Mountains, Masjids and Monasteries

Bernadette McDonald

Sometime during the night, two distinct voices infiltrated my deep sleep. One was in tune. The other not. Exhausted from two days of airline travel, I was reluctant to allow this intrusion. But it persisted. Two male voices, singing the same words, same melody, just a tone apart. I’m not sure how long it went on because exhaustion won out and I drifted back to sleep, lulled by modal melodies in a language I did not know.

The next morning I asked our trusty leader, Harish Kapadia, if he had heard it too. He gave me a slightly blank stare, as if I were a student who hadn’t done my homework. ‘Of course. It’s the Muslim call to prayer. It happens every morning.’

Right. I should have known that. We were in Gulmarg, in the heart of Kashmir, sight of many fierce battles and a Muslim stronghold. Our journey to Gulmarg had been tortuous, caused mostly by the head-on collision between an army vehicle and a fully-loaded bus on the main road between Srinagar and the alpine resort. The traffic jam stretched for miles, with soldiers standing guard every few hundred feet. In the heat and a semi-comatose, jet-lagged state, it all seemed like a bad dream.

But the air was cool and clean in Gulmarg and our merry little team met up that morning to take a look at the maps and itinerary that Harish had created for us. There were six of us: my husband Alan and myself from Canada, Tom and Kathy Hornbein from the United States, Sanjay Kapadia from Mumbai and of course, Harish. He hauled out map after map, all neatly titled and water-proofed. As he flipped through them, pointing out this road and that pass, this 6000-metre peak and that important glacier, it all became a fuzzy blur. Again, I’ll blame the travel. When he threatened a test in two hours, I gave up and opted for a hike.

The ski resort was in full summer garb, green as can be. The ski lift was running and we considered heading up to take a look at Nanga Parbat in the distance, but the clouds rolling through made it obvious that we wouldn’t see a thing. Such a pity. I was particularly interested in seeing this great mountain, after hearing endless details about it from the Slovenian climber, Tomaz Humar, whose biography I had recently written.

But we were confined to hiking around the Gulmarg valley, while Harish explained the Kashmir area, with its war zones, contested borders, military lines, roads, trails, peaks and passes. This area in particular had been the site of some major battles between India and Pakistan and it had been unsafe for years. Harish explained how it was now safe, because it has been ‘sanitised’. We were to hear this term a lot on our travels through some very contested territory.

Our next stop was Sonamarg, via the idyllic Vale of Kashmir. We hiked up to the nearby Thajiwas glacier, passing by a number of permanent camps and a trail thronged with tourists: some walking, but most on horseback. The end of the trail should have been a stunning view of the glacier - and it was. But sadly, the mounds of garbage blowing about in the wind took away the beauty.

The next morning was my first experience with ‘bed coffee’, a truly civilised way to start the day. This lovely ritual became a daily event for the rest of the trip and was an extremely difficult habit to kick once I returned home. As we left Sonamarg, the volume of traffic was enormous and we soon came to a complete standstill, amidst a massive collection of cars, tents, horses, people, helicopters, military vehicles and soldiers. I felt distinctly uncomfortable. Coming from western Canada, a crowd for me is a couple of dozen people this felt more like a mob scene.

It turned out we were at the trailhead for the Hindu pilgrimage to the Amarnath cave temple. The home of Lord Shiva, it is one of the most sacred shrines of the Hindu religion and attracts thousands of pilgrims every day of the summer. At 3880 m the Amarnath cave temple is apparently over 5000 years old and houses an ice stalagmite. Because this pilgrimage is so close to the Pakistan border, and because the consequences of a terrorist attack at the holiest of Hindu shrines would be unthinkable, the military inspects each and every car and piece of luggage in the area. Not only that: soldiers are posted every few feet of the trail - and it’s a 3-4 hour hike.


