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Between worlds
Remote enough to hold the march of modernity at bay, Zanskar’s austere beauty and spirituality make it feel like a land outside the bounds of time
Story by Matthew Crompton

— September/October 2012

SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2012 —

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to repeat over the next days, each time causing me to remember that conversation with the agent back in padum. walking past the long wall of mani prayer stones that marked the entrance to the village, i was struck by how completely pishu, only a day’s walk from padum, already felt like an outpost beyond the reach of civilisation: rough stone walls mortared with mud, stacked piles of dried cowpats and scrubby thornwood hoarded as fuel, grubby children with tattered clothes and dirt-streaked faces spinning a creaking prayer wheel. among the worn carpets and hammered copper teakettles of her home, a woman named malik, ancient in her pigtails and felt earflap hat, her skin tanned and lined as old leather, served me black tea with rancid butter and the ground barley-flour powder known as tsampa, a subsistence staple of the ethnic tibetan communities of the high mountains, its flavor nutty, its consistency like that of oatmeal. “Je zhimpo rak le,” i said, politely indicating that it was delicious, and malik smiled raffishly, her eyes going crinkly and her grin gapped with missing teeth. she cackled and patted me on the shoulder, then turned to leave me alone with my tea. as she shuffled away i saw she wore a cape of greasy leather and old white fur, the skin of a mountain goat, which marked her as a married woman, a tradition that an old man working his string of prayer beads outside told me had disappeared even as near as leh, the capital of eastern kashmir. i slept well that night and rose early. a full day of walking. two. walking beneath boundless skies, in a high, brown desert. at times, Zanskar felt like the most elemental place on earth – the houses and walls of stone and mud, cowpats precious as wood in this treeless place, the dry dust rising in clouds from my footsteps and the silty Zanskar river, water of life, which i followed, flowing swiftly beside me. more than anything, though, it was the sky: endless blue, deep cobalt and flawless as a diamond, stretching on above everything, even the highest peaks. everything eventually returns to that. on the morning of my third day i left the river and made the long climb to purfi la at 3,850m, broad-winged lammergeiers keening and wheeling on the thermals above me. it was the first real climbing of the trek, and the full weight of my pack dragged on me all the long day as i walked, descending 500m to a small bridge over the Zinchen tokpo which marked the boundary between Zanskar and ladakh, then climbing back up 400 murderous metres on increasingly hairy hillside trails until i came to a small parachute-tent hut tucked into a steep, narrow defile at snertse (‘nert-say’). it was here that i would pick up the fleas that would be travelling with me for the next five days, sleeping on a thin rug laid over broken stones, the parachute-tent open to the elements on one side so that i snuggled into a borrowed horse-blanket that turned out to be teeming with vermin. and it

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I was struck by how completely Pishu, only a day’s walk from Padum, already felt like an outpost beyond the reach of civilisation

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outliers of humanity the green terrace-plateaus of lingshet village (left) and Pipiting village and its famous gompa, just outside Padum (below).

Leh zanskar

China

pakistan delhi

india
“You will need two horses, a ponYman, a guide and a cook.” i was sitting in the dusty travel agent’s office in the blinding July sunlight of padum, a one-lane town at the road’s end i’d arrived at the previous evening. “i was hoping for something a bit more minimal.” the agent rubbed his chin whiskers and sucked his teeth, obviously intent on employing half the town’s tiny population for my impending journey into the surrounding mountains. “not possible,” he said, shaking his head. “no, not at all possible.” i’d come to padum, the administrative centre of far northern india's remote Zanskar region, via a hellish two-day hitchhike down the broken road from kargil, and as i was about to go off the map, i badly needed information. it was an eight-day walk north from padum back up to the
— September/October 2012

leh-srinagar highway near lamayuru, and i carried only a day-pack: no sleeping bag, no tent. now, it looked like i’d be walking solo. Zanskar, 7,000 square kilometres in area but containing only 14,000 people, borders the similar high-altitude, semi-desert of ladakh, into which i would be crossing in just a few days’ time, and was important to me for a number of reasons. it was a territory of india, yes, but had only been open to the world since 1974. and even as india rocketed towards an increasingly global future, Zanskar remained a world apart – a mountain hermit's kingdom, distant and self-contained, completely cut off for at least half the year except via a multi-day trek down the frozen Zanskar river. more, with nepal’s annapurna circuit breathing its last breath in a flurry of apple-pie sellers and road construction, and tibet firmly in the hands of china, it remains one of the last accessible yet largely unaltered bastions of himalayan Buddhism in the world. it is a gorgeous place, a postcard stand of stunning vistas, but it was also more than that. some people might call it a place between heaven and earth. For me, it often seemed a different kind of limbo, a place between worlds – a liminal zone, hung between the world as it is and will be, and a prior world, now mostly vanished. as i entered the village of pishu in the deep afternoon of my first day after 20 largely flat kilometres across baked, brown earth beneath intense blue skies i was greeted with wide eyes. “where is your horse?” i was asked. “i am my own horse,” i replied, pointing to my chest, and they nodded sagely. it was an exchange i was
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was here too that i met raul langa, a spanish psychologist who had found himself between worlds, and decided to stay. my flanks spotted with dozens of itching bites, raul and i began the long, steady climb up the narrow valley the next morning, switching back and forth over the tiny stream at its centre, scrambling over loose rocks and old crusts of dirty snow. “i was 29 years old when i came here,” he said as we walked, “and i realised i was like a lollipop, all head and nothing else. i had been doing therapy, trying to help people, but i realised, how can i help people when i myself am this way, my world so narrow? so i came to india, and at 30 years old, i finally found my body, finally learned to walk.” we reached the 4,710m pass at hanuma la and stood staring at the sharp, white-capped teeth of the ladakh range rising like primal gods in the empty vastness of space. “at home,” he said, “you always see things the same way, in little boxes," we stood looking out in the cold wind. “these boxes, though, are nothing,” he continued. "They are just your mind. now, i come to

