Walled in by the Great Himalayan Divide, ZANSKAR, literally “Land of White Copper”, has for decades exerted the allure of Shangri-La on visitors to Ladakh. The region’s staggering remoteness, extreme climate and distance from the major Himalayan trade routes has meant that the successive winds of change that have blown through the Indus Valley to the north had little impact here. The annual influx of trekkers and a drivable road have certainly quickened the pace of development, but away from the main settlement of Padum, the Zanskaris’ way of life has altered little since the sage Padmasambhava passed through in the
eighth century.

The nucleus of the region is a Y-shaped glacial valley system drained by three main rivers: the Stot (or Doda) and the Tsarap (or Lingit) join and flow north as the Zanskar. Lying to the leeward side of the Himalayan watershed, the valley sees a lot more snow than central Ladakh. Even the lowest passes remain blocked for seven or eight months of the year, while midwinter temperatures can drop to a bone-numbing minus 40°C. Fourteen thousand or so tenacious souls subsist in this bleak and treeless terrain – among the coldest inhabited places on the planet – muffled up for half the year inside their smoke-filled whitewashed crofts, with a winter’s-worth of fodder piled on the roof.

Until the end of the 1970s, anything the resourceful Zanskaris could not produce for themselves (including timber for building) had to be transported into the region over 4000- to 5000-metre passes, or, in midwinter, carried along the frozen surface of the Zanskar from its confluence with the Indus at Nimmu – a ten- to twelve-day round trip that’s still the quickest route to the Srinagar–Leh road from Padum. Finally, in 1980, a drivable dirt track was blasted down the Suru and over Pensi La into the Stot valley. Landslides and freak blizzards permitting (Pensi La can be snowbound even in August), the bumpy journey from Kargil to Padum can now be completed in as little as ten hours.

Most visitors come to Zanskar to trek. Numerous trails wind their way north from Padum to central Ladakh, west to Kishtwar and south to neighbouring Lahaul – all long, hard hikes. Only a handful of Zanskar’s widely scattered gompas and settlements lie within striking distance of the road. The rest are hidden away in remote valleys, reached after days or weeks of walking. Improved communications may yet turn out to be a mixed blessing for Zanskar. While the road undoubtedly brought a degree of prosperity to Padum, it has also forced significant changes upon the rest of the valley – most noticeably a sharp increase in tourist traffic – whose long-term impact on the region’s fragile ecology and traditional culture has yet to be fully realized. Increased tourism has, in fact, done little to benefit the locals financially, with agencies in Leh, Manali, Srinagar and even Delhi pocketing the money paid by trekking groups. Zanskaris, weary of seeing their region come second to Kargil, have been campaigning for years for a sub-hill council status with more control over development. Buddhist concerns have also been heightened in the face of state government mismanagement and occasional communal tensions with their Muslim neighbours. There has been some outside aid emerging – one excellent initiative is the Dutch-based Stichting Zanskar Scholen foundation (whttp://www.zanskarscholen.com), which equips some of the impoverished state and monastery schools.