Himalayan Journal vol.38
The Himalayan Journal

Publication year:

Harish Kapadia
    (Maj J. K. BAJAJ)
  15. CHANGO '81
    (Brig K. N. THADANI)
    (R. N. PASRICHA)
    (CAPTAIN M. S. KOHLI, IN (Retd.), AVSM, F.R.G.S.)
  26. EXPEDITIONS 1980- 1981



ZANSKAR has been called by one author the last place on earth, the lost kingdom. Yet with good organization and good fortune with the weather and the Kashmir bus service (the two crucial unpredict- ables of the region), it would be technically possible to leave work one Friday afternoon in London, and by the following Saturday to be sitting around a yak-dung fire, drinking chang, and listening to the chants of the Buddhist monks in the heart of this 'lost* kingdom. The Zanskaris felt singularly aggrieved in hearing themselves described as lost, and their land as the last place on earth, but one of the characteristics of the Zanskaris is that they seldom feel aggrieved about anything for more than five minutes, such is their sense of fun and vitality. It was this reputation of theirs that made us resolve to visit them, to explore their land and learn about their customs. But in so doing we wished to combine a little trekking and climbing.

It was our intention to spend about four weeks in Zanskar, and to enter it by going over the Great Himalayan Range by the Umasi La (17,370 ft), reputedly a magnificent if strenuous route, and to do a little exploration as we went, and may be to knock off a few likely looking peaks. It was planned to set up convenient base camps at the foot of each side of the pass, and to use them as sounding-off points for exploratory walks and climbing sorties. It was felt that this would give us a better chance to absorb some of our surroundings, and to look for suitable-looking peaks and their approaches for future expeditions. A forced march over the pass as quickly as possible would barely give us a cursory glance.

There were disadvantages in this plan. First, it meant that we had to carry gargantuan loads of supplies. Second, the addition of climbing gear added even more to our baggage, so that we were dependent on the services of porters or pack animals. Third, from whatever point we decided to base our camps we would then have to find porters to take us further. They were not readily available,, and certainly not at the rates which we had been assured were standard by the sub-divisional Magistrate in Kistwar, Rs 15 per day. Conversely there were advantages. All of our porters, coolies - call them what you will - were without exception entertaining and informative, and apart from their own colourful characteristics greatly increased our awareness and knowledge of our surroundings. Communication was through pidgin-English, pidgin-Urdu, pidgin-Zanskari accompanied by a lot of expressive, and at times explosive hand gestures.

The Greater Himalayan Range is a most formidable barrier between Zanskar and the valleys to the south, a natural frontier for more than just the sides of the valleys. It is a frontier for the monsoon which is broken up on the peaks and exhausted before it reaches Zanskar. Consequently either side has its own distinctive vegetation and climate. It is a frontier for the inhabitants who are racially, culturally and religiously worlds apart. It is a frontier which marks differences in the very mountains themselves. On the south side, there is a plethora of massive monoliths, steep escarpments dropping away for thousands of feet, heavily snow-encrusted peaks crowning the Titan gods of the areas in which they resided, steep valleys leading away turbulent waters into the luxuriant gorges below. The north side is more like a 'peak plateau', levelling out between 17 and 20,000 ft: less dramatic, less impressive, less weather-beaten, less beautiful, with more gentle gradients leading away what waters the melting glaciers had to offer. There was virtually no other source of moisture.

The route itself begins at Kishtwar, which is a large town sitting at the end of the slow bus journey which branches off from the main Jammu-Srinagar road. (It is rumoured that the road from Kistwar to Srinagar is now open for light traffic.) From Kishtwar the road continues to be bussable for a few kilometres as far as Galahar, where there is a mule station, and where the route gradually deteriorates into a mountain track, yo-yoing up and down the sides of a vast, spectacular gorge which opens out at Athauli. The track is ankle-breaking, precipitous, and at times rather exposed, yet it carries a sizeable amount of man and mule traffic up to the villages of Padar. The path is interspersed with rickety platforms that guide the path around otherwise impassable slabs of rock. Beneath them there is nothing to prevent man or mule plummeting into the river a thousand feet below. Somehow the mules and their drivers pick their way through the perils without jettisoning their loads.

At Athauli, the route turns north and climbs steadily up another gorge, tamer than the last, and with less traffic. Indeed, it should be said that from Athauli, the gorge does not lead anywhere except to a few villages and to the foot of the Umasi La. It is not what might be called a 'through* route. Consequently, apart from the villagers, the nomadic shepherds from the Punjab who annually herd their flocks up and down the mountains, and the occasional climbing party to the Kishtwar range, there are few travellers to be found.

