The commissioning of the Kargil-Padum alignment in 1979 had remained a non-event. This 240-km link providing motorable access into Zanskar for four months in a year enthused none: trekkers frequenting this valley felt robbed of their exclusive visitation privileges, local residents apprehended disruption of their long-preserved and treasured tranquility, and government officials feared being pressed into undertaking journeys over this unmetalled track for developing this under-served area.
Succumbing to the urge to see for myself this sparsely populated vale wedged between the Great Himalayan Range and Tethys Himalayas, I set off from Leh with a couple of colleagues in the autumn of 1981 in what would today be described as a jalopy (a 10-year-old Nissan Patrol, manufactured by the Jabalpur Ordnance Factory).
The journey to our staging point Kargil and the night there were uneventful. Travelling upstream next morning along the fertile Suru river, an obsequent tributary of the Indus, we were greeted by the sight of near-mature barley and buckwheat crops glistening in the early morning sun. The periodic narrowing of the valley as the stark Zanskar Range made incursions on our eastern flank prompted apprehensions that we might be headed towards a desolate land.
Two hours and a half into the drive, having covered about a fifth of the journey, a treat confronted us. The 10-km-long Parkachik Glacier, hemmed into an arrow-like course by lateral moraine, streamed down northwards from Nun Peak, which together with its proximate twin Kun Peak forms a 23,000 feet high masiff. While the lower Kun had been conquered in 1913, the more lofty Nun resisted three attempts until it yielded to a European man-woman duo in 1953. These sharp and jagged strobiloid forms in their effulgent glory are hard to miss on clear days during flights from Delhi to Chandigarh, Kashmir and Leh.
The ensuing defile relented at Rangdum, the seat of an 18th century Gelugpa monastery located on a sugar-loaf hill at 13,000 feet, which is culturally part of Zanskar even as it is 25 km short of Pensi La, the 14,500-foot-high col which is the gateway into Zanskar. Near its crest, this Pass conjugates with the snout of the Durung Drung Glacier, second in length to the Siachen Glacier at 25 km and at an average altitude of 15,600 feet, providing for a difficult route to Kishtwar in Jammu region.
The Stod, which originates here, remained a torpid companion to the descending track to the Padum valley floor at 12,000 feet. Named after Guru Padmasambhava, the legendary Indian mystic who introduced Tantric Buddhism to Tibet, Padum, perhaps the most remote sub-divisional headquarter in the then J&K, was a disorderly assemblage of basic mud and wood structures housing barely 500 souls. The senescent headman, who had taken time off from his harvesting responsibilities, welcomed us; he had his grandson strapped onto his back as he spoke with us. Alluding to copper sediments in the rivers in that realm, he held that the word Zanskar stood for “copper star”; “zangs” is the word for copper in Tibetan. Despite his youthful interpreter’s efficiency in faithfully translating all that was said, the patriarch ran out of patience and soon left.
There being no government rest house, we were put up in modest private quarters. An unappetising barley gruel meal was consumed without demur as fatigue ensuing from a bumpy 12-hour drive overwhelmed us. Right through the night, none of us took note of the persistent grinding noise of water mills. As the sun rose, the myriad stars embedded in a dark sky yielded reluctantly, and a clear blue sky took over.
With assignments accomplished in the forenoon, we went around with the interpreter and gathered that the population was 95 per cent Buddhist since the 8th century, polyandry was prevalent, and transhumance was the norm with many women and their children retiring to higher alpages in summer with their yaks, dzos and sheep. There, shielings protect them from the elements. This despite the higher reaches being the haunt of bears and snow leopards, besides benign wild sheep and goats. The lammergeier, the bone marrow feeding bearded vulture, was occasionally seen flying high above the valley.
The several centuries old Karsha monastery overlooking Padum and the distant honeycomb-like Phugtal monastery ensconced in a redoubt on the Lungnak river have been a draw for Gelugpa Buddhists for centuries. These institutions were patronised by two royal dynasties, that held sway from Zangla and Padum for five centuries from 950 AD, until invaders from Ladakh trounced them.
The Stod and the Lungnak merge near Padum to form the Zanskar river, which tears through the Zanskar Range in a northerly direction for a 100-odd kilometres before its conflux with the mightier Indus at Nimoo. In the summer, this river exercises its muscular turbulence amidst deep canyons. In winter, it turns placid as it freezes to become a ‘road of ice’ – appropriately dubbed as “Chadar Road” – on which people skate with loads on skids in tow in January and February on their way to Leh and other places in Ladakh. Travellers on this track say that everything freezes except tears.
Cut to the present day. The Kargil-Padum Road is now National Highway 301. A new alignment from Nimoo along the Zanskar river, for the most part, to Padum and then on to Shingo La (16,700 feet) and Darcha in Lahaul valley is expected to be completed in a couple of years, facilitating militarily significant all-weather access to Ladakh. The heavy traffic that will surely ensue will rob Zanskar valley of its innocence and disbalance its fragile ecology.