An account a journey along an ancient trade route
and recently opened areas in the Rupshu region in Ladakh.
Covering an area of about
60,000 square kilometers and ranging in elevation from 2,600 meters
to 670 meters, Ladakh is sandwiched between two huge mountains
systems-the karakorams to the north and the Himalayas to the south.
Ladakh is the Trans Himalayan region-the region of impact when the
Indian subcontinent collided with the rest of Asia, 50 million years
ago. One of the several geographic regions formed as a result of this
impact is the Rupshu, a dry, high altitude plateau lying south-east
of Ladakh. It forms part of the large area of Changthang, which
spreads east into Tibet for about 1500 kilometers. It is an area
which, due to its remoteness and proximity to Tiber, retained much of
the character of the Tibetan way of life, with regular trade and
barter continuing and trade routes being utilized as they were since
they were first discovered. These routes offer exciting avenues for
anybody game for a high altitude adventure.
One such route connects
the Spiti valley with Ladakhi Changthang, and is still used as the
main trail for trade and travel in these areas. The Parang La (pass)
5,600 meters, forms the source of the Para Chu river, an amazing
river system which rises to the north o the Parang La traveling 30
kilometers eastwards and turning sharply south to enter Tibet. After
flowing 85 kilometers through the plateau, it changes its course
westerly to re-enter India near its confluence with the Spiti at
Sumdo on the Hindustan-Tibet road, 33 kilometers before reaching
The Parang La is the
traditional trade route between the people of Spiti, Changthang and
Tibet. From Spiti, the trail begins in the high altitude meadows of
Kibber (14,000 feet), a two hour drive from Kaza, the district
headquarters of Spiti. Kaza, is also the venue of the Ladarcha, an
annual cultural fair which was initially a trading festivals which
took place in the surrounding higher meadows. Kibber is the breeding
ground of the famous Spiti horses and is also known to be snow
Kibber has an ancient
monastery worth a visit and is also mentioned in most guidebooks as
the highest motorable village but now the road has apparently reached
Tashingang, 18 kilometers uphill. On the way from Kaza to Kibber, one
passes Kye village which which prides itself on the largest monastery
in Spiti, the Kye Gompa-well worth a visit. From Kibber, which is
also the roadhead on the Spiti side of events, the trail descends the
scenic Kibber gorge and climbs to village Dumla, a small green bowl
arriving in time for a last cup of butter tea for the next ten
days-Dumla happens to be the last inhabitation till Karzog, more than
a weeks walk away. A stiff climb above Dumla is rewarded with views
of Parilungbi (Lingti valley) and Shilla, and the first days camp at
Thaltak meadow below a small pass crossing, the Thaltak La. Shilla
(6,132) remainded as an altitude record for forty-seven years after
it was climbed in 1860 by an employee of the Survey of India.
Inaccurate height computation contributed to the record till modern
survey reduced it by nearly 3,000 feet.
An early mornings
start the next day begins with a gut wrenching descent to Rongchu
Nullah followed by a climb upstream for an hour. The actual climb
towards the Parang La begins now with a climb on screen for nearly
four hours. Camp at Bongrochen (17,800 feet) meaning donkeys corpses,
does not come too soon as the going, however exciting, does get a bit
The Spiti side of the
divide is extremely dry and sunburnt, but hardly any snow conditions
to be encountered. All along the route, one is held captive by the
deep gorges and wind battered rock formations which characterize the
first couple of days towards the Parang La. Bongrochen, the last camp
before crossing the Parang La from the Spiti side, is in a bowl
surrounded by high mountains on either side. An early start is
mandatory the next morning as the other side of the pass has heavy
snow conditions. If one is lucky, a herd of sheep crossing the pass
with packs of barley strapped on to each of them provide good
company. The final gradient to the pass is extremely steep and it
takes a good company. The final gradient to the pass is extremely
steep and it takes a good couple of hours to finally haul oneself
over the top. But once there, a complete change of terrain more than
compensates for the lifetime it takes to limb over this 18,500 feet
high crossing. the pass on the Pare Chu side is snow clad and a broad
valley greets you looking down towards the broad flood plain of the
There are a few
well-camouflaged deep crevasses directly below the pas, which
invariably claim a few sheep each year as they are shepherded over
the la. Spiti horses are taken over the Changthang side where
they are sold to the Changpas (nomads of Changthang), for money or
Pashmina(a rare variety of wool) in return. Sticking to the
right of the pass on the descent, one cross the Pare Chu at the mouth
of the glacier over a not so stable snow bridge. The horses need to
be coaxed here as they invariably show a little reluctance while
crossing what with the river ranging a couple of feet below.
