L.O.S.T. in Ladakh: Hiking Solo in Sham Valley

The adventures of a girl, a map, and her ten-kilo backpack.  
Ladakh Jammu Kashmir India Hiking
Cattle skulls usually mark the entrance to villages in the Sham Valley of Ladakh. Photo: Shikha Tripathi

A gentle wind blew across the valley and on my face, providing momentary relief from the blistering, high-altitude sun, and the ridiculous situation I was in: legs in a full split above a trench into which I had fallen while trying to cross over to the other side. I wasn’t scared so such as embarrassed—the trench was only five feet deep—but I prayed desperately for two things: that my brand new trekking pants don’t rip wide open, and that no one sees me wedged in this ridiculous stance. The last wish was especially ironic considering I had spent most of the previous day desperately hoping to meet someone, anyone, while hiking.

I’ve been an avid outdoor enthusiast for years, and a graduate of the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering. I’ve hiked the Himalayas in Kashmir, Nepal, Sikkim, and Ladakh but always with company, if only a guide. Time and again, I find myself drawn to the raw beauty of the mountains, and its tendency to make me push the envelope of what I can achieve, both physically and mentally. This was my eighth visit to Ladakh but my first time trekking completely solo: No friends. No hiking companion. No local guide. Just me, my ten-kilo backpack and a bulky, borrowed sleeping bag.

I picked the Sham valley. Also known as the “homestay trail”, the region is peppered with villages where locals open their homes to travellers for a small fee. This meant I wouldn’t have to pitch a tent at the end of a long day of hiking, or even carry said tent to begin with. What I didn’t fathom then, was that it meant finding the villages first.

Armed with a map, a few provisions, and that ginormous sleeping bag, I bid goodbye to the taxi driver who dropped me off at the trailhead near Likir, about 47km from Leh. I had already made my first blunder by starting late: around noon when I should have begun around 8a.m. but I began my walk towards Yangthang anyway, my destination for the day. Up a gently sloping trail and past the trademark brown boulders of the Ladakhi landscape, I marched with the confidence of a cat that owns its backyard.

Yak Ladakh Sham Valley Ladakh India

A yak wanders in a grassy meadow en route to the village of Ang . Photo: Shikha Tripathi

At first, there were arrows painted on stones that pointed the way to Saspochey, a village I was to cross, according to my map. But an hour later, I found myself in a gorge filled with wild berries and no markers to show me the way. I sneezed and it echoed twice; I coughed and it resonated deep in the valley. For the first time, it hit me that I was well and truly alone.

Over the next few hours, I did a number of bizarre things to keep my mind off the apprehension: I peed in the middle of the road. I sang “Believe” out loud without fear of judgment. I took silly photos with a selfie stick I had won at a mall just before the trip. But deep down, my anxiety was mounting. I knew this was the price of adventure. It always involves risk, comes with no guarantees, and works best for those who thrive on uncertainty. That was the rational side talking. The other side reminded me that is was almost 4 pm—past my deadline to reach Yangthang— and there was still no humans or habitation in sight.

I began looking for a safe spot to unfurl my sleeping bag, trying to stave off thoughts of snow leopards that roamed these parts. Well, at least it would make for one heck of a story, I told myself.  Just when I dropped my bag, I saw a tiny dot moving in the horizon.

I grabbed my pack and made a mad dash down the mountainside to the path below, all but flinging myself in front of the automobile chugging up the path. Before the startled Ladakhi boys could grasp the situation, I flung myself and bag into the car and implored they take me Saspochey. They were too dumbstruck to argue.

Turns out the village was only ten minutes away, hidden in a grove of trees that I would never have spotted. Less than half hour later, I was tucking into a bowl of hot vegetable stew in a resident called Angchuk’s humble Ladakhi home. Clutched in my hand, was a (much better) map that my generous host had drawn for me. I slept deeply that night, and woke with a rested mind and body, fortified and ready to tackle the trail again.

Thukpa at a homestay in the Sham Valley of Ladakh Ladakh

A bowl of steaming hot noodle soup at the cosy homestay in Hemis Shukchapen; the writer tests out her selfie stick. Photo: Shikha Tripathi

This time, I paid far more attention. I kept an eye out for footprints of locals, cattle poop, egg shells leftover from hasty lunches on the move—the trail signs that really matter in the mountains. I made a note of the Buddhist flags and cairns that marked the route. I was more mindful, and free of anxiety, I was able to appreciate the silence of the valley, the beauty of brooks I crossed, and the vastness of landscape around me. I reached my destination without much difficulty.

Over the next few days, I received the kind of lessons that only experience can teach. I learned that mountains are multidimensional, and while sketching a map is always a good idea, things aren’t as linear as they seem on a hand-drawn map. I learned that having a good back up is crucial (so carry that tent even if you’re on a homestay trail). And that even the easiest trail can turn into a nightmare if you are not adequately prepared.

But there were other lessons I was yet to grasp. The lure of shortcuts for instance, never left me, which is how I ended up in that trench the following day. Thankfully, I made it across and into the green oasis of Ang village, down in the valley, where I was to spend my third night. I spent the evening pottering around the wooded backyard of my cosy Himalayan homestay, reading and sketching by the river in a picture-postcard setting.

By the last day of the trail, I was a lot more self-assured. My apprehensions had faded, and I was proud of myself for sticking it out despite the series of unfortunate events I had to face. My time at mountaineering school had taught me many useful skills but my biggest lesson from that trip has as much to do with hiking as life itself: Trust your gut. I ruminated upon this thought as I walked when I came across the same Ladakhi boys who had given me a ride a few days ago. They offered to give me a ride into town, but this time, I politely declined and kept walking.

Ladakh Hiking Mountains

In Ladakh, all troubles are rewarded with stilling mountain views. Photo: Shikha Tripathi.

The Vitals

Getting There: The Sham Valley Homestay Trail begins at Likir, 47km/ 2hrs from Leh, the capital of Ladakh in Jammu and Kashmir. Leh has its own airport, and is well-connected to Delhi, Chandigarh, and other cities by road.

Season: The weather is nicest from mid-June to mid-September when it’s summer in Ladakh.

Stay: Himalayan Homestays is an initiative with a large network of homestays in Ladakh. Homes are basic and fuss-free and charges include basic meals. Rs 800-Rs 1,000 a night per person.

A number of trekking companies organize trips to the Sham valley.

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    Shikha Tripathi is an adventurer, wildlife lover and mountain explorer, born and brought up in the Himalayas. Travel writing is her profession and her passion, second only to travel itself.

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