Magazine article Geographical

Walking on Thin Ice: Each Year the Inhabitants of the Zanskar Region in the Far North of India Are Cut off from the Rest of the World for around Eight Months by Heavy Snowfalls. the Only Way out of Their Remote Valley High in the Himalaya Is a 120-Kilometre Journey along a Partially Frozen River

Magazine article Geographical

Walking on Thin Ice: Each Year the Inhabitants of the Zanskar Region in the Far North of India Are Cut off from the Rest of the World for around Eight Months by Heavy Snowfalls. the Only Way out of Their Remote Valley High in the Himalaya Is a 120-Kilometre Journey along a Partially Frozen River

Article excerpt

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PREVIOUS SPREAD: a group of Zanskar-pa (people from the Zanskar valley) walk along the icy surface of the Zanskar River in front of a frozen waterfall that descends from a cliff below Nerak, a small village located at an altitude of around 3,300 metres. The Zanskar valley is situated in the Indian Himalaya in the northern state of Jammu and Kashmir.The old Kingdom of Zanskar is dominated by three large glacial valleys that contain the Zanskar, Lungnak and Stod rivers, covering an area of around 7,000 square kilometres and supporting a population of about 14,000 people scattered across the valleys in 25 or so small villages. The region is one of the most isolated in the whole of the Himalaya. Between October and April, the high mountain passes that the locals use to get from place to place are blocked with deep snow, making it almost impossible to get into or out of the region. It's at this time that the Zanskar-pa take to the Zanskar River, which cuts through the surrounding mountains via a deep gorge. The river usually freezes over at the end of January, remaining frozen for about a month. Traditionally, the locals used this opportunity to transport their well-regarded yak butter to the markets in Leh, the old capital of the neighbouring Ladakh region - a 120-kilometre journey that typically took around a week. Today, only a few dozen people still use the frozen river purely to ferry butter down the valley. They a re joined by students, who use it as a means of returning to their schools after the winter holidays. Many younger residents have also found work as tour guides and porters taking foreign visitors on treks along the Chadar, as the river is known locally. Often, both students and guides will carry an extra pack of butter with them as they walk along the river to sell at the market; ABOVE: two men in traditional Zanskar costume climb over the rocky sides of the valley. The river doesn't always freeze consistently, and when the Zanskar-pa reach a less-frozen patch, they climb up the sides of the gorge in order to avoid the possibility of falling into the frigid water. The goncha is a traditional costume that takes the form of a calf-length smock made out of yak wool that's tied around the waist with a cummerbund. The everyday male version is usually dyed maroon (traditionally using a vegetable dye extracted from the madder plant), but other colours and styles are worn on special occasions, and by wealthier Zanskar-pa. Most locals continue to slide across the ice wearing fiat-soled boots rather than crampons, which they believe can upset the river's spirits; RIGHT: porters and students trekking along the frozen Zanskar River gather around a fire lit inside a cave. The Zanskar-pa use caves to shelter from the intense cold - temperatures often drop to around -30[degrees]C. The porters are cooking skiu, a starch-based dish that looks like ear-shaped pasta, and spiced vegetables

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ABOVE, LEFT: a woman spins yak wool in her house in the village of Nerak. Because the villagers spend long periods of time cut off from the rest of the world, they are largely self-sufficient, only needing to exchange their butter for staples that they can't grow themselves, such as rice and tea. Today, commercial butter is available at about a quarter of the price of the yak butter produced in the Zanskar valley, but the latter is still popular in Leh thanks to its unique flavour and high fat content. The butter is used to make many regional specialities, including butter tea, a hot drink made by combining salt, yak butter, tea leaves and water, and also as lamp fuel. Yaks are kept by many of the families in the Zanskar region and are central to the Zanskari way of life. Not only is their milk used to make dairy products, but their wool is also used to make clothes, their excrement is used as both manure and fuel, their flesh is occasionally used for meat, and, when the snow has melted, they are used to plough the fields. …

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