- The Washington Times - Friday, April 8, 2005

LADAKH, India — Five friends started an 18-day trek across 12 mountains in the Himalayas in northern India.

One was forced to quit because of altitude sickness in the first week. Another gave up days later and left without telling anyone, sparking a 24-hour search. The three of us who made it got lost and were tracked by our footprints.

“This has to have been the hardest physical day of my life. I was near to tears with exhaustion, fear and stress,” I scribbled in my diary after a 13-hour hike, much of it in the grip of altitude sickness, which upended my sense of balance, sapped my energy and confidence, and left me stumbling with a pounding headache and tingling hands along cliff-face paths that seemed to sway underfoot.

It wasn’t all pain, however. My altitude woes quickly disappeared as I acclimated, and we dragged so many luxuries into the Himalayan mountains that we usually were too busy being pampered to worry about discomforts.

Ten mules carried our mountains of gear: tents for sleeping, dining, cooking and even washing; tables and chairs; bottles of whiskey; trunks of tinned and fresh food — even a silver tray to serve it.

A staff of eight waited on us round the clock. “More tea, please.” … “May I get some hot water for washing?” we would call out, and within minutes, our fancy would be fulfilled.

Our hiking party with its long caravan of mules and staff looked more like a major expedition to discover new lands than a boys’ adventure. In India, traveling in style is relatively affordable and, of course, fun.

The five of us — in our late 20s and 30s — were all friends living in Bangkok: a Sri Lankan, two Britons, an Indian and myself, a New Zealander.

We wanted the hike to challenge us physically but also hoped the silence and grandeur of the mountains would knead our frazzled and cluttered minds into a more meditative state.

We chose to hike in Ladakh, part of India’s section of the Himalayas. The region is part of Kashmir, which has been racked by rebellion for 16 years, but it’s far from the fighting and has become increasingly popular with foreign tourists, attracted by the multihued mountains with their surroundings like moonscapes.

A typical day on the hike would start with the cook’s assistant, 35-year-old Sonam Norgies — who trekked in canvas sneakers with holes in the toes — gently slapping our tents to wake us and give us warm water for washing and tea.

Bleary-eyed, we would stumble down to the dining tent to find the table laden with porridge, muesli, eggs, baked beans, freshly baked bread and coffee.

Then, while the staff cleaned, packed up and loaded the mules, our 25-year-old guide, Stanzin Mutup, who was always on the lookout for wandering yak shepherdesses to talk to, would point us in the right direction, and we would start walking, a small pack on each of our backs with water, a lunchbox, camera and jacket.

The paths usually were easy to follow, although on occasion we did find ourselves scrambling along animal trails on mountainsides or crisscrossing rivers as we sought to descend a valley. The mountaintop passes were well-marked with Buddhist shrines and strings of flags, which, according to local beliefs, emit prayers for those who placed them there each time they flutter in the wind.

Normally we would stop walking by about 4 p.m., and the camp already would be set up, with tea brewing and Indian pakoras or some other snack splattering away in an oil-filled pan. As the sun set, we would move into the dining tent to play cards and sip whiskey until dinner was served.

Most of our food was traditional Indian vegetarian. Midway through the hike, though, we bought a goat from a village, and the meat was a welcome addition to our diets.

One evening, our cook, Tashi Murup, 36, an Indian army chef on leave from a military golf course where he fed generals, roasted one of the goat’s legs, marinating the meat in a paste of whiskey, masala spices, garlic and ginger, all mixed with fresh yogurt we had bought from some yak shepherds. He served it with tomato-ginger soup, stuffed peppers, and potato cutlets. To end the feast, we had a milk-and-dough-based Indian sweet called gulab jamun.

Despite all the luxuries and our battalion of aides, the trek still felt like an edgy adventure — although this may have been partly because of all our mishaps.

One morning, we walked ahead of our guide and mistakenly hiked up the wrong valley. We realized we were lost when the track petered out, but we figured we were still heading toward our planned campsite.

By late afternoon, just as we started wondering how cold the Himalayan night would be without sleeping bags and tents, we noticed our camp helper standing by our side, a smile on his face.

“I tracked you by following your footprints,” Namgail Dorjay said. “I saw where you’d had lunch by the dropped eggshells.”

As darkness fell at the end of one long day, three of the exhausted mules tripped on a narrow track and plummeted down a cliff. Amazingly, they survived, bruised and bloodied but with no broken bones. The piles of bags and other equipment tied to their backs had saved them, providing padding as they slid backward, slamming into rocks.

It took until the next morning for the mules to be pulled up the cliff with the help of monks from a nearby monastery.

By the end of the hike, we were glad to return to civilization. Eighteen days is a long time to spend “roughing it” in mountains in the constant company of the same people. I had begun to crave fast food and hot showers, and my thighs were red raw from chafing.

The three of us who completed the trek returned home pleased with our accomplishment. I was much calmer than when I had left. The incessant noise of Bangkok’s traffic and other stresses of city living didn’t bother me for weeks. Eventually, when they did, I just took my mind back to Himalayas, to the silence, the crisp clean air and the incredible sense of freedom that comes from standing atop a mountain and looking over countless snow-topped peaks to the far horizon.

• • •

Traveling with 10 mules and a staff of eight is a wonderful way to explore Ladakh, but some people do it with less. A few do it unaided, carrying their equipment and navigating themselves (although it is difficult to get accurate, detailed maps). The area also can be explored on horseback or on mountain bikes.

Our 18-day hike from Henasku in northern Ladakh to Serchu cost $1,500 per person, which included all food and equipment as well as an additional five nights in top hotels in Leh and New Delhi, and airport-hotel transfers. A New Delhi-Leh round-trip ticket costs $250. We organized it all through Snow Leopard Trails, telephone 91-11-2613-3165 or www.snowleopardtrails.com.

Ladakh’s hiking season is July through September.

Trekkers should come well-equipped with proper boots, warm clothing and a well-stocked medical kit.

A handy guidebook is “Lonely Planet India”; the 10th edition was published in 2003.

Visit www.jktourism.org/ cities/ladakh/festivals/cal.htm, www.ladakh-tourism.com/ contact.html or www.tourisminindia.com.

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