Across Zanskar

Print edition : November 20, 2009

Herding their goats through the treacherous Zoji La pass.-

AT 4,200 metres above sea level, Penzi La may be the official gateway to Zanskar, a valley embedded deep in the entrails of Ladakh in Jammu and Kashmir. But it is Drang Drung, the towering glacier just a few metres past the mountain pass, that dominates your digital lens and memory card, forming a spectacular backdrop to all those photographs that is guaranteed to excite envy back home. The glacier, a languorous river of virgin snow, seductively veiled in mist, meanders sensuously between towering massifs. Drang Drung is the source of two rivers the Stod and the Lungnak which, like a feuding couple, diverge in opposite directions although eventually they do make up and merge once again in Pakistani territory. One of them goes to water the Zanskar valley, while the other clothes the Suru valley in an emerald blanket of barley and wheat.

We are a group of three women seduced by the disdainfully distant and breathtakingly beautiful Zanskar valley, one of the remotest and least accessible regions in the country. On my two earlier trips to Ladakh during this decade, I had to skip Zanskar for logistical reasons. For nearly nine months a year, the rivers freeze over and the road to Zanskar is blanketed in two-metre-high snow, leaving just a three-month travel window from July to September. There is only a single ingress point unless you are willing to trek seven days over treacherous mountain passes to reach Darcha in Himachal Pradesh, a feat most European visitors accomplish nonchalantly but which we, a group of middle-aged women, are reluctant to undertake. That is why we decide to drive into Zanskar.

Barley terraces, a view from the Stongdey monastery.-

On this trip, we decide to make Padum, the largest village in the Zanskar valley, our base to explore the surrounding regions studded with gorgeous gompas, watched over by towering peaks and sliced by tortuous trekking trails.

Our fortnight-long journey begins in Srinagar whence we drive to Kargil cresting the stunningly beautiful Sonamarg and the treacherous Zoji La pass and through Dras, claimed to be the worlds coldest inhabited town outside of Siberia. Kargil in peace time the ceasefire, mercifully, has been holding is an interesting town, but we press on towards Suru valley through Sankoo to Panikhar where we camp for two nights to acclimatise.

The crop in different stages of ripening.-

Staying in the ramshackle and run-down Jammu and Kashmir Tourism guest house the only one available in Panikhar has its own reward. You are treated to a breathtaking view of the perpetually snow-crowned Nun and Kun peaks towering outside your windows as you wake up, the first thing you glimpse in the morning is the Nun and the Kun. They glisten with silvery dust and as the suns first rays bathe their crowns, they turn golden and glow with an ethereal sheen. All day you feast your eyes on the twin peaks through your dining room windows or from the front lawn. What a magnificent start to an enthralling journey.

We wander through the villages of Panikhar and Tai Suru where golden barley terraces nod a wavy welcome. August is harvest time and it is a feast for the eyes a myriad shades of yellow and gold and everything in between, all barley crops at different stages of ripening. Village women are busy harvesting, gathering, cleaning and cutting. We see many of them walking bent forward with the burden of the harvested crop, which they carry on their backs to the thresher mounted on a tractor. The men of the villages seem to just lounge around. Children with runny noses pose for photographs.

Village women harvesting and (below) threshing the crop.-

Suru is Shia country and Tai Suru boasts a mosque and an Imambara, the former with a tin dome that is painstakingly decorated with arabesque motifs. Shepherds looking as if they have just stepped out of the Bible herd their sizable flock of Pashmina (changthangi) goats through the village after a day of grazing on the slopes. We watch the goats stray into houses, nibbling at crop left to dry. Later in the evening, we drive to the nearby villages, Tangol and Achambore, to see some deep ravines and gorges gouged out by a gurgling Suru river. The setting is surreal.

Suru is perhaps the greenest valley in Ladakh, even greener than Nubra. Villages are usually wedged in the alluvial fan between the base of two mountains. An adjacent snow-melt provides the water. The streams are diverted to barley and pea crops through channels that are unique to this region. In fact, every village has a little nullah running parallel to the road and this constitutes municipal water supply. Women bring their dishes and clothes to the nullah to wash. Drinking water comes usually from an unpolluted snow-melt stream or through a pump installed by the local administration.

After a couple of days of acclimatisation in Suru, we move on. En route we pass Parkachik, the glacier that forms the source of many streams, which swell up and eventually join the Stod and Suru rivers. Parkachik village sprawls in the valley below while some more houses perch on a ledge opposite the glacier. Then come the rolling meadows on which marmots, the Himalayan cousin of the common squirrel, only much larger in size, frolic. Bushy-tailed and beady-eyed, they scamper all over and stand on their hind legs much like meerkats. But once your vehicle approaches shooting (with camera) distance, they dart into their burrows and stick only their furry heads out.

Our next stop is Rangdum, a tiny hamlet in the most desolate, aloof and windswept plains adjoining the Zanskar valley. Geographically, Rangdum may belong to the Suru valley, but socially and culturally it has more in common with Buddhist Zanskar. There is a gorgeous gompa atop a hill right in the midst of a panoramic vista criss-crossed by pebbly streams and surrounded by majestic mountains with their own distinctive barcodes striations made millions of years ago when these mountains were buried under the Sea of Tethys. In fact, the entire Himalayan range has been thrown up from the sea, which is why you find corals and shells embedded in the slopes. Ladakhi women wear exquisite coral and turquoise necklaces and other jewellery.

A watermill used to turn prayer wheels.-

Julidok, the village in Rangdum, has no more than a dozen houses, all its occupants in the service of the gompa. We visit some village homes and watch young girls milk yaks. Despite its tiny size, Rangdum has five or six shops, mostly eateries serving instant noodles and gurgur chai. We hike to the gompa, from where you get a vantage view of the most serene expanse of wilderness.

