It comes naturally to us now – circling the stone cairn in a clockwise direction, adding our own carefully chosen flat white stones and silently intoning solo-solo three times. We are falling in with the punctuation of the trail, the thousands of feet and hands that have done the same before us. This is a daunting, barren land. There are mountain peaks jagged as cardiograms, their angular shoulders shedding landslides of scree; wind-blasted plateaus; dizzying ravines; cloud shadows morphing across the mountainsides.
But it is not an inhuman wilderness. Everywhere, the landscape of Ladakh – “land of mountain passes” – is animated by marks of love and prayer. Every outlandish crag, every bend in the trail, every twisted juniper clinging on for dear life, every summit of every incline, every entrance to every valley receives affection: a garland of prayer flags, a cairn, a gigantic prayer wheel, a dedicatory chorten (a hemispherical structure containing relics), or a mani, a wall of stones engraved with mantras. These are messages for the gods whose home this is. Each person who passes adds a touch, in prayer at least, so that the whole landscape feels charged with goodwill. The iron bridge over the Indus river at the start of our trek, outside the village of Spituk, is festooned with so many prayer flags that crossing it is like walking through a blizzard. The wind here is so strong, our guide Angchuk says, that it can carry the prayers all the way down the river to Hyderabad and the Arabian Sea, 1,000 miles away.
Our progress along the mountain path is slow, measured with leaden steps and scything breath. This is one of the shortest but most dramatic treks out of the Indus Valley, a three-day hike into Hemis National Park, a sanctuary for snow leopard, blue sheep and golden eagles. Our team – a Ladakhi stockman, a cook and his assistant from Nepal, and four sturdy little packhorses – leads the way with tents and provisions. Ahead of us lies the challenge of Stok La pass at 4,900 metres (16,000 feet), and its reward: panoramic views of the Stok mountain range.
It took us three full days to acclimatise to the altitude, with Angchuk watchfully chaperoning us until he was confident we were fit enough to trek. This enforced rest was a refreshing start to our trip. The only prescription was to steer clear of alcohol and to drink three litres of water a day. Trouble in neighbouring Kashmir means these days few tourists take the scenic route from Srinagar to Leh, Ladakh’s remote capital, a 22-hour bus ride along 500 miles of vertiginous curves and switchbacks. The road is an engineering triumph – one of the highest in the world, and one of the most terrifying – but at least it gives you time to adjust to the thinning air. The short cut we took – an hour’s flight from Delhi directly into Leh – catapulted us to 11,500ft, which was a challenge to four bodies used to living at sea level where there is 7% more available oxygen.
Lying in hammocks under apricot trees in the garden of Nimmu House, a traditional three-storey residence built in the 1920s by the cousin of the then king, now a boutique French-run hotel, was the perfect way to draw breath. Any temptation to rush out and explore the lovely rural village in which it sits was tempered by the faint throb of a high-altitude headache. Our enforced passivity was, in effect, an introduction to the contemplative nature of Ladakh, the slowing-down our first lesson in the Buddhist way of living in the moment and surrendering the ego. With nothing to do but read and doze, the mind attunes to minutiae: the breeze rustling through the poplars, drifting willow fluff, a dzo (a hybrid of a yak and a cow) calf bellowing in Nimmu’s open-air stable. We heard the tink-tink of someone cutting stone for a house nearby and watched a turtledove landing to scratch for seeds, its ruddy, purplish breast the colour of the mountains, the stripes on its neck like the shadows sharpening on the distant crags.
In the afternoon the garden was running with water. Rivulets trickled along rills lined with horsemint, flowed under our hammocks into the flowerbeds and pooled around the trees. Water is the miracle that breathes life into the valley oases in this high-altitude desert; diversions from snowmelt streams feed orchards, vegetable plots, wheat, barley and mustard fields. At prescribed times of day the tiny dams – often no more than a bunch of old clothes – are released, directing an equitable flow into every part of the village.
By the second day Angchuk judged us fit for a short foray. Villagers greeted us with a joyful “Joolay, joolay!” – the sing-song catch-all for “hello”, “goodbye”, “thank you” and “you’re welcome”. He taught us the correct gesture to accompany it: shoulders slightly shrugged to denote respect, hands together but not flat, as in the rest of India, the thumbs tucked inside, creating a hollow like the sacred space inside a stupa. We passed through an archway painted with the symbols of Avalokiteśvara, bodhisattva (holy teacher) of compassion. The three colours – yellow for wisdom, white for compassion, blue for power – spin peace and harmony over the village. On the flat roofs of the lime-washed houses, pitted apricots lay drying in the sun, their kernels, piled into little pyramids, waiting to be ground into oil for offerings. Each house had its own Buddhist shrine and its own deities to protect it, creating a web of connection with the spirit-world.
