Thursday, 23 February 2012

Luck, Stok and Bounty in Ladakh

Stok Palace

(Mother nature has showered its bounty rather liberally on Ladakh, the Trans-Himalayan region of India. More so, on a tiny hamlet called Stok located 14 km from Leh-the principal town of Ladakh. The place offers an astounding vista, full of Willow and Poplar trees and the tiny brooks flowing in grassy meadows. The 2 km drive to Stok Palace on a road lined with Poplar trees, with a back drop of layers of hills with varying hues, the clouds caressing some of them. Located at the extreme end of Hemis Wild Life Sanctuary, by taking a small uphill walk from Stok, offer, possibilities of watching wild life from close quarters. As luck would have it, we had all of these and more.) 

Our touch down at Leh airport on a bright sunny morning on 24th May, 2010, with awe inspiring 360 degree view of snow clad hills around, augured well for 11 days trip to Ladakh. Little did we realize that, the late excessive snow fall this year will keep us under suspense for all our jeep safaris and treks. The Manali -Leh road was still blocked with snow. The Nubra valley jeep safari had not started because of blocking of Khardung-la pass. The Pangong circuit was closing and opening sporadically because of too much snow at Chang-la pass. We somehow squeezed through 5 days of jeep hopping for three circuits. It was high time to free our limbs, to have a feel of fresh earth below our feet and let the whole canvass of nature unfold before us.
Stok -Kangri Peak
Our Zingchen–Stokla–Stok trek slated for 30th / 31st May appeared to be in jeopardy, because of the late snowfall, in upper reaches of the Ladakh mountain peaks. The Stok-la pass was presumed to be unworthy of trek because of heavy snow and the inclement weather. We were advised to take a trek from Stok village to Stok-Kangri base camp or near about. 

We were as usual, ready by 7 am, to be picked up by Sonam Dorji in his Innova car. Our destination was Stok village at a distance of 16 km from Leh. We arrived there around 8 am, the base for our 5 km trek to Changma. Sonam dropped us at a point which had a board indicating ‘Tourist Homestay Stok Trekking Point’. Since Sonam was to pick us up after the completion of to and fro trek to Changma, Sid who had a post paid Vodaphone number noted down Sonam’s cell phone number. The connectivity appeared to be ok at Stok. In Ladakh, it seems only post paid connection of BSNL, Vodaphone and Airtel worked wherever the network was available.
At Stok village
There was a single storied structure with a number of unoccupied spacious rooms. To say the Stok village is picturesque is an understatement. This village with a large number of Poplar trees, cluster of willow trees, the distant snow covered hills, the small brooks, had a perfect 'picture postcard' look. The serenity of the place was very much apparent. I decided to do some extensive photo shooting after we returned from our trek.
Stok landscape
For now, it was time to wet our parched throat for a cup of tea from a garage teashop-cum-eatery. Sipping tea and munching a few biscuits from our ration, guideless, clueless, we were just three wandering souls contemplating from where to begin our trek. We had a modest goal of trekking up to Stok-Kangri base camp. Stok-Kangri is a major mountain peak nearest to Leh and is attempted by adventurous trekkers in month of September. 
Teashop-cum-eatery at Stok trekking point
As Sonam departed for Leh, we found a guy arrive with two jerry cans and filled them with crystal clear water from the tiny streams flowing nearby. Responding to our enquiry on way to Changma, he just pointed at a distance and told us to keep the stream on the left side and to keep going alongside a boundary wall on right side. We had a bite to eat from our ration of some dry food-stuff and took to the trails. 
We threesome ready for trek
We had a gentle walk through the meadows, across a boundary wall, isolating a few two storied structures.  We come across Homestay guest house owned by D Tundup. A little ahead a small beautiful looking Buddhist prayer wheel was visible and sign board for Hotel Kangri, offering breakfast, lunch and dinner.  We switched over and had a lively but careful walk over stones, in between two boundary walls.  The narrow trail coming to an end, we stepped up on dried river bed kind of terrain containing stones, stones and more stones. We carried on till we stepped in between two hills, which was like entry door to 'nature's treasure house!’ 

