Keylong to Rarik

In the good old days, like in the 70s and 80s, you’d hire horseman in Manali and start walking. No real roads and if there were the foreigners weren’t allowed on them. Before my time but I’ve met people that visited Zanskar at that time. Those were the days…

At some point in the mid 80s the Manli-Leh highway was opened to touristas. From then on you loaded up and took a bus to Darcha Sumdo and started hiking. Darcha Sumdo was a village near the confluence of the Bhaga and Barai Nala.

The first time I visited was 1991, I started hiking from Darcha Sumdo with a big ‘ol backpack. There was a bit of a road at that time, which lovely white painted stones to mark the road’s edge. But when I was there the road was sections of flat smooth lovelyness and other sections where it had fallen into the river. It was impassible to vehicles.

I was hiking along this path, alone in the dark drizzle, when a cyclist passed me. A local on a pretty fancy new looking bike. It was simple, a singlespeed, but it was clear the owner was smitten with it. Being a mountain biker I was really impressed to see him up here. He had no english but we were able to joke with each other and I took his photo.

A half hour or so later I was crossing above a village when I saw the cyclist now running up the steep slope towards me carrying a kettle and a mug. He’d brought me hot sweet milk tea! Was such a nice gesture, clearly I was miserable under my enormous pack.

Well, all these years later I never really got to thank him. Would like to meet the guy again, maybe stay in that mystery village, which was called Rarik. So… Rarik was my goal for the day.

Headed out from Keylong knowing I’d be gaining a little altitude. Keylong is at about 10,500 ft, Rarik is at 11,500 or maybe a bit more. Also knew that my ride was really short, I’d need to go slow to really see the terrain.

I reached Darcha Sumdo a bit before noon. Found a nice tea stall run by a sweet couple. Had a big omlette and some chai. They were interested that I was going to Rarik and suggested/insisted I should have a nap before riding up there. At that point all 3 of us climbed into a darkened back room and slept for 45 minutes. Very nice!

Finally I was off. Away from the highway now.

The switchbacked climb from Darcha had some steep switchbacks, then I turned off the highway to follow the Barai Nala towards Rarik and eventually Shingo La.

With such a lovely day and the improved road I had trouble going too fast. The air was becoming really terrific, only occasionally harmed by large construction trucks and even a bus!

Other than the views there was just one noteworthy even on the ride to Darcha. I stopped to take a photo and a huge bee flew up. Super loud buzz. About an inch long. I flew around me and then slowly flew to my shoulder and landed. I could feel it climbing around. Then it took off and orbited me. I started riding to get away and it followed me. After 30 feet I stopped and it landed on me again in the same place. Sort of like a parrot? I waited while it did whatever it needed to do. Wanted my salt? Once it took off again it made a bee-line (get it?) for some bushes and I left it behind. That sucker must have a tough life, probably hibernates during the winter? Cool.

Arrived in Rarik at about 3pm, the place was empty. Armed with a photo of my prospective host – I found a nice cool spot for a snooze.

At about sunset a woman showed up and invited me to her house to wait, and finally in the evening my host showed up. He remembered me and was very happy to take me in. He’d received the photos that I’d left on my trip last year.

I was really surprised by this homestay. The people in Rarik are quite similar to those in Zanskar. Where Keylong was a combination of Jullay and Namaste (ladakhi buddist or hindu), here in Rarik the greetings were strictly Jullay.

The village has a lot of water, they grow potatoes and peas. They used to grow tsampa (barley) but don’t any more because “its too much work, and we can just buy it from zanskar”.

I stayed two nights in Rarik and came away very surprised how similar it was to the upper Lungnak – the area I was most keen to visit on this trip.

Series of Tashi (my hosts brother) arranging irrigation tubing:

This was the height of agriculture season and everyone worked in the fields all day. Most distressing to me was how much time it took to manage the pea fields. The folks were literally weeding the pea fields all day, every day for weeks on end.

The village also grows trees for sticks to make roofs with.

I heard how last winter there was three feet of snow that fell a few days before they were to harvest and so much of their crop was lost.

Everyone warned me that there was a ton of snow this year and that shingo la was still not passable by horses. That the usual tea stalls were almost certainly not open yet.

As I lounged in the shade on my second day in Rarik I saw several trucks heading up the road loaded with people and mountaineering backpacks and ice axes. I would have loved to chat with them but the trucks returned empty a few hours later. Somebody was up there! I wouldn’t be alone.

My last night Stanzin came running in with a crazed grin on his face. “White mushrooms!” These were a rare delicacy that showed usually 8-10 days after a rain. I was skeptical but he cooked them slowly in butter. The flavor was amazing: tasted of onion, garlic and a bit of pine. Really really delicious. If you ever have a chance…

Stanzin also made a plan for me. Since I had no stove he would prepare some “mountain food” – It would be a ball of butter wrapped in tsampa, and then soaked with arak. The arak would prevent the ball from freezing solid.

Sure enough the next morning he handed me a softball-sized ball of moist flour wrapped in a plastic bag. Good stuff!

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