The Himalayas have 2 faces
The first is a lush green mountain face. The beard is formed by Temperate Alpine forests. Then there is a small stubble of grassland. The top of the Himalayas – snowline and above – form the bald head of this weird old captain.
But there is another face of this mountain range. This is completely clean shaven – with high altitude deserts and marmots covering the entire landscape. If I had been on a regular trek I could have seen either one of those faces. But this wasn’t a regular trek and I saw both faces to this mountain range that has attained mythical status.
The region I am trekking in is called the Miyar valley due to the small Miyar river flowing through it. The valley starts North of Manali. You then cross over a ridge and a glacier before ending up in the Zanskar valley – one that played a major role in the old silk route, but is now dotted by sleepy villages, potato fields, and mischievous children.
This was one of the more fascinating and diverse treks that I had done in my life. It starts from gradual grasslands, goes up a moraine, winds along a glacier, and then descends down a pass into Zanskar. Apart from the generic rigours of a steep trek, I was also faced with the challenges of HASO (High Altitude Systemic Oedema) a condition that happens only to women in high altitudes. To prevent the symptoms from setting in, I had to be more active (rather than plop down on the campsite) and control my salt intake.
Before starting, I had to ensure that I had achieved a level of fitness. I worked on my stamina and aerobics. To achieve this, you can try whatever activity suits you best. For me, this involved trail running, stretches, push-ups, and sit-ups. A trek in the Himalayas generally requires a month of these activities.
As with every trek, your backpack becomes part of the self. So it was important to check all the straps, ensure that my trekking boots still had grip, work on the lights, clothing, gloves, and buy whatever was needed. I was helped out with a solar charger that worked quite well as I was using both the phone and the camera for photos. Reception of course, is a completely different matter.
This, along with my drive to the base camp, and I was ready.
The trek can be roughly divided into 3 parts – the alpine grasslands, the 25mi long Miyar Glacier, and the Zanskar valley. All of the 3 are nice strolls. It is the transition from one part to the other that makes things a bit tricky. I started off in the grasslands.
The grasslands at this time of the year were carpeted by high altitude flowers. Quite a few of them are not documented as British and Indian researchers had challenges gaining access to the area. Now, with the roads, getting better, more of these plants and their uses are being documented.
One of the flowers I was looking for was the Blue Poppy – found only at such altitudes (13,000ft. and higher). I scoured the lands while sheepish sheep dogs looked on and all-knowing shepherds (come here to graze their sheep and goats from hundreds of miles away) smiled. But all my efforts were to no avail. I decided to focus on other matters – starting with the glacier. I didn’t reflect much on the possibility that the shepherds knew something that I didn’t.
As your eighth grade geography teacher may have told you, the glacier is the mountain’s worst enemy. The erosion caused by a glacier is unparalleled and all this can be seen on the loose rocky sides that we call moraines. After 2 days of what can be described as leisurely afternoon strolls, facing the moraine can be described as being rudely woken up from an afternoon dream of leisurely afternoon strolls, and being told to haul bricks at the limestone-scented construction grounds.
The climb up the moraine was precarious at the least. The rubble was unhinged and some of the rocks reached higher than me. A twist in the ankle was certain. More serious injuries were possible if you don’t watch your step or if you watch your step too intently. At the end of the day, I could hear my knees creak. But hardship does have its rewards.
There, among the rocks and the rubble, where little would want to live, let alone thrive – there were the blue poppies. The beauty of the flowers are fabled. But the fable might also be due to the stark background behind them. I took some time to “stop and smell the roses” before leaving them in their exclusive lairs and moved further on.
As we climbed over the last line of the moraine, what opened up in front of us was a 16-lane freeway of ice – the Miyar glacier. The next 2 days of walking along the glacier was a humbling and awe-inspiring experience. Ice shelves were followed by ice falls. Cornices were followed by blue ice. All this from a safe distance where iceberg cracks sounded like they were being played on a really nice set of speakers.
The second – though quicker – hardship was the pass that came after the glacier. A near 45 degree climb over snow was not so much dangerous as exhausting. As feet sank into the snow and the winds started blowing a bit quicker, we reached exhausted, to the top of Kangla pass (17,000ft.). There was, of course, the danger of hidden crevasses. But there had not been much snowfall before our trek. We could easily spot and avoid them. We were more worried about the hidden crevasses on the other side of the pass.
An advance group went ahead to mark the trail for us to follow. We then roped up – and in true mountain-viking-warrior spirit, ran down the slope along the trail. The snow gave way to rocks and the rocks gave way to sandy valleys. We had reached Zanskar.
Laughing grandmothers welcomed us. Snotty-nosed kids wanted their pictures taken with us. It seemed as if we were some form of champions. You could hardly ignore the irony as a woman in a tattered yak coat blessed us. We were kitted out, equiped, supplied and would go back to our city luxuries. She had braved the harsh winters, and dry summers of Ladakh for more than 60 years and would brave them for another 20.
Quite a few of my guests have wanted to travel to India to gain a new perspective into life. Some want to attain Nirvana. Some want a calmer soul. Some want to feel one with the world. For them, a week in these landscapes could be just what the doctor ordered. Let us take you through the Miyar Valley.