‘Charlie Moment’. Thomas Hornbein reading the favourite poem of Dr Charles Houston at Zozi la. (Harish Kapadia)

We finally escaped the gridlock and regained the main road, which climbed and climbed, switchback after hair-raising switchback, extremely narrow and horrendously exposed, with monstrous rocks barely hanging on overhead and the rushing river below. When we reached the famous 3528-metre Zoji la between Kashmir and Ladakh, where Genghis Khan reportedly crossed on one of his journeys, we stopped to savor the view and remember American mountaineer, Charlie Houston, who had travelled through here on foot in 1938 on his way to


Masjid at Dras. (Harish Kapadia)


Army memorial to soldiers who died in the Kargil War 1999.
Tololing ridge in background where also fight took place. (Sanjay Kapadia)

K2. Tom Hornbein had remembered that Charlie always carried the The Oxford Book of English Verse with him on expeditions and, in Charlie’s honour, read a few lines from Invictus, by William Henley. The last two lines resonated loudly: ‘I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.’ It was an emotional moment as we all thought of Charlie, now in his late 90’s, and not well. Sadly, Charlie passed away less than two months later.

We plunged down to Dras, and then on through an enormous former battle zone where the most recent war activity with Pakistan took place in 1999, the Kargil War. We could see the ridge top Line of Control (L.O.C.) between the two countries. At the serene and somber Tololing war memorial, a young soldier explained the war history and pointed out the L.O.C. posts, where soldiers are posted for eight month stints. It was eerie to look up at the ridges surrounding us and know that hundreds of eyes and an equal number of guns were pointed at us.

When we reached the Chhanigund (location of 4/3 Gorkha Rifles) army barrack, Harish and Sanjay left us to spend the night with the army. Sadly for the rest of us, foreigners weren’t allowed on the base. It would have been an interesting experience. Home of Harish’s son, Lt. Nawang Kapadia, before he was killed by a sniper, this place held great meaning for Harish.

Instead, we continued on to Kargil and arrived in the middle of a general strike. The streets were clogged with cars and men - hundreds and hundreds of angry, shouting men. We later heard that they were protesting the murder of a Kargil native on the Leh road.

Crossing Rusi la

We left Kargil on the busy Leh road and soon turned off onto a much smaller road still under construction, being built one stone at a time by hundreds of workers from a distant Indian state who live and work at over 4000 m. The new road crosses the Sapi la at 4310 m and then drops like a stone down to what will probably not be a remote valley much longer: the Gyail valley.


And there, at the valley bottom, on a perfectly flat meadow, we could see our tents. Not just tents, but donkeys, horses and yaks. We had one last little adventure when our driver miscalculated the radius of the final switchback and had to do some fancy driving to prevent us from toppling over the cliff. I had my door open, ready to leap out, but thankfully, didn’t need to.

Our first night in camp gave us a taste of our routine for the next few weeks. We met Nir, who was our guide, and the rest of the crew. And the best part - bed coffee the next morning at 6. Heaven!

Our first day on the trail was a long one. Camped at just over 3000 m we had over 1400 m to climb before reaching our next campsite at 4420 m. The trail started out as a good grazing path, but it soon faded out completely and we chose our own routes up through the open grassy slopes. The flowers were in full bloom: roses, moss campion, asters, a type of pasque flower, spring beauty and three kinds of king’s crown. Identifying them took our minds off our legs and lungs. Our beautiful campsite was just below the Rusi la, perched on a high ridge above the creek, overlooking the entire valley, all the way back to the Sapi la and beyond. There were a couple of very appealing looking mountains above the camp, unnamed, with just elevations to delineate them.

We stayed in camp the next day, enjoying the views and watching the yaks chase the donkeys out of camp. But the 4890-metre Rusi la was beckoning. So the following day we headed up a gentle grade, switch-backing all the way until we began to see the grand Karakoram peaks. This was getting exciting. We scurried about, madly trying to identify peaks, when we saw something that resembled K2. Upon closer examination, Tom declared it was Masherbrum.

Situated on the south side of the Baltoro glacier, Masherbrum’s distinctive double summit was clearly visible. Tom had been there in 1960 on the first ascent expedition led by Nick Clinch. After almost fifty years, Tom was overcome with emotion to see it again. Then we saw something else looming in the distance - yes - K2! What a thrill to finally see this magnificent peak and remember all the expeditions and climbers who had been captured by its beauty: Charlie and Alison and Wanda, and so many others.


Pyramid peak in Zanskar : view from Rusi la.
(Harish Kapadia)

All this excitement and we still weren’t at the pass. There was a final traverse and, just as we topped out, we had another thrill: the amazing spectacle of the great Himalayan range: Nun, Kun, Pyramid peak and Z1.

