements through a reputed tour operator who will make all permit/transport arrangements, besides taking care of all trekking logistics, is recommended. Make sure you meet your trekking guide before you leave.
WHERE TO STAY
PWD guest house at Chattru/ Set up your own Camp.
PWD guest house at Losar/ Set up your own Camp.
Kaza: Hotel Sakya's Abode. Clean rooms with food available.
Kibber: Hotel Parang La. Setting up camp recommended.
Karzog - Set up your own camp.
Arrange transport to meet at Karzog for drive to Leh.
Fly Leh to Delhi.
Delhi-Manali (6,700 feet): 570kms
Manali-Chattru (11,670 feet): 79kms
Chattru-Losar (13,350 feet): 62kms
Losar-Kaza (11,800 feet): 58kms
Karzog-Leh (11,500 feet): 226kms