Cruising between two hills, we were at a dilemma. On both sides of dried river bed, there were narrow trails running along the hills. Without a guide, we had to choose between the two. We just chose the left one which appeared to be easily accessible and carried on. The sun was playing hide and seek right   throughout our trek. It was chilly to say the least. In Ladakh, weather is very fickle and can change its complexion abruptly. The last thing we wanted was a rain at this stage. We were near a willow tree in wilderness for a short break; the weather suddenly became very cloudy and chilly. As if to make matter worse for us, the heavens opened up. No! Not the rains. Small milky white flakes, pouring from sky, made us jump and take notice. Is it snow or flurry?  Should we abandon our trek and return to safety of Stok village? Or, shall we continue trekking in snow? Is there a possibility of a snow blizzard? We had more questions than answers. In spite of churning going on in my mind, I did not let go this opportunity of photo shooting. My black camera bag was splattered with snow-flakes. Sid put on the ‘poncho’ borrowed from Sac. Sac was comfortable in wind cheater and water proof trousers. Sid and Sac made a lovely sight, with snow- flakes falling on them!
Amidst snow-flakes
Five minutes later the fickleness of weather of Ladakh once again became apparent. The clouds cleared, snowfall ceased and we resumed our trek with fresh vigor. Our ‘nature treasure bag’ seemed to be filling up. We just went as far as the trail went on the left hand side hill. There was an abrupt end to the trail and we were back to dry river bed walking over stones trying to take the trail on right hand side hill.

We were repenting of not having a guide in this off-seasonal time, where not a single soul was visible. When nobody is around to help you, God will! An old Ladakhi, with one of his glass in his spectacles broken, met us on the trail. He apparently knew where we were headed for and told us to take to take the right side trail and inquired whether we needed horses. We thanked him for providing us the direction to Camp Changma and resumed our trek. After nearly half an hour around noon time, we were at a level ground, with a huge boulder on which was painted the word ‘CAM’ with an arrow which means Camp; but, not a soul around, not a single tent, no horses. Disappointed, we just pushed on and started climbing higher through a narrow trail. Finally we arrived at Changma our destination. Words were painted on flat stony portion of hill, with some advertisement for food and beverages.
Changma tent resting place decorated with Bharal Skull
We veered round a bend and found two tents right in front. That was a big relief. We were dieing to have a cup of coffee in the chilly weather. The first tent had some benches and plastic chairs. There were two sets of Bharal horns with frontal skull adorning the tent props. We just dropped our back packs and made ourselves comfortable. We ordered for some coffee and I peered inside the second tent. Three persons were seated on blanket around a stove. We enquired whether any trekker has passed through this route. The answer was, ‘Do Angrez.’ A  Music player was playing some music. Sid, excited with our trek bounty, requested for a rhythmic music number and performed an impromptu dance in his own style and to our entertainment! 

