Thursday, July 15, 2010

On the road to Zanskar (July 1-3)

The next morning in Mulbekh we climb up to the gompa and have stunning views of the valley. I walk down to Wakha village, passing friendly locals along the way, and in the afternoon I rest until the Ghosh’s turn up. We had decided they would spend the night in Mulbekh but the plan got changed again and we ended up going all the way to Kargil. Uneventful evening while logistics got sorted out, and the next morning, off we were!

Zanskar is known for its isolation, the less visited part of Ladakh, and it really inspires awe, loneliness, and well, makes you feel like an insignificant nothing. Not necessarily a bad thing. The journey to Padum would be broken over 2 full days of travel. The first morning we left Kargil at 7am, reaching Sankoo by 9am where we had breakfast where I had eaten on my daytrip there, and off we went. Up until about Panikhar the scenery of the Suru Valley remains similar, with green patches of land at the bottom of the valley with wide mountains spreading up, framed by snowcapped peaks. Nearing Panikhar we got some good views of the Kun mountain range. Continuing on past Parkachik, we seemed to arrive in the home of the giants, with enormous mountains, many with glaciers explosively tumbling down from them, everywhere you could see. Finally, around 2pm we arrived in the tiny village of Rangdum, where we would spend the first night.

Rangdum has 280 inhabitants, and the village is essentially at the convergence of 3 enormous valleys, and the scene is breathtaking. We set ourselves up in a homestay and after a delicious lunch I decided to head off to the monastery, Rangdum Gompa. Rangdum is considered the first place going from Kargil to Zanskar that it really becomes Buddhist territory, and from Rangdum onwards the landscape is dotted with ancient monasteries and stupas. I knew I would be pushing it for time but I figured if I didn’t go, the whole day would basically have been just spent on travel and I wanted to go explore. They told me there was no shortcut, that I should just follow the road. Well, idiot me decided it looked straightforward enough and there would just be tiny streams to hop over so I would make a straight line for the monastery rather than heed the advice of locals (like I said, idiot me).

Turns out I had to take my shoes off and wade across some pretty freezing stream areas, which is fresh snowmelt so exceedingly cold, and although the water I crossed was pretty much always below the knee, it was flowing with such ferocity that I often was getting pushed down several meters and struggling to stay standing. Oh well. I arrived at the monastery, chatted with the Muslim schoolteachers who were drinking tea with the Buddhist monks, and told them I should head back before dark. So off I went, and again had some stupid ideas to cross the plain, in a different angle this time, which ended up resulting in even more water crossing. I arrived in Rangdum village as it was getting dark and it was nice to get inside and warm up.

Dinner was fabulous momos which Remi helped to make, these Tibetan style dumplings, some filled with potato, some with spinach and onion…the next morning, we woke up as the sun was brilliantly illuminating the mountains. As is often the case in high altitude settings, I was shocked to discover that behind all those mountains that you think are the roof of the world, there was a whole other range that we couldn’t see the previous day due to clouds. Phenomenal views, and splendid solitude as the only company I had were a few dzos (a breed of cow mixed with yak, very very strange looking animal).

After our breakfast of omelette and chapatti we headed off again, towards the famed Penzi-la Pass, which reaches 14,000 feet. The scenery from Rangdum headed towards the pass simply kept getting better. Around each bend we would see a new set of snow-covered mountains, ice overflowing, blindingly white. The Penzi-la Pass is one of the most beautiful mountain passes I have ever seen, and near it we wandered around a few half-frozen lakes, reflecting the majestic mountains inside their still waters. Just after the pass, we could see the Drang Drung Glacier spilling down the land, and we also saw a large lake that was turquoise blue, as high-altitude glacial lakes often are. Brilliant.

The descent to the Zanskar Valley afterwards gave a great idea as to the scale and enormity of the place. There were still snow-capped mountains all around, and the land resembled the American Southwest canyonlands, with dry rocks of all different colors forming the sides, and patches of green agricultural land in the bottom of the valley. It’s amazing to think that there is almost no rainfall in these areas, yet they are remarkably self-sufficient; in the short growing season they successfully irrigate all the melting glaciers and snow to water their crops, and then store them to survive the long, hard winters. Amazing.

We arrived in Padum at around 3pm, got settled, and then I headed to the nearby village with a beautiful little monastery and wandered through the fields. Zanskar definitely is a different place, and you are totally aware that there have not been hordes of tourists where you are. I don’t know if I’ll ever come back here, but I’m certainly grateful for having made the trip here.

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