To Zanskar, beyond and back again

Updated on May 07, 2016 08:29 PM IST

The path to the remote, but beautiful Kashmir region is treacherous enough, and this hiker did it all alone

ByText and pictures by Shubham Mansinghka

My Lahauli friends chide me for being too upbeat about trekking to Zanskar solo, without a map, a tent or a sleeping bag. “Even we locals don’t go alone”, they say.

This is why: The Zanskar region, which occupies the eastern half of Jammu and Kashmir is a sort of hiker’s holy grail. The terrain is rugged. The roads are largely unmotorable. Those little pitstops that sustain mountaineers across the Himalayas with noodles, chai and warmth are entirely absent. When you decide to head for Zanskar, you don’t plan on what to do when you get there, you plan simply to get there.

I’ve planned to get there alone.

As I start from Darcha on the Manali-Leh route I know why the locals were laughing so nervously. Bad weather has kept the ATM defunct for two consecutive days. So all I have is `4,000 and my wits, I guess. All along the way, the locals express both incredulity and concern for me. “I will tell everyone who passes this way to take care of you,” says one dhaba owner. Okay. Now I’m starting to sweat.

A very icy start

When you cross the Shingo La pass, the breeze feels icy and the Zankarpa cry “Ki Ki So So Largyalo”, a Tibetan chant meaning “Victory to the gods”
When you cross the Shingo La pass, the breeze feels icy and the Zankarpa cry “Ki Ki So So Largyalo”, a Tibetan chant meaning “Victory to the gods”

In Keylong, the town where I started off, I’d been told that if I walked fast “there are villages every four to five hours”. Here, a village means anything from a one-room home to a cluster of flimsy houses. I’m carrying a laptop and a backpack so when horsemen going to Kargyak agree to carry my bags for `300 this early on my journey, it can only be a good thing, right?

And yet, it’s not long before I’ve crossed the snow-bound Shingo La, 5091m above sea level, and realise I’m lost. And cold. sI’m wearing shorts because that dhaba owner told me there’d be many water crossings and getting wet means I could fall sick. At the summit of the pass, the horsemen had yelled prayers to the mountain gods and I’d joined in too. There was a certain calm at the highest point of the trek. Snow blanketed the landscape, there was a blue lake at the top, and I’d stopped for a breather. The locals however marched ahead and I lost them in no time. Big mistake.

My heart rate zooms. My half-litre water bottle is empty and horrific scenes cross my mind. Mountaineers talk about hallucination, perhaps it is this. There isn’t one living thing around, not even flowers. I feel a headache coming on but somehow turn back, drink from a muddy stream and look at my watch. It is only half past one, I have five-six hours of daylight left to retrace my steps to safety.

And then, luck! Is that a tiny yellow tent at the base of a faraway mountain? The roaring waters of Tsarap Lingti (or Lakhang river) between us are frigid, but the solitary dhaba owner on the other side has sent horsemen to help me across on horseback. At the tent, I collapse in shock and relief.

Freeze frames

Yaks graze under the Gumboranjan peak, sacred to the Zanskaris
Yaks graze under the Gumboranjan peak, sacred to the Zanskaris

Next day, the valley flattens out and under a glorious sun, it turns out to be one of the best days of the trek. Ochre, purple, orange and maroon make up the lush green valleys. Wildflowers bloom as the river quietly flows. Yaks roam wildly, munching on grass in the shadow of the mighty Gumboranjan peak. The sight of the first village in Zanskar, Kargyak, makes me ecstatic. Every family owns horses here, their wealth is measured in cattle. Their whitewashed houses are interspersed with green and gold barley fields amid the stark landscape. I do a little dance of happiness, a good meal is within reach!

I don’t quite believe it; the locals keep asking if am a foreigner! They say no one treks alone on this path, let alone an Indian. The entry register in Kargyak lists only a handful of people who have crossed Shingo La in 2015. None are from India.

Word has spread in the valley: an Indian is trekking, and he’s all alone. So people recognise me whenever I approach habitation.The following days are full of warm people, windswept landscapes and old Buddhist villages. By the time I reach Purne, I have only `1,000 left. But how rich I am in experience!

Prayer for passage

There was no time to linger with the young monks as the journey back had to be made before daylight faded
There was no time to linger with the young monks as the journey back had to be made before daylight faded

The 2,000-year-old cave monastery of Phugtal is called the world’s most remote monastery and I can certainly see why. The river has devastated the path and after negotiating steep precipices, I’m faced with a swaying river bridge. The monastery has stationed monks on the other side to impart faith to travellers. It is scary. One guy from New Zealand was recently swept away by the river. Don’t look down, the monks urge. Just cross nonchalantly. So I do. Then how come my fingers are bleeding from clutching its wires along the side?

Phugtal gompa, once I reach, is idyllic, a fortress against mountains of various colours. I tell the monks I’ll return one day, and I leave just as afternoon prayers begin. My mind is preoccupied with crossing the bridge back. So near and yet so far. The high ranking lamas gift me a cap out of respect for having come alone on the treacherous path.

I’m penniless, my shoes torn by the time I reach Padum, but I am seen as a mini celebrity on my way back. Once safely home, the locals I exchanged numbers with called me months later to confirm that I happened to be the only Indian to have trekked from Darcha in Lahaul to Padum in Zanskar in all of 2015.

It had been a lifelong dream that resulted in an epic journey. And it’s really not too far. Distance is all in the mind.

From HT Brunch, May 8, 2016

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