The 7 day trek from Rumtze to Tso Moriri had left me in the small town of Korzok.
I was quite eager to leave Korzok for several reasons - the constant chanting of the monks started to make me very uncomfortable, everything was closed all the time, and there was absolutely zero to do in Korzok.
Lesson: try to avoid getting stuck in a town where the head lama just died.
Within a few hours after my arrival in Korzok, all people of any importance in the village knew about my plan to trek to Kibber in Spiti Valley by myself. They’d promised to inform me if they heard of any locals going that direction.
Every afternoon I walked to the camping ground located a few hundred meters outside of Korzok - the buzzing place of horsemen arriving and departing on long journeys. I found several of them who were going to Spiti Valley, but when I told them I had nothing - no tent, no sleeping bag, no food - they all looked at me as if I was crazy.
Some of them actually raised their eyebrows and told me in my face that I was crazy.
I realised this idea might be a bit tougher than I anticipated. But then my luck changed. On day three I bumped into a traveller looking for transportation to Leh. When I told him I was trying to get to Spiti valley, he told me he heard of some donkey men going there and pointed them out to me.
The donkey men
They were two guys, a younger guy named Sandu and an older one named Rinchen. There was no point in guessing their age because most of the people in this part of the world look a lot older than they are because of sun, wind and altitude attacking their faces. I couldn’t ask them either since neither of them spoke any English. Nice.
One of the guesthouse owners acted as a translator, so we could do some business. They were eager to take me along with them, since they were going home anyway and they would make a little extra money. The problem of the tent, sleeping bag and food was solved quickly: they would provide it all.
Or so they said.
The journey would take 5 days. Or so they said.
Knowing that normally it takes 7 days to cross the 100 kilometres to Kibber through these mountains, I was praying that my untrained body would be able to make it in 5 days.
So off we go with our 2 donkeys (who didn’t have names - the people just call them ‘male’ or ‘female’. Since both our donkeys were boys, I assume they called them Male 1 and Male 2?).
On the first day we walked for 5 hours, following lake Tso Moriri all the way to the furthest point south called Kyangdam (4529m altitude). I seriously started to doubt whether I was going to keep up with these guys for the next 4 days because they walked so damn fast!
I was half-running, half-speedwalking and still they arrived at the first camping spot some 15 minutes before me. Good thing about that was by the time I arrived, they’d prepared some steaming hot chai for me - delicious!
Now the moment came that they presented me with the promised tent. This was the crappiest tent I’ve ever seen in my life. All the zippers were broken so it was completely open at the front. For that first night, I McGivered a closed tent together, using my travel poncho and 5 safety pins from my first aid kit.
Unfortunately the construction didn’t hold up against the storm that passed in the nighttime and I woke up in puddles of water. The sleeping bag they had given me was completely soaked and my clothes damp.
So no choice but to sleep together with the donkey men in their tent for the remaining nights. Oh dear.
The second day we soon left Tso Moriri completely and at the fork of Norbu Sumdo (left to China, right to Himachal Pradesh) we took a right turn into the gorge of the Parang Chu river.
The river crossing
This day was the day of the river crossing. The locals in Korzok whom I’d told I was planning on trekking to Spiti shivered for 2 things: the river crossing and the Parang La pass. Now I saw the river, I understood their fear.
It looked ferocious.
The water was extremely fast flowing, and to make things worse - it was not a single river crossing, but more like 10 river crossings all next to each other. We all changed our shoes to sandals, and lifted up our pants as high as possible.
With a Ladakhi on either side of me holding my hand it was actually not bad at all, and we crossed easily. The donkeys however were a different story.
They had such little legs that the water reached almost until their backs. The small black donkey that was carrying my backpack (with in it my laptop and all other things that generally don’t like water) took a misstep and as in slow-motion it was tilting over.
I could just see my backpack drown right in front of my eyes.
I let out a shriek. With the three of us, we were just in time to lift the donkey -and everything on its back- out of the water and push it to the edge of the river. At that point I could only hope that we were in time and all my stuff was still functioning.
