Stok Kangri Expedition – Day 7 – Trek across the Shang La Pass (4,960m) to Mathophu (4,400m)

After yesterday’s pleasant stroll that eased us all into the swing of things today’s proposition was much more of a challenge. Some 800 metres of ascent had to be accomplished at altitude over the course of the day. We would be crossing many spurs and minor passes, with occasional spectacular views northwards towards the Indus Valley and the snowy peaks beyond.

Heading up to the Shang La PassThe highest pass of the day would be the famous Shang La at a staggering 4,960m. All thoughts centred on getting across this pass. Ladakh is known as ‘The Land of the High Passes’ and today we were going to find out exactly why!

The trail up to the pass was fairly nondescript but some pleasant early morning sunshine made for a pleasant enough walk. I passed countless Yak like beasts, well I assumed they were Yaks although a lack of horns had me questioning myself on the matter (can Yaks be hornless?).

Horned YakThe profile of the ground steepened and all thoughts of Yak breeds disappeared as the push for the pass began to concentrate all my thoughts. If I could not get over this pass then there would be little hope of me making it up Stok Kangri, a good 1,000 plus meters higher! I steeled myself to the task in hand.

The Expedition Team at Shang La Pass
The Expedition Team at Shang La Pass

We wove in ant like procession up the trail, I passed other hikers and other hikers passed me, all of us striving to reach the top. After a while I could hear the unmistakable sound of fluttering prayer flags in the wind. Prayer flags adorn the tops of most of the passes in Ladakh and it was at that moment I realised I had finally made it.

Shang La PassCollapsing in a heap next to my jettisoned rucksack I sat still and soaked up the expansive views afforded by the height. The mountains now stretched for miles into the distance Stok Kangri still looked a long way off.

After a few minutes of rest and relaxation we set off again descending towards the Tokpo River for lunch. The valley was wide and the river increasingly distanced itself from our trail. We stopped on a green plateaux for lunch and enjoyed the gentle breeze emanating up the valley.

On the trail to MathophuAnother team on the trail to MathophuThe afternoon was spent generally trekking downhill carefully watching my steps ensuring no twisted ankles or injuries occurred. We contoured around various dusty spurs until a final climb up to and over a 4,550m pass, then down to Mathophu at 4,400m.

The final pass of the dayThis was the site of Camp 3, a forlorn windswept grassy spit of land used for grazing horses and cattle and completely covered in dung. A solitary stone hut with dung walls surrounding it to protect it from the never ending winds was the only suggestion of any kind of civilisation.

Camp 3Camp 3I braved the elements to strip and bathe in the glacial waters of the nearby stream running close to the camp and settled in for yet another night under canvas. The landscape was getting more and more remote and the temperature was steadily dropping with each subsequent night, I could feel that we were edging nearer and nearer to our final goal and the anticipation buoyed my mood as I hit the sleeping bag for the night.

Check out more photos from my adventures at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jameshandlon/albums

Stok Kangri Expedition – Day 3 – Exploring Ancient Leh

To climb a 6000m peak you need to acclimatise and to do this you need to spend a substantial amount of time at high altitude so another acclimatisation day was required to firstly get used to already being at 3,524m above sea-level and secondly to prepare us for the much harder task ahead. Today it had been scheduled that we were going to take a walking tour around the ancient city of Leh in which we were staying to help with this ongoing process.

Leh is the main town in the North West Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir and sits at a high altitude along the Indus Valley. In years gone by it had been the old capital of the Himalayan Kingdom of Ladakh and we were here for the next three days. Continue reading “Stok Kangri Expedition – Day 3 – Exploring Ancient Leh”

Stok Kangri Expedition – Day 2 – Alchi Monastery

We drove for hours across a dusty and barren landscape which made up the Indus Valley. Our minibus was headed for Alchi Monastery a few hours up river and deeper into the Ladakh countryside. The Monastery consists of a small collection of monastic temples dating from between A.D.958 and 1055.

alchi monastery prayer wheelsAccording to local tradition the complex was founded by the revered guru Rinchen Zangpo famous for translating Sanskrit Buddhist texts into Tibetan. It is therefore both a very old and a very important monastery and we were headed there as part of our acclimatisation and cultural discovery programme in Ladakh.

According to ancient texts the tree outside the monastery is of a species not native to the land thereabouts and folklore dictates that it grew as a result of Rinchen Zangpo having an epiphany that he’d found the right spot to build a monastery and so he proceeded to plant his walking stick firmly and permanently in the ground to mark the spot from which the tree we see today grew.

A great story, highly improbable of course but I’d have bought into it in all probability had I been around in the early 11th century and it still pulls in the punters a thousand years later.

Maitreya-SculptureThe monastery today has three major shrines: the Dukhang (Assembly hall), the Sumtsek and the Temple of Manjushri, all dating from between the early 12th and early 13th centuries. Several small Chortens litter the complex that all appear to have seen much better days. 

Manjushri-SculptureDisappointingly the monastery itself was rather underwhelming. Although interesting it was very easily seen within an hour and all too soon thoughts turned to the rather uninteresting two hour dusty and bumpy drive back to Leh.

The resident monks seemed jaded by pilgrims and tourists and the whole visit was rather hasty. But the old carved deities to the Gods were undoubtedly impressive and once inside the dark confines of the sacred halls it was not hard to imagine that little had changed in a thousand years.

Manjushri-Sculpture

Interior Monastery shots used in this blog post are all sourced online and not my own due to cultural sensibilities and to preserve the interiors of the ancient buildings.

Check out more photos from my adventures at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jameshandlon/albums

Stok Kangri Expedition – Day 1 – Arrival in Ladakh

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Arrival in the Indus Valley with the town Leh as a backdrop

We flew into Leh on the first day of our adventure aboard a very early morning flight out of Delhi. The approach to Leh airport is what could be termed interesting. 360 degrees of surrounding mountain ranges (including Stok itself), a narrow valley and a dusty ex military airstrip to try to land on. It was a sick bags out and hold onto the seat of your pants kind of a landing!

After eventually clearing the never ending bureaucracy of the airport (which is in more or less lock-down mode due to volatile political tensions in the region) we finally emerged to grab lifts in a convoy of small taxi vans waiting outside which whisked us at speed through the labyrinth of dusty and bumpy roads to our local hotel.

After a nail biting cab ride that only third world countries can deliver we arrived at our hotel/hostel where we were cordially greeted with traditional prayer scarves by the genial hotel staff.

Following on from being fed and watered the rest of the day was spent just sleeping and gaining some much needed R&R. Later after awaking from barely enough sleep I had a quick walk into town.

Very dusty and muddy with potholes everywhere is the best way to describe the streets of Leh. The town is a strange fusion of Indian and Tibetan influenced cultures. Many Tibetan refugees have made the town their new home and Buddhist influence abounds through prayer flags, stupas and the Tibetan markets.

I ended up wandering around one of the many Tibetan Bazaars that litter the town and made a timely investment in some prayer flags, (always good to have as much spiritual support as can be mustered when attempting to climb a 6000m peak).

Nothing else of much note happened for the rest of the day as this was just one of what would come to be all too familiar acclimatisation days.

Day two of the trip though would hold the hope of some much needed physical exertion by means of a trip to the very old and famous Alchi Monastery some distance away up the Indus Valley. Catch the next post to read all about our trip to the monastery.

Check out photos from my adventures at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jameshandlon/albums