ABOUT 60 million years ago an ocean that once divided the Indian subcontinent from Central Asia gradually closed, trapping between the two continental landmasses ancient volcanic rocks, deep-sea sediments and ophiolites — remnants of former oceanic crust and mantle that now define ancient plate boundaries. The zone along which this continental collision took place is known as the Indus suture zone and can be traced on satellite photos for 2500 km from Pakistan to Assam.
The Indus valley masks the northern boundary of the Himalaya. South of the Indus, a number of mountain ranges spread out, the Zanskar, the Greater Himalayan and Pir Panjal ranges. North of the Indus, the trans-Himalaya is composed of another whole set of ranges, the Ladakh, Karakoram and Pamirs. The idea of walking across the Himalaya was germinated during 1981 when I trekked through the fabled Zanskar valley from Kargil and crossed the Zanskar mountains to Lamayuru in Ladakh.
There are few places one can physically trek across the complete Himalaya because of either geographic or political boundaries. In India, I picked out a route from Leh across to the Markha valley then south following an intricate system of river gorges cutting through the Zanskar mountains to Zangla and Padam. I had been told in Zanskar last year that this route, the Jhung Lam, or middle road, to Zanskar was impassable except in August and September when the river levels had gone down and before snows blocked the passes. I thought it would be interesting to attempt it in the spring before the snows had melted to make the rivers impassibly high and the upper parts would still be frozen. For navigation, I had blown up satellite LANDSAT photographs to 1:500,000 which proved highly useful.
I returned to Leh in April 1982, flying from Chandigarh across the still frozen winter wilderness. It was a stunning flight across the magical icy peaks of Kulu where we had climbed in 1978 and over the Spiti valley — a thin line of brown in a white mountainous sea. After Spiti, the desolate wilderness of Rupshu appeared with the huge frozen lake of Tso Morari before we hopped over into the Indus valley and landed at Leh.
I set off from Leh in May with Fida Hussein carrying huge rucksacks which soon crippled us as we staggered over the bridge at Spituk and crossed the Indus deserts. On the second day out we negotiated for a yak at Shingchen and from there to Markha actually could enjoy, the trek rather than stagger under a heavy load. It was an effort to get up to the Kanda-la our firstpass, rewarded with a fine view of the Zariskar mountains arid sightings of a herd of Himalayan white tahr, a small mountain goat. An easy couple of days' trekking continued up the valley to Markha village. Fida had never been on the Jhung Lam route and was awed by its dangerous reputation of flash floods and inescapable gorges. In Markha we finally located an old Karnakpa trader who was willing to go as far as the Chercher la with a horse. Sonam Targis had an amazing weather-beaten old face with drooping moustache and scraggly beard. His long hair with a single pigtail hung out of his upturned Ladakhi hat and he had a wrinkled grin which creased all of his face. He said he had been going on the Jhung Lam (middle road) for 20 years trading in salt, butter and sheep. He also said there were more than 100 river crossings and that it could be very dangerous if the water level was high and the avalanches came down.
At the end of May we left Markha heading south for the Rubering la. I have memories of high desert mountains, sudden vicious hailstorms and the intense penetrative stare of a lammer-geier's eyes as it glided effortlessly overhead. We crossed the Rubering la confused with the geography. Gigantic folds in the limestones told tales of intense compression during the building of the Himalaya when crustal shortening produced fold after fold until the rocks finally fractured and thrust, piling one nappe on top of another.
We spotted herds of blue sheep or bharal, bounding effortlessly up steep limestone cliffs. The river entered a narrow gorge and the scenery got wilder and more fantastic. The path at one point led across a scree slope; at another it got so narrow and steep we had to unload the horse and ferry the luggage down in stages. In the afternoon we came upon a major confluence of rivers each in a deeply incised gorge. This was Karnak Sumdo and the Chang Chu was bigger, turquoise blue and clear, tumbling down from the snow mountains to the east. The Karnak Serai where Targis came from, was two days walk up the Chang Chu.