It was a surprise, then, to hear, every now and then, a distant volley of gunshots. The Indian army stations 30,000 troops in Ladakh, to protect the nation’s sensitive borders with Pakistan and China. Cantonments sprawl in the dusty plains along Leh highway, their mottoes – “Who Dares Wins”, “Never Say Die” – emblazoned on painted stones, are a bizarre parody of Buddhist sentiment. Their presence is changing this fragile, sparsely populated land. They flood the region with imported goods and values. Young Ladakhis leave their villages to join up. The remotest terraced fields lie fallow, now, with only the oldest inhabitants left to tend them.
Ladakh is no stranger to war. Over the centuries it has been embroiled in struggles between Tibet and China, subjected to Islamic raids and invasions from neighbouring Kashmir and Baltistan. Gleaming white gompas, Buddhist monasteries, are, in effect, glorified fortresses, perched like eagles’ nests on commanding pinnacles. On a gentle walk with Angchuk to Rizong monastery, the “Solitary Place for the Compassionate One”, the monks served us sweet mint tea in the shade of an army parachute, while the young novices played cricket. At Alchi, an exquisite group of temples 1,000 years old – one of the few low-lying Buddhist enclaves to survive the Islamic invasions of the 14th-16th centuries – we ran our hands along prayer-wheels made out of gunpowder tins.
As we advance along the trail to Stok La, it is easy to leave the troubling presence of the military behind. Our spirits rise with the elevation. What seemed barren wasteland from the valley floor is teeming with life at close range, the mountainsides carpeted with wild flowers and ringing with the “chuck-chuck” of partridges. Mouse hares scramble among Himalayan rhubarb, an outlandish plant locals use to cure rheumatism. Through binoculars we watch a bharal, a blue sheep, balanced on a rocky crag, defend its lamb from a golden eagle. Blue sheep are the favoured prey of snow leopards, though we are unlikely to spot one of these rare predators in summer. In the winter, it is easier to track them and this area, with a population of at least seven, draws leopard-spotters.
Tsering Angmo, from the Snow Leopard Conservancy India Trust, catches up with us in her home village of Rumbak at 3,700 metres, having trotted the miles we have just painstakingly trudged. We sit with her parents in their fields as they take a break from cutting hay, and share yak curd and flatbread with hand-picked wild caraway seeds. Tourism has transformed their remote village, she says. A decade ago, the future looked bleak with no jobs and many young people drifting away. Now, all nine households in Rumbak provide homestays for trekkers and some have also set up refreshment stands. A tenth of the income is paid into a conservation fund, which has enabled the villagers to restore their houses and whitewash the village stupa.
Education and workshops have changed attitudes, too. Snow leopards used to break into livestock corrals, killing 50-60 goats and sheep a night. Hard-pressed villagers were forced to shelve their non-aggressive beliefs and hunt them down. The Snow Leopard Trust has introduced leopard-proof corrals reinforced with steel and concrete – four have been built in Rumbak, alone – and the wildlife department pays for fencing to keep the blue sheep out of the fields. “Now the villagers say that wild sheep and goats are the ornaments of our mountains,” she says. “And the Dalai Lama instructs us to protect snow leopards. Wildlife is restoring our pride.”
It is a lung-searing three-hour climb from Rumbak to Stok La pass. Just before the summit we are surprised by a flock of 50 or 60 blue sheep, barely 40 metres away. Lambs leap from crag to crag, defying a drop to their deaths. Silhouetted on the skyline, a ram with mighty curving horns stands guard. The sheep eye our plodding progress over the last few hundred feet as, one by one, we stagger beneath skeins of prayer flags fluttering between the two cairns at the summit. Angchuk leads us in the jubilant cry of “Ki-ki-so-so-lhargyalo” – “the gods will triumph” – three times, punching the air with our right fists. It feels as if we have conquered Everest. Stretching beneath us are mountains capped with snow and, far beneath them, down slopes of harebells and woolly catmint, the rushing Indus carries our tributes on the winds.