Virginia Quarterly Monthly, Spring, 2009

Slipping from Shangri-La

The line of forty walkers moved quickly, which was good for keeping warm but bad for keeping my balance. Because we were walking on ice, a frozen river. The Zanskar, walled in on both sides by a towering gorge, is the only winter link between villages in that Himalayan valley and the outside world. And it’s only a link for a little while, in deepest winter, when its surface freezes enough to support human footsteps.

Zanskar is part of Ladakh–the eastern, Buddhist part of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. At more than 11,000 feet above sea level (with peaks as high as 23,000), the area has long been defined by remoteness. The valley has the feel of a cul-de-sac, because there is only one real road in and out–a dirt track from Kargil, an untouristed and predominantly Muslim town just a couple of miles from the disputed border (or “Line of Control”) with Pakistan, to Padum, the main town of Zanskar. Summers are short there, and the Kargil road is only reliably open four or five months a year, from the end of May to early October. After that, snow makes it impassable and the valley gets very, very quiet. But for a few weeks each winter, when the ice is strong enough, the river provides the Zanskaris another way out–an ice road, a forty-mile trail upon the frozen surface called the chaddar.

The walkers were teenagers, mainly. They had maxed out the educational opportunities in Reru, a village with the area’s largest boarding school, and were taking advantage of the cold to get out of Dodge–to make their way to larger boarding schools in Srinagar, the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir, and in Leh, the capital of Ladakh, not far from the end of the chaddar at the confluence of the Zanskar and the Indus. They also were taking advantage of scholarships, offered by Europeans sympathetic to young Tibetan Buddhists in this poor part of the world.

To claim their new lives, the teenagers of Reru had to do just two hard things. They had to leave their ancestral home. And they had to go by way of a frozen river. But they would not have to go alone. A number of fathers, uncles, and brothers would accompany the group–as well as a handful of students from even smaller, outlying villages. Last, there would be me and my guide Seb Mankelow (an Englishman who was first drawn to Zanskar as a climber, then studied its agriculture as a graduate student, and now welcomed any chance to go back), and my interpreter, Dorjey Gyalpo (a clerk for the local government who was both a deeply religious Buddhist and a worldly Renaissance man, fluent in Harry Potter and eager to discuss the recent eclipse of the sun)–plus our cook and four porters. So, in all, about forty people walking the chaddar’s ice. As fast as we could.

Walking fast shortened the trip, allowing the students to carry few clothes and little food. Raised on steep mountains at high altitudes, the Zanskaris were adept at walking fast, even on ice. I was not. The ice could be extraordinarily slippery. Sometimes it wasn’t–sometimes it was dimpled or stippled with dirt or topped with rough crystals, so your boots could get a purchase. But most times it was the very soul of slipperiness, smooth like a mirror, or, even worse, smooth like a mirror hidden under a thin layer of snow. Often the uncovered ice was cloudy or opaque, laced with cracks and fissures, but occasionally it was transparent: you could look down into the current and, if the light was right, see pebbles at the river bottom.

And here and there, there were breaches, most often toward the middle, where it was perfectly possible to step into open water. Depending on the light and the sky, the water would be pitch black or pellucid blue, the surface rippled by ice crystals, a giant moving Slurpee swirling around frozen banks and then disappearing under sheets of ice. And even the frozen surface did not stay still. At night, sometimes, you could hear the loud reports of ice cracking. And, during the day, the chaddar would change while you were on it. You would take a step and hear a deep whump and feel a loss of elevation of maybe an inch or so and think: Am I going in?

In fact, as we learned on our second day from people coming from the other direction, that seemed to be happening right now: the ice was breaking up downstream. I was following in the footsteps of a girl named Stanzin Zoma when the line of walkers slowed, then stopped. At first I felt relief–it was a chance to take off my jacket, which was too heavy for the strenuous pace and warming weather, and I was wet with perspiration. But then relief turned to alarm because ahead, in place of silent ice, there was open water, the dark, rushing river risen to the surface. The only remaining ice clung to the edges of the sheer rock walls.

Glaciers in the Himalayas are melting faster than anywhere else in the world, and, according to a report by the International Commission for Snow and Ice, “if the present rate continues, the likelihood of them disappearing by the year 2035 and perhaps sooner is very high.” A long-term study of a region in Himachal Pradesh state, just thirty miles from Reru, showed that glaciers have receded more than 20 percent in the past forty years.

Receding glaciers are grave news for Zanskar, but it took me a while to understand why. When I visited for the first time, in early summer, mountain snows were melting and the rivers and the streams were high; near them fields were green with barley and peas. Children clad in maroon robes worked alongside their mothers; a golden light of evening warmed the cool breeze. The scene evoked the idea of Shangri-La, of the possibility of Himalayan paradise.

But Shangri-La in Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon was a land of lush forests, burbling brooks, and ponds. The real Ladakh is an alpine desert. After the snow melts the land is mostly treeless and brown. Farming takes place during a three-month window of warmth and depends heavily on irrigation. The crops I saw were fed by melting snow. Once this dwindles, often by mid-summer, glacial melt steps in to keep fields green.

