Day 7 (15th July): Leh - Nimmu - Chilling - Nimmu - Sham Valley - Part 1 of 2
Day 7 was our day of ‘detours’, the day when we planned to explore all kinds of ‘motorable treks’, if that makes any sense. By detours we mean mostly exploring and going to ‘ends-of-roads’. All the detours were planned off the Leh - Srinagar highway. It was going to be a long day, but after two days of complete rest, we were upbeat and looking forward to some off-roading.
We left our hotel at 6:15 am the next morning. In half an hour, after a quick stop at the gas station, we had reached the straight road after the Leh airport . The morning light made the landscape look heavenly, and hence our progress was slow. All flights landing in and flying out of Leh are scheduled for early in the morning because that is when the weather is most stable. We saw several flights landing, and enjoyed the sight of a lonely plane flying against the barren and majestic mountains.
We did not stop at the Magnetic Hill to experiment this time, having already decided last year that it was an optical illusion. Soon, we reached Nimmu, and after photographing the confluence of the Zanskar and Indus rivers, we continued towards our first planned detour of the day - to Chilling and the end of road beyond it.
The road to Chilling runs along the Zanskar river, in a very narrow and dark valley. It is actually more like a gorge than a valley, with cliffs jutting into the river. The mountains seem to be made of hard rock and give a very rugged appearance. The rock, they say, is also quite difficult to cut through, and no wonder a land-trek route does not exist on this stretch, and people have to walk on the frozen Zanskar river (the famous Chadar trek) in the winters to reach Leh from Padum. The mountains also get a purplish tinge here, and remind somewhat of the valley after Tanglang La. The ferocious Zanskar rives enthralls throughout, and one can just stare at the river for hours admiring its beauty. That is one river with a personality of its own!
Chilling is 28 kms from the cut from the highway, the village not really on the road but a bit higher. There are some home-stays available at the village and some dhabas as well. However, when we reached Chilling, it was still too early for the dhabas to have opened. Beyond Chilling, we crossed a few groups of foreign trekkers on the way, probably doing the Markha Valley trek. The poor souls were trekking on what is now a motor-able road, it must sure not be fun anymore!
We continued on the now not-so-good road, crossed a BRO camp, and finally after 10 kms or so reached a point where the road was blocked due to construction work. We could not go further, and on talking to the BRO officer overseeing the work, we got to know that the road had only been blasted another 2 kms from that point.
On the way back, we saw the trail marking the beginning of the well known Markha valley trek on the other side of the river. The most surprising part was that the track seemed to be used by four wheelers, although there was no bridge over the Zanskar for four wheelers to cross! If someone could solve this mystery for me, I would be highly obliged, Avinash Sidhu probably? The trekkers, whom we had crossed earlier, were using a traditional pulley arrangement to cross the river one at a time. It looked pretty scary!
Then we got down to some calculations - the distance from Nimmu to Padum is 150 kms, out of which approximately 45 kms of road was ready from Nimmu. 45 kms in 7 years, that’s about 7 kms a year! It really must be a hard task for the BRO guys. We did not know what was the status of the road from the Padum side, and had to wait for the Zanskar leg of our trip to find out. For the time being, it was 105 kms to go.
We then drove back all the way to Chilling, the weather being very cloudy and adding to the darkness of the already dark Zanskar valley. After a tasty breakfast of pancakes at some dhabas on the main highway at Nimmu, we moved on, our next detour being the Sham valley.
We drove by the famous Basgo Palace/ Monastery, and contemplated visiting it. But we were a bit short on time, and decided to give it a miss. Immediately after the Palace, the road starts ascending, and some good shots of the Palace can be taken from the switchbacks. At the end of ascent, the lovely Basgo plains welcomed us, and we reveled for a bit at the sight of the long, straight road in front of us.
We had to look up the Leomann map to figure out the cut for the Sham valley. The road was tarred but narrow. Three chortens, blue, white and yellow, welcomed us to the valley. We came to a point on the road from where one track went into Sham valley, and the other towards Likir. We took the latter first since we wanted to see the Likir Monastery and the giant Buddha, albeit only from a distance. The road climbs considerably as one goes towards Likir, and soon the Monastery, with the huge golden Buddha next to it, comes into view. A few locals were taking a lift in our car, so we went all the way up till the parking of the Monastery and then came back.
