Ladakh and Zanskar, part 1, in the land of earth and water

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The true harvest of my daily life is somewhat as intangible and indescribable as the tints of morning or evening. It is a little star-dustcaught, a segment of the rainbow which I have clutched

Thoreau, Walden, or life in the woods

This is, after all, a travel blog, (or at least it’s supposed to be, it’s too early to be dwelling on the true nature of things, I’ve not had a coffee yet) so let’s travel a bit. I’m taking you to Ladakh and Zanskar.

It all began, as it always seems to begin, for me, in a library. I was studying (that is, hanging loosely around the coffee machine in the hope that some procrastinating fairy might present me with a good excuse to kill some more time) when one of my best friends, and eternal accomplice of several revolutions we started through our studies, presented me with a lovely piece of paper with some unintelligible – but gracious – writing. It was her weeding invitation. Because she’s the kind of person – if there is a kind of people like that, I’m pretty sure she’s unique – who goes to India to do a community health project and ends up with a master thesis about a whole valley as well as several side projects, becomes the reference (yet unofficial) doctor for that region and, on a side note, finds a great ladakhi guide to marry. I have annoying friends like that.
So, when presented with the opportunity to start a gap year with a traditional Zanskari wedding, a Bastong Chenmo as they call it, I really had no choice but to come. I had already been twice in India, once in the South and once in the middle, so let’s go North for once, to Zanskar, which I knew next to nothing about. Here’s what I knew: It’s a small Buddhist region trapped in a bigger Muslim state, Jammu and Kashmir, it is a paradise for mountain-craving people (no wonder a lot of tourists going there are Swiss, we don’t really change!), there is somewhere a river on which you can trek, when it’s frozen in winter, and they drink tea with yak butter.
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We left for Delhi in the beginning of September, then, with a couple of friends who also thought it was going to be the wedding of our life time, and arrived in Leh, after an amazing flight over (but not very high above) the Himalayas. From the airplane window I discovered immense glaciers, shining in the morning light, chains of snow covered peaks, most of them unnamed and untouched, and small valleys, each of them an oasis of green in the surrounding desert, with small barley fields, poplar trees and white houses with dancing prayer flags. So, early on, you just know you’ve reached a place of wonder. And then you touch the ground, at 3500 meters of altitude, and carrying even your smallest bag on a flat road seems like the worst physical activity you’ve ever done. So we took a few days in Leh, Ladakh ‘s main city and ex-royal capital, to get used to the altitude and mostly go around the market and the gompas (monasteries) while completely out of breath, under the slightly mocking but very compassionate eye of the ladakhis, who could run a marathon here (and they do, there is one, climbing up to 5600 meters, if you’re up for it).

We then left for Zanskar, which is a valley South from Leh but that you can only reach through the road that goes East to Kargil, and then back west towards Padum. They’re building a road that follows the Zanskar river, which annoys trekkers because the most famous trek, that goes through this valley, is now less wild, but rejoices the Zanskari, because when it’s finished (in 10 or 15 years if they keep building it at the pace they’ve been building it for the last 10 years), Zanskar will only be about 6 hours jeep from “civilization”, and not 2 or 3 days away, with road blocks every now and then and the obligation, for zanskari drivers, to deal with the kargili taxi drivers. Those were sick of seeing tourists pass through Kargil (where there’s not much to do) and have organised themselves in a sort of mafia, forcing tourists to stop and use a kargili driver (and vehicle) to pass through. Not the easiest 400 km of road, then, also because the more you get close to Zanskar, the bumpier the road gets, but definitely “scenic”, if you’re ready to overlook the fact that this splendid view of the river 400 meters under the small dirt road might be observed a from a lot closer were the driver to be inattentive for a split second. After using the public buses in mountain roads of Nepal, I have to say I’m immune to it and enjoying the drive, but a friend, feeling not so at ease, promessed 1000 rupees to Buddha if we got out of here alive. That and the fact that, in good buddhists, we drove left from every stupa we crossed, must have given us a splendid kharma!
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We arrived in Tungri, a small village in Zanskar (200 people, about the same number of cows/yak/donkeys and a few stray dogs), surrounded by barley fields. One small “general store”, one monastery – or rather nunnery – on a hill above, a government school. As far as Zanskar goes, it’s not bad for a small village. From Tungri, since nobody would let us do anything for the wedding preparations, given that we were guests, and that guests are only allowed to eat and drink, both in great quantities, we left on a trek towards the most remote village of Zanskar, Shade.

The trek included several baths in the freezingly cold river (only some of them planned), near-meetings with bears, and generally having to find our way amongst small, innocent looking but very spiky plants, pierriers? made of small, rolling rocks and places were the way had simply been swallowed by the unusually heavy rains of last spring. Because, as it turns out, Zanskar is one of the driest place on Earth, but we’ve come on a record rainy year. It sounds harder than it was, and I’m absolutely not complaining: I love to walk, on any path – even on the absence of any recognisable path. I usually lead a life of fast pace, trying to juggle studies, hobbies, friends and more, always late for something, always having to rush through the chores of the day. I don’t mind, when I’m in the middle of it. It’s a conscious choice, after all, because when you go into medicine you pretty much either choose to abandon your life or continue living it, but have no rest anymore (I’m painting it dark, but it gives you an idea). Anyway, it’s a welcomed change to have your days dictated only by the pace your feet take, one goal: to keep walking towards the next pass, or the next valley, and not much else.

Travel, I’ve always felt, is an experiment of less: slowing down, removing yourself from what makes your daily life, instead of adding. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
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