Three Russian Changpas
Three wanderlust struck Russians, in love with India, undertake a tough trek through the states of Jammu & Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh. Their spirit is somewhat akin to Changpas, the nomadic people of the Tibetan plateau.
“Go anywhere, but to India,” her father forbade her from visiting just one country in the world for no apparent reason. Perhaps the father’s heart knew that it was one place which could win her girl away. A few years later, she is settled in New Delhi and married to a Bengali gentleman. Meet Nadya Nechaeva-Banerjee and her fellow travellers, birds of the same feather, Yana Badzhieva and Mikhail Filatov, both of whom live in Moscow but visit India often. They’ve covered tourist hotspots as well as some off-beat destinations. This is about their recent adventure in the high altitude districts of Ladakh and Spiti in India.
The trio trekked from Tso Kar Lake (4512m) in Changthang region of Ladakh to Kibber village (4205m) in Spiti Valley of Himachal Pradesh. Their journey took them to the pristine high altitude lake Tso Moriri (4512m) and from there along an ancient trade route through Parang La (5578m.) This trek, by all standards, is a strenuous one, but rewards an enthusiast with pristine panoramas amongst peaks towering beyond 6000m.
“Nadya asked me if I would like to trek in Ladakh and sent me a description of the route. I found out more on the web. Tso Moriri looked fantastic even on Google maps!” Mikhail recalls how the trip was planned. They made an itinerary based on maps and information available through internet. It is a prime trekking route in this region and there are several adventure tour companies which organize this trip. They could’ve hired any of such companies and made their journey a tad easier, but they opted to travel on their own without a guide or even porters. It is a choice that only daring and experienced people would make. Mikhail has hiked through the Caucasus, Ural, Carpathian, and Tian-Shan mountains. Nadya and Yana are trained in mountaineering basics from an amateurs’ school in Moscow. Previous winters they had trekked to Dodital in Uttarakhand through waist-deep snow.
They began their journey from Tso Kar with the lake and its surrounding marsh shimmering due to salt deposits. Soon they were weighed down by their heavy backpacks. “We had about 20-25kg on our backs. Lugging it along at such a high altitude slowed us a lot. At the pace with which we were moving, we would’ve taken double the planned time,” Nadya speaks of their first challenge. They were carrying all their stock of provisions because nothing was to be found on their way through the vast arid land, uninhabited besides a few nomadic settlements. “After crossing the first pass, Kyamuri La (5410m) I just lied down on a rock and didn’t move for a while,” says Mikhail.
The first item to be shed was a tin of Nutella. “It was meant to be a surprise. We have a practice of carrying such goodies on tough treks so that we can pull out a treat to cheer everyone when the spirits get too low. I saw few children running towards us from a distant tent and decided to give it to them,” Nadya recalls meeting Changpas, the nomadic natives of Changthang who move across the Tibetan plateau with their herds of sheep and yaks.
On the fifth day, they reached Tso Moriri, a limpid intense blue sheet of water landlocked by majestic peaks. “It was just wonderful and such amazing colours! I got some very good photographs,” Mikhail animatedly remembers. The group camped at Korzok village by the lakeside. It was like a pit stop midway through the trek and here they found a mule handler heading to their destination Kibber, a scrumptious meal of dumplings, and a double rainbow. The next day was spent walking along the 19km long western edge of the lake.
They saw plenty of the native wildlife – foxes, hares, marmots, and wild asses known as Kiangs. The next halt was a place named due to the abundance of Kiangs – Kiangdom. Here onwards the journey becomes tougher as the wetland recedes and rocky ascend to Parang La begins. Hiring the mule driver had eased off the excess luggage and they could accelerate. “The weather over Parang la looked ominous. We decided to cross it before the impending snowfall,” recalls Nadya. It was a good call as a day after crossing the pass they woke up to fresh snow. “The river had a lot of greenery along its banks and the next morning it had all turned white,” Mikhail recalls the wonders of their journey, “At Parang la I saw a bird struggling to fly away but the sharp wind kept bringing it back to the pass. Then, there was one such beautiful place where I felt that I could sit for hours and just look around.”
The trio reached Kibber after a 10 day journey through valleys and gorges, passes and pastures, water streams and snowfields, overcoming difficulties and relishing the pristine landscape, often on an empty stomach. “Many a times we skipped meals to make up time, especially while rushing to cross Parang La,” says Nadya. “The best moments were when our donkey driver would call out – ‘would you like to have some sampa’ – a local broth made from barley,” Mikhail declares, “It is my highest and longest trek so far. Even Caucasus and Tien-Shan seem smaller in comparison to the vastness of Ladakh.”
“Nobody said it was easy, no one ever said it would be this hard,” Nadya quotes the Coldplay song to summarise the experience.
All photos courtesy Nadya Nechaeva-Banerjee. This article was published in Russia and India Report – a news project of Rossiyskaya Gazeta.