Over Shingo La

Shingo La is the pass that separates the isolated Zanskar Valley from the Lahaul Valley. The pass is at an estimated 5100 metres in altitude and is not considered very technically difficult for trekkers. Nevertheless, with our bicycles and it being so early in the season, we were happy to have Kesar and Tenzin with us and their ponies  transporting our bicycles and bulk of our gear.

From Palamo, the first campsite out of Darcha, we had what would have been a rough day of cycling had we been loaded down with equipment. But without heavy paniers, we had a somewhat pleasant day riding to the next campsite despite the laughably terrible road conditions.

(Below you can watch Yann and I taking different approaches to crossing the flooded road, note Jochen laughing at us in the background)

The campsite at the base of the trail leading to Shingo La Pass is called Zanskar Sumdo, Sumdo meaning "confluence". It is where Zanskar meets Lahaul (and the outside world). We got to the campsite at the same time as dozens of Zanskari villagers were stopping for a tea break on the way south to Manali, a journey that most were making on horseback and a few on foot. With Shingo La recently opened, this would be the first time in over 8 months that Zanskaris would have access to provisions. Most villagers were travelling with multiple horses that would be loaded with supplies in Manali. For many families, this would also mark the first time in months that they would be seeing their children, as Zanskari children must complete a majority of their schooling outside of Zanskar. The speed at which the villagers travelled really put us to shame. Having just completed the entire journey over Shingo La Pass in a half-day (a journey which would take us three days) we watched them ride off towards Keylong after the shortest of rests at the campsite tea house. The route over Shingo La Pass is well travelled, and in the busy trekking season, it is home to strategically located temporary tea tents. Each tea tent is operated by a Zanskari village and proceeds are distributed to its villagers. While most of the tea tents are situated in the villages themselves, the one at Zanskar Sumdo and along the trail over Shingo La are fairly isolated, and this early in the season staffing the tea tent seemed to be a lonely job. We were grateful for the comfort of a hot cup of tea and a place to warm up. We hoped that the other tents along the trek had already set up shop for the season like this one. From Zanskar Sumdo we planned to spend a day trekking to Chumik Nakpo, the last campsite on the south side of Shingo La Pass. We left early, well ahead of Kesar and Tenzin who nevertheless passed us in the early afternoon. The trail was easy to follow and seemed easy, but our pace slowed as we climbed higher. Jochen and I appeared to be experiencing the effects of the altitude we were anxious to reach our campsite. By late afternoon it was raining and the temperature had dropped in the absence of sun and at the increased altitude. By the time we reached the campsite we were freezing and exhausted. Jochen quickly fell asleep in the warmth of Kesar and Tenzin's tent and I could barely muster up enough energy to help put up our tent and prepare dinner. We decided that we needed an unplanned rest day at Chumik Nakpo to get used to the altitude before completing the last 500m climb to the top of Shingo La Pass. We spent the entire rest day sleeping. Kesar and Tenzin warned us that we should begin our climb to Shingo La before dawn, this way we would reach the pass while the snow was still firm. It was late June and we had read stories of trekkers unable to pass the sumit in mid-July due to snow storms. But our guides were completely unfazed by the day's itinerary. When another group of tourists arrived at Chumik Nakpo, led by a fellow Darcha villager the much emphasized early start time was pushed back as the friends socialized. We were happy to avoid a 4am departure, but we still worried that it would be a difficult day. We did not trust our guides for accurate walking times so we set out ahead ahead of everyone at the campsite in the hope of making it to our next destination, Lakang Sumdo, on the other side of the Shingo La Pass, before dark.

The first few hours of our climb were relatively easy; on a gradual include and a visible trail, but we could feel the air thinning (at least we thought we could feel it) and our steps slowing. By the time we spotted the summit to the time we actually reached it took several hours.

