Every now and then, as a photographer I shoot a story that really touches me deeply. You can never tell which one it’s going to be and often you only realize it when you are looking back through your pictures in hindsight. Sitting here in the warmth of my hotel room, I have to admit that the last week I have spent in Zanskar has been one such assignment, one that I will carry with me for ever.
Zanskar’s mountainous landscape is an unforgiving place in winter. Temperatures can plummet to minus 40 at night and avalanches are a frequent occurrence. Add to this the fact that the only road in and out of the area is completely impassable for 6 months of the year and the result is a community of Zanskaris whose hardiness and resilience cannot fail to make an impression on you. It never ceases to amaze me how people who live in such harsh conditions can be so friendly and accommodating. One could hazard a guess that over the years their overly active survival genes would tend to make them selfish people but the reality is the complete opposite. In Zanskar the communities are strong and warm. A knock on a stranger’s door will always result in food and a bed for the night, such is the way of their mountain culture.
In recent years, Zanskar has become somewhat a mecca for trekkers and outdoor enthusiasts alike. Those that venture here in winter do so with certain preconceptions, the main one being that it can be a very dangerous place that is not to be taken lightly. Like our team, with them foreign visitors tend to bring state of the art survival gear, cooks, porters, tents… sometimes a whole battalion of helpers designed to make their experience as comfortable as can be. What most of them discover when they arrive and start walking is that they share these pathways with local Ladakhis who are just living their day-to-day lives as they have done for hundreds of years.
Our story here has centred around a group of children who are making their journey to boarding school in Leh. For the winter term, with no vehicle access to their homes there is only one route available to them and that is down the Zanskar river. With the consistently sub-zero temperatures, at this time of the year the waterway forms a frosty road that the locals call chadar meaning ‘veil’ by reference to its icy covering.
Walking the chadar can be a treacherous task that has already claimed the life of one foreigner so far this year. The ice covering is unpredictable and can change its consistency over night as our team discovered when heavy snow fall caused a series of avalanches that resulted in a temporary dam in the river which, when it finally broke, sent a torrent of water down the valleys, flooding the ice and leaving them stranded at high altitude for 7 days.
For the local Zanskari girls and boys, the walk to school takes several days with nights spent in caves . Accompanied by one or other of their parents, many are expected to carry their own possessions, often on home-made sledges that double up as backpacks when the ice gets too uneven to pull on. On such an arduous journey one might expect to hear regular cries of protest but not once did I hear anything of the sort. Led by the most experienced adult the children were always upbeat and resolute, sharing the burden of their bags, the older ones holding the hands of the younger.
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When we face hardship it is never more apparent than in the eyes of children. The Zanskari children I have spent the last week with have been a most amazing inspiration to me. The smiles and laughter. The instinctive sharing of any food they have. A concerned eye as you veer towards thinning ice. These kids are absolutely incredible and there’s no doubt that they inherit their wonderful temperament from their parents. I don’t have children yet myself, but when I do, if they blossom into anything near to the kind of human beings I have met here in Zanskar then I will die a happy and content man.
Yesterday we finally arrived in Leh after a 2 hour drive from the end of the ice, the jeep packed full of children laughing and singing folks songs at the tops of their voices. I’ll leave you with a snap that I stole of a sign hanging above the headmaster’s desk in his office at school this morning. For me it says it all.
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