Will Sid shake his legs again in course of the day, on onward trek? Finishing coffee, Sid and myself decided to have another kilometer of trek uphill, just to sight Stok Kangri peak; Sac decided to take a rest at the tent. A glacier down the hill looked splendid with Changma base tent at the back. 
View of Changma tent resting place and glacier
A little ahead a brown moving shape came to our notice. I looked through my Handycam with high zoom, but could not get it into focus. Sid got a few clicks, but not very sure whether the result will be good. We tip toed and moved closer and closer and came near a pack of Bharals (Himalayan blue sheep), grazing on the pasture! That really got us excited. We are watching wild life at Ladakh, all live, right in their den! We simply got clicking, the stills and the videos. 
Bharals at Changma
The animals appeared not to be perturbed, yet very alert. Significantly, whenever we made a move, they also made a small move; as if ready to dash off with hint of slightest danger.  After nearly 15 minutes of photo shoot, we left the innocent creatures to themselves and moved ahead and climbed some more height. We could not sight the Stok Kangri that afternoon and decided to return to tent for return trek. As we were descending, ‘what is happening?’I exclaimed. The Bharal group after grazing in pasture was in a relaxing mood and all were seated in front in a single row with a gap of three feet between them.  They were, as if, beckoning us to take their photos as wild life models! Who were we to refuse? We spend another good ten minutes obliging them. Wish we could show them their pictures!  At the base camp, Sachin said, he too saw some Bharals just ahead of the camp. Another cup of coffee and we decided to commence the return trek.
Bharals relaxing
On return trek, we made our ground much faster. After nearly two hours at 2.30 pm, we were at Stok village. A group of ladies and gentlemen from overseas were seated across a table having Maggie. On enquiry, we found they were a group of rock climbers and just had a trek nearby. Sid contacted Sonam for the jeep.
While seated on the road side culvert, waiting for the Innova car to pick us up and to take to Leh, it was opportune moment to shoot some more Stok landscapes around us which undoubtedly had picture post card beauty.
Scenic Stok
We were not the only ones enjoying the nature’s bounty around us. A guy photo-shooting the Ladakhi owner of the garage eatery, in the scenic environment, in his own inimitable style, holding the flash in one hand and camera in other, gave me a photo shooting opportunity as well!
Photography session
The photographer shared the results of photo shoot with his model through LCD image of his digicam, to his delight.
Instant Happiness
Getting a phone call from driver Sonam that he was on his way to pick us up, assured, we captured some more of the scenic surroundings. Tall Poplar trees and smaller willow trees are the main vegetation in Stok village.  The single storied cottages blend perfectly to give the village a picture post card image.
Stok Scene
The short two km drive from Stok trekking point, through Stok village to Stok Palace, will remain one of my best road journeys in Ladakh. The landscape is awesome to say the least. We got a photo shoot of Stok Palace from about two hundred  meter distance, with a large number of chortens on the way side.  The cloud formation was just right to give dimension to the
Road to Stok Palace
I could not resist yet another shot much closer as we approached the Palace.
Nearing Stok Palace
The Stok Palace houses the Stok Gompa and a Museum which is very popular with the tourists. The Vista from Stok Palace is magnificent and soothing to the eye.
Vista from Stok Palace
Stok info: 

Visiting Stok in early summer i.e. in end May or first week of June, when the mountain top snow has not melted fully, the clear blue skies give a picture postcard landscape and one is in tune with the nature; it will remain one of my most favorite destinations in Ladakh. If one wants to stay here, there is a single storied home stay guest house, in a huge compound at ‘Stok trekking point’. There are a few more guest houses, we came across at a short distance on way to Changma. One does not have to book these places in advance but just walk in. There are a few restaurants as well, which we could make out from spiraling smoke through the chimneys of the road side cottages. Cell phone connectivity at this place is a great advantage. Both Airtel and BSNL network with post paid account operate here. The travel agencies at Leh will arrange for drop and pick up from this place at a reasonable rate. One can trek to Changma, about 5 km and will be in Hemis wild life sanctuary; a chance encounter with wild life is a possibility. A two km drive will bring one to Stok Palace. The vista from Stok Palace of the adjoining hills is magnificent.  A casual walk through the Stok village will be a rejuvenating experience for tired souls. Stok has the potential to be a great destination in Ladakh, if given the due recognition it deserves by local government as well as the travel community.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks so much for your post. I have stayed in Stok two times as a grad student. That, alas was a long time ago. I'm going back for the first time in years this coming July, and I'm wondering about connectivity. When you say "post paid connection" what does that mean? You must buy a cell phone there? Please explain if you can. Also, I will have a laptop with me...any chance you know what it would take to get onto the internet from Stok? Thanks again, Jullay!