Subtract glaciers and you have trouble. One ancient village, Kumi, recently had to relocate when its glaciers became too small for the job. And climate change causes other problems: locals say that more precipitation is arriving in the form of rain and less in the form of snow, which means that the snow melt so important to first waterings sometimes just isn’t there.

It stands to reason that climate change also will affect the chaddar. It might not have, yet; it’s hard to tell, in part because river ice is more volatile than a glacier and much more transient; glaciers change over years, but the chaddar changes over hours and often in ways you don’t expect. A layer of snow, for example, can function as an insulating blanket, warming the ice and encouraging break-up. Deep cold, on the other hand, can thicken the ice, forcing running water to the surface. In this place where life depends on ice, the ice is getting harder and harder to depend on.

A few days before our trip began, one man in particular was concerned about the forecast. His name was Lobzang Tashi and, as the village headman of Reru, it was his place to make the call about when the group should head down the chaddar.

Lobzang, a fifty-year-old widower with seven children, had many counselors. He spoke with other parents and with the elders in the village of two hundred and fifty people. And he spoke with men who were just back from the chaddar–a little soft yet, some said. He went down to the river himself–Reru is perched on a steep hillside about three hundred feet above the Lungnak River, a tributary of the Zanskar. The Lungnak seemed pretty well frozen, but it was smaller than the Zanskar. Lobzang then did what any reasonable person would do: he consulted a monk.

The monk, thin, thirtyish and wearing the traditional maroon goncha, a woolen robe tied at the waist, arrived from a village several hours’ walk upstream. He sat cross-legged on a rug atop an earthen floor, drinking salt tea. After a while, he took out his packet of block-printed prayer texts and began chanting quietly. Everyone else continued to converse. Then he finished and arose; deciding upon a date would take him a day or two, he said, and in the meantime he was going to return to the monastery.

>While we waited, I walked around the village. Sixteen-year-old Stanzin Zoma served me tea in the kitchen with her mom and dad, two younger sisters, and grandmother. It would be her first time on the chaddar, she said, and her first time to Leh. “I am packing wool socks, wool clothes, a sleeping bag and pad, gloves, butter, cheese, tsampa [roasted barley flour, a local staple, that a traveler could mix with tea], baked bread, sugar, and tea. Also, pictures of my family, my house, my aunt and uncle, my village, and my school.” Though a fire was burning in the small stove on the floor, it was cold inside the low-ceilinged kitchen. We sat hunched on rugs. Almost everyone in the room wore a hat. “I am worried about leaving my parents here and being alone. And about the chaddar: they say that sometimes you have to take off your shoes and walk through the water–I think that is scary. But I have my best friend, Sonam Dolma, and she will walk with me. I would like to become a doctor, because there are no doctors here.”

Sonam Dolma lived in a house with a brighter, sunnier main room that had pillows on the floor. She wanted to be a doctor, too–people had only traditional medicine to treat their coughs, earaches, bad backs, and dental problems, she explained. Though neither Sonam nor Stanzin seemed the type to show it, it seemed quite possible that both were excited about the prospect of busting out of their little village.

That was clearly not the case, however, with Tunzin Thongdol, at fourteen the second youngest of Lobzang’s seven children, and the first to have the opportunity to leave. She didn’t want to go at all. Apparently, she viewed my guide Seb and me as harbingers of departure and tried hard to avoid us–we’d been living in her house for at least three days before we even knew she was there–but finally Lobzang ordered her out of her room and into the winter kitchen. “I don’t feel good about leaving,” she said. “I’ve never left home before, and I don’t want to leave my family.” Tunzin couldn’t bear to talk about it any more; she fled back into her room.

Also upset was the mother of Thinlay Angmo, seventeen; she broke down in tears as Thinlay listed for me the things she would miss about home (“family, mountains, school, the land–I will miss them all”). Like all the other girls, Thinlay made and served me the tea herself–her hands so calloused from working around the hearth that she seemed not to notice the hot coals and steaming metal cup. But the petite young woman admitted, “I’m not going to miss some of my chores.” Teenaged girls were depended on heavily by most familes to do all manner of jobs, from cooking to caring for animals and younger siblings. For Thinlay, walking the chaddar meant a chance at a different kind of life.

Two boys professed to be equally eager. Tenzin Namdol, fifteen, said he had been to Leh before via the chaddar, and that it was “no problem” because he was “a fast walker.” Lobzang Teshi, a handsome boy, came from a family that was noticeably poorer than the others. Their kitchen was dark and dusty; his mother and siblings wore tattered clothes. His father, he explained, had died a few years before. His mother prayed that Lobzang would eventually be able to support the family from afar.

As in rural places everywhere, the outside world beckons to the young–even if it is difficult for them to leave. Teenagers who stay in Zanskar–their numbers are dwindling–are likely to follow in their parents’ footsteps, becoming farmers or monks or perhaps shopkeepers. Those lucky enough to continue their education outside have many more choices–including coming back as something like a doctor or engineer or schoolteacher or not coming back at all. To them, the chaddar means opportunity.

