(Not) Peaks of Ladakh: Photos & Notes

As you’ll have seen, my first big trip in the New Normal world didn’t go quite as I’d hoped.

It was lovely to be back in Ladakh, but I caught COVID.

Also July in Ladakh was just too hot (and then it was too wet), and the group make up had shifted since I’d booked to 9 men and 2 women, so not as balanced as I’d expected. Luckily J and I got along fine, all the more important when we both tested positive for C-19.

So, the trek was cut short, we spent 6 days back in the hotel and then managed a mini-break west of Likir camping and walking before the rest of the group returned. Mostly not victorious.

Not particularly impressed with Exodus HQ’s handling of our situation – VP’s request that we all bring tests and plenty of spare masks hadn’t been passed on, and the only communication we had from them once we had tested positive and had to abandon the trek was an a***-covering pro forma email. So much for COVID-Clear.

But anyway, here’s what transpired. There’s a bit of duplication as the first few days also feature in Weeknotes 133, but I’m sure you’ll cope.

I’ll add links to the photos once they’re Flickred. [29 August 2022: Done!]

Photos now available in my Flickr Album Ladakh, July 2022.

Friday 15 July 2022: Hereford – London (photos)

Up early Friday to catch the 06.43 HFD-PAD train. I’d decided to allow as much time as possible for travelling to London and out to Heathrow for my 18.30 flight to Delhi, and to spend the morning/early afternoon working in the LO office.

Back in the smoke, I had my first go on the Elizabeth Line – aka Crossrail. The signage at Paddington isn’t great – “Elizabeth Line” doesn’t feature on the signs you see on the platform when your train pulls in and instead you need to look at the floor on the main concourse. Not easy when that’s full of people. That said, once I’d found my way to the eastbound service it was a speedy 11 min to Liverpool St – magnificent!

First time on the Elizabeth Line
First time on the Elizabeth Line

I headed back to Paddington early afternoon and was once again stymied by the signage. Westbound trains (currently?) leave from platforms 11, 12 and 14 but it’s not at all obvious how to get to 11, which of course was where the next Elizabeth Line train to LHR was due to depart from. Still, I made it to T3 a bit before 3pm and was sitting in the departure lounge by 3.25pm having done bag drop and security. No long queues for me.

A smooth flight, and mandatory masking except for small children etc – and there were lots of those, and lots of coughing. Uh oh.

Saturday 16 July 2022: Delhi (photos)

Landed in Delhi a bit after 8am on Saturday. Spotted some likely fellow trekkers in the visa / immigration queue. Out of the terminal, Valerie Parkinson was waiting for us and once she’d corralled all 11 of us (turns out there had been 6 cancellations and 1 new booking since I’d bagged the “last place”) it was into taxis and through the busy streets of New Delhi to the Jaypee Siddharth hotel.

A briefing from VP in the cafe/bar while rooms were sorted out and then some money changing (90INR : 1GBP). I’m sharing with J, the only other woman on the trip (cf 5 women when I’d booked).

Took the taxi tour option for the afternoon – Gurudwara Bangla Sahib, India Gate, Government Buildings and Shri Laxmi Narayan Temple. Monsoon downpours limited what else we could do. Group dinner at the Mughal Mahal restaurant just down the road from the hotel.

Sunday 17 July 2022: Delhi – Leh (3500m) (photos)

Up early Sunday for our flight to Leh. All good. Taxis to the Hotel Glacier View, not far from the Kang Lha Chen where we’d stayed in 2016. Checked into our rooms and relaxed, acclimatising to the thinner air at 3,500m. VP took us out for an afternoon orientation tour of the bazaar and old town. Thankfully not much has changed. Tea (and late lunch for some) at the Leh View rooftop restaurant overlooking the gilded roof of Leh Gompa. Leisurely late afternoon, then buffet dinner at the hotel.

Leh’s night time audio entertainment comprises barking dogs and two 3.30am calls to prayer that segue into one another. Fighter jets optional.

Monday 18 July 2022: Leh (3500m) – Shey & Tikse (photos)

The weather forecasts proved correct and it was as hot hotter in Abbey Dore on Monday than in Delhi or Leh. That’s nuts.

Another acclimatisation day, but a little more active – we drove to Shey to visit the old palace and temple, then walked across the valley to Tikse where VP gave us a guided tour of the gompa. Back to Shey for a late lunch then back to the hotel for a snooze and prelim kit bag pack, then a kit check (boots primarily) and trek briefing with VP out on the terrace.

Dinner out at another rooftop restaurant – Il Forno, overlooking the main road and entrance to the bazaar. I had pizza and banana lassi. Yum yum.

Generally I’m finding I’m slow to acclimatise – headaches, no appetite, stuffy nose/head.