A unit of the Indian Army is perpetually stationed in the Rangdum gompa after a tragic incident in 2002 when two monks of the monastery were shot dead by a militant who had crossed into this remote and tranquil valley.

A girl milking a yak at Rangdum.-

The next day we are at Penzi La, the pass that opens into the Zanskar valley, a strip of isolated and stream-crossed land hemmed in by two of the grandest mountain ranges in the region the Zanskar range and the Greater Himalayan range. We drive along the Stod river all the way up to Padum, admiring the villages scattered along the banks. From time to time, a gompa comes into view, but none so spectacular as the Karcha gompa, perched precariously on the ledge of the Zanskar range.

We stay in Padum for the next four days, but it might as well be four eons. Such is the overwhelming feeling of isolation from the rest of the world. Yet, for the local people, life has changed dramatically in the past few years. Whereas ponies would ferry supplies over dangerous mountain passes until a few years ago, now trucks hiss into the valley during summer to stock the villages out for the remaining nine months. The colourful market sports some stylish eateries offering authentic Ladakhi and Tibetan fare. In summer, the town is overrun by European travellers seeking adventure they come here for rafting in the Zanskar river and trekking and camping out in the open. When we were in Zanskar this August, we did not spot a single Indian traveller.

Drang drung, The towering glacier just a few metres from Penzi La, the official gateway to Zanskar.-

Our first day at Zanskar is spent visiting the Zongkul gompa, tucked away in the folds of the Great Himalayan range. Most taxi drivers baulk at the suggestion of a trip to the gompa the route is too rocky and dangerous even by Zanskar standards, but our driver can scarcely resist our persuasive powers. We trundle along the bumpy incline through a pebble-strewn slope. En route we stop at an unmanned waterwheel turning a mill that grinds barley. A change from the usual use to which such streams are put turning prayer wheels!

The Zongkul gompa is hidden away in a cave in the primordial folds of a rocky overhang and it takes quite a bit of lung power to scale the rock. The steps hewn out of rocks are jagged and crooked, the scenery takes away any breath that you may have left as you ascend. Inside the cave, butter lamps lovingly arranged at the altar speak of a diligent and devoted clergy. Zongkul has some lovely frescoes that are badly in need of restoration.

A FRESCO in the Sani gompa depicting the Jataka tales.-

In the evening, we stroll through Padums high street with its shops sporting notices for shared rides back to Kargil and Leh. Most shops display a melange of merchandise from thangkas to toothpaste and even veggies, not to mention some exquisite turquoise necklaces. We forage for trinkets and wrap up the day with a typically Tibetan meal of thukpa and momos.

The next three days are spent exploring the neighbourhood. The valley is a vast expanse watched over by gompas perched precariously on all sides. We drive to the Sani gompa resting under a giant peepul tree in blossom.

The Zongkul Gompa's sanctum sanctorum.-

If Padum is a theatre, the drama is provided by the Karcha gompa, perched precariously on a vertical cliff of a 5,000-metre-high peak. In fact, it would be impossible for anyone driving into the Zanskar valley not to be stunned by the dramatic location of the gompa, perched on the snow-tipped Zanskar range and overlooking the Greater Himalayan range. The gompa strikes you as much for its location as for its ornamentation. Deep red, ochre, golden and yellow designs, so lovingly carved by skilled artisans, stand out brilliantly against a cobalt blue sky and a grey river meandering between the ranges.

The Rangdum Gompa.-

Inside the gompa, you are treated to a feast of frescoes depicting scenes from the Jataka tales. A monk serves us a bowl of dry fruits and yak butter tea a courtesy extended to all visitors who take the trouble of visiting this monastery. Through the windows of the gompa you glimpse a patchwork quilt of barley terraces. The drive back from the gompa takes you through more stunning sand sculpture like meerkats arranged in a row. A wooden bridge swings violently across a tumultuous Lungnak, daring you to cross it.

Masks for ceremonial dances.-

Stongdey is another gompa, similarly perched but a little less dramatic since it is hidden away from view as you drive to it. Colourful chortens and fluttering prayer flags welcome you as you make your way past the rubble left by restoration work. Boys from as far away as Bihar and Jharkhand toil away, quarrying stones and repairing berms. This gompa sports a priceless library of scrolls neatly arranged in decorative wooden drawers. Two ancient-looking monks are busy bent over a statue, painting it for the next festival.

Monks at the Stongdey gompa.-

The next day we make our way to a chomossery a nunnery. Withered old nuns sporting black-rimmed spectacles chat on cell phones yes, BSNL has ensured connectivity in this remote outpost and go about their quotidian business. There is even a Prasar Bharti station in this wilderness and you get local news and music over the airwaves.

Prayer Flags at Penzi La.-

Our last day in Padum is spent climbing the Zangla fort, a craggy outcrop of rock reached by trudging up treacherous slopes.

The Karcha gompa, perched precariously on the cliff of a 5,000-metre-high peak.-

In the 18th century, General Zorawar Singh, a Rajput warrior from what is todays Himachal Pradesh, crossed into Zanskar through the Suru river with around 5,000 men and subjugated the local chieftains. He boasts several exploits and is a revered historical figure in these parts. Zangla was the fort that Zorawar built to rule Zanskar. It commands a spectacular view of the entire valley, but sadly, it is in a state of such ruin that it seems beyond restoration.

(The second and final part will trace our journey from Kargil to Leh and thence to Pangongtso, the pristine lake at 4,500-plus m and to the Siachen base camp across the Nubra valley with its sand dunes and Bactrian camels.)

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