It was hard to leave. We used lunch as our excuse to linger. But we still had a long way to go, so eventually we tore ourselves away and started down a series of switchbacks, heading to the meadows below, the lush grass squeaky beneath our feet. We crossed the creek a few times and then took a sharp left up a steep slope and into another meadow, which was where we thought the camp would be. Alas, no tents. Another fifteen minutes, and a long side hill traverse brought us to the camp, which was just below the Chakdo la at 4367 m.

Our next destination was the village of Bartu. A good grazing trail on the other side of the pass led us down towards the fist few farmhouses. Eventually we reached the small village of Pangbar, with its impressive what is locally called ‘Masjid’ (mosque) and seasonal houses surrounded by a patchwork quilt of oats, barley, and wheat fields. The temperature rose steadily as we descended past a couple of sorry looking schools and finally into the main village of Bartu at the bottom of the valley. We agreed on a campsite a short way up the Phu river, across a bridge (which the donkeys didn’t like one bit) and onto a flood plain dotted with willow trees for much-needed shade. As the afternoon wore on, the river increased dramatically in size, with the glacial melt rolling giant boulders along at a brisk rate. The air was thick down here - thick and hot.

In the Ichu valley

We crossed back over the Phu river and started up the valley on a trail that was almost wide enough to drive on. What a shock from the previous days’ trails, narrow and indistinct. It soon narrowed down to a pleasant width and wandered through a very productive agrarian landscape: wheat fields, vegetable gardens, houses, farms, sheep and lots of kids. Again - another masjid. I had come to Ladakh assuming that it was completely Buddhist so continued to be surprised at this predominantly Muslim culture.

We entered a canyon area with a number of side streams roaring into the Phu. They were all bridged, but one in particular almost defeated the donkeys. Fully loaded, staring down at the frothing water, eyes rolling wildly, they didn’t want to cross. After considerable shoving and pulling, yelling and hitting, the entire pack train made it across. Now the trail climbed steeply along the canyon wall and the feeling of wildness returned. Then, around a corner we had a view of Ichu - a seemingly idyllic village perched high above the river canyon on a perfectly flat plateau of ripening barley fields. And in the middle of it all was a brilliantly white masjid.

Our camp was just outside the village walls, overlooking the river. Since we were on the main trail, there was a constant parade of locals, mostly women and children carrying enormous loads of hay on their backs. The men seemed slightly less occupied and not all that friendly. This was confirmed when, at one point during the night, the camp was inundated with large boulders rolling down from above, a few coming very close to the cook tent. Nir and a few others went into town to investigate.


Village lady at the village of Ichu. (Harish Kapadia)


Village children in the Ichu valley. (Harish Kapadia)


The townsfolk said it must have been bears! Strange. We hadn’t seen any sign of bears. Even stranger: the boulder-rolling mysteriously stopped after Nir offered to buy a goat. Everyone emerged unscathed the next morning so Alan and I, together with Nir and Rode hiked up towards Hang pass and then climbed up a ridge of a Peak 5260 m on the map. We stopped on a sub-peak at around 5000 m since the main peak was still a long ways off, but it provided a spectacular view of the Hang valley. Later that evening, when we went for a walk to explore the village, it became clear that this was no idyllic Shangrila, but a desperately poor spot.

Our next camp was on the banks of the Phu river. Alan and I hiked up an exposed ridge to another small peak to around 4900 m above camp overlooking the Phu valley and south to a range of snow-covered peaks. We descended into a sub-valley which had a few seasonal houses and a well-functioning irrigation ditch bringing water down from the glaciers.

Zanskar road

This was the end of the first part of our trek as we continued down the valley past Bartu, met up with some jeeps, said goodbye to our donkey-wallahs and drove off in the heat. It was an abrupt interruption to the rhythm of the trek that we had come to enjoy the past couple of weeks. Down the Phu valley and then a sharp turn and up the Suru river valley. The views of the Trans-Himalaya to the north and the Great Himalaya on the south were spectacular from the road along the Suru river, particularly Nun and Kun. After a brief stop in Parkachi, we continued on to Panikhar, which sported two brand new mosques, to set up our camp on a large grazing meadow. During the night we were treated to a display of wild foxes, running around the meadow, unfortunately, trying to get into our supplies. It kept everyone busy, trying to keep them out of camp. I guess we weren’t the first people to camp here!