Lobzang Tashi received the monk’s message and announced that Friday was auspicious for our departure. But word came back to him that people in some outlying villages, from which a few students would be joining the trek, needed one more day to get ready. So Lobzang compromised: on the auspicious day, he staged a mock departure.

Seven of the nine students from Reru and a small number of spectators, mostly kids, gathered in the center of town–an open, snowpacked area with a community center on one side, a stone outcropping on another, and, in the middle (nobody could tell me why), a large, unused fuel tank upon which a few children sat. Lobzang chanted from a prayer book held in one hand; with the other, he swung a censer filled with burning juniper twigs. The teenage boys shouldered their rucksacks–mostly empty–and, joined by the girls, walked single file through the snow away from town, down the valley, until they were out of sight. Five minutes later, they turned around and came back.

Final preparations now began in earnest. In a room on the lower level of Lobzang’s house, a group of men put finishing touches on a small sled made of bent wild rose branches with strips of black PVC tubing nailed on as runners. This Lobzang would pull by a rope, which he would either loop over his shoulder or tie around his waist. It was an ice trailer. And when it wasn’t on ice, Lobzang demonstrated, the framework could easily be fitted with straps to allow it to be carried as a backpack. In other houses, bread was baked, tsampa mixed, amulets wrapped, clothing mended and laid out. Siblings watched, mothers feared, and everyone was worried and excited.

Early on departure day, villagers came out into the chilly, overcast morning. Mothers were clustered in the middle of the action, many of them sobbing; some younger sisters were among them. Lobzang and a tall, stiff, elderly man tied pieces of katak–flowing white cloth–to the branches of a rose bush that grew from underneath the stone outcropping that overlooked the village common. The rock was a village deity; by tying on the pieces of katak, the elders were aiming to please the deity and thereby ensure a safe journey on the river. Lobzang lit more juni-per twigs in his censer as the crowd grew. His daughter and two of the other girls in the group let tears stream down their faces.

Nobody blew a whistle, nobody shouted out that it was time to leave, but suddenly, departure began. Girls took the lead, the five from Reru in front. The line marched over a rise and then down the snowy hillside toward the frozen river. I scrambled to fall in close after them and was glad I did: in that monochromatic tableau, with everything else snow or rock, the brightly clad teenagers were a filament of bright energy. The boys wore knit hats, dungarees, and modern (if not new) nylon-shell parkas of dark green, red, or tan; the girls wore brightly colored silk scarves which covered their hair, wound around their necks, and hung down their backs. Under their jackets they wore the loose-fitting, pajama-type garment called a salwar kameez in purple, orange, royal blue, and emerald green, often with busy patterns. The girls wore thin knit gloves; the boys did not.

Then, at the very moment the town would disappear from sight, they all stopped, took seven steps backward, and each tossed a pebble toward home. I was surprised to see this and glad I’d been watching intently; it was over in seconds. No one could tell me what their cue had been, nor could anyone explain quite what it meant. But it seemed part of the family of gestures that includes truckers crossing themselves before beginning a long journey, or my own muttering of “Praise God, from whom all blessings flow” (a hymn sung in many churches as the Doxology and taught to me by my essentially non-observant father as a goodnight prayer when I was a boy) when I’m on the runway about to lift off–rituals of departure that are about safe arrival and safe return.

I hurried to keep up with the file; I had never seen such a large group move so fast. We descended the steep hillside to the river on a trail with switchbacks and paused once we got to the bottom. The river wasn’t completely frozen, and a couple of the grown men, seasoned chaddar-walkers, went first, using five-foot-long walking sticks to tap-tap-tap the ice surface before taking a step, sussing out a good route.

The Zanskaris’ everyday walking style seemed well-suited to a trip across the ice. They tended to take short, quick steps. This was partly a function of stature–few of them were tall people–but another part seemed a question of style: no footfall was emphatic, each was as light as possible. A passage across ice for many became a rapid shuffle. I am not tall but Seb is–six feet tall and strong. Keeping up on the ice was not hard for him, but later, as the line began to climb out of the riverbed, aiming for the road, he had his work cut out for him. Where the snow was deep, each walker stepped in the tracks of the person in front of him. The problem for Seb was that these footprints were very close together. “It’s like walking in a really tight skirt,” he said as he minced his way through the deep snow.

The group broke a path along the snow-

covered roadbed and finally stopped to rest at the foot of Bardan Monastery, an ancient redoubt overlooking the river. The road was the better route here, because the first night would be spent in Padum. Many of the group had relatives there and could sleep with roofs over their heads. The next day, the real chaddar trek would begin.

From Padum to the head of the chaddar was about twenty-five miles, and there was no need to walk it–the road alongside the Zanskar River would carry us there. The Reru gang would travel in a school bus, and another, smaller bus had been arranged for my crew and me.

