“David, my son, I would like to return to Zanskar in winter with you. We had made this trip twenty-five years ago by taking the frozen river, I was your age then and I am now 70 years old. I would like to see all those people who have touched me so deeply and again take this path of ice to get to the villages of this isolated Himalayan valley”.
This is what I heard from my father one summer evening. We knew Zanskar thirty years ago as a family. I was 16 then. We returned there twenty-five years ago, my father (Jacques) and I to do the frozen river trek and reach the remote villages where our friends are. This trip was one of the most significant of our lives and subsequently helped us to face difficult moments in our life paths. So, just like the first time a quarter of a century ago, I didn't have much hesitation. Over the years, I have remained in contact with our friend Tashi and his family. The babies we saw are now over 25 years old and each one has made its way, some already have children.
Zanskar is located in northern India in the state of Kashmir. With Ladakh, the neighboring valley, this region on the border with Pakistan on one side and China (Tibet) on the other, is commonly called “Little Tibet”. The numerous Buddhist monasteries and the Tibetan-speaking population have much in common with the "Roof of the World" and very little with India, to which they are attached. In winter, for eight months, Zanskar is totally cut off from the rest of the world, because the only road crossing the high snowy passes is closed. The only way to access during the colder months is to walk the frozen Zanskar River.
The ice path
One morning in January 2019, we found ourselves, with Tashi and his two sons (Dawa the carpenter and Lundup the driver), walking this famous frozen river again. This time, no more nights in the caves or Tsampa (grilled barley flour) with every meal. Lundup organized a “luxury” trip for us with nights in tents and an outstanding cook. Despite this, the conditions remain difficult for us. Without the precious help of our friends, we would never be able to walk this path. Several times we step into frozen water because the ice we are walking on is not strong enough. We also climb many mountains. We face temperatures exceeding – 25°C, and sometimes our friends sleep outside or in makeshift shelters if they cannot find caves. When their pulkas loaded with all the equipment can no longer slide on the ice and we have to climb, they find themselves with 30 to 50 kg to carry on their backs on steep paths, but they still have the strength to help us .
We look like handicapped people in the mountains compared to them. Certainly, we are not from the same world. And yet the friendship that binds us pushes us to always come back, without ever imagining not being able to see them again. Tashi has become Granny Tashi (Grandfather) and is treated that way, with immense respect, by his sons. Lundup has taken on the role of eldest son and makes all the decisions by leading his team with a smile and a mischievous look. He has the same facial expressions as when he was 5 years old and pulled up a twenty-litre jerry can of water on his back, or when he pulled a yak by the lead to bring it back to the barn.
The tour of the villages
Arriving in the village of Pishu after several days of walking in the cold is always a relief. Sonam Angmo, Tashi's wife, had been watching for our arrival since dawn: in order to incense and bless the court as it should, she had juniper burned. Now, she serves us chang (barley beer) with a ladle as tradition dictates. One of the most striking memories that we had kept in mind concerns the nunnery of the village. A little apart and up high, thirteen nuns lived there isolated, without running water or electricity. To cook, they would break the ice at the river 500 meters below. This reserve of ice was their water supply for a few days. Today, they are only six, including three on the move. Some died very young. In this isolated valley, facing winter and without a large medical infrastructure, the slightest illness that worsens can quickly be fatal. Moreover, the conditions in which the lessons are given hardly encourage new recruits. The young girls who have a vocation prefer the monasteries of southern India or Dharamsala (place of the Tibetan government in exile), because the teachings there are of high quality and the living environment is much better.
In our world of plenty, I will try hard not to forget that my friends in Zanskar have next to nothing except their good humor and zest for life. By their side, I understood that indeed the non-attachment to "worldly" things allows a step back on oneself and a more spontaneous joy of living.
For a few days we go from village to village, from house to house, in order to see the people with whom we had traveled a long way twenty-five or thirty years ago. What surprises, stories, laughter and tears. Salty tea with yak butter, sweet tea, chang, Arak (distilled barley), rum and to mop it all up, momos (Tibetan dumplings) with barley flour. We take out the old photos, the books that we had made and that our friends have kept, and we show on our smartphones the photos of our children and companions who have remained in France.
Despite the presence of roads in summer and a little electricity for lighting in the evening, living conditions in winter remain very harsh. No wood for heating, only dried manure to cook on a small stove. In houses, it is not uncommon to have frost on the walls of the main room. No running water, you have to go to the river and often break the ice every day. Twenty-five years ago, we were asking ourselves questions about the changes and the arrival of the modern world. We see today that despite the change of life and conditions, they remain as we have known them: their joie de vivre, their innate wisdom, their smile and their good humor are contagious.
Return to France
In my fully heated house, I turn on the lights, run the hot water from the tap and think of my friends in Zanskar. They were born Buddhists and practice this religion which advocates material detachment. I understand that effectively the non-attachment to "worldly" things allows a step back on oneself and a more spontaneous joy of living. In our world of plenty, I will try hard not to forget that my friends in Zanskar have next to nothing except their good humor and zest for life. All my little pre-departure worries no longer have the same dimension