The advantage of starting
this trip from Spiti is that after the first few days of continuous
ascent, the descent is fairly continuous for the next days though not
entirely effortless, making the walk really enjoyable. Camp is set a
few kilometers below the mouth of the river at Dak Karzong, a green
meadow on the banks of the Pare Achu. A chance meeting with a
traveler from Karzog is not ruled out though they usually are in more
of a hurry, going the entire distance in four days.
He river begins to divide
itself over several channels now and the valley is nearly a kilometer
and a half wide. Crossing its many channels is part of the days work
as one works ones way downstream. The next two days are spent
walking along the river through green meadows and wind formations
(called Kathpa boozae).
A week after having left
Kibber, we reach the confluence of the Pare Chu with the Phirtse Phu
at Norbu Sumdo. A river crossing here brings one to an almost
incredible change of landscape as we walk north towards the Rupshu
plains of Changthang. Camp for the night is at Chumik Shilale, a
parrot green meadow set in wide green plains and low rolling
sunkissed hills. From now on, spotting the Changthang wolf remains a
very good possibility.
A few kilometers from
Chumik Shilale lies Kiangdom, named after the abundance of Kiangs,
the Tibetan Wild Ass found here. The walk towards Tso Moriri over a
scree slope with the lake and its delta visible sends the adrenalin
levels up as the enormity of the lake sinks in. kingdom lies at the
southern edge of the Tso Moriri (15,000 feet), a high altitude lake
27 kilometers long and nearly 8 kilometers wide. This lake is the
breeding ground for the bar-headed geese, black-necked crane and the
Brahminy duck. Kingdom needs to be visited to realize the immense
beauty of this area, opened only in 1994 to visitors.
The trail goes along the
Tso Moriri till we reach Karzog, a permanent settlement and also the
roadhead. The lake makes a fitting finale to a trek through landscape
seemingly out of a picture postcard. A day or two spent here is a
great idea to take in the sights and sounds of the Buddhist way of
life. A worthwhile visit is to one of the Changpa settlements in a
bowl high above Karzog, where living in their yak-skin tents, this
hardy race breeds yaks and pashmina, one of the trade items to go
over these high passes.
A four hour drive from
the Tso, passing through equally scenic terrain lies Tslkar, a salt
lake which was once the source of nearly all of Ladakhs salt
supply. The road climbs away from Karzog to Kiagar Tso, a smaller
lake above Tso Moriri which, according to locals was part of the
latter till both receded. The jeepable road passes through hot
sulphur springs at Puga, well known for its healing powers, as
several locals and also people from Leh will gladly testify. The
dusty road climbs on to Polo Gonka, a small pass before the descent
to the huge bowl of Tsokar. Large salt mounds litter the lake and the
water is expectedly extremely uncomfortable to taste. There is one
convenient spot to camp next to a fresh water source on the banks of
Tsokar. It is not surprising to see kiangs run along and overtake
the vehicle one is traveling in. on the opposite bank from the
campsite is the village of Tugche, which boasts of a massive wolf
trap and an ancient monastery. From the monastery, one can see the
water marks of the lake which at on time was nearly 200-300 feet
higher than what it has presently receded to.
Four kilometers from
Tsokar one meets the main Manali-Leh highway before the climb to
Taglang La, the worlds second highest motorable pass. A
comfortable four hours drive away lies Leh, the capital of Ladakh,
the highest and largest district in the country. And justifiable so,
having witnessed first hand the enormous scale and the rugged weather
beaten beauty of a region which remains much of a magical mystery
and, for some of us, the end of a rainbow.
From Delhi: Fly/Drive to
Kullu. Drive on to Manali. Cross the Rohtang and take the diversion
at Gramphoo to Chattru. Continue on to Spiti via Batal, Kunzum La,
Losar and Kaza, Kibber is two hours from Kaza.
Hire jeep from Manali to
Kibber/for self-driven vehicles, high suspension a must.
A longer drive-in from
Shimla to Kibber via Rampur, Kalpa, tabo and Kaza is also a
July to September
(depending on the opening of the higher passes)
Permits for foreigners
(Minimum four) required to be processed at the Deputy Commissioners
Office, Kaza. Permits for Tso Moriri to be arranged to reach Karzog.
Good acclimatization a
must for this trip. Take at least three overnight stops between
Manali and Kibber.
through a reputed tour operator who will make all permit/transport
arrangements besides taking care of all trekking logistics is
recommended. Also, make sure you meet your trekking guide before you
Where to stay
PWD guest houses at
Chattru/Set up your own Camp.
PWD guest house at
Losar/Set up your own camp.
Abode. Clean rooms with food available.
La. Setting up camp recommended.
Karzog- Set up your
Arrange transport to meet
at Karzog for drive to Leh. Fly Leh to Delhi.
feet) 570 kilometers.
(11,670 feet) 70 kilometers.
(13,350 feet) 62 kilometers.
feet) 58 kilometers.
feet) 226 kilometers.