View of Durung Drung glacier from Pensi la. Doda (or Durung) peak,
6485 m in background. (Harish Kapadia)


Ringdom monastery, Zanskar (Harish Kapadia)

We carried on to an expansive meadow just past the Ringdom monastery where we ended up camping for more days than we had planned. After exploring the monastery, where, few years back two of the monks were killed by insurgents passing through, we travelled up the Sankpo river to the Pensi la, where the Doda river begins its journey from the melt waters of the Durung Drung glacier. It was impossible to make any headway up the road because we had to keep stopping to gaze at the increasingly beautiful peaks. All were in the range of just under 6000 m and most were unnamed and unclimbed - hard to believe, considering their close proximity to this major road heading to Padum, the capital of Zanskar.


One mountain in particular stood out: a long gradual glacier approach, a vertical granite wall on the right skyline and a steep, somewhat complex series of glaciers and snow ramps on the left. At the Pensi la we could see Durung Drung peak (also known as Doda peak) 6485 m, which was climbed, first by the Japanese in 1976. What a mountaineering paradise. How tempting to return! That night, and every night at the Ringdom campsite, we were treated to a magnificent display of stars in the night sky, a testament to the elevation and the clarity of the air.

We planned to leave on 13 August. The mules didn’t show up at 8, so we waited. Not at 9. Not at 10. We spent most of the day coming up with a Plan B, but that evening they showed up.

Across Kanji la

Through a gorge on way to Kanji la. (John Porter)

The next leg of the journey saw a changing of the guard, with Tom and Kathy departing to join Cynthia Hunt, the tireless social worker. Their places were taken by Sandeep Kothari from Mumbai and John Porter from England. Our route went up the Kanji river where we made an early camp in order to avoid a late-afternoon, melt water-inflated obligatory river crossing just before the next camp. Here we saw our first bear digging - quite a fresh one. And we saw our first trekkers... in over two weeks of trekking. We were almost insulted at the intrusion!

We crossed the river the next day around noon and even then, it was swollen with silt-laden water and took some doing to get across. Refreshed from the dip, we climbed up onto a rock shelf, which we were surprised to learn was our campsite for the night. Slammed up against a cliff, the donkeys and yaks jockeyed for space as the donkey-wallahs tried to unpack them. The tents peered over the edge, tied down carefully to avoid any watery mishaps during the night. Ditto with the latrine.

We left camp early the next morning because we knew it would be a big day: the Kanji la. The wake-up event was a walk up the gorge for about ½ km. in ankle-deep, freezing cold water. We stuffed our nicelycleaned feet into our boots and gradually climbed out of the gorge into a beautiful, vast amphitheatre leading gradually up to the Kanji la, 5260 m. The yaks had preceded us over the col, then around the edge of a snow cornice, across the bottom of a small glacier, over endless moraines and finally down a steep series of switchbacks to the Tagu river at Chelung. There, we found a beautiful riverside campsite.

The scenery changed abruptly the next day as we hiked along the river towards Kanji village. Snowy peaks were replaced by narrow gorges, needle-like spires and soaring rock slabs, all in glorious shades of red, ochre and pink. We wandered back and forth across the river on animal trails and eventually came upon shepherd’s huts and barley fields. Then, wham! We turned the corner and saw Kanji, a medieval village of Tibetan-style houses stacked on a steep series of benches, surrounded by towering cliffs made even more beautiful in the late afternoon light. Prayer flags, stupas, a gompa and this incredible landscape. Pure magic. I had seen hundreds of films of magical places but Kanji village took my breath way.

Across Shinguche la

It was hard to leave. In fact, so hard, that Harish, Sanjay and Sandeep decided to forego the rest of the trek and enjoy Kanji village for at least another day, and leave the mountains by road. John, Alan and I continued on, with two more passes to cross. We headed off along the Dumbur river, and then began climbing up a moraine I wasn’t sure would ever end. We finally reach the top and traversed into the Yogma la along some very exposed and narrow trails. No falling allowed. At 4713 m, the pass was cold and windy and the views were limited because of the grey, stormy day, but we could see a series of peachcoloured spires and walls on the other side of the pass. It felt wild and remote. We dropped steeply to a point where the Shirakong river plunged down through a series of gorges, and that’s where we camped, surrounded by cliffs and hoodoos, and sadly, garbage. I sat quietly for hours scanning the cliffs above camp, convinced I might see a leopard, but it was wishful thinking. That night, the mess tent looked sad and lonely with only one small table, and dinner set for three!