We gathered on the dark and icy street at about four o’clock in the morning. There was no moon; the huge sky over the valley was filled with thousands of stars. I’d met my crew before and greeted them anew: there was Punchok Chosphel, the cook, in his mid-twenties, who had a wide, winning smile and good fashion sense (he had handsewn his leather boots and wore a variety of hats and scarves); Tsewang Rinchen, a fortyish workhorse of incredible muscle and endurance; Tsering Dorjey, a thirty-something plasterer inexperienced in the chaddar who had gotten the job through connections; and of course, Lobzang Tashi, the Reru headman who had been my host in the village. Another Lobzang, Lobzang Tsetan, lived in the village of Zangla and we would pick him up on the way. Though he had only one eye, this Lobzang was probably the best ice-walker and, like Tsewang, was steady and indefatigable.

Many of our bus’s windows were stuck open and, like a surprising majority of the vehicles in Zanskar–indeed, in greater Ladakh–it had no heater. This became significant about forty-five minutes into our journey, when we stopped on the road opposite the village of Zangla to pick up one-eyed Lobzang. It was some time before five o’clock in the morning, and no amount of blasting on the bus’s horn appeared sufficient to rouse him, though I imagine it must have woken everyone else in the village. Finally, when it became too cold to simply sit in the bus, we got out and walked on the dark, icy road. The sky, with the earliest hints of dawn, was deeply, hauntingly blue, but I was too cold to appreciate it: I’d put on every stitch of warm clothing I’d brought (down parka with hood, insulated pants) and yet my feet, even inside my insulated boots, were on the verge of freezing. Seb and I jogged up and down the deserted road to keep warm while others went to drag the porter out of bed. It took a long time.

Our flock of students, meanwhile, was somewhere behind us on the road, delayed with a flat tire. Before we left, I saw that they had been keeping warm by huddling three to a seat inside their bus. They were more accustomed to the cold than I, but still it made me understand just how vulnerable a person is when traveling in the Himalayan winter.

The wide-open valley closed in after about half an hour, and within a couple of miles there was no longer room for the road on the valley floor; it had to run along the steepening hillside. Below, down snowy, rocky slopes, lay a ribbon of frozen river. Above, their detail just becoming visible in the rising light of day, were various high peaks. I grew up in the Rocky Mountains, but the scale of everything in the Himalayas was much larger. The height of the peaks, the distance across valleys: everything was double-sized.

After we pulled our packs and sleds from the bus, there was no waiting around; the porters knew that the Reru group was traveling lighter than us and would catch up. And, more crucially, movement and speed were the best ways to keep warm. We broke a trail sideways down the mountain toward the river, Seb and I carrying our own gear in backpacks and four porters carrying cooking equipment, food for the group, and our sleeping bags. Each of them had a handmade sled that doubled as a rucksack frame, like the one I’d seen Lobzang make; these were on their backs. Dorjey, our translator, wore white rubberized insulated Indian Army boots, as did one porter; others wore thin leather boots.

There is a moment of magic when your boots first touch the ice–you know you’re on a special hard road that will extend, deities willing, uninterrupted for the next forty miles, taking you out into the larger world. It is like a train track that way–something hard that allows for speedier travel than caroming over the adjoining rock and dirt. Indeed, there were many points ahead where, in warmer weather, with the absence of ice, there would never be human passage at all.

And yet from the first step I also appreciated the unique perils of walking on ice. My small and tentative steps reflected my twin fears of slipping and of falling through, especially given the weight of my pack. My feet were cold enough already without being soaked. But here the ice looked firm, and the need to keep up with the porters overcame some of my caution.

Of the five porters, three had sticks and tapped the ice just in front of them constantly as they moved. It made different sounds when they did, usually firmly resonant, but sometimes hollow-sounding, at which time the forward motion of our line slowed. The surface changed as well, from perfectly smooth to the texture of coarse sandpaper to truly rough, cracked-and-healed. What I realized as we walked was that the surface was not truly flat, as a frozen lake might be; underneath was a huge, moving river whose flow waxed and waned, pushing the ice up or allowing it to slowly cave in.

The canyon walls were not steep here, at the beginning, nor were they pure rock. Trees and shrubs grew out of snow-covered gravel. The sun hit the rim of the canyon, and we spotted a roosting lammergeier, a huge vulture. But the view quickly changed as we walked lower and lower into the channel that had been eroded into rock over centuries, back into geological time. The rock walls moved closer and closer to the river until there was no soil left, no plants within reach. The wind seemed to abate and the sense of entering a special, private world increased.

An hour or two into our trek, the teenagers caught up with us, and the two groups merged into one long single file. The sun rose but the gorge deepened, shading us from its rays. When we reached a junction–another river, the Oma Chu (Milk Water), flowed in from a side canyon to merge with the Zanskar–Lobzang the headman declared a meal stop. I wasn’t sure I was glad, since a chilly breeze rushed in from the side canyon and I still wasn’t quite recovered from the predawn freeze. But then someone pointed out a cave: it was maybe fifty feet above the ice, and in the sun, and not hard to reach via a series of natural and manmade steps. There was a network of caves, I knew, up and down the chaddar. Most weren’t very deep but they had sheltered travelers from wind and precipitation for generations; most were even named. This one was known as Tsarag Do. The walls, darkened by soot from countless campfires, attested to this history. Men gathered driftwood and brush from the surrounding area and carried it up, and in twenty minutes fires were burning and tea water boiling.

