Prayer flags at the Sarbatan La
The pony men arrived with their horses earlier this morning while we were still asleep. We all have breakfast of porridge and tea, the pony men check horse shoes and load the horses. We break camp, leaving behind the lovely Gyal valley and slowly climbing into the arid hills.
We cautiously make our way round a herd of yaks that block the path, they've found greenery to eat near a spring. Yaks are huge slow creatures but can move fast when threatened and we wisely avoid getting between the young ones and their mothers.
A line of prayer flags heralds the pass called the Sarbantan La at 4230 metres, and we stop for a break. This is our first day of trekking and we've been taking it steady.
We've trekked most of the routes in Ladakh over the last 13 years and this is my attempt to find a new route. It will take us to the delightful village of Kanji but it's not a popular route and unknown to Stanzin, our guide. So far the landscape is unspectacular by Ladakhi standards but we're still delighted to be here in the hills again. A shepherd boy drifts over the pass with a herd of sheep and goats, it seems that the sheep have a calming effect on the goats.
At the top of a pass we celebrate by lighting some thick Tibetan incense with the crew. We also celebrate with a lie down in the sun before the descent to the next valley, and a small hamlet with two houses and fields of barley, before turning up the next valley to our campsite.
Before breaking camp the following day I start a small ritual which we'll follow every morning. I pile some stones on a rock to represent a stupa and add a prayer flag and incense to make a shrine. We have a short puja, the crew, being Buddhist, are delighted and join in. Namo Buddhaya, Namo Dharmaya, Namo Sanghaya, Namo Nama, Om, Ah, Hum. Words known and shared throughout the Buddhist world: I pay my respects to the Buddha, his teachings and those who follow them.
A short climb from camp presents us with a view back over yesterday's path. Most of the crew stay behind to pack the tents and load the horses. Each day they will walk faster and overtake us along the way. One horse stays with us to carry lunch, spare day sacs, water and to be there as a useful back up if we get tired. This lovely white horse has an injury to his nose from a wolf bite several years ago. It's disconcerting at first but the wound has been treated as well as possible and he seems OK.
Today is a short day and we soon arrive at the next pass, the Yoma La at 4320m, with its opportunity for prayer flags and portraits of Stanzin and Tashi who hails from Stanzin's village. This is Tashi's first trek and he's here to learn how things are done, he works in a shop in Leh but wants to give that up for trekking. He'll walk with us each day and help in the kitchen and serve our food. He's under instructions to be attentive and be on hand to make sure we have enough to eat, but we're happy to serve ourselves and we try to guide him as to what's expected although we know that compared to some, we're easy going. He's a lovely guy and tomorrow will come into his own.
I'm lost in a dream on the descent and hearing a noise just behind me am startled by a large horned cow looming over my head. The woman in the farmhouse at the valley bottom offers tea and we sit in the sun at the edge of a barely field where we're given a strange lemony tea-like drink while people break off from the harvest to pass the time and talk with Stanzin.
Our camp is further up the valley past a large thicket of strange stunted trees and at the head of a deep gorge which will be our route for tomorrow. The horses are untethered and explore the canyon for the best grass.