This is an arduous trek that begins from Thangu that is 28 kilometres away from Lachen on the highway. It involves altitudes ranging from 3963 m(13000 ft) to almost 5488 m (18000 ft). From Thangu, a vehicular side road of about 5 kms takes you to Kalapathar. From this point, the steep climb begins. If you feel that you cannot walk the high altitudes, you can take a yak from Thangu. These sure footed animals are well adapt on walking on this route. Yaks meant for riding are of a cool temperament but even they can be unpredictable like the one I was given to ride made me feel like a rodeo cowboy and I decided that it was safer to walk. Within the next three hours, a murderous uphill walk reaches you to Lungna-la at slightly less than 6000 metres. Panting and drained of energy, you take a long well-deserved rest. Nothing moves except the few whisps of clouds overhead. The terrain is strewn with boulders and bereft of any vegetation except for a few enterprising Rhubarbs plants on the almost inaccessible cliffs and crags here and there. With the moving sun, surrealistic colours play on the rocks. It is a harsh landscape of forbidding grandeur. The Lungna-la pass itself is narrow and festooned with prayer flags. From here the view of the Lonak valley is marvellous and spellbinding. The valley is wide and flat and slightly undulating and green. The Nak-chu stream lazily meanders through it glistening white in the sun-light.
A knee wobbling downhill walk of about an hour and you are at the valley. Above you the mountains rise sharply. It are these mountains that do not permit moisture laden clouds to reach the Lonak valley which thus gets very low rainfall. However, anointed by the sparse summer rain, the valley exudes the green breath of life. You walk along the narrow Nakuriver stopping once in a while to drink its mineral rich water.
The Alpine plants around give a strong scent, which at this high altitude tends to give the traveller a headache. Aconites, which are said to be very poisonous ironically blossom in different colours.
Jatamasi plant which is renowned for its medicinal value and also used as an incense grows wildly here and the locals do good business selling it although it means sometimes climbing dangerous precipitous slopes. One also comes across a lot of Rhubarbs which adorn the mountainsides.
Muguthang at 4527 m (14850 ft) consists of a few huts built in typical Tibetan style. It is remote and undisturbed and preserves the murmurs of an ancient life. Surprisingly, there is a lot of greenery around although this consists mainly of small scrubs. The Government has even opened a school here although there are just two students in its roll and one teacher. Herds of yaks and sheep are seen all around. It is amazing to see how these beasts sit on the snow and doze off to sleep as though the snow was a mattress of cotton. The mainstay of the livelihood of this place are in fact these animals-the yaks for their milk, cheese, butter, meat and skin and the sheep for their wool- making life almost self-supporting here. These products are highly in demand and the profits are good. Even the droppings of the yaks finds good use as fuel. The yakdung is patted into cakes and stuck to the stone walls of the huts and let to dry – in the same manner as cowdung is dried in the villages in the plains.
During my visit to Mughthang, the village headman called me over for dinner. In his hut, chunks of raw yak-meat were let to dry over the fireplace and is eaten as such without cooking. The meat can last for months together and does not rot because of the cold and the low precipitation – less than 60 cm rainfall annually – thus inhibiting bacterial growth. A quaint smell of yak-meat, incense and burning yakdung permeated the air in the hut and it did take me quite sometime to get used to it. The lady wife was in one corner doing the cooking. She was heavily laden with gold ornaments – big ear-rings that seemed would almost tear her ear-lobe. A huge necklace with a pendant shaped in the form of a dragon adorned her chest. Each finger of her hands had a ring. I wondered how she was managing to do the cooking. In contrast to her ornaments, her baku – which is the local dress – was dirty. The room had a few faded thankas hanging on the stone walls. A statue of Guru-Padmasamva adorned the prayer altar in the other corner of the room. Packets of noodles and bottles of rum were stacked on the shelves near the fireplace. After a cup of butter tea and then a few rounds of Chang – the local beer made out of millet – dinner was served and consisted of Thukpa – noodles in meat soup, cheese, sheep-meat and rice.
A peculiar feature of the people, who are semi-nomadic, is that during winters when Muguthang becomes snowbound, they move their herds to higher altitudes instead coming down. There is a rationale behind this – at most of high altitude areas the winds blow stronger and this prevents the snow from settling down at one place thus leaving exposed the ground and vegetation which the yaks feed on.
An event which everybody looks forward to in Muguthang is the annual Yak race which takes place during the festival of DrukpaTeshi.
A further five hours walk on the Lonak valley from Muguthang takes you to wind-beaten Janak where the herders move their yaks during winter. From Janak a few hours walk ahead and you are at ChortenNyimala- a pass that opens into Tibet.
From Muguthang, it is also possible to reach the Green Lake Base Camp. It involves a journey of five hours to reach Thechala and then a further five hours to Green Lake. As yaks can ply on this route, mountaineering expeditions using the Green Lake Base Camp, to attempt peaks in this area prefer to send their equipment this way.
On the map this land may belong to the Government but I have always felt that this rolling wilderness is in fact the property of the nomads who stay here. They can pitch their tents anywhere, graze their yaks anywhere – there are no restrictions at all.