Emptiness can be beautiful, and intensely terrifying. To get a an idea of just what I mean, go to the Changthang plateau in Ladakh, climb up one of the many 5,000m passes that dot the landscape, look, and hear the blood pounding in your head. But even in the dun emptiness, there are sounds—the whistling cries of a marmot, the distant neighing of wild horses, and the wind, the ever-present wind that burrows through your clothes right into your soul, wailing like a thousand dakinis.
The walk across the Changthang plateau is a profoundly eerie and wonderful trek to the vast inland lake of Tso Moriri. Marking the important pashmina trade route from Leh to southeast Ladakh and then to the Tibetan plateau further east and to Spiti to the south over the Parang La, the trail lies across a marvellous desolation, the like of which I’d never seen before. We walked with and without our mule trains across seven passes over 4,800m high, across the vast lands where Changpa nomads live with their pashmina goats and yaks, kept company by the small, silvery antelope Kiang, marmots, wolves and horses. We crossed the giant bowl of the salt lake of Tso Kar, past piles of salt washed up by the blue-black waves, while behind us rose a barrier of scree and rock peaks 6,000m high, dividing us from the vast Morey Plains—over which passes the Manali-Leh highway—maybe the vast dusty bed of a giant lake itself.
Strong, fresh, cold ice-melt streams punctuated our walk over extensive high and wide valleys of grazing grounds. These reminded more of Arctic Tundra landscapes than anything else. In other valleys we saw packs of wild horses running in braided patterns, their manes flying, hooves kicking up the water in the stream. Above in the passes, beautiful large grey wolves lurked, disappearing in a flash quite astounding for such large animals. Almost for the entire stretch the clicks and whistles of the marmot dogged our steps, while their furry fat heads played peekaboo from their burrows. After over a week of hallucinatory walk over surreal landscapes of menace and beauty, we finally reached a pass higher than all the rest, perched high up on the the Mentok range, and looked down for our first, breathtaking view of the storied Tso Moriri. Covering a distance of some 100km, this is probably the most quintessential trek in all of Ladakh. The trek takes in no less than seven passes over 4,800m high, thus living up to Ladakh’s name—the land of passes.
This was my first visit to the trans-Himalaya, and I found that just like the landscape, all the other rules of trekking change in the rain-shadow of the Great Himalayan Range. Whereas south of the Himalaya, the trails wind up from semi-tropical regions to the tree-line and then to high alpine areas, the Changthang seems to hang in the air. It seems not quite of the earth—the skies are panoramic and big, the clouds low and stretched out. There are hardly any steep, craggy cliffs here, just unending slopes of gravel and coarse scrub, loose scree and marshes that look like rolling meadows. The general desolation and the extreme altitude here places immense strains on the human body, so trekking here can only be done with full bundobast, which means pack mules, muleteers and a guide with at least one helper.
We started our walk from Rumtse, on the Leh-Manali highway, before veering off up the Kyamar Chu valley, over marshes dotted with orderly groups of Changpa flocks. The first of the passes, Kyamar La, marks the divide between central Ladakh and the Changthang. Look west and the peaks of the Zanskar range like Kang Yatse stand out. Further east, the rolling ranges that punctuate the high plateau come into focus. These run more-or-less parallel to each other, separated by either large lake beds like that of the Tso Kar, or intensely fast-flowing streams. On some days, we crossed not just one pass, but two, which meant ascending some 2,000 feet, and then descending another 1,500 feet, only to repeat this again. Panting for breath in that wide wilderness, unable to realistically gauge distances in the shimmering air, the landscape seemed ripe with intent, brooding and alien. Was that flock of Kiang five km away or ten? Was that skyline the true pass? Was that an enormous shaggy dog or a wolf? Was that stiff-limbed figure lurching towards me a Ro-Langs, a zombie?
The day would wax sunny—and by sunny I mean sunlight that flays the skin off—and come afternoon, that high, shrill wind would start again, scoring our faces with a million tiny pinpricks of dust. In that phantasmogoric landscape, it was difficult to tell fact from fantasy. The whistles of our constant companions, the marmots, sometimes took on a distinctly sinister, unearthly pitch. As we walked, the moon waxed every night until at the Changpa camp of Rajungkharu, it rose above a far mountain like a gigantic searchlight, turning the black night into an eerie bone-white landscape.
Then there were the Changpa people. The entirety of the Changthang are dominated by them and their flocks. At major Changpa camps like Pongunagu and Nuruchen on the Tso Kar, Rajungkharu and Gyamalhoma, were raised their ubiquitous black and white tents. Their traditionally the black yak-hair tents are slowly giving way to the newer white ones made of a sort-of parachute material, there were signs of growing prosperity on the back of their pashmina trade. The most startling of these were their SUVs. I felt it was a trick of the mind when, wile approaching Rajungkharu, I saw far off, the beetling shape of an SUV crawling over what seemed like a perpendicular slope. I learnt later that it was jeep service to ferry people to Leh to attend the visiting Dalai Lama. At these camps, eery morning would begin with the bleating of sheep and goat as the flocks were herded and milked, before setting off for the day’s grazing. On Horlam La, a Changpa on a horse appeared suddenly, riding towards us full tilt. It was quite a charge. At the last moment he wheeled his mount around, shouted a “Juley!” and galloped off. Later that day, we saw another band of horsemen cross a small pass, again at full speed. I felt I’d wandered onto a set of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
The final day’s walk was probably the most euphoric one. Starting out from our highest camp yet at the 5,150m Gyamalhoma, we threaded our way through a deep rocky defile, with surreal overhangs and a chilly stream passing through. As the valley climbed higher the peaks of the ice-plateau of the Mentok range came into view. We walked up through the gravely hills and up to the Yarlung Nyau La, a whopping 5,450m high. And there, spread out some 3,000 feet below us, were the waters of the Tso Moriri, all 120sq km of it, a deep lilac carpet laid across a vast valley. Across it darted a multitude of low clouds, and across the lake rose the summits of Chamser and Lungser Kangri, the highest peaks in the Changthang. It felt like I’d walked into a Roerich painting. We raised a toast to the lake with some rum, and stumbled down the dusty slopes for the long walk into the void.