7/28 — Pangunagu, India
I just finished the third day of my eight-day trek — starting from the Himalayan village of Rumtse, winding south through canyons, plateaus, and mind-bending desert mountainscape towards one of the most spectacular alpine lakes in the Himalayas, called Tso-Moriri. It’s 4:38 p.m. — I’m sitting in my tent, partly to rest, and partly to take a break from a travel companion who’s sharing the cost of this trek.
These past few days have been absolutely stunning. Leh, at 3,500 meters, is one of the highest cities in the world. But on day one, we drove to our starting point in Rumtse at an elevation of 4,095 meters above sea level — and walked through dry desert to our campsite at 4,383 meters. That’s a gain of nearly 900 meters (roughly 2700 feet) in a single day up from an already high altitude. This approach, I noticed, broke the well-known trekking maxim to “walk high and sleep low,” a preventative prescription for avoiding the worst kinds of altitude sickness. The general rule of thumb is to sleep no higher than 300 meters up from the previous night’s resting place — a rule our guide seemed intent on violating in the most flagrant way imaginable. Thanks to some dank Diamox, I managed to survive with only a light headache, but the aforementioned compatriot was not okay — vomiting, acute headaches, the whole thing.
The most recent multi-day trek I did before this one was the Salkantay in Peru. It’s not tremendously difficult, but I definitely remember huffing and puffing through the hard part, crossing Salkantay Pass at an altitude of 4,600 meters. Yesterday, the route took me from the first night’s campsite at 4,383 meters up through a mountain pass at 4,870 meters, and another one right afterwards at 4,996 meters before terminating at the 4,800 meter campsite. Again, all sorts of rules being broken, and there but for the grace of Diamox…
But dear lord was it worth it. Some photos on Instagram by now, I’m sure. The landscape is unlike anything else I’ve ever seen — I’m pretty accustomed to North American natural beauty: green pine forest nestled between high granite mountains and a clear blue lake dead center. That doesn’t quite capture Death Valley or Bryce obviously, but it’s Glacier and Alaska and Yosemite and the Pacific Northwest and so on. Ladakh is something else entirely; I didn’t really know what to expect upon hearing the words “alpine desert” before coming here, but I thought it would at least sort of fit into a category I had already envisioned in my mind. It really doesn’t, and sort of feels like another planet — deep, sweeping canyons, sprawling, grassy valleys, and mountains made of multi-colored green and red and orange sand, all set against a backdrop of snow-capped Himalayan peaks and towering glaciers. It’s unbelievable, and if there’s one way the pictures don’t do it justice (beyond color accuracy), it’s that they fail to convey the sweeping and expansive scale of this place. Huge, stretching on forever, and mountains in every direction: all of it makes you feel truly infinitesimal. 10/10, would recommend.
Our guide, Karma, and I were chatting today. Well first of all, he told me his parents were killed when they offered to host a traveling Nepali man as a guest, and the guest ended up hacking off their heads to steal everything in the house. “So just be careful when you go to Nepal,” he warned. That’s some fucked up shit, but he said this other thing that I can’t stop thinking about. We were talking a bit about the U.S. and my life there, and where my parents are, when I asked if he wants to move to the U.S. like my family did.
“Hahahaha no!” he exclaimed, waving his right hand for emphasis.
I asked why, and he said that when he lived in Mysore, he heard from friends who had moved to U.S. and that they told him all sorts of stories about life there.
“Well, like what kind of stories?”
“They say people just walk with their head down past everyone, no friendly, no speaking like we are doing now.”
Karma earns a pittance in the global scheme of things, and I’ve learned from my conversations with folks around here that life is not easy in Ladakh. Summer labor is grueling and long, under the constant beatdown of a mercilessly harsh sun, and winter is bitterly cold, taking vegetables and most kinds of meat off the table with little work around to pay for what does grow (hint: it’s daal). A lot of Ladakhis I’ve met seem to either nest up in their village during the winter, living off summer savings, or else go elsewhere — Nepal or Goa or somewhere else where there’s work to be had. None of this seems to bother Karma as much as what he’s heard about American life and society, which is why he’s passed up on many chances to emigrate.
Nothing further, I just found that fascinating. More soon!