The walk reduced me to abject petitionary prayer, my breath catching in my chest every time the loose slope gave beneath me

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sPace to be yourself the mountains to walk, where things no shortage of elbow room for a are open. it's like meditation for me, lone figure descending the trail from like yoga.” hanuma la, or for this boy standing i left him two hours later, in among the barley outside his home the valley in the shade of another in hanumil village. parachute tent, napping away the worst of the day’s sun as i continued into the village of lingshet, two hours further on. my guidebook described only a ‘gradual descent’ into the town, never mentioning the multiplicity of paths, the deep ravines, the long traverse of a 150 metre-high scree slope on paths that were never more than 30cm wide, and often no broader than a foot‘s width. The walk reduced me to abject petitionary prayer, my breath catching in my chest every time the loose slope gave beneath me, sending stones tumbling the long, long way to the valley floor below. lingshet, though, was more than adequate reward: a green oasis of stepped plateaus at 3,850m, isolated and thriving thanks to its centuries-old monastery (belonging to the tibetan gelugpa sect) and an ingenious watermanagement system, channelling snowmelt for irrigation, drinking, and washing through an endless series of hand-dug channels, dams and gates. The people here are herders and barley-farmers, shockingly self-sufficient in milk and meat and wool and tsampa; and i sensed that if the modern world were to end tomorrow, life here would be almost completely unaffected. not, of course, that this was entirely true. speaking to 18-year-old lobzang targyas skalpa in the family home where i slept, the subject of music came up. “who do you like to listen to?” i asked.

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“mmm, shakira,” he said, smiling. “akon . . . and Justin Bieber.” This in a place bounded on each side by a 5,000m pass. The road, people in the village told me, was inching down at a glacial pace from the leh-srinagar highway, and would be here in less than twenty years, possibly ten. and other changes had already begun, were in fact long underway. nawang tsephel, an elderly monk at the monastery whom i waylaid on his way back to the village the next day near the pass at 4,320m khyupa la, swept a hand around at the sharp, high, dusty mountains around us. "Before," he said, "in winter, not growing the vegetables up. now, is possible. You look around you, on the mountains before, many glacier, so white. now less. less, less, less. every year is less." i wondered: how do you fight the dying of a world? hours later near the base of singge la, my journey's highest point at 5,010m, there was no village, no encampment, only a single tea hut of broken stones with a parachute roof, staffed by a man, tsering, and his father. They invited me into the tiny space to spend the night with them, the air growing frigid as darkness dragged an indigo cloak across the sky, brilliant with the pinpricks of stars. There, in the weak light of a single electric lantern, with the mice rooting among the parcels stacked around our bodies, tsering and his father began a low, ululating prayer-chant, “om mani padme hum”, each sustaining a different tone as the chant droned on amid the clicking of prayer beads, so that it sounded almost like an entire chorus of voices. The following day i would rise in the bitter dawn and climb gasping to the wind-scoured pass rising five kilometres above the level surface of the earth, and then turn down into the long brown valley beyond, wind moving in the barley fields like a poem. i would nearly founder crossing a swollen river, and eventually, days later, my steps would meet the road, where the world i had left began again. this moment, though, the low prayer rising and falling around me in the darkness of this great wilderness, neither in one world nor the next, was everything this trek was to me. my heart swelled, i closed my eyes and felt like i was floating, then turned my face into the stones, and slept. AA

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leading by examPle Zanskar gorge below 3,850m Purfi la (left). children drive their sheep and goats home before nightfall, lingshet village (below).

PracticalitieS

When to go
Padum is only accessible via road from June – October, though it’s possible to trek down the frozen Zanskar river in winter.

Singge la base, which have snacks, but no accommodation for larger groups. For those, camping equipment will be necessary.

Contacts and further info
arranging your trek in leh is the easiest option. try rimo expeditions, www.rimoexpeditions.com; Wild escapes, www.ladakh.com or Yama treks, www.yamatreks.com. another option is ibex expeditions in Delhi, www.ibexexpeditions.com

how to get there
Fly or overland from Delhi to leh or Srinagar. Begin hiking from the north at lamayuru on the leh-Srinagar highway, or from the south at Padum. either way, you’ll take the Padum-Kargil stretch of highway, a minimum two-day journey by hitchhiking or hired jeep (bargaining starts at rs.10,000). the leh-Padum bus is not a reliable option.

secure for now treacherous rocks meant bolting almost every stage of the journey, each bolt reducing the team’s precious supply.

What to take
a fleece jacket, sunglasses, sunscreen and a good hat. lots of water, possibly iodine tablets for water from the springs along the way. First aid kit. if camping, full kit including sleeping bag and tent, possibly stove and food. You may wish to hire a horse in this case.

Where to stay and eat
it is possible to stay and eat in the homes of villagers along the way in Pishu, Hanumil, lingshet, Photaksar, Honupatta, and Wanlah. it’s a wonderful experience and rs.500 rupees per night would be a polite donation to make for this. there are only tea-huts at Snertse and the

— September/October 2012

September/October 2012 —

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