I caught up with Stanzin Zoma and Sonam Dolma in the cave, nibbling on cold tsampa with some pickled cabbage and carrot while they waited on the tea. I was surprised to see that they were both wearing pink sneakers with wool socks.

“Aren’t you worried about snow getting in there?” I asked.

“If you just step in the tracks in front of you, sometimes you can keep away from snow,” Stanzin explained. “What I’m really worried about is falling in water. We heard there is some open water farther down.”

“Won’t your families buy you boots?”

They looked a little embarrassed. “It’s just that we don’t go out walking so often in deep snow,” said Stanzin.

Most people had left their things down on the ice; the view out from the cave was almost monochromatic except for the synthetic fabrics: the bright yellows, reds, and greens of knapsacks and jackets. Thirty years ago, I was pretty sure, you would never have seen such colors here. In fact, thirty years ago, much about the chaddar was different.

The earliest account of chaddar travel I could find comes from James Crowden, an English explorer and poet who, at age twenty-two, spent the winter of 1976-1977 in Zanskar. He claims to have been the first Westerner to walk the chaddar. “After three days waiting around for the auspicious moment we finally left at three in the afternoon,” he wrote. His companions were carrying tubs of yak butter to trade in Leh for things like cooking pots, soap, and fresh vegetables. Their shoes were handmade and of a kind hard to find in Zanskar anymore: leather and pointy-toed with woolen uppers that extended up to a tie below the knee. Nobody wore socks; instead, the shoes were stuffed with straw for warmth. Everyone in his group wore a woolen goncha.

Caves along the chaddar were as important when Crowden traveled as they are today, particularly for sleeping. In many caves, walls of stone help to partition the protected space into even smaller spaces. Just as they do not carry water bottles, the Zanskaris do not carry sleeping bags or tents. Instead, as I saw when it darkened that first night and the group stopped at another cave, they laid out a plastic ground cloth and stayed warm by lying together, and by using the gonchas and other clothing that had warmed them individually to warm them as a group. (In his day, wrote Crowden, the most popular Zanskari sleeping style was kneeling, preserving heat by putting the arms around the legs.)

Seb and I, by contrast, laid big, arctic-class sleeping bags with several inches of lofted down upon thick foam pads to insulate us from the cold of the ground. Knit hats kept our heads warm. I was torn between a sense of deep gratitude for my massive sleeping bag and a nagging concern that our equipment-intensive solution set us apart as rich. Still, I knew that it was too late for me: as a younger man, I had slept spooned with Mexicans during a trip across the Sonoran Desert in January and knew that, while it had kept me fairly warm, sleep had been practically impossible. You had to grow up doing this for it to work.

The worst part of the day, of course, was dawn and the first minutes out of the sleeping bag. I had the luxury of waiting until the porters had brewed a pot of tea and was glad for the crowd of people, among whom I could squeeze and try to keep warm, somewhat near the fire. Lobzang withdrew from his bag a packet of block-printed prayers, wrapped in cloth, and commenced quietly to chanting; I noticed he did this whenever there was a chance, usually several times a day. One of the porters reached for his cap, meanwhile, and produced a needle that he stored there. He tapped gently into the surface of a block of ice he had carried up from the river and, like magic, it fractured neatly into smaller pieces that would fit into a pot for melting.

It was going to be a long day, and nobody was getting any warmer by waiting around. Snow had fallen overnight, and we set new tracks alongside others that had been made while we slept: this morning rodent prints crisscrossed the river, along with the tracks–Dorjey claimed–of a snow leopard. “Are you sure?” I asked. They were so big and cat-like they could be nothing else, but books like Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard, about Tibetan Buddhism and a trek with a biologist in search of the endangered animals, had led me to believe there were practically none left.

“Oh, yes,” Dorjey replied, and we stepped out of line a few moments later so that he could show me more evidence. He found it on the sides of two rocks at river’s edge, where the leopard had slowed and walked in a circle. “Look,” he said, urging me to get close. On the rough surface of the rocks were two or three white hairs; he pinched them between his fingers and held them up for me to examine; they were three to five inches long. “It is his whiskers,” explained Dorjey. “Here he scratched his face.”

The passage of such a large predator just yards from where we’d slept didn’t put me any more at ease on the chaddar, but Dorjey laughed and said the snow leopard wasn’t interested in us. In their scat one found mostly the bones of small animals, he said–marmots, pikas, and wildfowl. In rare cases they might eat one of the larger animals that lived in these parts, and which, in fact, we could see as we walked, sometimes high up on the canyon walls: ibex, blue sheep. Leopards willingly came near humans only in coldest winter, and then only in hopes of finding a captive farm animal such as a dzo, a yak-cattle hybrid common in the area. He reminded me about a house we had stopped at the previous summer, as we trekked to Phugtal Monastery. After dinner there, the family gave Dorjey something to show me: a large piece of stiff snow leopard pelt. I was amazed to find myself holding such a mythic relic in my hands.

“Did they hunt it?” I asked.

“Actually,” said Dorjey, “they found the beast in the toilet.”