The temperatures had dropped dramatically and it felt like winter was just around the corner. After leaving camp we soon climbed high enough to see the Shinguche la at the head of the valley, and it looked quite close. Wrong. We gained and lost elevation, crossed multiple streams, climbed an endlessly long black moraine and then a series of switchbacks to reach the pass at 5120 m. It was extremely windy and cold at the pass but we were rewarded with a good view of the Shinguche Kangri glacier and peak at 5800 m.

The valley below was the starkest we had seen; dry, almost without vegetation and spires and walls guarding both sides. It was easy walking, and our camp that night was near some permanent tents. It felt strange to see other tents - and other trekkers. We had been so alone on our trek. Tomorrow would be our last day. We could feel civilisation encroaching.


Historic ‘Tankse Inscriptions’ at Tankse. These
were made here on a rock by early Jesuits explorers.
(Harish Kapadia)

It snowed a bit during the night and we scurried down valley, arriving at the trailhead at 10:30! A bit early for our arranged pick-up, we instead caught a ride in a big transport truck. Dozens of people climbed on. We ended up with the most adorable baby in the cab, along with her young mother and perhaps the great grandmother. We camped at a beautiful and civilised campsite about 2 km from Wanla. It had everything: a lawn, flowers and showers.

The 11th century Wanla monastery was perched on a rocky outcropping above the valley and in the late afternoon light, provided stunning views up the little side valley. The farmers were harvesting, and I couldn’t pull myself away as they cut sheaths of grain by hand, stacked them up to dry, then threw the sheaths on a circular flat surface and marched their donkeys around to loosen the grain. The final task was to throw the grain up in the air to separate the kernels from the chaff. All of this was accompanied by singing, made more beautiful by the magical reverberations from the narrow valley walls.

At dinner that night we presented everyone with a ‘Kanji la award’, honoring them for their special qualities (like Alan’s ability to eat huge quantities of food and never gain an ounce and Harish’s great story- telling skills). There was a note of nostalgia in the air - because it was over. I had dreamed of trekking in Ladakh and Zanskar for years and I count myself lucky to have trekked on these high, remote trails, through spectacular scenery and culturally diverse communities, with such good company.

Back into vehicles, we made our way to Timisgam for a night and then on to Leh where we were all involved as speakers for the Ladakh Confluence Conference, organised by Rimo Expeditions and the Himalayan Club. That event was described in last year’s Journal.

But before we all headed into the conference room, we had one last adventure to Pangong lake, on the border with China. En route we stayed at Tankse village, known for the inscriptions made on a rock here by early explorers. These have been mentioned in early travelogues.


The Pangong lake. (John Porter)


Black-neck Crane near Pangong lake. (Sanjay Kapadia)


Chief Minister of J & K addressing at the
Seminar. (John Porter)

Pangong was a large, spectacularly pristine body of water, it is surrounded by soaring ridges that resonate with the tension of recent border battles. Even more disturbing was the sight of encroaching development along the lake shore, with no regard to the environmental impact of jeeps parking along the fragile shoreline, garbage strewn about, unlimited camping on the shore and little or no treatment of sewage. We all expressed our concerns, but Harish urged action. My husband, Alan, a National Park Warden in the Canadian Parks service for 30 years, was finally convinced to write a letter expressing the concerns as well as offering a few suggestions. The letter passed through the Himalayan Club and, together with support from the Club, moved up through the channels to the Chief Minister. He took it seriously.

He sent his deputy, Tourism Minister Jora, to the area, which also happens to be Mr. Jora’s constituency. After surveying the area and considering the recommendations, they have instituted some major changes: it is planned that vehicles are banned from Pangong lake, except army vehicles and those with permits to continue on to Chushul; all structures within one km of lake will be demolished; a large car park and toilet facilities will be constructed two km before the lake from which local yaks, horses and guides will escort tourists to the lake and back. This will generate employment to local people, the lake will remain in much better shape, and Mr. Jora’s election prospects will brighten! A perfect ending to a splendid trip.

Summary: A high altitude trek in Kargil - Zanskar area, in August 2009