Michał and myself began our Before its Gone project at the start of 2017, with the aim of identifying, visiting and documenting locations and communities that are experiencing rapid (and irreversible) changes. The idea is to notice these changes so they can be remembered – and learned from.
Our first expedition was along the frozen Zanskar river that links Ladakh and Zanskar in the north Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. When the temperature drops to -30C and mountain passes get covered with metres of snow, the Zanskar region becomes inaccessible for the winter, and the frozen river the only route connecting the region with the rest of the world. Villagers across the mountains use Zanskar to get to school, work or to see a doctor. It has been that way for hundreds of years: locals using Chadar (the ice road trek), but that will change soon, as the Indian government plans to build a new road here. However, as our translator Stanzin Tundup told us, the road may not be the biggest engine for change.
“When I did Chadar for the first time, 20 years ago, our main problem was access to drinking water, as the ice sheet was so thick. Now, due to mild winters, the ice sheet is thinner each year. Conditions on Chadar are becoming harder to predict. It won’t be the new road that will end Chadar — it will be climate change.”
After delays in Delhi, we finally got to the start of our expedition in Leh – a town in the middle of the Indian Himalayas. There was one more obstacle in our way, though: to trek Chadar a permit is needed.
Due to heavy snowfall permits were not being issued and Chadar remained closed for five days. In places, the ice had been destroyed by the avalanches.
After the Chinese invasion of Tibet, Ladakh became a refuge for some Tibetans and Leh itself became the Buddishm centre of India.
While in Choglamsar, on the outskirts of Leh, we are told that in the Hemis monastery (40km away) we can try and meet His Holiness XII Gyalwang Drukpa, the head of the Drukpa Lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. The Drukpa lineage was founded in 1206. The annual Hemis festival honoring Padmasambhava is held here in early June.
On the road we find that we have company, two Buddhist nuns. Jigmet Rangun, one of seven siblings, was the first person I talked to about the potential changes and developments that the building of the new road might bring.
The monks at Hemis turn out to be very hospitable and we are invited for a common meal in the canteen.
After days of waiting we are granted a Chadar permit and head towards a place where the river Zanskar meets the river Indus. The latter – due to the current being much stronger – freezes much less
There are bridges that allow us to cross the river on the first few miles of the rather boastfully named Zanksar Highway – which is, in fact, a narrow, rock-hewn tarmac-covered path.
The construction workers on the road are mainly from Nepal, as well as from the poorest regions of India. For many of these workers these gruelling conditions will also be their first encounter with cold and snow.
The river can change rapidly. It can be an ice block-dotted slow-moving body of water or it can be narrow and extremely fast wild. Scary in both cases, especially when you realise how thin the ice can be.
Vibration together with the hum of the river flowing beneath you is a sensation that cannot be described and has to experienced
For many locals the Chadar trek is their main source of income during the winter. Often, their main role is that of porter for Indian tourists, many from Mumbai and Delhi – and the numbers have been increasing every year.
The ongoing construction of the Zanskar Highway will, ultimately, allow the people across the region to have improved access to education and health services. However, it isn’t all positive, as the new road will also usher in new ways of doing things and this “modern” civilisation will, as a result, push tradition, heritage and culture to the fringes – and the risk is that these precious things are then forgotten.
Many of the locals, such as Tashi, pictured below, still wear traditional, woollen coats, called gontshe.
Ladakhi women often wear colourful clothes, which matches the prayer flags seen with such frequency here, and also adds vibrancy to what is a harsh landscape.
A short, wooden bridge near the village of Nierak marked the location where, after many cloud-filled days, we first got a proper glimspe of the sun during our expedition.