He explained. Like most traditional Zanskari dwellings, the house was made of mud bricks and the ground level was devoted mainly to sheltering animals in cold weather; a small separate section of it was reserved for the household latrine. The mother had gone to squat on one of the holes in the second floor that opened above the latrine space, when she heard a growl. Below, perched on the frozen stalagmite of poop, a snow leopard showed her its fangs. Stalking the farm animals, the leopard had gotten trapped in there, instead. The family promptly did what any local family would do in such a circumstance. They stoned it to death.

Dorjey understood the irony; he was an interesting mix of older generation and younger, and a delightful guy to have around. Forty-something, he tended toward Western dress, but he was very religious; some part of him, I’m sure, would have been happy to have been a monk. Instead, he was a junior clerk in the provincial government, married with six children. This did not prevent him from taking a little time off to assist people like me, or to make pilgrimages to such religious centers as Dharamsala, where a lama had instructed him to perform ten thousand prostrations on the path to enlightenment.

But religious practice had not narrowed his mind. The day I met him, he was eating lunch seated on the floor in his traditional earthen house in Padum, in the company of two maroon-clad monks; the group was watching a fuzzy Indian television broadcast about the partial eclipse of the sun that was about to take place. Tacked to the wall of his son’s bedroom, I noticed, was the same magazine photo of pop singer Avril Lavigne that my daughter had on her bedroom wall in New York. Dorjey prayed and chanted several times a day but he was also immensely fond of the Harry Potter books, which English-speaking friends on the outside had sent him. His favorite character was Hagrid though Dorjey himself resembled no Westerner more so than Buddy Hackett. He was an Asian version of the jolly comedian, and he laughed at the sight of me imagining a snow leopoard–so elusive to Matthiessen on his spiritual journey into Nepal’s Dolpo region, a symbol of rarity and the beauty we can’t see–meeting its end in a frozen latrine.

We stopped for mint tea on a graveled section of riverbank in the sun. I chatted with the two boys, Lobzang Teshi and Tenzin Namdol, who said they weren’t tired at all; Tenzin, I noticed, was carrying a second rucksack and confessed that it belonged to a girl from a village near Reru. You had to look way up to see it, but the sky was blue, and for the first time in quite a while, no part of me was cold. Someone spotted an ibex, high, high up on the canyon wall across the river; its distance away and the immense scale of the rock walls made me feel small.

Another group of Zanskaris came shuffling into view, walking the chaddar in the opposite direction. There were two groups, actually, and they stopped to chat with us and compare notes on the terrain ahead. Three of the walkers, it turned out, were mailmen, carrying bags of letters from the big post office in Leh to the tiny one in Padum. In a good year, they said, there might be three mail runs on the chaddar. After that, Zanskaris had to wait until the spring thaw for mail service.

With the weather a bit warmer, we started seeing more and more open water. I was intrigued by the little birds, white-throated dippers, that skipped and dashed along the edge: they could submerge, disappear for several seconds, and pop up again a few yards downstream, and some of them did it again and again, searching for food in the depths. Among our group, however, the more seasoned trekkers began to worry. Our path down the chaddar began to meander more as the open water increased, and patches of ice began to seem suspect. Now and then you’d hear a loud crack or a deep whomp–or feel them, more like it, because these sudden movements of frozen, fractured water resonated in the pit of your stomach–and be pulled up short. Was something cataclysmic about to happen? Had you stepped on that One Bad Spot? Would the surface hold?

Even along relatively stable parts of the chaddar, fractures showed where pressures had made the ice shift. Sometimes this pressure seemed brought to bear on a single point near the chaddar’s middle, which resulted in a gently raised cone with fractures all around it, like the top of a volcano. Other times you could see where large pieces had cracked and tipped or fallen into the water below; sometimes, afterward, fresh water would rush up and over the opening, creating a new, uneven surface as it froze on top of the existing ice. Both when we were on the ice and when we were off it, we could hear groanings, crunches, and harsh reports as the constant pressure of water underneath, of changing temperatures, reconfigured what appeared to the casual eye as an immutable, solid surface.

Sometimes I imagined that our continued progress depended on faith, that we could walk without falling because we believed we could, a mass delusion. Sometimes I seemed to have better luck when I didn’t look too carefully at the next step. I’d heard ski instructors say don’t focus on your skis and skating instructors say look straight ahead, and I imagined that Zanskari chaddar sages had intoned that same advice throughout the ages. Certainly there was a lot to see. When the gorge opened up you could glimpse ragged peaks, sunny in the distance while it was shady on the ice. Once, when the surface of the ice was like a mirror, I saw such a peak while looking down. But it seemed like bad luck: I looked away, straight ahead.

There were landmarks our guides knew to watch for along the way. At a spot called Shukpa Chenmo, one was a giant juniper tree that had fallen over but lived on, and its trunk and some branches were festooned with prayer flags. Others were interesting stone formations. Thermally heated water spewed out of the canyon wall at one point, creating a ring of green around rocks that vaguely resembled a nose; this was Palda Tsomo, or Nose Spring. Another formation was known as The Clitoris. (“We don’t tell that to the children,” Dorjey assured me.)