For a predominantly Muslim area like Kashmir, bordered to the north by the Buddhist Zanskaris, it was also interesting to find a considerable number of Hindu temples, with their elaborately carved wooden facades, tucked away under the trees. In fact about half way between Athauli and Machail, I was also surprised to find an archaeological site of some kind. It consisted of a number of vast stone lintels, accurately squared up and ornamented, resting on equally well dressed stone piers. Littered around the site were a number of elaborately carved stones, clearly part of a much larger monument. The quality of the workmanship and the size of the stones involved would seem to suggest the presence of a site of some significance. Given that the god Shiva was supposed to have sought out the nearby mountain of Shiva ka Pahar as a sanctuary in which to be safe from intruders, one was bound to speculate about a possible connection.

Another feature of the trail was what was left behind on it. Most of the locals wear straw sandals which wear out regularly. Consequently a villager who is travelling the whole distance from say Sumcham to Kishtwar will probably take five pairs with him. As one wears through, he discards it, so the track is littered with straw sandals. This was true even on the glaciers, which had frozen samples of sandals that seemed to have been there for decades. On our return to this country, people have asked what we used for maps. The answer is simple-you do not need them. Just join the dots and follow the sandals.

Sumcham is the last village on the route before it makes the rugged climb over the pass.

It is typical of the villages in Padar. It consists of one main block of houses built into each other out of stones, clay, and wooden tie-beams, and has a large flat roof over four or five of the dwellings which serves as the gathering point for the villagers. Windows and doors are made out of the cedar that grows on the surrounding hillsides, and are picturesquely ornamented. Even the exposed ends of the floor joists are elaborately carved. The village sits in a bowl, surrounded by steep hillsides. To the west, set into a hollow high above the village, are some sapphire mines, which necessitate the presence of the police post. There seemed to be little activity in the mines whilst we were there, and the policeman in charge, an amiable fellow, when he wasn't trying to sell us some sapphires, seemed to spend most of his time hunting for game with a pre- First World War Lee-Enfield rifle.

It was above Sumcham that we stayed for about ten days, in the course of which we made an attempt to climb a mountain just above the village on the south side of the valley. It is a vast and menacing brute which we had to abandon after the weather turned on the third. The villagers seemed to think it was called Talanganna, but they did not seem very certain. Our camp was about four kilometres east of the village directly opposite a gully which led up between Talanganna and its neighbouring peak, which both seemed to be well over 20,000 ft (other accounts confirm this). Down this gully avalanches thundered regularly. At the top was a minute rock which resembled in shape the head and shoulders of a man. We christened it the yeti, and held it responsible for all the avalanches, which we joked, were not avalanches at all, but the result of it throwing snowballs to discourage our attempt. It won, so we had to content ourselves with a number of exploratory walks and a spot of rock-climbing of some crags just outside the village.

The village is left by a path over a pile of rock avalanche debris which marks the end of the fecund vegetation that has so far characterized the route, and the start of a long sparse plain, seven or eight kilometres long, which leads up to the foot of the pass. The plain is relieved by the occasional solitary birch tree and sporadic tufts of grass, but stones predominate. At the end of the plain the route climbs up towards the left and continues to do so in step- fashion, yet all the steps are about a thousand feet high. The first step is a steep grassy bank which levels out on to a barren river plateau. The next step is rock which levels out on to the moraine of a glacier. A few miles along the glacier there is another step - the most exhausting - which is a steep scree slope which leads the path up between two massive icefalls. There follows a wide glacial plateau to the right which in turn leads to yet another step of about six hundred feet, this one in ice. This leads out on to a glacial basin surrounded by low and 'intimate* peaks, to the right of which is the pass itself, marked by stone cairns, prayer-flags, and other votive offerings. However the pass is not immediately obvious from a distance. Beyond is the most breath-taking panorama, stretching for what seemed like hundreds of miles; the Karakoram to the northwest, Zanskar before us, Tibet and China to the northeast. It was the first time the route had permitted us to view a wide area of the mountains around us. Hitherto we had always been looking up at some peak, or having our view obscured by another. The route then drops down a steep icy slope (in which our porters insisted we cut steps for them, which was not strictly necessary), on to yet another short glacier, and then follows the stream down to a small grassy patch known locally as Garera. There we set up the second of our base camps, and discharged our porters. Our porters had come from the village below Sumcham. We had had problems getting any at all. We had stayed at Sumcham for nearly ten days, and although there seemed to be little agricultural activity in progress when we arrived, by the time we were ready to leave the harvest was well advanced, and Sumcham did not have the man-power to spare. So we returned to Machail, and using one of the policemen there as our interpreter (he had outside his bedroom door a sign proclaiming 'I am always brother your faithful') we learned from the headman the sad but obvious news that whatever the sub-divisional Magistrate may have said in Kishtwar, he ran the village here, and so long as the Americans and the Japanese climbing parties were prepared to pay Rs 70 a day, he saw no reason to accept less for his villagers. In any case he would want Rs 300 backsheesh for organizing them. Gloomily we went straight to where we saw a few likely looking lads who might be tempted away from the ardour of the harvest. After a lot of sign language, one agreed to some to our police interpreter to clinch the deal and clarify the details. Rs 300 each for seven porters for the whole trip to Garera, and Rs 100 extra for their spokesman if they toned up on time the next morning and if we reached our destination in one piece with all our supplies. And to our amazement the next morning they did eventually turn up, although their spokesman arrived gleefully pointing to hi* watch which was two hours slow, obviously expecting to be given a medal for having got them there on time. After much haggling about the weights of each load (using a full can of kerosene as a twenty-kilo norm) we set off.

