“Steamed veg momos please!” said Gary to the waiter, followed by “trust me” and a wink. This was my first taste of Tibetan food, and momos remain a firm favourite. The small steamed dumplings are filled with chopped vegetables, looking like mini bleached cornish pasties, with a tomato, chilli and garlic sauce for dipping. They come with meat too, and are sometimes fried. They are the real deal – I was instantly hooked! Gary and I were in Ladakh, in the far north of India, leading an expedition and taking a short break from our group on the first day while they were buying chocolate bars for our upcoming trek. Our hub was the town of Leh, a bustling oasis filled with trees, hewn out from the brown sandy hills around us.
The old palace and monastery are perched on the hillside immediately north of the town and an immaculate white stupa looks down on the valley to the west. We had flown in the previous day and as the town is at 3500 meters above sea level, we were all enjoying some time acclimatising to the altitude; mostly drinking tea, the traveller’s ritual. Ladakh is in the province of Jammu and Kashmir, parts of which are still disputed territory between India and Pakistan. Some areas in the province are still considered a no-go zone, but the regions around Leh and Manali are safe and a traveller’s delight. Ladakh is much like a mini Tibet in its culture, sitting on the cusp of the Tibetan Plateau, between the Karakorum and the Himalaya. The Ladakhi people are of Indo-Aryan and Tibetan descent, their population swelled by Tibetan refugees escaping the Chinese regime.
Tibetan Buddhist Monasteries
It feels a world away from the India that most are familiar with, in terms of landscape as well as culture. Buddhism is the primary way of life, with white stupas and chortens and colourful prayer wheels dotted around the streets. Even the Dalai Lama spends his month long summer break here. Throughout the valleys, white painted monasteries, large and small, old and even older, look out over the landscapes. These are usually prominent, with clusters of small white buildings tumbling down the hillsides. Their sizes vary but just ten miles along the Indus valley from Leh lies Thiksey Monastery. This is a monastery on a different scale, the largest in the region and likened in many texts to the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet. The importance of each building denotes its place on the hillside – with the main prayer hall at the top along with the Potang (the residence of the chief lama) and the simple dwelling houses towards the bottom.
It’s a wonder to visit and wander between them, through tiny stepped passages and courtyards full of colourful painted woodwork. The two storey golden Maitreya (future) Buddha is a fantastic sight in its own temple, built to commemorate a visit from the 14th Dalai Lama nearly 50 years ago. The main prayer hall is a colourful array of murals, deities and Thangkas – beautiful colourful fabric wall hangings. The walls are flanked with prayer books wrapped in cloth and the Dalai Lama has his own seat here. It’s a pleasure to spend time exploring the temples, and standing by the large white hilltop stupas, draped in prayer flags, and watching maroon clad monks quietly going about their daily rituals.
Exploring the Himalaya
Since that first trip, I’ve been back again and again. The relaxed way of life, surrounded by huge landscapes is addictive. The snow-capped Himalayan Mountains frame the skyline, easily accessible if you want to explore high ground. Multiple treks are available taking in a 5000m peak or two. Stok Kangri is the local tourist summit, which is hugely popular with visitors; a non-technical trekking peak, with a snow-capped top, towering over the valley at 6137m. There are also numerous green valleys, lined with poplar trees and barley fields inhabited by small communities to explore. Walking from village to village, staying in small guesthouses or homestays, one is welcomed by adults and children alike.
These are villages where everybody works together for the common good; where the fields of barley are harvested by everyone, regardless of ownership, to get it all in safely before the weather breaks and ruins the crop. The children roam around freely, looking after each other, playing with sticks, boxes, bits of string and the lazy village dogs. Stopping for a quick kick-around with the children is always a delight, especially if you leave them with a football or tennis ball as you say goodbye. Exploration in this area is still a huge possibility too as there are countless valleys where only the yaks have roamed, topped by glaciers and peaks which are just wallpaper for the villagers who have no interest in climbing them. They appear on the government survey usually just as a number with a Lat/Long coordinate to identify them from the next.