Tuesday 19 July 2022: Leh (photos)

Tuesday was our third and final day acclimatising in Leh. Another hot hot day.

I still wasn’t feeling great – flying into 3500m is harder than walking – so skipped the optional jeep trip up to the Khardung La and instead spent the morning hanging out with John who was the other nonKLer. We walked down Changspa Road and up the 500 steps to Shanti Stupa. I needed to stop chatting and to slow down the pace for the “ascent”. Still a lovely viewpoint out over Leh and the green stripe of the Indus Valley, with the valleys leading into the mountains beyond Stok spilling greenery out onto the barren plains.

Back down to the main road and along Changspa Road and into town. A cup of tea in the Leh View rooftop cafe – the only customers at 10am in the morning – then into the Central Asian Museum. It opened in late 2016 and is a small but beautifully formed collection of Central Asian artefacts housed in a replica four storey stone tower house. Lots of photos of old Leh and good maps, showing the trade routes over the mountains to Yarkhand, northwest along the Indus into the Balti lands and south east into Hindustan. One floor held items from Leh Mosque’s archives, and the top floor is an open air gallery with fab views over Leh from all four sides. And you exit over a drawbridge into the shady garden. Well worth 50R.

Lunch with the KLers in a courtyard garden restaurant cafe near the top of Changspa Road – the Apple Tree Garden / Mentokling Guest House – then an acclimatisation walk up Namgyal Hill to the old Royal Palace and its private temples, on up to the prayer flag peak and Tsemo Gompa – the photogenic white and red buildings that perch on the ridge high above the bazaar and which we can see from our hotel.

Back to pack kit bags, then into town for dinner at the Leh View.

Wednesday 20 July 2022: Leh (3500m) – Stok (3500m) – Mankarmo (4350m) (photos)

Another hot day, and we were off on trek! The cars drove us to Upper Stok where the ponies were waiting to be loaded up. Once that was done we set off up the valley with our local leader Wangyl leading the way.

The trail winds ever deeper into the mountains with a couple of river crossings early on. The spell of hot weather made for a lot of water – we were wading over the knee and bracing against strong current – but the rocks were easy underfoot.

A break at a no name pass where we could see back down the valley towards Stok in one direction and on into the river valley that eventually led to Mankarmo.

I walked with J&S, with B, D and Valerie a little further back. The rest raced on ahead at a very fast pace. The three of us ended up having to wait at the third and final river crossing – we wouldn’t spot a good place to cross and decided we’d wait for Valerie & Co. Handily, one of the crew appeared from higher up the valley shortly after they did, bringing a pony for B who’d got AMS, and helped us across.

Still hot and sunny when we finally reached camp – orange squash very welcome. The tents were going up and we just had enough time to chuck our kit bags etc in before tea and biscuits in the dining tent. I’ve got a large orange tent to myself as J paid for a single one to herself.

After plenty of mugs of tea we adjourned to our tents and I had my first go at “wafting” up my Exped sleeping mat. Dinner at 7pm – soup, rice, dal and mattar paneer plus cucumber, tomato, carrot salad, with a banana to finish. Not much appetite, not much chat …..

Thursday 21 July 2022: Mankarmo (4350m) – Stok – Leh (3500m) (no photos)

Not a good night’s sleep – too hot and stuffy, which I mentioned to Valerie when she did her morning rounds …. at which point she suggested taking a COVID test…. which produced the telltale two lines of a positive result.

So that was the end of my Peaks of Ladakh.

J tested positive too, and together with B we retraced our steps to Stok, trek crew member Lotus leading a recalcitrant pony laden with our kit and tents. Even though we made a good pace, by the time we got to the lower river crossings the water was running higher/stronger than yesterday.

Chosphal came to meet us at the roadhead and drove us back to the Hotel Glacier View. B was in a minivan to limit his exposure to the two COVID carriers. He flew home the next day.

The hotel team were fab.

Friday 22 – Tuesday 26 July 2022: Leh (3500m) (photos: 23, 24, 25 & 26)

We spent the next 6 days in room 302 – initially sleeping a lot, then reading / lounging / watching the comings and goings at the hotel and around Karzoo Circle and eventually feeling well enough to get out and about in the fresh air – whilst masking and keeping away from other people.

No appetite, quite a lot of snot and a stuffy nose, one morning with a few sneezes and another with a bit of a dry cough. A couple of days when tea tasted as though someone had sprayed air freshener over it.

Nikeel from the hotel brought us a big bag of bananas and apples, and after a day or two we felt hungry enough to order in breakfast. Very, very grateful that the hotel has a fridge full of boiled / filtered water on the landing so we had as much water to drink as we needed – which was a lot – and that our room had a bay window lounge, big windows that opened out towards the old town and a TV. We watched a couple of hours of National Geographic each night.

