A sudden crack comes from the direction of the mountain. Dust is rising from behind a rocky crag. Then I see it, gathering speed, ploughing over the scree down the mountainside, a trail of debris behind. I watch as the huge boulder continues unforgivingly, crossing my walking path and slapping into the river. It bounces twice and crashes to a stop.
‘Did you see that!?’ I exclaim to the man who had cooked me daal and rice the night before. My heart is pounding. Tenzin seems unfazed. ‘It’s God’s Mountain’, he shrugs.
One of the last bastions of Tibetan Buddhism, Zanskar in northern India is a high-altitude semi-desert, home to fabled monasteries, whitewashed villages, glacial mountains and savage gorges. Gumbo Ranjan, or God’s Mountain, is an imposing, solitary peak located in the remote Kargyak Valley, and is one of the most sacred sites for Zanskari Buddhists.
Zanskar is separated from Ladakh, to the north, by the treacherous ridges of the Zanskar range, and protected from the monsoons to the south by the Great Himalayan range. This geography leaves it accessible by a road from the remote north for only a few months of the year. But, change is rapidly approaching. In the next couple of years, a new road is expected to open, crossing the Great Himalayan range, passing beneath Gumbo, and connecting Zanskar directly to southern India for the first time. Once an epic trekking trail to Ladakh, I am now walking the route of this new road, and have just struggled over the 5,000-metre Shingo La, one of the main passes of the Great Himalayas, entering Zanskar.
It is four days since I have seen a village and my phone signal petered out on the journey to the Himachali village of Darcha, the starting point of the trek. The previous night, I had gladly camped outside the first settlement in Zanskar, a lone stone-walled structure, near the base of Gumbo Rangjan, and the confluence of two icy rivers. Huddled under the hut’s tarpaulin roof, Tenzin, the keeper of the inn, tells me the road is long overdue.
“We grow lots of vegetables, but no-one eats them but us. Lahaul [the area to the south of the Shingo La] is famous for its potato and vegetable exports to the rest of northern India. With the road we can do the same. But actually, the new road will be most important in times of accidents and health emergencies. At the moment the amchis [traditional Tibetan doctors] mostly deal with health problems, and while there is a place for this, we need access to proper services.”
After deciding no more rocks were likely to erupt from Gumbo’s loins, I continue down the valley to Kargyak, the first village in Zanskar. Gumbo towers over me the whole day, a constant reminder of human inadequacy against the power of nature. Continuous chortens and mani walls (long earth mounds covered with flat stones engraved with Tibetan scriptures) line the valley towards Gumbo.
For most of that afternoon I sit very still at the window of my room, drinking black tea and watching the women of Kargyak pile bundles of branches onto the mud roofs and stack yak dung in perfect circles. Winter is approaching, quickly, and an adequate supply of fuel and food has to be prepared before it arrives. The tiny windows tell stories of its harshness. “Winter is for sleeping, drinking chang and making babies!” one resident tells me.
My hosts in Kargyak are an elderly gentlemen and his son, another Tenzin. While the father murmurs Tibetan scriptures from long pieces of yellowed paper, Tenzin expertly folds potato momos and discusses life in Kargyak. Most young people, it seems, go to university in one of the north Indian cities, and then return to Zanksar. Tenzin has finished his degree and talks of finding work in Dubai or the UAE. There are no options for him at home, he says. Change is coming, as the young are not content to live the hard life of their parents. Yet Tenzin is sceptical at the prospect of the new road and what it will bring.
“Most young people are not in favour,” he claims. “Walking is good for us, it is our way of life. We will start going everywhere by car, and lots of goods will arrive that we mostly don’t need. All this costs money. Our whole economy will change as we will only concerned with how much money we will make and what we can buy.”
As I continue north from Kargyak, I pass many Zanskaris returning on foot from the main town of Padum, where they have been attending the Dalai Lama’s summer teaching. As they rest the weight of their heavy loads on the side of the path, they tell me cheerily they have been walking for three days. Occasionally, I pass a solitary monk or man on horseback, another traditional mode of transport.
After Kargyak, villages appear quite often, connected by narrow paths often cut high into the side of gorges. My heartbeat rises several times as I have to nimbly navigate sections where scree-fall has submerged the path. It is not hard to see how after a road opens, few people will choose to walk, horses will cease to be kept and these paths will fall into disrepair.
Cultivable land is clearly scarce, but every available piece of flat land around these villages is irrigated by complex systems efficiently directing the glacial melt to the crops. A fine balance is required for adequate water supplies: enough snow in winters, and plenty of sunlight to melt it. Tashi, a monk I meet, points to how much one visible glacier has shrunk in his lifetime. “Who knows what will happen here in the future. This land cannot sustain more people than it does now.” The new road can only bring more people, I think.
As I rest in Padum I reflect on the forces that are permanently changing the region. The road will clearly bring benefits, such as easier access to medical services, but the local economy will be restructured with uncertain consequences. As people transition to cash-paying jobs, the traditional life will be irreversibly changed.
Today, the Zanskaris still welcome travellers seeking refuge from the harsh elements. Elderly monks, in the signature felt orange caps of the Gelukpa Tibetan Buddhists, still stop in local homes for a cup of tea and a chat before ambling off into the failing light. Religion, spirits and the elements, for now, continue to dictate life. But Zanskar is being surrounded and permeated by modernisation. How many more years will it be before the deluge starts, with all the good and bad things that will bring? God only knows.
Article by Eileen McDougall