Ladakh: Yak Dung Fires, Glaciers and Tibetan Butter Tea

Ladakh is is clouded with mystery before the 7th century…

Although, the earliest inhabitants are thought to be nomadic yak herders. Over the centuries these nomads have developed a unique relationship with the land, which has been passed down through generations. They have become woven into the fabric of the physical landscape and are as natural as the majestic mountains and glaciers of the land.

Unfortunately, Ladakh’s unique culture and characteristics are gradually being eroded…

The opening of Ladakh to outsiders in 1974 by the government has led to the subsequent encroachment of the modern world and arguably the erosion of the region’s infamous Ladakhiness. Tourists seeking to discover Ladakh’s treasures and government policies are diluting Ladakhiness with Western culture, ideals and aspirations.

The Zanskar Valley is spectacular…

Located within a remote part of Ladakh and cut off from Leh during the winter, lies a wondrous valley. Despite the increasing footfall and vehicle traffic through the Zanskar Valley, Zanskar has preserved its pristine wilderness and distinctive Zanskariness. It is simply remarkable, containing…

  • Immense mountains dusted with snow
  • Magnificent glaciers
  • Intricately braided rivers
  • Diverse flora and fauna.

You can hear marmots screech across the U-shaped valley and observe the weather developing along the horizon. Luckily for us, it was to be our playground for 5-weeks, as organised by the British Exploring Society (BES).

We go to the end of the path ... and keep going…’

BES is a charity, trying to engage young people to develop their leadership, teamwork and communication through a medium of exploration and adventure. During their expeditions, participants undertake fieldwork and improve their mountaineering skills. The Ladakh expedition was no exception.

82 like-minded explored together…

The BES Ladakh expedition 2015 comprised of 82 like-minded people with differing backgrounds. We established our base camp at the Pensi La (4400m), nestled among dazzling blue lakes and over shadowed by P7(5600m).

Kiss the lucky egg!

We were divided into groups of approximately 15 people, including a medic, science and adventure leader. I lived, camped and embarked on various epic excursions with my group: ‘Zanskar’. With time, we may have become delirious and likened ourselves to the Jamaican Bobsleigh team from the film Cool Runnings. One of our many tag lines was: ‘Kiss the lucky egg!’

The Impressive Durang Durung Glacier…

A 24.2km powerful ice blue tongue, snakes through towering steel grey craggy mountains and its snout protrudes into a desolate valley. Brown dust sprinkles the white ice and its sides are littered with jagged boulders. Fierce blue streams weave across the surface and a maze of crevasses make trekking hazardous. Its beauty is astonishing.

My crampons crunched into the ice…

Trekking across the glacier was a phenomenal experience. The snout of the glacier was littered with crevasses. Therefore, for the start of our journey we were attached to each other with ropes and armed with ice axes, crampons and helmets. Excitement was bubbling within me as we stepped purposefully on the ice.

Climbing down the Moulin hole…

While traversing the glacier, we learnt and practiced a variety of mountaineering skills. My highlight was climbing down a moulin hole and hearing the life of the glacier: deep vibrations of ice creaking and water gushing.

Wild Science on the Durang Durung…

We placed ablation stakes along the glacier to understand present melt rate. It was great fun to conduct fieldwork and to our astonishment, some areas of the glacier melted 15cm in 24 hours!

Ascending Nipple Mountain…

I eagerly peeled back my snug sleeping bag at 4.20am to start our ascent of Nipple Mountain. After battling with the stoves to make breakfast, we finally depart at 6am. The sun has now risen over Durang Durung glacier, bathing the valley in warm dusty golden light.

Butterflies Flurried within my stomach…

Nipple mountain grandly rose from the valley, with steep sides and gnarly rock outcrops amalgamating into a smooth curve. However, beyond this, we knew there was a nipple-shaped peak. To our knowledge, the mountain was a virgin, never been climbed before. Gazing up at the bottom, she appeared daunting, cloaked in shadow and superimposed onto a dazzling blue sky. Butterflies fluttered across my stomach in anticipation and trepidation.

Creating a yak track…

We crafted a path over steep crinkled ridges of scree, loose soil, sand and sparse grass. Quite unexpectedly, we discovered a stunning ridge decorated with luscious wild flowers and shrubs of vibrant colours: yellow, pink, purple, blue and white. Some were dainty, while others wily and spikey.

Altitude Mountain Sickness (AMS) crept over me…

As we ascended higher and higher, I was increasingly struggling to place one foot in front of the other. I was on my third SIS GO Energy Drink, trying to galvanize the energy to continue to the summit. It was a hopeless struggle against AMS. I felt my energy draining away, like a sieve trying to contain water. Fatigue took hold, my body was like lead, a headache cracked across my forehead and with every step I thought I was going to vomit.