Several of them were old hands. One had been to Dharamsala, had been blessed by the Dalai Lama, had portered for all sorts of climbing expeditions including those of the Americans and Japanese (Damn their wealth!), and was very proud to have appeared in the cine-film account of the Japanese attempt on Baraaj II. A second, the oldest, whose name was Ram Lai, had a sage and doleful appearance to him. He was the most religious of the bunch, or at any rate superstitious. He made a special point of reminding us that the Japanese were Buddhist, and he insisted on us giving a little monetary offering to one of the votive shrines on top of the pass. And when Anna purchased a ring from another of the porters, who himself looked like the Sorcerer's Apprentice, Ram Lai insisted on the correct ceremony being observed. The seller took his ring from his finger touched his forehead with it, passed it to Ram Lai who did the same, and when Anna repeated the gesture, Ram Lai nodded approvingly.

Then there was the captain of the band, their spokesman, who led the rabble. I say 'led* but in fact he would insist that one of us go first, which struck me as odd since we could not possibly have known the way (except by scouring the horizon for sandals). Then I remembered how much more tiring it is when walking to watch your feet and pick a route at the same time. He would rather watch my feet and watch where! I tripped than do it himself. Another had gone to the trouble to pick a quantity of those little red flowers that grow abundantly at lower altitudes and secreted them away for three days until we got to the pass. Just as we approached the pass he rushed ahead, and as each of us came through, he gave a huge cheer and presented us with one of these flowers, doing the same for two of the porters who had not been over the pass before either. It reminded me of the ceremony of crossing the line on a ship.

The fifth was at the same time the most endearing and frustrating. He was frustrating in his filth, and the fact that he would soil everything he touched - he seemed incapable of understanding my annoyance at his habit of stuffing his soot-stained chapati plate down the inside of my rucksack. And when I gallantly lent him my duvet jacket to make the high-altitude nights a little more bearable it came back infested with fleas. And they say it is the thought that counts. Yet he was most endearing when climbing up a steep escarpment. The climb would prompt him to sing, and when he reached the top he would part his stained-toothed, snotty-nosed, grimy face into a huge grin and deliver the final verse operatically. Most touching of all was his habit of undoing the front of his jacket and shirt at the steepest moments. He assured us he could get more air into his lungs that way.

Then there was the cook who had a tuberculoid cough and an equally appalling headache which clearly deteriorated at high altitude. But in the evening he would forget his ailments and sit amidst a huge pile of yak droppings and scrub twigs, and in the light of his fire concoct a vast quantity of chapatis, tea, and tupa (a kind of doughy soup made of cheese and tsampa) and be the centre of attention of us all. The last of the band had rather beautiful features and resembled a gigolo out of a French movie. It was his duty to supply the hukka, tobacco, and hashish that fuelled them in the middle of the day, like tea on a British building site.

They were a colourful bunch, and their sense of humour and camaraderie over the days they were with us provided us all with a lot of amusement and many fond memories, so much so that we ceased to begrudge the extortionate amount of money we were obliged to pay for their services.

The extent of our exploration from Garera was limited. One of the more important conclusions we came to was that since the road has been opened in Zanskar as far as Padam, it would now be possible to get closer inside to some of the mountains in the west Kishtwar range than was formerly possible. It would seem that the possibility of approaching from the north has not been properly considered. Further, there is a direct route to Sickle Moon from Garera up a glacier to the west of the grazing spot.