Subsequently, we took the cut into Sham valley where the road winds in a broad, very barren and totally brown landscape. Green patches can be seen every 7 or 8 kms, which are usually small villages or hamlets of a couple of households. The mountains have a slight pinkish-purplish tinge, which gives the whole place a surreal effect, and it sometimes feels like you’re driving through a painting.
We also spotted trekkers every few kilometers, and were not surprised as we knew that the Sham valley trek is very popular, specially because it is relatively easy, is close to Leh, and does not require permits of any kind. Every village we crossed had umpteen camping spots to cater to the abundant trekkers in the valley.
The first pass we crossed in the Sham valley was Pobe La, which, at 3600 m, was a gentle climb. The track was pretty much tarred all the way to the top. The descent to the village of Sumdo begins immediately after the pass. I wonder why so many villages in Ladakh are called Sumdo. They do have creativity issues on that front for sure!
After Sumdo, we begin climbing the next pass on the route, Charatse La at 4000 m. The ascent is pretty steep with a few difficult switchbacks, but thankfully the track is tarred all the way. Charatse La was completely barren! No green could be seen anywhere, except in the valley below, where we could spot a lush green village, Yangthang, nicely located in the middle of a bowl-type valley. As a friend says, it would make the perfect setting for the world’s most picturesque golf course. Sadly, the people of Yangthang somehow prioritize farming over golfing, don’t know why?!
Our progress was slow after Charatse La, as the track lost it's tar and was replaced with a sandy descending jeepable track. Immediately after descending to Yangthang, the climb to the next pass began. The climb to Settmanchan La at 3850 m was even more difficult than the last one, with the track getting very sandy at places. Still, we did not feel the need to engage 4WD yet.
As I was taking one turn, the unthinkable happened. Kiyang lost power and stalled! It sputtered wildly, with thick black smoke billowing out of the exhaust. It shivered as one shivers upon taking a plunge in a swimming pool on a cold October evening, and stopped dead in its tracks! My heart sank. I had been extra careful with the maintenance schedule of the vehicle, and it was equipped with a recent oil change, clean filters, and even a chemical cleaning of the catalytic converter had been done before the trip. This sputtering was something new to me, it had never happened before. Kiyang had easily crossed difficult passes such as Charchagan La and Marsimik La last year, and had never experienced any issues. So there had to be something very wrong with it to have bowed to Settmanchan La which is only at 3850 m!
However, before I could fret further, Kiyang immediately regained its composure and everything went back to normal as if nothing had ever happened. The remaining climb to Settmanchan La was uneventful, but that feeling of unease that something was wrong with the car stayed with us.
The view of the next village, Hemis Shukpachan, from the pass was absolutely amazing. In contrast to the light sandy brown of the mountains, the huge, lush green patch in the middle of the valley below seemed as if a a drop of green paint had accidentally dropped from God’s brush in his otherwise brown painting.
As we approached the village, it became apparent that Hemis Shukpachan was definitely the biggest of all villages we’d seen in the Sham valley yet. Chancing upon a villager, we asked if there was a road linking the village directly to the highway. We were jubilant when he said yes, because we were in no mood to go all the way back to almost Nimmu to join the highway.
A few words about Hemis Shukpachan. There was something about this quaint village that was really attractive which I’m unable to express. For those looking for a good homestay near Leh, it provides an ideal setting. Traditional Ladakhi houses, small nallahs everywhere, pretty flowers, and cute kids can be found in all villages in this region, and Hemis Shukpachan was no different. However, it had that extra something that I’m unable to put my finger on. The road that leads to the highway goes through the village, and is an absolute treat to drive on, lined with trees on both sides, and running along a river. We did not have time to explore the village that day, but decided that someday we would like to spend a day here. For now, we had one more ‘detour’ planned for the day - a drive to the lost village of Hinjoo, on the Lamayuru - Padum trek...