Immediately we had our first river crossing across the Chang Chu. The gorge became really beautiful and spectacular with huge cliffs rising either side to snow mountains and a blue torrent winding down past white water cataracts through the gorge. Wherever the meander of the river hit the side cliffs, a river crossing was forced and some stretches we ended up simply walking down the river. We stopped early at a magnificent camp spot, as Targis said the following river crossings would be deep and better to do them early in the morning.
For two days we trekked through the most spectacular canyons that Zanskar has to offer. The Chang Chu river meandered down and we followed its? steep banks wading across the icy water every time the track dead-ended at cliffs. We found very fresh pug marks of a large cat in the muddy river bank which can only have been of. the snow leopard. Targis said they occurred frequently around here and he had lost several sheep at Karnak from; leopard kills. These tracks were so recent that the claw marks could easily be picked out in the soft mud. The cat was probably spying us from some cliff-top cave.
At Tilat Sumdo, another major river junction, we left the Chang Chu gorge and turned left, southwest up the valley of the Chubchak Rong. A small river of clear blue water thundered down a narrow gorge with waterfalls and cataracts all the way. There were many more river crossings and we found a delightful camp-site at the intersection of two rivers, the southern one leading up to a magnificent pyramid-shaped snow peak. The following day the river could be crossed by jumping most of the way. The horse was having increasing difficulty negotiating the steep and hazardous path and finally at the next camp-site Targis said the horse could go no further. During the evening a sudden snowstorm blew up with horizontal driving snow blotting out the mountains.
Next morning we tethered the horse and shouldered the loads for the final day up to the Chercher la at 5200 m. Targis could help us carry up to the top then come back down for the horse and return to Markha. The river gorge became increasingly narrower and iced up, snow-bridges forming over the river. The slates formed loose treacherous rock to climb on. Targis led on, steaming ahead and enjoying it, clambering over snow-bridges, jumping rivers and laughing uproariously when someone slipped on the ice. At one point the ice bridge collapsed leaving a slushy river bounded by steep cliffs. I tried treading carefully around the rim of the ice, hands on the rock wall, but my weight soon collapsed the ice and we had to climb out on steep loose shale.
The river gorge narrowed until at one point it became a tunnel through the rock, the river flowing under an ice-bridge and roof of rock above us. This was the Stashung Gamischung — the place where a yak's horns are too wide to pass. Half way down the tunnel, the ice had collapsed leaving vertical-sided rock walls. Targis took off his Tibetan boots and waded across laughing at Fida and I as we traversed the rock wall to avoid getting wet feet. An hour's uphill struggle against the 5000 m altitude and at last we came out on the Chercher la with a well-built chorten, prayer-flags fluttering in the wind and an astounding view across the indescribably beautiful frozen mountains and piinnacles of Zanskar.
After half an hour soaking up the amazing panorama, we said farewell to Targis, divided his load between us and started down for Zangla. It was still a long way to go and following the gorge down we had; another 50 or so river crossings until at dusk after a 12-hour day, we finally came out at Zangla. A lone chomo (nun) greeted us from a tiny house — the first other person we'd seen since leaving Markha 6 days ago. After great surprise at hearing where we'd come from, accompanied by sighs and gasps as Fida related our adventures, she gave us a bottle of excellent chang which was just what I needed and a fitting way to end our trek. We were the first trekkers into Zanskar this summer as I was the previous year as well, and proud of the way we'd come.
Two days later we reached Padam where we stayed with my friends from last year, Ringzing Tanta and his family. I was surprised to see some tents pitched outside Padam and soon met two friendly Americans who had just arrived — Arlene Blum and Hugh Swift had spent. 7 months walking the length of Himalaya from Bhutan through Sikkim and Nepal and were now on their last leg to Lamayuru. They were full of stories about their incredible journey and we spent a pleasant 3 days lazing around Padam swopping stories about treks, climbs and climbers. My trans-Himalayan trek paled into a short walk of merely 2 months beside their feat. We made a trip to the Bardan gompa one day to see the spectacular festival there complete with mask-dancing and lots of chang-drinking and celebration. There were no other foreigners there and the festival was still intended solely for the local people unlike the summer festivals in some of the Ladakhi monasteries.
