After a guided hike with a porter through the Markha valley and two organised jeep tours, I decided it was time to strike out on my own. The Sham valley sits above the Indus Valley to the west of Leh and is considered an easy trek. That may be so, but there are still several passes of over 3500m to negotiate which isn’t easy when you’re carrying a rucksack, but the biggest adventure was getting there.
Finding your right bus in India is never less than challenging. Especially so when the so called bus station is in reality a huge parking lot of every conceivable type of public transport, buses big and small, minibuses, vans and jeeps. There was, according to the tourist office in Leh, a bus to Likkir at 4pm, so I arrived at 3 to give myself plenty of time. Unfortunately, there is no booking office and nowhere to get information. A few buses seemed to be filling up, but none of them had a destination written at the front, at least not in English. In addition, it’s also impossible to distinguish between passengers and bus company employees and any potential driver.
Eventually, by asking around, I tracked down the small minibus I was looking for and hauled my rucksack inside, only to discover that all the seats were either already occupied or reserved by someone who’d left clothes and possessions in a vacant place. I finally spotted a place at the front and staked my claim. In fact, it involved perching on part of the gearbox with no backrest and would only be considered a “seat” in India.
But incredibly, I was one of the lucky ones. Others had to stand for the two and a half journey, while the really brave (crazy?) ones hung to the doorway, one foot balancing on the steps, most of their body hanging out the side. I arrived as dusk was falling and was concerned that most of the guesthouses were full with volunteers who’d arrived to help with the harvest. As darkness set in, I started to panic, but eventually found a nice homestay which was officially closed for repairs, but the kindly owner took pity on me and opened up especially.
The next morning I set out past Likkir Monastery to the village of Yangthang. There were two passes to cross with magnificent views, but the trail was occasionally hard to find when leaving a village, especially as there was no one around to ask directions since all the villagers were out in the fields preoccupied with the harvest.
It was a five hour walk to Yangthang and it was a relief to sit in the kitchen, warmed by a wood-burning stove and tuck into some hearty Ladakhi food, usually rice, daal and vegetables. All the homestays along the route offer great value. They are generally quite basic, but clean, and for just less than £10 you get a bed, dinner, breakfast and a packed lunch.
The following day I headed over another pass to the village of Hemis Sukpachen, a surprisingly large village. The atmospheric centre consists of narrow lanes built on hills and steps beneath the gompa (monastery) and a recently erected Buddha statue. Coming round yet another chorten you’re likely to run into a startled cow rather than any other traffic.
The final day involved ascending a steep slightly scary pass to the village of Temisgang. Ponies and horses have no problem, but for anyone with a fear of heights it was pretty nerve-wracking. However, the views from the top were astounding.
From Temisgang I managed to get a ride in a truck to Lamayuru, where there is a beautiful old monastery perched up high on a hill overlooking the village. The main temple creaks with old age and atmosphere and is stuffed with wall hangings and vividly painted murals. In the early evening I encountered a group of novice monks being drilled in their mantra recitals. It was another perfect end to a great trek.