For two brief days, we hiked from the Omasi-la pass down to Zongkhul Gonpa in the Ating Gorge. The valleys and moutains in the rainshadow of the Himalayas were sparsely vegetated in the high altitude desert environment. From the pass, we hiked on a gently-sloping glacier with small crevasces to jump. Hoodoo-like structures--boulders suspended on pillars of ice--covered parts of the glacier, displaying the effects of sun and shade on surface melting.
For hours we traveled, down thousands of feet past waterfalls pouring from glaciers, through small patches of wildflowers, around boulder fields, in the dry Zanskari sun. It seemed too long and it was: Murad told me that he and his crew had decided upon a closer campsite, yet somehow people continued much further, a situation I hope wouldn't happen to paying customers on future treks.
For the next day, I joined Jigmet an Gudrun on a search for wildlife. Soon, we were searching the hillsides for Ibex and Blue Sheep, but no luck. Soon, though we saw a few pika and found Snow Leopard tracks in the sand.
We followed the pug marks to places where the large Snow Leopard was marking its territory, with scrapes and phermone scent sprayed onto boulders then rubbed with its head, leaving a small hair, a needle in a haystack in the valley, if you don't follow the other clues.
Jigmet taught me how to smell the rocks to find the Snow Leopard scent. The musty smell was distinctive and faded slowly, so a trained tracker for the Snow Leopard Conservancy
like Jigmet could tell how long ago the leopard was here, very recently in our case, given the fresh tracks too. Along the way we also found evidence of fox and marmot and wolf.
By two, we arrived at Zongkhul monastery, a cave monastery where Naropa, a Nalanda University scholar a millenium ago. Inside the cave where Naropa meditated for two years, we talked with Phuntsog Tsering. At the time, the glaciers were much larger, as Naropa left his hiking stick on a cliff high above, supposely at the level of the glacier at the time, but now high above and the glacier has retreated several miles. From this location, he saw the two caves and decided to meditate there.
The cave today is surrounded by a monastery structure, with 15 old monks and 23 young monks. Inside the cave is a stone footprint, soot-covered murals, a large drum, a ritual bell, scriptures, and idols of Tulku Nawang Tsering, a lama who renovated the monatery a century and a half ago. Buddha, Padmasambhava, Mitukpa and Mahakala are also present.
In two other rooms are small, detailed 600 year-old statues housed behind glass, reliquary stupas with remnants of Buddha's ash, and thangkas depicting Marpa's life story.
This marked the end of the trek for us, as our vehicles were waiting to take us to Padum, the largest small town in Zanskar.