Chosphal came to see us every day together with Konchuk who got us some spare masks and tried to find lateral flow tests in Leh. No luck. We declined the PCR option on the basis that we’d be In The System and really all we could do was sit out the contagious days which we calculated on the NHS guidelines – Thurs = day 0, Fri 22 July = day 1, Mon 25 July = day 5 making Tues 26 July our first “clear” day.

HHDL paid a visit to Leh on Saturday 23, spending time on the gompa, the mosque and the church (Moravian). Not surprisingly we didn’t go out to join the crowds.

On Sunday, when Konchuck delivered the mountaineering kit sacks to the group at Chuskurmo, Valerie handed over her remaining 4 tests and on Monday we took one each … still two lines.

The weather changed on Sunday too – turning cloudier and cooler, and staying that way for the rest of our time in Ladakh.

Even though strolling at 3500m was easier than it had been, there was no way we could have rejoined the group – albeit still isolating – on Sunday which had been a tentative option. That would have involved crossing the Gongmaru La (5200m), an ascent of over 1000m from the drop off (and that was 700m higher than Leh) before dropping down into Nimaling at 4854m (1350m higher than Leh).

Instead Chosphal offered to arrange a couple of days walking / camping for Wednesday,  Thursday and Friday, partly because the hotel was full on the Wednesday night but mainly to make our enforced stay at Leh-level a bit more interesting.

We went to a walk around town on Monday, checking out the bookshop for fresh reading (no joy), and getting back to the hotel just before the heavens opened.

Quite glad not to be camping at ~5000m for the next 5 nights …

On Tuesday J and I explored the back lanes and alleyways of Sangkar, finding family homes with lovely cottage gardens and being invited in for a cup of tea, shown the live stream of HHDL’s teachings at Tikse and finally being waved off with a handful of freshly picked pea pods each.

Vaguely heading for Shanti Stupa we stumbled across the large collection of chortens, carved stones and mani walls in the borderlands of Upper Changspa and Lower Sangkar, coming out onto Changspa Road by the concrete road bridge / bend.

On to Shanti Stupa and up the 500 steps to survey the views and the dark heavy clouds over Stok Kangri and the rest of the mountains.

Reckon I had a bit sunstroke and/or dehydration on the way down as my depth perception deserted me completely and I had to come down the steps placing my first foot and then my second foot on each step – otherwise I’d have gone falling headlong down the hillside.

Water and breakfast leftovers for lunch back at base sorted me out. In the afternoon we visited the Central Asian Museum and in the evening we ate out at the Apple Tree Garden – Veg Pad Thai for the third time and no complaints!!

Wednesday 27 July 2022: Leh (3500m) – Likir (3600m) – Ulley (4000m) (photos)

Wednesday morning we left our big bags behind at the hotel and set off with Konchok and Lobzang for 2 nights camping / 3 days exploring north west of Leh.

Before we left we settled up – a very kind rate of 4000R per night for the room, including breakfast. That’s about £20 each.

The drive took us out past mile after mile of army bases, the confluence of the Zanskar and Indus rivers, on through Basgo where we stopped to photograph the old Palace / Fort and Gompa, and finally to Likir where our visit to the Gompa coincided with a Puja ceremony.

I liked Likir: lots of young monks, still excited to have their photo taken and then to see it on the camera, temple wall paintings featuring instructional texts and elephants and a small museum with lots of Tibetan treasures.

Back in the jeep we continued on along the link road turning off the tarmac and onto an unsurfaced road for the final 6km to Ulley where we were camping for the night. It’s a snow leopard spotting / homestay place in the winter time.

After a late lunch of veg pilau we sorted out the tent, had tea and biscuits and then explored the “village” (it’s really just a collection of 4-5 homesteads) with Konchok, walking up through the bare fields past water mills to the pair of chorten looking out over the farms. Although there were some bright green fields of barley, lots of former fields have been left fallow – tourism is better money than crops and sheep/goats.

The skies had clouded over and we dodged the rain to get to K and L’s tent for a tasty evening meal a little after 7pm. Then bed!

Thursday 28 July 2022: Ulley (4000m) – Spango La ( 4070m) – Hemis Shukpachan (3670m) (photos)

A lot of rain overnight – the loo tent developed a serious sag in the roof making for cautious post wee standing up.

Morning rain meant we whiled away a couple of hours over a leisurely breakfast and chatting in the tent, waiting for the rain to ease off, which it eventually did.

The day’s plan was to walk to the neighbouring village of Hemis Shukpachan, taking a cross country route over the Spango La pass where Konchok presented us with a string of small prayer flags to put up.