After this highlight of the day, the rest of the trek was easy going over flat terrain and after 5,5 hours of walking we reached the camping spot to spend the night.
I had no choice but to sleep in the same tent as the donkey men, which consisted of two poles with a piece of canvas over it. They were real gentlemen though, and gave me the best donkey blankets to sleep on, as well as the best sleeping spot in the tent.
They did however smoke tonnes of cheap Indian cigarettes in the closed tent, and spend several hours cooking over the kerosine stove inside the tent - so the next morning I could barely open my eyes which were all swollen and infected because of the fumes.
I also smelled incredibly like donkey for some reason.
Day three was when the trek started to become tricky. Large parts of the trail were washed away by the bellowing river and we had to leave the valley several times and scramble hundreds of meters over loose rocks up on a slope that seemed close to 90 degrees in parts.
I managed to keep my travel companions in sight most of the time. I did had to reduce my fluid intake to minimise any toilet breaks, so I wouldn’t get any further behind. After an exhausting 7 hours trek, we reached a large clearing with plenty of grass for the donkeys to spend the night.
The next day would be the hardest of the trek: scaling the Parang La at 5578 meters altitude - the highest I’ve ever been. It was a good 2,5 hours of walking before we reached the base of the active glacier that runs over this pass.
Scaling the glacier
Without any crampons (cause yeah, why would you…) or other specialised gear we started climbing the glacier. The ice was melting on all sides and had rivers and crevasses everywhere.
Just three days before we arrived at the glacier, a pack horse had slipped and fallen 20 meters down into a crevasse. The horsemen had to leave it there to die. Obviously this story travelled fast and any locals that we crossed paths with coming from the other side told us the story. It was a daunting story and all the locals took extra care with their animals and to guide them safely over the ice.
After some 2 or 3 hours of walking over the glacier we reached the most treacherous part of the glacier. A narrow, extremely steep corridor of ice of about 30 meters high which connected the glacier to the top of the Parang La.
The donkeys were slipping and sliding and there was no other way then to take the loads off their backs and carry this to the top ourselves. We had to use ropes to get ourselves and the luggage up the ice and push and pull the donkeys the last 10 meters to reach to top.
Exhausted and relieved we made it through the trickiest part of the journey, we rested for a little while on the top of the Parang La. The view was just absolutely incredible.
We were on top of the world!
Then we started the descent down the other side of the mountain. At this point of the trek I was still thinking that we were going to a campground and we would reach Kibber on day 5. Little did I know that we would walk for 12 hours that day. And that we were not even going to Kibber.
The trek led us back into a gorge for a while, after which we had to climb another (smaller) pass - the last pass before the long descent down into Spiti Valley.
Slowly it started to dawn on me that my donkey men would not stop that day to camp. They were going straight home!
The proximity of their village seemed to make them walk even faster and even though we were going downhill - I couldn’t keep up with their speed. My knees were absolutely killing me after so many steep descents and even my little walking stick could not help me anymore.
The changing scenery as we approached Spiti valley was stunning though and we even stumbled upon a group of blue sheep. When we finally saw the first houses appear on the horizon there was quite a lot of confusion between me and the donkey men.
Up until then I had always thought they came from Kibber. However, the two men came from Chicham, a smaller village across the valley from Kibber.
So that was obviously were we were going. They never had any intention to go to Kibber at all.
After 12 hours of walking, and me being hungry and exhausted, I didn’t even care anymore.
Chicham, Kibber, whatever!
That evening I devoured the most delicious home cooked meal and slept in a cute homestay in Chicham with a nice local family. My entire body felt like I got hit by a bus and I slept like an ox.
Looking for adventure? Go for it!
Spending 4 days with two random strangers and two donkeys, crossing some of the trickiest but stunning mountains of Ladakh was definitely one of my best travel adventures and I can recommend it to anyone!
When you are reasonably self-sufficient (tent, sleeping bag, food) - you will have no problem finding horse or donkey men to join on this great trek. But as you can see, even if you don’t have any gear, you can make it happen - just be patient and follow your intuition. You WILL find the right people and have an awesome Himalayan adventure!