But we did have the opportunity to romp over a few icefalls, march up a number of glaciers, and reach the summits of a couple of modest peaks, and have a lovely time doing so. Our highest camp site (at about 18,500 ft) was pitched at the end of a long day's climbing over scree and just before the weather broke. It was a relief to be snug before the blizzard, but as an additional bonus we were treated to the most awesome sight the next morning. There were thousands of little peaks freshly sprinkled with snow and garlanded by puffish clouds, like medieval courtiers thronging around their monarchs. In this case their leaders were Brammah and Sickle Moon, which were just catching that early, chilly, yellow light of the sun when it first rises. We stood in silence and watched each of the smaller peaks set ablaze by the sun, their spotlight summits probing through the morning clouds like stars coming out in the evening sky. We reflected upon possible responses to the time-honoured question. Why on earth do you want to climb mountains?

But what of the pass itself and the extent of its use ? We had learned that the pass had been known for at least a thousand years, and certainly by the first monks who travelled in the area. In general, it was now little used by any of the locals, mostly because of the toil required to cross it. In any case for eight months of the year it was inaccessible, and in June and July there was still so much snow on the glaciers that it was impossible to detect the crevasses, which made it very dangerous. It was only in August and September when the glaciers were dry that it became a practical route, but even then only about a hundred people ever used it. However there was an age-old custom whereby the shepherds of the south side of the pass would annually herd as many as three thousand sheep, in one herd, over into Zanskar to trade the wool for salt that lies in abundance in the Zanskari hills and lakes. Apparently there is a similar tradition in the east of Zanskar, where the Changpa shepherds are accustomed to drive their flocks up from Rupshu over the Shingo La to exchange wool for gain.

This year was clearly different. First, the Dalai Lama was visiting Zanskar so all Buddhists were flocking over every pass to see him. Second, the advent of trekkers had arrived. Consequently at both our camps either side of the pass we had a steady stream of visitors. On the south side we met a lone Swiss trekker named Edy Gerber, who had staggered all the way from Lamayuru under a huge pack strapped together by bunsen burner tubes which had clearly been stolen from his university laboratory. 'Are you a chemist?' I asked. 4Why yes,' he replied, 'however did you guess?'. Then there was a platoon of a Sikh Regiment stationed in Ladakh who were on an adventure training course, led by two officers who stopped for a while to take our photographs and admire our boots. (Boots seem to be the one ultimate luxury denied to all Indians. Some lay their hands on pairs being sold by Nepalese Sherpas who make as a condition for their contracts the provision of a complete set of gear. If you are a Sherpa who does two or three expeditions per year then you will have some spare for resale.) There were the members of the ill- fated British Padar Expedition who were not strictly going over the Umasi La but had come from Kishtwar with the intention of climbing Hagshu, which is close by. Not more than a week later we met them coming down again with the dismal news that one of their number, Chris Lloyd, had lost his footing when moving unprotected near the summit. He had bounced and plummeted for three thousand feet. That night we built a huge bonfire, a pyre in his honour, and sacrificed a copy of 'Chouinard : Snow and Ice' which one of our party had with him, starting with the chapter entitled 'Safety and the rope'. It was a solemn evening we spent, thinking of his climbing partner, his parents, his lively girl-friend who had stayed with us on her way back to Athauli, and of all his other friends who cared. Nemesis.

On the north side at Garera, we met G. M. Haji, a retired District Sessions Judge who passed through with an entourage of two yaks, three ponies, two donkeys, a foal, a secretary and assorted porters and bottle-washers. He was an avid cricketer, and relayed the dismal news that Australia was hammering England in the Centenary Test. Then there was an assorted caravan of pilgrims and pack animals returning from visiting the Dalai Lama, including one who earned my admiration. He was proposing to cross the Umasi La with only one leg. They were followed the next day by a group of monks from Zumkul monastery, taking a large bag of tsampa that they claimed had been blessed by His Holiness for the special use of the faithful over the pass. The following morning there arrived none other than the Editor of the Himalayan Journal and Bhupesh Ashar who had been trekking around Zanskar and Ladakh, and were full of the woes of negotiating with the J & K Police to get 'inner line' permits for some of these area.1 The afternoon saw the arrival of a group of families led by a tremendous lady in fine heavily embroidered clothes, who had a huge turquoise through her nose, and conveyed to us that seeing the Dalai Lama, had involved a lot of bowing and scraping, was a fulfilling experience, but that going over the pass had just about finished her.

