Zanskar: In the Land Of Frozen Rivers

“Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.”

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Since we were unable to cycle through Zanskar a few weeks ago we decided instead to return with our backpacks in order to experience this completely isolated part of the world. Throughout eight months of the year, the one unpaved road leading onto the valley is snowed in and therefore completely inaccessible. This road was only built in the early 1980’s which reflects how new development and tourism to this area still is. During the winter, the only way out of the region is a long, dangerous, and treacherous trek out on the frozen river, an undertaking some of the children make in order to attend school in different regions. Parts of this valley are considered the coldest yearly inhabited areas in the world, and though there aren’t many left, there are still a few nomadic tribes who live in the area as well. The permanent settlements are still impressive in themselves as they are days away from any road, with passes ranging from 5,000m to 6,000m separating them from the rest of the world. There are also many famous monasteries in the region, literally in the middle of no where, carved into the rocks.

The whole region only sports about 13,000 people, and the largest city (Padum) is composed of about 700 homes. Though tourism is now beginning to open up the area, the residence are still self-sufficient farmers, a necessity when the nearest town is days away. As much of the region is close to or above 4,000m, there is not much land to cultivate which is why population stability is so important. Historically, they have been able to keep their population stable because of a high infant mortality rate, the many celebrate monks who inhabit the region, as well as polyandrous marriages (where several brothers are married to the same wife). During the summer the women and children leave their homes with the livestock and spend three or four months wandering the mountains. Yaks are especially important to this region as they provide fur for clothing and rope, milk, occasionally meat, and hard labor. Their dung is also the only fuel source available in the region. One of the most interesting and important features of this region is that (along with Ladakh) it hosts some of the only remaining Tibetan Buddhists as the Chinese Cultural revolution did not extend to India.

We have decided that we will do a ten or twenty day trek depending on how we feel. Halfway through (after ten days) we should arrive in Padum, the village we were trying to cycle to and the only access we will have to a road. If we are still feeling up to it and are able to refuel our food supplies, we hope to then continue another ten days, over a few more passes, until we end up on the famous Manali-Leh highway where we can flag a local bus to take us back to Leh.

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