"The strangest thing … is how many people are walking the same path… I would think the path to Everest would be lonely. But the trail's more like a city snaking along a dusty ribbon." Erin Ryan, The Daily Beast
I'm mighty lonely in Ladakh, Ms Ryan. For days, I've trekked its deepest folds; across green valleys sprinkled with teeny white-washed farming villages where donkeys hee-haw, up precarious shepherd's trails cut into the sides of humungous mountains.
Aside from my six travel companions – and the mule handlers, and the cook – there's been one other human on the path; an elderly German bloke who dismisses my attempt at chit-chat by pointing at the mountain pass we're both aiming for. "I must," he mumbles as he passes me by. "Get over the pass?" I've wondered for days. "See a snow leopard? Meet a lover on the other side?" Trekkers in these lonely reaches of the Himalayas have a single-mindedness about their quest that I've never known … but I'm learning fast.
I have a lot of time to think in these mountains: about the planets and solar systems that shine in my eyes from the blackest night skies I've slept beneath; about the tightness in my chest here 4500 metres above sea level, and the memories that brings back of childhood asthma; the rising panic you feel when your chest won't inflate with the sort of air it takes to breathe. But then, you won't find a more solitary walk on this planet … so gather up every thought you ever had and think them here.
Fifty thousand foreign hikers entered Nepal's Sagarmatha National Park last year to hike around Everest. In the busiest months of the season as many as 10,000 trekkers arrive. Approximately 90 per cent of those trekking the Himalayas will do so in Nepal; while fewer than 10 per cent will access the planet's highest mountain range here in India. If you're looking to socialise – "… at every stop along the way, shed backpacks stand in lines against the wall …" Ryan writes – go to Nepal, if you prefer bharal (blue sheep) for company, then come to Ladakh.
I've flown to Leh from Delhi, to a region dubbed Little Tibet. Tibetans fleeing Chinese occupation have made this region their home; fluttering prayer flags and white stupas dominate the landscape, while Tibetan refugees sell prayer wheels and jewellery by the roadside.
Because of its high mountain passes (depending on who you believe, there are as many as three of the highest five roads on Earth here) Ladakh is isolated by road from the rest of India from September to June. Trekkers have a small window in which to hike, passing through tiny communities of farming families cut off almost entirely from the outside world.
My journey begins 90 minutes drive west of Leh, beside a valley considered the snow leopard capital of the world. We drive out of town along a dusty track which punches its way through mountain passes, and across wooden bridges over the swollen Indus River. When our 4WD offloads us by a track that winds its way through a moonscape which makes me think of the Grand Canyon rather than the Alps, I doubt I've felt so far removed from the world.
"There are no alpine peaks with perfectly-formed snow-capped summits, this is the Trans-Himalaya – raw and confronting, stretching as far as the Tibetan Plateau," is how my guide for this expedition saw this place in his book, A Long Walk in the Himalaya.
Garry Weare knows these mountains better than anyone; he's been guiding trekkers through here since the 1970s, and was the first to document this region for Lonely Planet. At 70 he may well be slowing down, but as he traipses off down the crumbly rock trail leading to our first camp, I swear his back straightens and his gait lengthens.
"These mountains are still rising; I reckon you feel it inside you," he explains. Lord, it's beautiful too: golden-leaved poplars rise all round us, English roses too and green willows, flanked by mountains on every side, some so tall I can scarcely see their tops, even here in this cold, high desert with its bulging blue skies.
Camp's a set of tents pitched beneath a high green meadow where bharal feed; they're like hamburgers to the world's most elusive creature; the snow leopard. Dubbed the grey ghost by locals, snow leopards have earned themselves an almost Yeti-like mythology, so rare are their sightings (there are believed to be less than 5000 left on Earth). But when darkness descends and we eat dinner under stars as bright as planets, every movement becomes their footfall. "There's at least seven in this valley," Weare says. "They'll sure see you, but unless you're lucky you won't see them, especially in summer."
Treks aren't of the soul-destroying variety on this expedition; there's a kindness about them which allows for acclimatisation, and because no-one's trying to prove a point to anybody. And so we amble to tiny communities set in valleys of calico-and-purple-coloured mountain ranges.
Villagers were shocked when hikers appeared after this region was opened to tourists in 1974; now they pay me little interest as I pass by their tiny settlements. Donkeys laden with firewood share a path lined with mani walls (dry-stone walls filled with sand and rock and engraved with Buddhist symbols and prayers) and women tend to plots of barley. Each evening, they coral their dzo (a cross between a yak and a cow) and donkeys in mud-brick enclosures to keep the leopards at bay.
When Weare's sure our lungs are up for the ascent, we march across narrow trails up the sides of mountains. My legs feel strong till we reach 4000 metres, then my hiking boots seem to squelch through treacle, and my sides ache with breathlessness. We make camp at our highest site (4350 metres) below the approach to the five-kilometre-high Ganda La pass.
A stiff wind rips at my tent as I lie inside, my head swimming with altitude. But in the golden hue of late afternoon, the wind dies and my head loses its layer of fuzz, and I march with fresh legs to a ridge looking over the Rumbak Valley. I can see forever from here, right to the highest mountain in all Ladakh, the 6153-metre-high Stok Kangri. "Keep your eyes on the bharal," Weare says as we stare across the abyss. "That's where your leopards will be."
We don't see any cats, just the highest mountain range on Earth laid out 360 degrees all round me, bathed in the lilac gleam of early evening.
Just like these rugged mountains around me, there's a big dip to every dizzying high. One morning, Weare warns of inclement conditions ahead. "I have the weather report," he says over coffee. "I couldn't hear the plane come into Leh at 6am, so that must mean a front's coming hard from the south." It hits head-on as we push for the highest pass on our hike – at precisely the most exposed section of the whole expedition – the sleet coming so thick and fast I'm forced to cradle my face with my hands.
One morning, as we walk beneath a canopy of rose bushes by a dry riverbed, we pass two hikers. The evening before, at our campsite below the tiny settlement of Shingo, a single hiker strolls by. "No wonder we can't see snow leopards," Weare says. "Too crowded."
I'm sure he's joking, but their presence grates me more than it ought to. It's a rare luxury to attain this sort of exclusivity; and there's a selfishness that can come in trying to maintain it. But in a world so silent I reckon I can hear golden eagles as they make their big right-angle turns in the thermals above, everybody needs a mountain of their own.
Craig Tansley travelled as a guest of World Expeditions
Air India flies direct to Delhi from Sydney and Melbourne, then to Leh in 90 minutes, see airindia.in
World Expeditions offers a range of treks in the Indian Himalayas, including Where Two Worlds Meet – Journey to Ladakh & Kashmir with Garry Weare, departing Delhi on September 14, 2019 for $4590 pp, excluding flights, see worldexpeditions.com.au/Indian-Regions/Indian-Himalaya