There was a sticky area on the white dusted top, a treacherous crust and the sides crumbled easily. But enough of the chocolate cake. High altitude trekking in Ladakh shouldn’t just be about food, but somehow the rarefied air heightens one’s appetite and as ever food eaten after exertion, especially alpine food is particularly rewarding.
The Air India rations from Delhi to Leh are probably the least appetizing moment of the whole expedition – ‘ chicken or fish?’ except there was none of either, not that it matters: the Himalayan view from port and starboard is enough to jade any palate – an intoxicating flight that leaves you breathless, as indeed does the landing at 3,500 metres.
Leh is perfect for a spot of itinerant one-upmanship: it has not been run over by hordes of soap-diging hobos, nor has it been over-developed yet still has a vibrant bohemian feel, mainly thanks to its colourful people and buildings. Ladakhis,Kashmiris, Dards, Tibetans and other ethnic groups ply their wares in the bazaars selling prayer wheels, singing bowls, silk carpets and inevitably pashminas. There is also delicious roadside cuisine particularly the fresh apricots that form an organic staple on any trek. Even the simple act of re-hydration is given a workover by the dzomsas – little organic eco cafes that sell pressure-boiled water at a fraction of the price of bottled and their a la carte libation : fresh apricot and sea buckthorn juice.
However, Ladakh is not all food and drink, it has more important overtones, namely being the last bastion of Tibetan Buddhism, hence its colloquial name ‘Little Tibet’. The religion is alive and healthy here not compromised and denigrated as in China. Huge hilltop monasteries tower imposingly over steep river valleys and everywhere the religion pervades through prayer flags and incense. Acclimatised yet ? Good, it’s time to let the feet do the talking.
Leh is hardly an urban metropolis but the nearby Markha Valley is almost untouched by modern trappings. Ladakh has a burgeoning stable of treks but the Markha one is a thoroughbred. Seven Years in Tibet may have been a pretty film with an equally pretty-boy star but these seven days provide far more formidable box office. It is also a very grown up trek with one pass just under 5000 metres and one just over. Why I love this area and why I have done it over twenty times is the variety: those high passes are softened by the tow paths adjacent to sparkling mountain streams with tiny villages and the constant call of birds as well as the flowers. Always there is the constant mantra of the ponies behind and the cheerful banter from the Nepali cooking crew. In the distance a Lammergeyer soars above the billowing barley fields. Special, yes it is rather. Of course after effort sustenance is required and yak butter tea is the perfect pick me up. It may not appear on meticulously manicured menus of Masterchef but this acquired taste (more soup than tea) is actually home barley brew, its closest relation is probably scrumpy. Does it improve my eyesight, not really as this is the territory of the snow leopard and they are not giving up their secrets, but I can see blue sheep: not blue and actually goats but the principle prey for the elusive apex predator, an animal that has haunted me for years. Further down the food chain there are marmots, pikkas, hares – we saw them all that week. The preservation orders here have certainly protected its wildlife.
The Women’s Alliance is strong here and they have joined forces with the Youth Association for the Conservation and Development of the Markha Valley. They keep the precious and persecuted Buddhist traditions intact whilst encouraging tourism. Women run tea tents along the trail made from used parachutes. Hats, scarves and gloves (this group liked the knitted leopard ones best) are also purchased along the trails. Exodus works with these trojans to ban plastics in the National Park. In two months a mind mending 35,000 bottles are left behind in the park, this is being addressed as the combined half life of this amount of plastic is frightening. UV filters will provide clean water to be sold to trekkers instead of bottled water – we have donated one of these filters to one village but we need many more.
Six days on the trails, then 5200 metres of the Gonfmaru Pass opposite the glaciers of Kang Yangtse. Fresh yoghurt is the special dish today with a high energy content to get us over the pass and to even higher pastures the next day. Breath rattles in the chest like the prayer flags fluttering from the highest cairn. These views are off the scale and stay in the mind all the way down to the green fields of Sumda for a celebratory dinner. This table d’hote menu was finished by a piece of that chocolate cake, actually two. One girl remarked that ‘it was the best she’d ever tasted’. You know what, she was right.