Study Abroad in Zanskar Valley

Photo by  Steven Lasry

Photo by Steven Lasry

Julley - from Zanskar! Indescribable is a fitting adjective to describe our journey to, and week (thus far) in, the Zanskar Valley. Inaccessible half the year, except by 7 day trek on the ice of the Zanskar River, Zanskar is connected to the outside by several rugged trails and more recently by a single road from Kargil (the second city in Ladakh, rival to Leh).

Our experiences have ranged the spectrum, reflecting what is likely the most remote place many of us will ever visit. We had a warm send-off from the lamas & nuns at our "home" outside Leh (complete with being honored with white scarves, katas, placed around our necks). Then with packs piled atop two jeeps, and we packed inside, it was twenty-five hours over two days - down narrow canyons with the raging Indus far below, with a stop at the extraordinary detailed 11th-century stucco paintings and scenes both phantasmagoric and everyday at Alchi, then up and down hairpin turns past Lamaruyu monastery perked miraculously on the side of the mountain. We moved into Muslim villages as we neared Kargil, and while proceeding up the verdant Suru valley, lower in elevation such that barley and wheat were being harvested collectively, while barely inches high at higher elevations. Our campsite was on the soft grass along the river at Parkachik, the snows of the Zanskar range across, jagged Himalaya peaks behind. The river lulled us to welcome sleep.

Next morning, the vistas were even more magnificent - yaks below, glaciers above, wildflowers in profusion, red marmots sunning on rocks, and rapids that the most expert kayakers could only dream of. Over Pensi-la (Pensi pass), we descended into the Zanskar that has been our home for the past week. Geshe Yonten, whose work to bring educational opportunities to the poorest Zanskari children, was awaiting us in the only "town" - Padum.

Students have been in homestays with families in the villages of Karsha, Stongde, and Zangla. These have been welcoming, and if not altogether comfortable (by Western standards), we have all adapted and made friends with adults & children, picking up phrases, helping pick crops, fix meals, drink copious amounts of milk and butter tea. Respiratory and stomache discomforts have visited all of us at some point in the trip, but both modern and traditional remedies have helped.

We congregated on Wednesday at Karsha, for the second day of an amazing festival and the gompa (monastery), with hours of cham mask dancers, folk danders, blessings of animals (yak, horse, sheep, and dog) that are essential to life. It was great for students to catch up with each other, and some are now visiting and staying with each other, and working on topics of mutual interest - from traditional healing practices, to impacts of rapid change, to daily agricultural and herding activities.

We had not anticipated access to internet, but here it is in Padum - on occasion, at least - so it's good to send you this update, in case you haven't heard from individual participants. If possible, we will follow up before Wednesday, when we head out of the Zanskar as people have down for centuries - on foot and with ponies to carry much of our gear. Those six days will be through hamlets, up the Lungnak river and then Kargiakh stream and across Shingo-la, Zanskar's historic gateway pass across the Himalaya range and to Himachal Pradesh, pavedroad, and a few days until the airport, each with incremental growth in the sights and sounds, pace and "progress" that we have grown up and learned from. Hopefully, that vast contrasts, simplicity, rigors, and impressions we have gained personally and together will remain with us far into our futures.

Julley, julley again from James & Charlie - and Jackie, Andrea, Max, Carter, Sarah, Cory, Che, Frederick, Rachel, Jasmine, Kaela, Mickey, Kristine