Sunday 29th July. Nimaling to Tamachan to Zarlung Karpo base camp

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Most people pass this day in the other direction coming down the Markha valley and up to the Nimaling pastures before exiting over the Kongmaru La and back to the Leh Manali highway. We slowly descend from Nimaling, the path flat at first before dropping down towards the head of the Markha valley. After the last few days it’s very pleasant to be going downhill though behind us we can see two figures slowly climbing Kang Yatse. Very slowly, in fact so slowly they hardly seem to move. Small groups are coming up to Nimaling, more ponies than people. Two individual women, backpacking, very impressive. Before we start to drop down there’s an outcrop with many small vertical piles of carefully placed rocks, Graham and Stenzin make their contributions. We pass low mani walls, a very nice stone with a finely carved Buddha and a stupa, though sadly broken - the impermance of all mani stones. By a beautiful small lake a line of ponies is making it’s way towards Kang Yatse. Another group of ponies heading uphill has beautiful Tibetan carpet saddlebags and tinkling bells. Greeting calls of Julle! from the ponymen.

We drop down towards the head of the Markha valley. The irrigation channel that started up on the Nimaling pastures finds it’s purpose feeding terraced fields of peas and potatoes, two women sit in a field nearby, close to stone shelters. We drop steeply to the tea tents at Tanuntse. Tea tent rooves are made from old parachutes, this one has been handblock printed with red and green stylised mangoes, very homely. A calor gas stove in one corner heats the battered metal teapot, a large lorry battery powers the fluorescent tube mounted on the central pole. We sit on rough stone seats covered with sacking. A typical tea tent. Stenzin shows us the location on our map and indicates the sharp turn to the south and the route we’ll soon be taking towards Karnak. Leaving the tea tent, nicely relaxed, I trip over a rough turf and roll over onto my back, tearing my beloved North Face convertibles. Green knees.

Just after the first of many river crosssings we turn left at a sumdo, a junction of streams, and head into Karnak. Winding gorges, river crossings, narrow scree hillside paths. Faint sun through the clouds but warm in the gorges. The horses are taking a different path down from Nimaling and we should meet them at a valley junction. They’re not there. Nor at the next camp. Stenzin is concerned; we’re tired, it’s been a long warm day, we’ve taken our time, it’s getting late and there’s only an hour of daylight remaining. Stenzin heads upstream to search, in the meantime we find a collection of stone shelters with small dung covered stalls. They’d make a reasonable shelter though very dirty and, without sleeping bags, very cold. We continue upstream and eventually are met by Sonam and Thinless with two ponies. Relieved, we ride into camp, an entertaining end to the day though we’re less than impressed with Stenzin, probably unkindly, It seems the ponymen judged the first camp to be short of grazing for the horses. So, we’re actually upstream from Tamanchan but our camp has no other name.

This is the proper beginning of Karnak, I’ve been studying the map and Google Earth for a year. Now we’re actually here and I can’t decide if it’s as I visualised. Perhaps it’s my imagination but it never is. Cool camping ground by a noisy stream between high cliffs, Graham manages to produce cold beer and pistachios. A lackluster meal of dhal, bland vegetables, pizza and an odd unfilled doughy savoury swiss roll. we resolve to ask Stenzin to ask Dawa to spice things up.

Thursday 30th July. Tamachan to Zarlung Karpo La base camp

Since we’d originally planned to camp lower down the valley last night, and the next possible camp site may be liable to flooding, today is a short day - only two hours walking. A late start after requesting some changes to the food, ie omelette after porridge (not before) with ladakhi bread rather than rotis for breakfast; mix veg curry, potato and peas, dhal and rice followed by coconut custard for dinner. Sounds easy, we shall see.

Gentle upstream walk heading south west. 40% sun. We camp on a grassy patch by the river. During the day the river rises and become more turbulent. Our route is heading towards an array of  pink and grey mountains dusted with white mineral deposits; smooth scree slopes and vertical shattered slabs, lower slopes dusted green with vegetation. The Ladakhi air is so clear the mountains seems unreal in their clarity and the sharpness of their profiles.

In the late afternoon we explore a side valley - one of many that we’ve passed with barely a thought - and enter a dried up dark world of violent, eroded, unstable mini canyons. Layers of rubble, deep channels through the grey silt, outcrops of hard sand coloured rock. Capillaries of small channels feeding into the arteries of the bigger canyons. To look down on this during heavy rain would be a dramatic sight, rock and boulder filled liquid mud tearing away at the sides and undercutting the corners. A fascinating excursion but we’re probably relieved to be out in the open again.

Below camp is a view through a gap in the hills to Kang Yatse. We meet the two young French climbers we saw yesterday on the slopes of Kang Yatse; they’re heading south to Tso Moriri. Our horses are grazing, and nuzzling and grooming each other, one tries to eat my washing that’s hanging between the tents. A pleasant lazy day, it’s surprisingly easy to not do much. Graham demonstrates the art of using a water bottle as a washing posser.

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