An easy descent back down to the road – newly tarmaced but as yet there are no numbers on the kilometre marker posts – then on towards the green fields and large seated Buddha at the bottom of the village. Hemis Shukpachan is a relatively big place, home to a small hospital and a branch of the J&K bank. So more of a town really.

I was tired by the time we’d walked up through the village to the juniper trees that give the town its name. Lobzang was there, our tent set up and drying, and a woman was tending her cows and sheep on the common land where we were camped.

Tea and cake on arrival, a bit of time to sort out our tent and then a late lunch of rice, brown dal and fresh veggies, melon for pud. All v tasty.

A post-lunch snooze in a hot tent turned out to be a bad idea and I woke with a headache. Still, I managed the late afternoon walk to the chorten to the west of town and on to the edge of the Hemis Shukpachan plateau for views out over the gorge below. The whole area is home to colourful rocks and hillsides – reds, greens and ochres. Snow cocks bustling around near camp.

Hand made veg momos for dinner!

Friday 29 July 2022: Hemis Shukpachan (3670m) – Basgo – Leh (3500m) (photos)

Friday was drizzly and overcast so we decided to pack up and start the journey back to Leh after our final breakfast of wok omelette and fried potatoes, bread and seabuckthornberry jam and fresh melon.

We stopped at Basgo to explore the Gompa and Palace – in the 17th Century the king had married a Muslim princess and built a small mosque for her, now a Buddhist temple.

No monks in residence – lots of people have gone to Choglamsar to attend HHDL’s open air teaching sessions.

We were back at the Hotel Glacier View a little after midday where Chosphel was waiting for our group to return. A grateful farewell to K & L, then we settled into our new room – 104 not as nice as 302 but it at least the door lock worked. A bit of a repack, a shower and hair wash…. And then we spotted the returnees – tired and a tad more haggard than when we’d seen them last.

Caught up with Valerie and then J and I headed into town for tea/coffee and cake in the courtyard opposite the main bazaar entrance. The German Bakery was fully occupied by very young monks, who, under the watchful eyes of an older monk and a nun, tucked into pizza and cola followed by chocolate cake. They were in heaven. I’m guessing they’re in town to attend HHDL’s teachings.

In the evening we all headed into town for a group meal at Il Forno. Pizza again!

Saturday 30 July 2022: Leh – Delhi (photos)

Very early start (2.30am wake up call) to get one of the first flights out of Leh – the rainy days were causing flight cancellations and no one wanted to miss Sunday’s international flight back home.

Fond farewells to the hotel team, and at the airport to Chosphel and Valerie P.

With Valerie’s instructions and Chosphel’s guidance, we negotiated airport access, check in (a slight delay when the servers went down) and security…. then waited a few hours until our (delayed 06:40) flight boarded. Not nearly as tense as Lukla – flights were leaving and it wasn’t raining, things were just slow.

We landed in a hot and humid Delhi 90 mins later, very relieved to have got that hop over, and were met by the local agent. Cars to the Jaypee Siddharth hotel, a bit of a wait in the cafe-bar again and then we could get to our rooms. Building work still in progress – lots of banging and drilling. Not what you want after only a few hours kip. You also don’t want to find that your kettle, telephone and telly don’t work. And that you have to share a room key card. Five star? I don’t think so.

On the plus side, down in Reception J and I were able – eventually – to sort out online checkin, and then joined S for a superb South Indian lunch a short stroll down the road.  A leisurely afternoon – J headed off to Karol Bagh and I returned to our room where I snoozed, listened to Alice Robert’s Tamed on audiobook, emailed a bit and showered.

Joined (most of) the group for dinner back at the Mughal Mahal, spending our last rupees.

Sunday 31 July 2022: Leh – London (no photos)

Another early start – 5am felt like a lie in compared to yesterday though – breakfast (surprisingly) then back into the cars and back to the airport.

Easy check in / bag drop, speedy security, and 2-3 hours to kill in the departure zone. J and I spent most of it with S in the Coffee Bean.

Good flight. Two G&Ts. More movies.

We landed at 3.20pm, got through passport control faster than expected (using the electronic UK passport gates helped, I have to admit) and then had to wait half an hour or so for our bags.

Then it was time for farewells, one by one, as our luggage materialised.

Tom met me at Arrivals, and drove me back to theirs for a lovely evening featuring the final of the Women’s Euros 2022, beers, crisps and a tasty al fresco tea.

Monday 01 August 2022: London – Hereford (no photos)

Awake early, still on India time. Tom dropped me at Hornsey train station, straight to Moorgate where it’s an easy change on to the Elizabeth Line. 11 mins later I was at Paddington, with plenty of time to spare before boarding the busy 09:50 to Hereford.

Americano and pain au raisin for a late breakfast treat.

And Phil met me at Hereford.