The descent was possibly even slower than the climb. It took us almost two hours to descent a portion of the mountain that we watched our guides descent in 15 minutes (to be fair, we opted to follow the winding, boulder-strewn trail and not to walk across a glacier). From the time we reached Shingo La Pass until we arrived at our campsite I had a severe headache and was becoming increasingly paranoid that I was suffering from high altitude cerebral edema (which I wasn't of course). This made the descent rather unpleasant as I thought only about decreasing altitude and rarely stopped to look at anything around us. I also asked Yann to check the altitude on the GPS a gagillion times. With every metre we dropped I psychosomatically imagined a proportional drop in the severity of my headache. Mid-way through the descent we got our first glimpse of Zanskar, and I briefly stopped thinking about my headache as I admired the view of the desolate high altitude valley. We reached Lakang Sumdo a little bit before nightfall, after eating and drinking I had accepted the idea that my brain was not going to explode and was ready to start worrying about the fact that the next day we would be back on our bicycles and on our own again.

Homestay in Darcha

From a small tour office in Keylong we were able to secure four ponies and a guide to help us over Shingo La Pass. In retrospect we would have made our way to the tiny village of Darcha, where most of the pony owners live and negotiated there. Instead we paid a premium to the company subcontracting the services of the poor non-English speaking guides who are not as able to negotiate with foreigners.

We met our guide Kesar at the tour office in Keylong a few days before departure. We agreed on a price and the number of horses that would be necessary for transporting three bicycles and most of our gear over Shingo La Pass.  We settled on 10$/day per horse. Because Kesar didn't speak English we didn't have to pay the usual “guide” fee. We also agreed to pay for the days of return travel, as Kesar would accompany us only over Shingo La and then head back over the pass to his home. We agreed to meet in Darcha a few days later. We had Kesar's cell phone number and we were assured that we would not have any trouble finding each other in the 300 person village. We left Keylong with the plan was to cycle a few hours to Darcha, pick up our ponies and continue on towards Zanskar Sumdo the Shingo La “base camp” and entrance to Zanskar. This didn't quite work out. Despite the size of Darcha we weren't able to locate Kesar. We weren't actually able to locate anyone. In the early afternoon, most of the village's inhabitants were working the fields and the village was nearly deserted. We crossed one elderly man who directed us to Upper Darcha a steep 30 minute climb away. In Upper Darcha we were told that Kesar lived in Lower Darcha. Our search lasted the better part of the afternoon and even involved another villager trying to get us to hire him by undercutting Kesar's price. After giving up, he finally led us back to Kesar's home where his family members recognized us, having been warned that 3 cyclists were on their way from Keylong. We were asked into the family home, where we would attempt to figure out where Kesar and our ponies were. After much discussion we understood that Kesar was still in the high altitude pastures looking for his animals. We were his first clients of the season and the ponies had not yet been located. Without really having another option we spent the night with Kesar's family. We were generously hosted by his widowed mother, his older sister, his young wife his 1 year old son Tenzin (who when we first entered the home was tethered to a used car battery to prevent him from escaping). His wife had been in the pastures as well, but returned early to report on the still unsuccessful pony search. We spent the night socializing with the women of the house, who did their best to converse with us while preparing dinner and urging us to drink Chang (home made rice wine). They even called Kesar's brother, living in another city so that we could converse with someone in English. Little baby Tenzin seemed to get used to us, but would usually cry when his grandmother left the communal room where the family cooked and slept. The home was a hub of activity with neighbours and friends coming to visit including a local monk who came to lead evening prayers. We got a small glimpse of summer life of Darcha villagers. Women work the fields, take care of the house and children and men make money from the tourism industry. We understood that for most of the tourism season, local men would not be at home, accompanying tourists back and forth from Zanskar and Ladakh. Kesar did not return with the horses until the next morning. It had taken him over 24 hours to locate his two horses. He had slept in the pastures and found the horses early in the morning. As he only had two horses to provide he was accompanied by our second guide Tenzin who had also spent the night looking for his two horses. They both looked exhausted when they arrived for breakfast but did not object to heading out that same day. We left Darcha and Kesar's kind family cycling ahead to a campsite 9 km up the road. This would give the two men the chance to rest before following us with the horses and luggage. So our day was a leisurely one, with a short climb to Palamo, home of a desolate campsite and a tea tent that was not yet opened for the summer trekking season.