Fida had never been to Manali and decided to go straight home to Leh walking over the Pensi la to Panikhar. I found a Zanskari willing to carry a load to Manali. Tshering Thukten and I set off from Padam in early June. The walking was pleasant and easy compared to the Jhung Lam and Tshering proved to be an excellent porter and cook, always smiling at my inept Tibetan and never complaining.
I took a side trip to' Fugtal gompa while Tshering stayed at Purne with the tent and gear. Fugtal is one of the most impressive settings for a monastery in a land that is full of spectacular villages and monasteries. I wrote in my diary: —
'This is, I'm certain, one of the most incredible places I've ever seen in my life. Perched half way up an enormous cliff overlooking the Tsarap river centered around a large cave with prayer flags fluttering overhead, it's a castle in the sky, a stack of mud brick buildings with teetering balconies hanging over space, windows appearing in the middle of vertical cliff faces. I can look out of the window next to me straight down to the foaming rapids of the Tsarap Chu, 1000 ft below and across to some buildings below the gompa, the walls merging with the cliff in this amazing vertical world of Fugtal. Even the choughs seem to have vertigo, spreading their wings as they fall off the edge to parachute down to the next layer. They are all yellow-billed choughs of course in keeping with the Gelugpa — yellow-hat sect of monks that live here. A while ago a monk appeared at one of the higher balconies and blew a conch shell summoning everyone for the evening puga (meeting).'
I had originally intended to go on the Phirtse la and Baralacha la route but some Zanskaris we met told us the river was impossibly high. Two crossings low down confirmed that the water was too high and fast-flowing so an abrupt change of plan to cross the Shingo la was forced.
The route from Kargyiak over the $hingo la is well-trodden being the main trade route into Zanskar from Lahul and Spiti, but no less impressive. The great granite monolithic mountain of Ghumbar Ranjung guards the upper Zanskar and the views of the Greater Himalayan range from the Shingo la are impressive. Descending towards Darcha the snow level becomes lower, the first pines are seen and flowers are encountered The marmots and yaks! of Zanskar are no longer seen now but gaddi shepherds are driving huge herds of white goats and sheep up to high Lahuli pastures for summer grazing. At Darcha I saw two majestic Imperial Eagles being harried by choughs and stooped on by an immaculate white Saker falcon. A Himalayan Griffon Vulture circled high above and at one time I had all four birds of prey in my field of view at the same time.
Most trekkers arriving at Darcha catch a bus down to Keylong and Koksar or direct to Manali but in doing this miss the many subleties of landscape changing from the high desert mountains of Zanskar to the beautiful Alpine forests of Kulu. I walked the whole way through Lahul staying at delightfully situated PWD rest houses and soaking up the transitional landscape of Lahul. The Rohtang pass was still blocked by winter snows and pony caravans were coming over from Manali laden with goods. A Hindu sadhu picked his way cautiously and barefoot down the snowfields.
After 25 days of walking, I descended the Rohthang pass ski-ing down past the pony trains on my lightweight clip-on plastic skis, and camped at Kothi. The following day we arrived in Manali and once more enjoyed the delights of a hot shower and good food at John Banon's Guest House. Tshering went back to Zanskar after a few days and I continued on down to Nagar and Kulu. Beyond Kulu the weather was hot and the traffic made walking down the road unpleasant. I reached the bridge at Bhuntar and decided to call it a day. Other than to say I'd done it, there was no point in continuing to Mandi, another 60 kms of road walking, dodging buses and trucks belching exhaust fumes. The heat and haze of India spread up into the mountain valleys waiting for the monsoon to break and I felt as uncomfortable as a highlander Ladakhi longing for the cool mountain air. A bus came along and I jumped on, heading back for Manali without a backward glance.