And there was one cave that, because of its history, nobody ever used, even in an emergency. A king of Zanskar, Gyalpo Gyazo, had stopped there with his entourage many generations before. But overnight the river rose, and they could not leave. Days later, out of provisions, the king ate a knapsack made of animal hide; and his men “plotted to slay the cook for food.” But the cook, said Dorjey, got wind of the plan. When night fell, he joined together several walking sticks and laid them out across the water. Floating fragments of ice attached to them, making a partial bridge. He added more wood, and the bridge grew large enough for him to escape. Soon the others did, too–probably hot on his tail.

As the day warmed, the ice became more and more questionable. Larger patches of open water appeared, and near the shores, where the ice was thinnest but the water was not deep, a couple of people broke through and got their shoes wet.

As the students slowed on the uncertain surface, Dorjey took the lead. For a while he followed meandering game tracks across the thin layer of snow, on the theory that animals might possibly know something about the thickness of the ice below that we did not. But then the tracks disappeared. Dorjey’s experience of the larger world, his many trips through the chaddar, and, probably, his status as our translator may have made him overconfident. For whatever reason, he marched boldly ahead and promptly fell through, up to his calf. Laughing, he pulled his leg out and forged ahead; soon he went through again, this time up to his thigh. All eyes were on Dorjey as he tried to extract himself quickly, but no luck: leaning on the surrounding ice to pull himself up, he crashed through completely, this time soaking himself from the waist down. There was little danger but ample embarrassment.

Finally heading toward shore, he soldiered on until he came to a flat spot where we could have tea. We followed cautiously and then helped Dorjey collect firewood, pausing now and then to watch the others negotiate the tricky stretch of ice. Two or three chivalrous young men, including Tenzin Namdol, took off their shoes and socks and ferried many of the young women over the bad spots by carrying them on their backs, so that they would not soak their sneakers. They could not have enjoyed walking barefoot over ice and snow, but there were no theatrics as they did it, no shows of discomfort or suffering. The young men, and their feet, were admirably tough. Dorjey, as the tea fire grew hot, wrung out his trousers and placed walking sticks through the legs, which allowed him to spread them out for maximum exposure to the heat. “It seems the departure day was not auspicious for me!” he joked. As the fabric dried, we talked about other falls.

They could be quite serious. A few years before, Seb had been walking the chaddar with a group of English mountaineers; unlike the Zanskaris, they sometimes spread out as they walked, faster walkers moving ahead and some walking alone. Seb was ahead of his friend and couldn’t see him when he thought he heard something. He stopped, waited a moment, and turned to see a head bobbing even with the ice. His friend had fallen through in the middle of the river, and, laden with backpack and thick clothing, had little chance of pulling himself out. What Seb really feared was that the man would be swept under the ice by the swift current: even if you were a strong swimmer, the chances of bobbing up downstream where there was a gap in the ice were extremely slim. With Seb’s help, though, he was soon extracted. The shivering fellow hurriedly stripped down–to the amusement of the porters–and put on a set of dry clothes. However, he declined to backtrack to the cooking fire they had recently left in a cave, because it would mean recrossing the river. So his friends watched him carefully, and he warmed up by walking. Seb’s policy ever since then was that chaddar walkers had to stay within each other’s sight at all times.

Seb himself, on this trip, had taken one bad fall: for no reason in particular, his feet had slipped out from under him, landing him squarely on his tailbone. It hurt, but he could keep going. I myself had fallen several times, though never, yet, as badly: it seemed as though I could see it coming and put a hand out to cushion the blow. When falling, or the possibility of falling, left me particularly exhausted, I would stretch onto the soles of my boots a pair of rubbers worn by postal carriers in northern climes. They came with tiny metal studs, which provided dreamy traction, but they also prevented me from shuffling along in the swift, efficient Zanskari way. But, where the ice was super-slick and my nerves frazzled, they were a godsend.

Others fell, too–in particular, Tsering Dorjey, the novice porter who was a plasterer by profession, and a bit clumsy. One day he turned up at lunch with a bloody gash on his left cheek. All the other porters were chortling as he explained it to me through Dorjey, who could barely contain himself.

“He says,” Dorjey tried to begin, hardly able to speak, “he says the ice shifted and made him slip. As you can see, he fell through. He also has cut his leg.”

Tsering Dorjey, miserable, showed me the superficial gash on his shin and then made a further, more vehement statement to Dorjey.

“He says,” Dorjey began again, this time pausing to wipe away tears of laughter. “He says… he says… that when he went in the water–” Peals of laughter resounded from the other men, some of whom spoke some English and wanted to hear Dorjey say it. “He says,” Dorjey began again, this time determined to finish, “that when he fell in, he saw… he saw… t—t—the Dark Lord!” At this, Dorjey exploded in laughter, and the others doubled over with mirth. It was hard not to laugh along with them, but I tried my best, since Tsering Dorjey was looking mournfully at me, perhaps waiting to see if one person here would offer some sympathy.

“The Dark Lord,” I repeated to Seb. “Does he mean, as in Lord Voldemort from Harry Potter? He-who-must-not-be-named?”

