Zanskar – Zoji La – Kargil -Padum – Leh (2009)

Zanskar – Zoji La – Kargil -Padum – Leh (2009)

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At 14000 feet above sea level, Penzi La may be the official gateway to Zanskar, a valley embedded deep in the entrails of Ladakh, but it is Drang Drung, the towering glacier just a few meters past Penzi La that dominates your digital lens and memory card, forming a spectacular backdrop to all those photographs guaranteed to excite envy back home.  The glacier, a languorous river of virgin snow is seductively veiled in mist and meanders sensuously between towering massifs.  Drang Drung is the source of two rivers – Stod and 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 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’ve had to skip Zanskar for logistical reasons. For nearly nine months a year, the rivers freeze over and the road to Zanskar itself is blanketed in two-meter high snow, leaving just a three month travel window from July to September every year.  There is only a single ingress point unless you’re willing to trek seven days over treacherous mountain passes to reach Darcha in Himachal, a feat most European visitors accomplish nonchalantly but which we, a group of middle-aged women are reluctant to undertake.  That’s why we decide to drive into Zanskar.

On this trip, we decide to make Padum, the largest village in Zanskar valley as our base for exploring 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, the treacherous Zojila Pass and through Dras, claimed to be the world’s coldest inhabited town outside of Siberia.   Kargil in peace time – the ceasefire, mercifully, has been holding till now – is an interesting town, but we press on towards Suru Valley through Sankoo to Panikhar where we camp for two nights to acclimatise.

Staying in the ramshackle and run-down J&K Tourism guest house – the only one available in Panikhar – has its own reward . You are treated to a breathtaking view of perpetually snow-crowned Nun and Kun peaks towering outside your windows – as you rise, first thing you glimpse in the morning is the Nun-Kun view.  They glisten with silvery dust and as the sun’s 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 a feast for the eyes – a myriad shades of  yellow and gold and everything in between – all barley crop at different stages of ripening.  Village women are busy harvesting, gathering, cleaning and cutting. We see so 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. Dirty children with runny noses pose for photographs.

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 sizeable flock of Pashm 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 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 supply.  These 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 council.

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 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 frolic marmots, the Himalayan cousin of  the common squirrel, only much larger in size. Bushy tailed and beady-eyed, they scamper all over and stand on two 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 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.

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 atop a hill from where you get a vantage view of the most serene expanse of wilderness. A unit of the Indian army is perpetually stationed in Rangdum Gompa after a tragic incident in 2002 when two monks of the monastery were shot dead by a militant who had crossed into even this remote and tranquil valley.

The next day, we are at Penzi La, the mountain pass that opens into lush and lively 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 upto Padum admiring the villages scattered along the banks.  From time to time, a gompa comes into view, but none so spectacular as Karcha gompa , perched precariously on the ledge of the grand 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 locals, life has changed dramatically in the last 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 over-run 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.

Our first day at Zanskar is spent visiting 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 that turns a mill that grinds barley. A change from the usual use to which such streams are put – turning prayer wheels!  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 badly in need of restoration.

In the evening we stroll through Padum’s 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 flat expanse watched over by Gompas perched precariously on all sides. We drive to Sani Gompa resting under a giant Peepul tree in blossom!

If Padum is a theatre, the drama is provided by Karcha Gompa perched precariously on a vertical cliff of a five-thousand metre high peak..  In fact, it would be impossible for anyone driving into 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.  Inside the gompa, you are treated to a feast of frescoes depicting scenes from 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 arraigned in a row!  A wooden bridge swings violently across a tumultous Lungnak, daring you to cross it.

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 Jharkand 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.

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.

Our last day in Padum is spent climbing Zangla Fort,  a craggy outcrop of rock reached by trudging up treacherous  slopes. In the 18th century,  General Zorawar Singh, a Rajput warrior from what is today’s Himachal Pradesh had crossed into Zanskar through the Suru river with around 5000 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!

(Published in Frontline dated Nov 7, 2009)

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