8/15/2009 to 8/17/2009 | India , Ladakh

Shergol to Sanko trekking the roads less traveled to the Suru Valley

There is something satisfying about hopping off a bus full of tourists at a small little known village and walking off into the mountains on your own.  In this case the bus was bound for Kargil nearly half of those on board were foreigners headed to see the Dalai Lama give teachings in Zanskar.  But I had a different agenda, I had heard that the Suru Valley east of Kargil along the road to Zanskar was a beautiful and little explored place.  I could not find anyone in Leh who had done much trekking in the area, even among my travel agent and trekking guide friends. Nor was there much information about the region available on the internet.  The lack of information intrigued me, the only thing I could gather was the people said they had heard the area was beautiful.  I mapped out a route into the valley via tiny village of Shergol on the Leh Kargil road.  It was at this little dot on the map that I exited the Kargil bound bus and took the road less traveled into the mountains.

Shergol’s major claim to fame is its gompa set in to the rock face above town.  A brief stop on many jeep tours bound for Zanskar.  From the gompa I headed up a dirt road through a couple of small villages to the village of Fukor (yeah, it sounds a bit like the obscenity, but a bit more oo than u, pronounced Foo-kor).   Very few tourists make it to this area so I was a bit of a curiosity.  Fukor was the last village before the Sapi La, the first of the two passes I would encounter along this route, making it a reasonable stopping point for the first day of hiking.  The villages in this part of Ladakh are about half Buddhist and half Shiite Muslims.  The people were friendly enough but I was finding it difficult to find a place to stay.  I had a tent but I preferred to stay in a house.  I was trying to hint to people I was looking for a place to sleep but didn’t have much success.  Between the language barrier (very little English was spoken), and the very few tourist who visit, people didn’t seem to get what I was after.  I would exchange pleasantries then ask if it was possible to sleep in this village, placing my hand on my pressed palms in the “international sleep pose” to which I would get a reply, yes, and that was the end of the conversation.  I eventually met a Nepali laborer who spoke English and he took me with him to the very basic barn-like room he was letting with another Neplai.  He talked to his landlord, a Buddhist man and ex-army officer, so he spoke some English as well which was certainly a bonus.  I was invited to stay in the nice guest room in his fairly large Ladakhi house, a huge step up in both size and furnishings from where my new Nepali friend was staying, and he supplied me with a nice meal of rice and vegetables and of course tea.

Leaving the next day I offered my host 200 rupees for the lodging and food but he only accepted 100 of that giving it to the woman who had prepared the food.  From the village it was a 2 hour climb to the top of the Sapi La.  At the top of the pass I met a young boy who was staying in a rock shelter, I’m not sure why he was staying there, and to ask was way beyond my few words of Ladakhi.  He invited me in his humble home for salt tea.  I shared some biscuits and cheese with him over the tea. Unfortunately the clouded skies tempered the views from the pass and I started down.  I had not gone more than an hour down, when a group of friendly Assamese labors working on the road invited me into their tent for a second breakfast.  They served me fresh rotis (Indian flat bread) with a very tasty subjee (mixed vegetables).  I left the newly constructed road heading across the valley towards the second pass I would cross, known as the Rusi La (no road over this one).  I accepted another tea offer from a man in the last village before the Rusi La.   He told me that last foreigner he had seen in his village passed through in 2005 (so I’m a bit off the beaten path here).  I headed towards the pass, armed with my map and the rough directions my previous tea host had given me, intending to camp at the top of the pass or near it.  The path was a bit confusing due to the many herders’ trails the broke off from the main trail.  I ended up taking far from the easiest path to the Rusi La.  Fortunately the pass itself was fairly obvious, but path I had taken left me at the foot of the pass requiring a steep climb up loose scree (small rock and sand) with no trail to reach the top.  Steep scree is always difficult resulting in a half step sliding back down for every step up.  Carrying my pack with provisions, tent, sleeping bag and camera gear made it an especially tough climb, and I was pretty exhausted by the time I reached the top.  My efforts were rewarded with a spectacular view from the top.  I pitched my tent in a very exposed but at least somewhat flat position on the nearly 5000 m snow speckled ridge and enjoyed the sun set.  Again clouds dampened the view a little bit, but it was still a great view with jagged snow capped peaks to the east and west along the ridge, a line of snow capped mountains to the south and to the north endless view of jagged ridges and valleys.  It was very cold once the sun went down on the exposed ridge.  The wind whipped at my tent late into the night, sometimes causing me to wake and wonder if it was going to hold up to the force of this atmospheric onslaught.

After enjoying the sunrise which was nice but again a bit cloudier than I would have preferred, I descended from the pass.  I met some herders about an hour into my decent who offered me pleasant breakfast of tea and yogurt.  As I sipped my tea and ate my yogurt with the herders, people kept stopping by to peer in through the crude door of the rock shelter at the strange looking foreigner.  I’m not sure where they came from; there were only a few rock shelters and 3 people outside when I arrived.  Once word got out they seemed to materialize from the rocks to gaze at the rare show that was me.  While the villages before the Rusi La were a mix of Buddhist and Muslims the ones after the pass were exclusively Shiite Muslim, when I reached the first village after the pass I was again invited in for tea and Ladakhi bread, a visit which took up nearly another hour.  I realized I was going to have to stop having tea or I was never going to make it to my objective of Sanko on the main Kargil-Zanskar road and I politely turned down several tea offers after that.  Fortunately for the villagers, and unfortunately for trekkers like me, the village had recently been joined by a dirt road to the main road.  Also unfortunately for me, the road had no traffic on it so I ended up having to walk most of the way to Sanko along the road before getting a lift the last 5 km.

Sanko is on the Suru River and the main, only, road into Zanskar.  The dusty market town that stretches along either side of the road is not a very appealing place.  I was happy when I managed to get a jeep the same day the 28 km up to Panikhar.  Panikhar is the largest village, amidst the cluster of villages that line a large U-shaped bend in the Suru River beneath the 7000 m peaks of Nun and Kun, the next region I planned to explore.

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