July 18, 2018
Far Flung
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Himalayas
Paradise Spoiling

Hand-carved plows and yak’s milk are hallmarks of one of India’s most remote regions. So is AIDS.

Ladakh: land of high passes and mysterious lamas, remote valleys and a self-sufficient people; mystical and magical, a balm for the tired soul. That?s the gist of the tourist literature advertising trips to India?s northern tip, in Kashmir, behind the Great Himalayas. I?m here to find out whether any of this is true.

Protected by the mountains from the monsoon, yet irrigated by glacial melt waters, the arid Himalayan valley of Zanskar lies over 13,000 feet above sea level.? You can only reach it on foot, either by walking for four days over the 17,000-foot Shingo La pass, from Himachal Pradesh state from the south, or three days from Padum and Kargil, the only towns in the region, from the northwest. Anything not produced in Zanskar has to be hauled in by donkey.? This is one of the most remote regions of India ? indeed, in the world.

I lean back against the rough-hewn wall of the rocky path to let a heavily-laden train of pack-donkeys edge past.? Stones dislodged by the mules? hooves rattle down the steep sides of the gorge, splashing into the waters of the Kargyak River, perhaps a thousand feet below. As his animals sway under their huge loads of rice, grain and building materials, the mule-herder seems unconcerned about the perilous drop. His confidence is understandable; he and his ancestors have been making this journey for many generations.? Five hundred, or even 2,500, years ago, life was about the same.

Or was it? I look more closely at the mule-herder, and see he?s not wearing the traditional jacket and trousers of thick woolen cloth common in the Central Asian plains. He?s instead dressed in a knockoff North Face jacket, Mountain Hardware trousers, and Etnies skateboarding shoes.? Globalization has arrived.? Because the truth is, Zanskar, however remote, is no stranger to travelers ? and never has been.? It lies in the path of an ancient trade route between Tibet and Afghanistan, linking the Ladakhi towns of Leh and Kargil to the market towns of Manali and Kullu in the foothills. So these rough paths carved from the rock have seen steady summer traffic for millennia.

It?s different in the long winter: from October to May, the mountain passes are blocked by snow. Until recently, the only route out was a footpath along the frozen Zanskar river to the Indus valley. Few, though, brave the subzero temperatures: winter finds the Ladakhis huddled in their stone houses with their animals, their roofs piled high with fodder and dried yak dung harvested in September.

I?m visiting during harvest time. Everything is done either by hand or with the aid of donkeys and yaks.? Old Ladakhi men haul massive bundles of dried grass, two or three times as tall as themselves, to their houses for use as roofing, animal fodder, and fuel.? Women gather potatoes and barley, while others turn the soil with hand-carved plows.? In the high pastures young girls herd yaks, making cheese and curd from their milk.? This is a fully-functioning pastoral economy: beyond subsistence, here in this high and wild landscape, the Zanskari are thriving.

While material wealth is rare, there is almost no evidence of the abject poverty so visible in much of India. Tibetan Buddhism remains an important part of daily life: the landscape is dotted with stupas ? domed monuments that commemorate Buddha, or significant events; and mani walls carved with religious mantras. Portraits of the Dalai Lama are displayed in most buildings, and the monasteries, called gompas, are still socially important.

A 17-year-old monk I met near the village of Photoskar spoke of the tradition of sending second sons to the monastery at the age of five.? He crouched outside my tent as I heated some tea, and snuggled further into the North Face down jacket he wore over his purple monk?s robes. Coming from a family of seven children, he felt very privileged to have been chosen for the monastery; because of this his family?s prestige had also risen.

A visit to Phuktal Gompa, a spectacular monastery hanging from a cliff over the Tsarap River, further clarified why the monastaries are so important here. In a region of slim educational resources, where learning priorities tend to emphasize the manual needs of subsistence farming, the monks were teaching a syllabus of mathematics, Buddhism, spiritual philosophy, English and Hindi. Sending a child to the gompa meant that at least one family member would be educated.

Among the prayer flags, mani inscriptions and chortens, a small plaque catches my attention: an inscription commemorating Alexander Csoma de Koros, a Hungarian linguist who stayed in the monastery in 1825. It?s another reminder of Zanskar?s history as a temperate summer highway, a safe path for travellers crossing the Himalayas.

Nowadays, the ancient path seems to be widening into a tourism trail. Foreign tour operators have been organzing large trekking expeditions here in recent years, with predictable, and profound, effects on local life. Though the 12,000 people of Zanskar have been surprising resilient, retaining their culture, religion, and basic economy despite the annual summer influx, one can see change. Campgrounds, tea tents and concrete hotels have popped up, to cater to tourists, and their ponies, cooks, and guides.

Rubbish has become a major problem.? There was never much before: buildings were made from stone and mud, roofs thatched with grass and dung, and clothes woven from yak wool. Much was reused and recycled out of necessity.? The tourists bring plastic food containers, water bottles and bags; every camping spot we saw was littered with broken whisky bottles, condensed milk tins, and discarded coffee packets, and the paths are decorated with pink trails of used toilet paper.

Recently cleanup efforts have been made: trekking agencies in nearby Padum and Leh have posted signs beseeching travelers to ?keep Zanskar green.? But the signs are often hidden behind piles of rubbish.

Nana Ziesche, who runs the Germany-based Ladakh Travel, has taken more active approach.? In September 2007 she ran a cleanup trek, collecting rubbish along the popular 75-mile trekking route from Lamayuru to Padum. Her idea was a partial success: the large team collected 35 bags of plastic rubbish, and burned much more. But they discovered upon reaching Padum that there was no system for rubbish disposal.? In such an isolated area, in a land with very thin topsoil, waste disposal is very difficult.

Aside from the spread of designer trekking wear and the rubbish problem, a more insidious effect of the summer tourist traffic is revealed by the occasional health warnings daubed on the sides of buildings.

?Life is precious: save our life from dangerous AID diseases,? reads one.

In such a tranquil, remote area, the idea that sexually transmitted disease is spreading comes as a shock. But with so many outsiders arriving, particularly from the busy tourist- and market-towns in Himachal Pradesh, Kashmir and Nepal, maybe the spread of HIV and AIDS is not particularly surprising.

Health clinics and prevention programs have sprung up in Zanskar in recent years, but they?ll have a greater task on their hands in the future. The valley?s isolation is threatened by two roads now under construction.? One creeps from Darcha and the Lahoul valley in the south, with the aim of climbing over the Shingo La into the Kargyak plain.? The other, already 15 miles long, comes from Padum in the west, forcing its way into the steep walls of the Lungnak gorge.

When these two roads meet ? it?s not clear where — Manali will be connected to Kargil and Srinagar, and the might of the Indian Armed Forces will have a much quicker route to the senstive Kashmir border. (The current route, the unreliable Leh-Manali highroad, is impassable between? October and May).? This ambitious project will take many years to complete.? The terrain is treacherous, and most of the trail-breaking work is being done by hand, by a mix of locals and drafted-in residents of Bihar, India?s poorest state.

The road will no doubt improve health care, education, and communications for the 12,000 inhabitants of Zanskar.? But it remains to be seen whether this isolated pocket of the Himalayas can survive the combined onslaught of tourism and the Indian Army, and whether the resilient Zanskari people with their millennia-old ways, economy, and culture, can persevere.? The tourist blurb is still true — just.? I?m not sure if it will remain accurate for many more years.

London journalist Ben Spencer specializes in writing about mountaineering and travel.

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