Friday, November 8, 2013

Manali – Zanskar – Leh: Hot Potatoes Along The way

potato farming in Lahaul

Deep gorges, lofty mountains and dark gullies said to form the route for Lord Shiva’s baraat (wedding party), from Kinnaur Kailash to the home of Goddess Parvati, are the gateway to the valley. Green potato fields, vines of hops and peas and the ocher of the riverbank mark Lahaul. Women toil endlessly to transform the cold desert into a region of plenty. Men do the marketing of the wealth and Lahaul is now the land of potato farmers.

Lahulis are proud of their community that includes Dolma Dicky, the youngest woman to ever climb Everest in 1993, and Tashi Angmo, who has won accolades for family welfare. August is the month of celebration. The dingy wooden structures of Kyelong’s bazaar are dressed up. The Chorten at the bazaar’s end is white-washed and the revel continues through the day and night. The early days of the traffic between Ladakh and Tibet have now given way to Gaddi herdsmen on higher pastures. Sheep can hold up convoys and it is a part of the tradition of the area to give way to the herds.

Dhankar Gompa Lahaul
Traversing the old trade routes

Lahaul, Kullu and Zanskar became the source region through the yearly markets set up for barter and cash purchase. The supply of salt and the harvest determined the barter rate – five sheep loads of salt for four bushels of barley or wheat. The barter relationship meant the sheep were sheared on the spot, and the trader became ‘mitr’, in a ceremony that sanctified their relationship. This meant the same traders met year after year, generation after generation. Money transaction carried on between the bigger traders.


Today there are changes. Zanskar is a part of Kargil district and closer to the Suru valley. It is a trough between two rivers, the Stod and Lungnak that join to form the Zanskar river. The two rivers have their distinctive green and blue and many people stand on the road ledge for the magnificent view. The heavy snowfall in the valley feeds the glaciers.

Read about Ladakh travel information

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The size of the flood plain has made Zanskar a grain basket, since the population is small and the wasteland is being brought under the plough. The Zanskar people are not motivated to entrepreneurship since their region produces enough to barter. It is also difficult to access: the Pensi-la Pass at 4,400 meters that links the region to Kargil being the only one that has a motorable road.


The traders follow two routes into Zanskar. The first via Debring, south of Taglang-la, which keeps with the Leh-Manali trade route and over the Lunga-Lacha-la to Serchu. Turning north over the Chumik-Marpo-la, they reach Lungnak valley at Tangtse. This is a 14 day trek for each side of the journey. The traders travel in a group up to Padum from where they branch off to the Zanskar villages. Once their stock is bartered they meet at Padum for the return journey.

Zanskar – a cul-de-sac valley

Zanskar valley is beautiful and at a same time awfully silent. There is a stillness, everything seems to hang precariously, to be awaiting a thunderclap or a heaving of the already high and desolate mountains to even greater heights.


To the north, we have the Karakoram and to the south, the Great Himalayan range. Between them rise the Ladakh and Zanskar mountain ranges. They can be reached from Kashmir via Kishtwar, from Baltistan in the north, from the south via Kullu and Lahaul, and from the east through Chang-Thang. None of these routes is easy and all of them operate for just four or five months of the year. it is surprising therefore that the Zanskar valley has played such a pivotal role in the trade network that was so essential for the survival of the communities that inhabited the closed valleys of Ladakh. Moreover, it was not the Shamma of the Leh bazaar that traded with Zanskar but the Chang-pas of RUpshu who depended on this region for their food supply and other requirements.

Rangdum is the entry into the Zanskar valley. Physically a part of Suru valley, Rnagdum is socially and culturally integrated with Zanskar. Although the valley is predominantly Muslim, this village seems to be a Buddhist outpost. It is here trekkers can hire horses, which continue to be the main transport. Trekkers are drawn by the gompas at Sani, Karsha, Stongde and Phugtal. This is also the home of the brown bear, which feeds on nature’s bounty and is rarely seen plundering the farms for food.

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Culture of Ladakh

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