Today is Day 4 of the trek, and the most difficult thus far. First of all, it's IDGAF-level cold both inside and outside. "Achoochoo" is my layman's interpretation of how to express "really damn cold" in Ladakhi (ok, the "damn" is my insertion, and yes, it's pronounced like the sound effect for a sneeze).
The top priority now is to stay warm. The good thing about cold, dry weather is that the consequence of not showering for x number of days is slowed down.
Last night, we were visited by large, slow-moving, black beetles. At first I was a bit alarmed about these things creeping around our room in the dark and potentially crawling over me in my sleep, but the IDGAF mindset set in and I bundled myself up in my sleeping bag without a second thought and fell asleep quickly. If they had been cockroaches, the story would be different, and no sleep would have been had.
Today, we trekked to Nimaling, which is a tented camp situated at 4740 m. The trail was mostly uphill and steep at times, but it was my favorite day so far, for both the challenge and the scenery. We saw marmots and blue sheep along the way and reached the camp in about five hours.
After arriving, we immediately sought refuge from the strong, cold wind in the sturdy tea tent (for copious amounts of hot chai, of course) dimly lit by a fire, where we found a couple from Luxembourg (Katharina and Roman) bundled up in blankets, and their guide, Rigzen (along with their entourage of four horses outside to carry their packs).
After chatting, tea, and soaking up the heat from the fire, a tall, dark figure sauntered in—an Australian (let's call him the Lone Ranger), complete with long hair, huge backpack, walking sticks, and saddle bags. He might have been the most Australian-looking Aussie I have ever seen. I learned that he was a seasoned traveller, having been around the world block. He trekked to Nimaling on his own and pitched his tent outside the camp. His golden rule of traveling is that he does not pay for transportation or accommodations. Pretty hardcore.
Later in the evening, we ate a hearty meal of dal, curried vegetables, rice, and tingmo, which are steamed, unsweetened buns with folds (served of course with the same veggie broth that accompanies all meals on this trek). The men who run the camp prepared the meal for us. I did not want to abandon the warm tent afterwards, as our sleeping tent only offered shelter from the wind and not the penetrating cold. I was also dreading the idea of having to walk over to the composting toilet shack on the outskirts of the camp in the middle of the night in the sub-zero temperature (Rigzen's estimate was that it was close to -10 degrees, but there was no thermometer to confirm it).
As soon as we left the comfort of the tea tent, we made a beeline for our tent, piling up the blankets and crawling under them in record time. Luckily, I managed to sleep pretty well in my sleeping bag and fleece-lined, knitted mittens and socks (which I picked up from Karma's shop in Leh), with no harrowing visit to the toilet needed.
The next day was sunny but still frigid in the morning, as expected. We (including the Lone Ranger) began the ascent to Gongmaru La pass at 5260 m. As we approached the snowy pass, the effects of the altitude manifested, and I was beginning to feel more easily exhausted.
As we trudged up the pass itself, I had to rest a few moments after short bursts of walking, the powerful, cold wind and lower oxygen level working against me each step. The four of us each ascended at our own pace, spreading out across the pass. The Lone Ranger summited first (he had already crossed a more difficult pass in his trek), followed by me, Deachen, and Ishey.
The feeling of reaching the top is glorious. Prayer flags welcome you along with high-fives from your comrades as they join you. And naturally, a few victory poses are warranted:
(Ok, so I wasn't very creative in my posing.)
After the four of us made it, Roman shortly followed, then Rigzen and their horses.The descent was long, but warm in the shining sun. We maneuvered rocks along the river and the river itself, frozen with ice, propelled by the natural high of crossing the pass. Ishey pointed out snow leopard tracks at one point (leopards are not typically sighted this time of year), and we saw more blue sheep.
We reached our homestay in Chogdo after four hours or so, where the Lone Ranger continued along the road to his next destination. The three of us were warmly greeted by the homestay owner with chai and cookies, which we happily devoured. I felt rewarded for my efforts. The homestay had a balcony on the rooftop, and with the sun shining in the bright blue sky, lounging up here was a perfect way finish to the last hard day of trekking.
The morning walk was only an hour or so to Shang Sumdo, where a taxi met us to drive to Hemis and Thiksey monasteries (gompas) on the way back to Leh. Hemis in particular is full of beautiful Buddhist artifacts: from masks, weapons (used only for ceremonial purposes), and teapots to scrolls and statues. I was extremely tired, dying for a shower, and my thighs were aching a little from yesterday's descent, but I climbed the steep steps to the shrines and admired the displays. Both were quick visits on account of the fatigue, but worthwhile.
After a long, hot shower back in Leh, I made sure to say goodbye to Karma, the wonderful shop owner I befriended, who I really hope to see again in the future (or in another life). The rest of the evening was spent packing up for the next adventure that would begin in the morning (Assam and Arunachal Pradesh) and getting a good night's sleep.