Silk Road from Leh towards Kargil and Gyal
Tomorrow we'll drive on one of the Silk Road routes from Leh towards Kargil stopping at the roadhead by the village of Gyal where we'll begin our trek. Today it's preparation time for our trek. We search the downtown bazaars in Leh until we find some bowls to give as a present to Stanzin and his wife Sonam. Then we have some last minute shopping for colourful 'Tibetan' blankets for the trek. They're an essential extra layer of warmth and comfort for the cold nights ahead.
At the very last minute, just before we leave in the morning, I buy a couple of cashmere scarves like the ones we buy in Nepal. Both the cashmere scarves and the Tibetan blankets are among the most popular items back home in Sheffield at the Silk Road Gallery. The Tibetan blankets are sold as yak wool although in fact they're acrylic - and much softer and more colourful! Neither are they Tibetan - they come from India! But they're warm and soft, great value, and we love them. The cashmere scarves, though, are the real thing.
This is the day we drive to the start of the trek. Outside the hotel we meet the crew who seem to be in good form. We have a Nepalese cook called Ri, two helpers: Tashi with a moustache, from Zanskar, Jigme, a student and Tashi number 2, the driver.
A small problem is that my walking boots are back at Pangong Tso. Stanzin tries to make contact with guide who is out there but no-one he knows is coming back to Leh right away. Jigme stays behind to bring my boots when they eventually get back from Merak. So I set off to the start of our trek with a broken toe and no walking boots.
In the morning we leave about 9, stop for breakfast after an hour at a roadside dhaba at Khaltse and have possibly the world's best samosas - fresh, light and flaky crisp. We drive on past the monastery at Lamayuru heading west towards Kargil. It turns into a day of amazing surprises.
At a roadside chai stop just before Gyal we meet another Tsering, Tsering Dolkar, who's here with a group of school kids staying at an overnight hostel. We camped in Tsering's field nine years ago at Hanupatta. She had a new baby but wouldn't see her husband for another year while he served at a remote army outpost in the Suru valley. We took a letter and a bag of walnuts to give to him when we passed his post at the end of our trek a few weeks later.
We're some distance from her home and Stanzin was astonished to see her across the road. Amazing to see her, dressed for work, last time we saw her was harvest time and she was working in the fields! We called by her village only a year ago hoping to see her after our Zanskar trek but today in a different context I wasn't sure it was her at first - but for the warmth of her greeting. We were delighted to see each other. She's here with her son who's also changed in a year. Her mum and dad in law now run a shop she's opened above the new house she's built in Hanupatta, she teaches at Wanla and her husband drives a taxi in Leh and is building a cafe on the Kardung La.
What a wonderful chance meeting, sometimes here I think we're truly blessed. I give her the lovely photos we took of her family last year and the ones I hope she'll be able to pass on to her neighbouring village of Photoksar. We'll possibly pass through Hanupatta in about a week and hopefully see her again.
A side road takes us down a delightful valley towards our camp but en route we find an amazing old monastery built into the rock side at a village of Gyal. Even though it's getting late we have to explore. It's a tiny monastery in a stunning location built into very soft rock. Two school boys get the key, there's nothing too precious inside though a square cloth embroidered with four smaller squares is unusual.
It has been used as a meditation retreat cave and the location has clear views down the valley and the village below. Across the valley are bright green fields and trees and bizarre rock faces, the soft rock eroded into strange shapes that look like printed circuits formed by aliens as living coded message. Up valley there are hard sharp mountains, an unusual pale steel grey.
We have to retrace our steps and then follow a higher road above the village to the end of the valley by the village school on a stony plateau. There may be a better camp down in the fields but it's getting late. Donkeys and goats pass by. The roof has been blown off a new school building, this doesn't seem to be the best place for a camp or a school but maybe it's the only available land. We set about making camp, all pitching in, literally. I hope the pony man, who we passed earlier on the road, and Jigme the boot man will find us. We understand he's having trouble getting a taxi.
Stunning side valleys should look interesting in the morning light, the early sun will illuminate them before it reaches camp. We're pitched our tents directly opposite a striking rock formation that rises straight up out of the scree. It's cosy in the tents and tomorrow's path looks gradual. My cold is passing, I'll have to see how my toe is without boots. I do have some decent walking shoes but there's no ankle support.
A thin moon is chased by a bright Venus just above the horizon. We tip the taxi man generously for his help, he's driving straight to Kargil then getting up at 2.30 to drive on to Srinagar. I hope he stays awake. Sitting in the front with him earlier in the day I kept thinking he was about to nod off, I called a toilet break to swap seats so Stanzin could talk to him and keep him awake.