Himalaya community longs for a road

By Paul Howard
Zanskar, northern India

Image source, PAUL HOWARD
Image caption,
The mountain road will help local people but is not universally welcomed

The remote Himalayan region of Zanskar is cut off from the rest of the world by snow for more than half the year but the gradual progress of a new road will eventually give the community a permanent connection.

The sight of the frozen river disappearing into the Stygian gloom of the gorge ahead made me pause.

"Never walk on the ice" - my mother's 35-year-old warnings about the perils of frozen ponds rang loud in my ears.

Noticing my hesitation, my friend Tanzin - who lived in London but whose home and family were the other side of this imposing obstacle and were the reason for our journey - chided me gently and demonstrated just how solid the ice was by skating nonchalantly.

He was right. It was too late to back out now.

We had travelled halfway round the world to spend the next five days walking through the frozen Zanskar river gorge high in the Indian Himalayas.

Any qualms I felt should have been long resolved.

Image source, PAul howard
Image caption,
Months of isolation each year make life extremely difficult for local people

In this respect I was lucky. Those, like Tanzin, who come from the remote Buddhist region of Zanskar, do not have the luxury of choice.

Trapped behind 6,000-metre-high (20,000 ft) peaks, the high passes that provide summer access to Zanskar are blocked by snow for seven months of each year, leaving Zanskar completely isolated.

The only exception is in the early months of the year, when the plummeting temperatures (-30°C is not uncommon) allow the Zanskar river to freeze and the pathless gorge to be negotiated. If you do not mind walking on the ice, that is.

It was time to take the plunge - though only metaphorically, I hoped.

I stepped forward. The ice held.

This ought not to have been a surprise. As well as safely supporting my myself and Tanzin, the frozen Zanskar river has supported traders and pilgrims for nearly 1,000 years.

Once a tributary of the famous Silk Route, the Chadar (the name given to the journey through the Zanskar river gorge) is essential to life in Zanskar.

Without it, permanent habitation would not have been possible.

Image source, PAul Howard

Yet the fate of the Chadar - even that of Zanskar itself - is now uncertain.

Change began with the arrival, in the 1980s, of tourists looking for that elusive combination of adventure and a "genuine" cultural experience.

As we made our way through the gorge, the majority of those we encountered were either trekkers or their guides, cooks and porters.

There were no longer monks taking yak butter to sell in neighbouring Ladakh, or returning with copper pans from the appropriately named village of Chilling at the head of the gorge.

Far more significant, however, was the road workers' camp we passed on our arrival in Zanskar proper, and not just because the Indian army officer in charge was so drunk he could no longer recall where (or even what) the satellite phone was that we hoped to use to call for a jeep to collect us.

The camp marked the current extent of the new road that is being blasted through the river gorge and that will, once finished, provide Zanskar with its first permanent connection with the outside world.

Exactly how long it will take to complete is uncertain. Construction started more than 10 years ago and there is still a lot of hard work to be done.

The exact impact of the changes it will bring is similarly unclear.

What is clear is that Zanskar, for now at least, is still defined by its isolated past - the careful husbanding of scarce resources that has allowed people to live in such a hostile environment for a millennium, and the continued observance of cultural and religious traditions now proscribed in Chinese-controlled Tibet, that has prompted the Dalai Lama to say Zanskar is vital to the future of Tibetan Buddhism as a whole.

What was also clear - I discovered while spending a week enjoying noodle stews and potent, home-brewed chang with Tanzin's family - was the local desire for the road to be completed as soon as possible.

The concerns I expressed about the loss of traditions like the Chadar in an increasingly homogenised world cut little ice (if you will excuse the pun) with those for whom a round trip to the shops, or the hospital, is such a perilous 10-day trek.

Image source, Paul Howard
Image caption,
Doing the school run is not easy for local families

The reasons for this enthusiasm were reinforced as we took to the ice again for our return journey.

It was not the challenging Chadar that upset the cheerful group of parents and schoolchildren we met tackling the world's most arduous school run. Snow, ice and sub-zero temperatures are facts of life for Zanskaris.

It was the eight or 12 months away from home that resulted from Zanskar's continuing isolation that saw stoicism give way to sadness.

My own concerns about the wisdom of choosing to walk on the ice of the Zanskar river now seemed considerably less important.

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