Slipping from Shangri-La


The line of forty walkers moved quickly, which was good for keeping warm but bad for keeping my balance. Because we were walking on ice, a frozen river. The Zanskar, walled in on both sides by a towering gorge, is the only winter link between villages in that Himalayan valley and the outside world. And it’s only a link for a little while, in deepest winter, when its surface freezes enough to support human footsteps. Zanskar is part of Ladakh—the eastern, Buddhist part of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. At more than 11,000 feet above sea level (with peaks as high as 23,000), the area has long been defined by remoteness. The valley has the feel of a cul-de-sac, because there is only one real road in and out—a dirt track from Kargil, an untouristed and predominantly Muslim town just a couple of miles from the disputed border (or “Line of Control”) with Pakistan, to Padum, the main town of Zanskar. Summers are short there, and the Kargil road is only reliably open four or five months a year, from the end of May to early October. After that, snow makes it impassable and the valley gets very, very quiet. But for a few weeks each winter, when the ice is strong enough, the river provides the Zanskaris another way out—an ice road, a forty-mile trail upon the frozen surface called the chaddar.

more from Ted Conover at VQR here.