“I don’t think so,” Seb began.

“It is sort of like that,” Dorjey said, regaining composure, “but different. Really, it’s the Lord of Darkness. Our version, you might say.” He left it at that.

As we continued it got warmer and warmer–a function of the weather, not of the change in our location–and before long the ice was no longer a thing that covered the whole river, but more often a band along either side of it. Sometimes this band became barely wide enough to walk upon, and occasionally this occurred where there was no rocky riverbank, just a sheer stone wall. Such was the situation on that second day, the day I was following Stanzin Zoma, and the line completely stopped before a tableau of open water.

Everyone waited as Lobzang Tsetan, the one-eyed porter from Zangla who was in the lead, tested the narrow remaining ledge of ice by tapping gingerly with his stick and then with his lead foot. He retreated to an area of loose rocks a few yards back, got two handfuls of dirt, and tossed them onto the ice in front of him to give it some friction and reduce the chances of slipping into the dark deep water that rushed alongside. From there he turned toward the wall and hugged it, shimmying along until the danger had passed–or rather, had moved on to the next person.

The next morning, our third, was brilliantly sunny and warm, and the ice briefly disappeared altogether. But here the river was wide, slow and shallower. For twenty or thirty feet, everyone had to wade. Apart from those few girls lucky enough to be carried, everyone took off shoes and socks. The water was very, very cold. Downstream from this spot, as feet were dried and laces tied, a group approached from the other direction: tourists. They were French, men and women, and they had good equipment, including neoprene divers’ booties for situations such as the one that lay just ahead of them. They also had a small army of porters, many of whom paused to chat with people in our group.

Next up, a bit later in the afternoon, came a group of Englishmen being led up the chaddar into Zanskar by Sonam “Jimmy” Stobgais, a friend of Seb’s at whose house I’d eaten a dinner of momo dumplings the summer before. Stobgais, normally sunny himself, looked troubled, and as it turned out, he had reason to be concerned: in the hours since our group had passed through, the watery area upstream had grown, and the chaddar was now impassable. Later, Seb and I would read in the Indian press that the chaddar had broken up especially early, stranding nearly fifty foreign tourists whom the Army had had to evacuate in helicopters, Jimmy and his group almost certainly among them. We were perhaps the last to get through.

On our last day of walking, the Reru contingent pulled ahead of the rest of us. Rather than progressively exhausted by their travail, they seemed energized, like horses approaching a stable–only, in this case, most of the teenagers had never seen the stable before.

At the end of the chaddar was the hamlet of Chiling, famous for being the home of four metalworking clans. Tradition has it that Chiling’s smiths are descended from four craftsmen brought from Nepal in the seventeenth century to construct the two-story-high image of the Buddha at the Shey Monastery. But Chiling is now gaining a different sort of fame, as the end of the road at this end of the Zanskar gorge. The chaddar kept going another thirty kilometers to the Zanskar River’s confluence with the Indus, but nobody walked it anymore because there was a road. The road had afforded access to a pair of small, rickety buses, into which the teenagers and their retinue promptly piled.

They were sitting there, four to a seat, when we caught up to them in the late afternoon. Some of the dads and uncles were busy tying gear to the buses’ roofs–including, I noticed, one of the chaddar sleds made of bent rosewood, with its short black PVC skids. There was something poignant about the sight, the Zanskari not wanting to give up an important piece of kit which had taken hours of careful work to assemble and had served him well but would henceforth, in the larger modern world, be all but useless. Maybe he would store it somewhere in Leh, in preparation for the return trip.

But for many of the young people on the bus, there likely would be no return. In my travels the summer before, I had tracked down a young man from Zangla who now attended a boarding school in Choglamsar. It had been more than a decade since he had walked the chaddar, and he had never been back home. Yes, his family was poor, and travel back and forth was expensive. But, more importantly, returning home to Zanskar once he graduated was increasingly inconceivable to the boy: what would he do back there, he asked me when I visited him in his dorm–become a farmer? As the glaciers melt away, the traditional way of life becomes more tenuous than ever. Meanwhile, communications improve–last year Padam got its first internet café, as well as cellular phone service–and the world outside beckons powerfully.

Even more significant, a long-planned road is slowly being chiseled and blasted into rock walls above the chaddar. When it’s complete, years from now, new opportunities will arise, but just as certainly young Zanskaris will find it easier to leave. And as our bus trundled down the short section of the road that’s complete, toward the world beyond, I wondered: when teenagers of the future peer out their own bus windows into the frozen gorge, will they see in the chaddar the same glorious adaptation to challenge, the path to freedom, that I do today? Or will it be for them the sidewalk of old fogies, a symbol of hardship and backwardness, a memory vanishing along with the ice itself?

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  1. Ken says:

    Mr. Conover, thanks for posting this article. I’ve wanted to walk the chaddar from Zanskar since my first visit to Ladakh in 1997, but still haven’t. I was also going to mention the road to Leh, but you already know about it. This will eventually dramatically change Zanskar, for better and probably for worse.

    I also just read “Rolling Nowhere” and “Coyotes” and thoroughly enjoyed them as well. Thanks.

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