1. See HJ., 37, p. 101..-Ed.

She was accompanied by another group of monks who agreed to help us carry our supplies down to Ating for another exorbitant sum. One of them, Nawang, was no longer a monk. He had fallen in love, broken his monastic vow of chastity, left his monastery and married his sweetheart. She gave him a son and promptly deserted him. I was reminded of the old folk-song, 'So now he was a bachelor, and lived with his son, and worked at the portering trade'. No sooner had the contract been agreed when Nawang disappeared only to return with a yak which had clearly been parked around the corner on to which he promptly off-loaded most of the gear. We had to admire their enterprise. And as we descended into Zanskar with the evening light setting all the surrounding peaks ablaze, our thoughts focused on what we might expect to find the following day. It seemed so much more memorable, so much more romantic to be approaching our destination with three monks and their yak, than with our yakkish rabble of a week previous.

We spent a little more than three weeks in Zanskar, during which time we were fortunate in securing the services of Gonjang Dorje who agreed to accompany us as translator and guide. With him we made a number of little expeditions around Zanskar. Every other man turned out to be an uncle, and consequently hospitality abounded everywhere. But what can be said about these experiences would fill several volumes.

At the end of our stay there, the original group split up owing to their different commitments. I continued north to Lamayuru with a lone Italian named Vittorio Sportoletto Baduel who had found his way to Padam. At the end of this journey I came to a few sad conclusions. It is a route which is becoming quite popular particularly amongst the French and Germans, and the effect on the villagers through whose homes the route passes is noticeable. Inevitably they have become considerably more 'rupee' conscious and withdrawn towards foreigners in a manner which is quite alien to any of the other Zanskaris whom we met and stayed with.

Generally they are jovial, generous, and quick-witted, so it is especially regrettable that they should become corrupted by the burgeoning trekking boom that has hit the area since it was reopened to foreigners a few years ago. The irony is that neither Zanskar nor Ladakh is a particularly interesting trekking area. The scenery is arid, food and water are scarce (and certainly insufficient to support those travellers who have not brought their own) and the routes, though at times dramatic, are for the most part only remarkable for the fact that they pass through areas with no vegetation whatsoever; the sides of the mountains consist of thousands of feet of scree slopes punctuated by rock faces which are themselves only relieved by the multicoloured veins of ore that have been twisted and contorted over the geological ages. There is virtually no snow under twenty thousand feet. Moor- croft, that intrepid Himalayan venturer of the early part of the nineteenth century, had this to say of the route to Lamayuru: 'It is seldom possible to follow the river which travels north. The ground is too cut up, and the track forever deviating to scale yet another lofty pass well away from the desired line of march ... I find it extremely hard to describe in an adequate manner the extreme desolation. ... I had nowhere before seen a country so utterly waste.' It hasn't changed.

So why do people go trekking there? They call it the Moonland, and like its namesake, its greatest attraction for visitors is to say that they have been there. Serious-minded astronauts will find endless scope for bird-watching, geological survey, and meditation, and academics may see iit to catalogue the details of some of the unexceptional monasteries to be found there. But if it is spectacular scenery and beautiful walks a trekker seeks, he would be better south of the Greater Himalayan Range, in Nepal, in Gil git, anywhere but in the unwatered wastelands of Ladakh.

Mountaineering: There exist a number of impressive peaks to the northwest of Kishtwar which have become the focal point of numerous expeditions of all nationalities in recent years, not least Sickle Moon, the Brammahs, and the Barnajs, and various other peaks named after Alpine mountains they resemble. However between Athauli and Manali are the mountains of the east Kistwar region which are very little explored. On the north side of the Umasi La are countless opportunities for climbers, most of a straightforward nature, but no single peak that would justify a large-scale expedition. In and around the central Zanskar valley there are likewise a number of interesting and attractive peaks all in the twenty-thousand foot bracket. The Zanskaris do not have names for most of them.

Travelling: From Kishtwar to Sumcham took just over four days. A man with little or no baggage could probably do it in half this. Mules have their own pace. There is a mule station at Galahar and another at Athauli. From Sumcham to Garera took three days. It would be possible to go from Sumcham to Ating in two days if you were unimpaired and knew the route. However, there is a story of a group who spent two weeks trying to find the pass. The shepherds use a site known as Rohar which is a little way south from the pass, as a stopping point. It is littered with animal bones, so do not stay too long.

Language: Urdu is without doubt the most useful even in Zanskar. Even if the tongue itself cannot be mastered, a phrase book is most useful.

Maps: The Survey of India have a 1: 250,000 series which covers the area, though in places they are frequently misleading and inaccurate. The US Army have a series (U502) which is largely compiled from the Indian Survey maps. There is rumoured to be a Japanese map as well, though I have yet to come across anyone who has actually seen a copy. It is said to be the best. There is a trekking map of Ladakh published by Tushita, scale 1: 500,000, which contains most of the useful information. In many respects we found the sketch maps of previous climbing expeditions to be useful.

Members : Luke Hughes, Anna Dowson, John Hardy and Kim Nasmyth.