We stepped onto the plateau and my will to go on flooded from me…

6 hours of hiking later, we reached the plateau and just had 150m to go. I looked towards the summit and felt my determination to go on evaporate from my body. I turned to our medic and simply said ‘I feel sick’. I was given an anti-nausea tablet, paracetamol and napped while everyone ate lunch. It was at 5020m we departed our separate ways; Sarah and I descended, while the others continued upwards.

The treacherous way down…

We tried an alternative route down, hoping that it was easier, but to no avail. We had to backtrack and contour around the mountain’s rocky creases, before we found our ascent route. I found the decent tough and challenging; the ground was loose and often disappeared into a shear drop. I drew strength from Apsley Cherry-Garrard on the Terra Nova Expedition and my mantra ‘I Can Do This’.

AMS faded into the background like a bad nightmare…

As we descended the symptoms of AMS faded away allowing me to embrace and appreciate the stunning scenery surrounding me. As we nearing the end, the sun was setting behind the Durang Durung glacier casting a peaceful light into the valley. At 6.30pm we made it safely onto the flat sturdy ground. We hugged and cheered, we had done it!

Lilly Wild

Acquainting the phenomenal women yak herders…

The strong female nomadic yak herders I came to know, still practiced their traditional Tibetan and non-Tibetan culture, but with a hint of Western characteristics. They were especially fond of green glittery nail polish! Their summer camp was surrounded by immense snow dusted, grey weathered mountains and snuggled into the meandering dirt road of Kargil-Zanskar. They had an envious view of the glorious Durang Durung glacier puncturing the valley.

The lives of the women were intricately woven into the Zanskar landscape narrative…

An enchanting grandmother lived with her four delightful granddaughters, aged between 18 and 26, and their 50 shaggy dzos (hybrid between a yak and domestic cow) in the simple camp, comprising of two small stone structures. Being low-lying and constructed from local material, their home was camouflaged within the landscape. To protect them from the natural elements, windows were absent and they used vibrantly coloured plastics to further waterproof and insulate their home.

Each day they completed a 3-hour milking ritual…

Large rocks had been pragmatically organized around their home with wire running between. This provided them with a stage to perform the milking of their dzos. During the day, their dzos were allowed to roam the Zanskar valley, grazing on the grass carpeted floor. In the later afternoon and early evening, the sisters would herd them home for milking.

Brief glimpse into the life of a nomadic yak herder…

A strong icy wind and flurries of snow whipped around us, the mountains disappeared behind thick grey clouds. The two sisters were not worried; smiles still graced their faces as they nimbly navigated the steep valley sides, herding their dzos. The cattle cascaded down the valley and surrounded their home. The women worked together efficiently. It was clearly a well-rehearsed act. Having asked to help, we were told it was too difficult. The three of us watched with intrigue instead, spellbound by fascination and amazement,

Yak First Aid…

One of their dzos returned with a missing horn and blood spilling over his face. His expression was one of sadness. Our leader, Andrew, performed Yak First Aid with the grandmother. Disinfecting the wound with alcohol and binding it up with bandages. The dzo was brave and didn’t flinch, the grandmother was over the moon with Andrew’s skills as a Yak Doctor!

We took refuge inside…

As the women continued the arduous work of milking their dzos under the evening sun and moon, we were forced to retreat from the harsh elements into their home. The interior was similarly basic to the exterior. My eyes slowly adjusted to the darkness as I ducked beneath the entrance into their home. Despite the earth floor and stonewalls, the entrance was spotless. Adjacent to a small doorway leading to a living-come-bed-room, was a neat row of shoes. Although the room was dark, it was warm, charming and cosy.

The family’s light-hearted, humorous personality shone through...

In one corner, was positioned a small charcoal-black enclosed fire, with a crooked black chimney disappearing into the ceiling. Stone shelves had been created to boast their few possessions, especially various petite china cups. The walls were decorated with faded floral hangings and thin, narrow mattresses were pushed against the sides with cushions for added comfort. A low-lying wooden table had been placed in the centre of the room for the ceremony of tea and food.

They were impeccable hosts…

To keep us warm, they lit a smoky yak dung fire and made us fresh, warm sweet milk. At 9.30pm they finished milking and joined us for dinner, which consisted of glorious sweet chai tea and Tibetan butter-tea. Butter-tea is salty and creamy, but as it trickles down your throat, you can feel it nourishing you from the inside out. They offered us fresh bread to dip in our tea and for dessert, tsampa (parched barely flour) sprinkled on jou (yoghurt). Jou is rich with a smooth texture, but has a sour taste and slightly fizzes on your tongue. The conversation was limited due to the language barrier, but we laughed and sang the night away!