An expedition begins
In 2013 I spent a few weeks with two friends, accompanied by a small local support team, exploring a remote valley south of the ancient village of Gya, four hours drive from Leh. We had identified a whole range of mountains that had never been climbed at the head of meandering valley. One summit in particular stood out – a perfect pyramid known only as Peak 6030. Planning involved poring over inaccurate maps and pixelated Google Earth images, endless form filling and bureaucracy and handing over permit fees, but we had met the Indian Mountaineering Foundation in Delhi, received our official permit and letter of permission to climb, and so made our way back up to Leh.
As soon as we had re-acclimatised and finalised our kit and supplies we drove to Gya. This used to be one of the ancient capitals of the Ladakhi Kingdom, and an old ruined palace dominated the hillside. We were surprised to find a new Buddhist Gompa being built above it, and when we climbed up to investigate we were welcomed by the small gathering of monks, and invited to stay while they performed their Puja ceremony. This tiny room was bright and airy, with a golden Buddha watching over them, and filled with the incense from burning juniper. The walls were still having their murals painted by two monks sitting on ladders with paintbrushes that could only have been made from one or two hairs; such was the intricacy of their artwork.
We gradually made our way up the valley over the next few days, being careful to acclimatise before we reached our base camp at over 5000m. We then spent some time surveying the area, exploring the glacier which we’d need to cross on our summit day, and assessing the safety of our ascent options. Every plan that we’d arrived with from the comfort of the UK had to be abandoned – loose rock, avalanching snowfields, steep scree slopes – but we came up with an option which involved a subsidiary ridge of some substantial looking red granite. There was still the glacier to cross and a large landslide area that we needed to negotiate without triggering any further slips, but it looked like our best chance, and safest route to the top.
The final bid for the summit
Summit day came with an early breakfast, but sadly Douglas wasn’t feeling well. Matt and I set off, accompanied by our cook and pony man to help carry water supplies to make a cache on the glacier, in case we needed it for an overnight bivi later on. After that we were on our own. The glacier proved tricky with a huge crevasse and lake appearing further up than our recces had taken us, which led to a huge detour. A quick cuppa, then the landslide was crossed carefully and successfully, leading to the base of the ridge. It was a delight. Technical enough to keep us on our toes and provide some fun, but not so dangerous as to need a rope and climbing gear. After a few hours, the false summit was reached and just a short section of a knife-edge ridge remained between us and the true summit.
All around us there were storms – huge black and grey clouds, which we knew were unleashing their rain, hail and snow on the surrounding peaks and valleys, but we were bathed in sunlight. It was as if a large protective dome had been placed over us and we were just spectators to the surrounding mayhem. Later we learnt that the storm in the valley was so severe it had washed away the Leh-Manali Highway – the main thoroughfare of the region – and it took two days to clear the landslides and reinstate the traffic. Oblivious to this, we gained the summit, stopping just shy of the actual summit cone, as it was a huge pile of loose rock that would have tumbled easily and dropped us 1000m into the valley below.
We finished our flasks of tea and supply of chocolate and after leaving some small flags in the rocks, made our descent, keen to get back on to the glacier before nightfall. A few hours later, we could see two silhouettes creeping towards us in the dusk, and our two companions had come to meet us and walk back to camp with us, guiding us away from the day’s rockfall. We were welcomed by the rest of the team with huge plates of curry to ease our exhausted bodies. We needed to name our achievement so Peak 6030 became Cha Ri – Mountain of the Flying Bird – after the Lammergeier Vulture who had been accompanying us on our journey. Interestingly the name could also be translated as Tea Mountain – apt, we thought.
Return to Leh
It is such a privilege to be able to explore untouched landscapes and in our crowded western lives it is easy to forget that there are huge swathes of this world that are still wild. Even the villages of Ladakh feel like a million miles from home. The simplicity of life, the traditions, the culture, the space – these are reasons that I’m drawn back to the Himalaya time and again.
And then back to Leh and it’s all hustle and bustle; the mopeds and tuktuks, the street vendors, the polite request from the pashmina shop owners to come and see their shawls, the country ladies selling their apples and apricots from the pavements, the cows wandering along the street, holding up the traffic but never moved as they will always have priority. All of this accompanied by the ever-present landscape of frosted peaks. This is an India which is full of life and colour, friendliness and conversation. It’s nothing like Delhi or Mumbai for noise and harassment, but it is a beautiful, friendly, colourful circus of day to day life, and of course… tea and momos.