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.

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