HomeLifestyleRoad to Zanskar: This remote village now has easy access to cash, clothes,...

Road to Zanskar: This remote village now has easy access to cash, clothes, phones and hospitals

For almost every other Zanskari, the convenience of being able to travel home this fast is little short of miraculous

For almost every other Zanskari, the convenience of being able to travel home this fast is little short of miraculous

We set off for Zanskar in the dark. Along with my husband Tanzin and our two-year-old daughter, we have with us my mother-in-law Abe le, nephew Kalsang, a cook, and a driver. The dawn when it comes is pink as rose quartz. We bump up rough track for what feels like eternity until we are stopped short of the pass by a flood so deep even the 4×4 baulks. Tanzin, Kalsang and the cook get out, unload all the food we have brought for the three-day trek ahead, and wade precariously through the icy torrent, with trays of egg and bundles of  sabjibalanced in their arms.

Abe le throws sacred red barley grains wildly about the vehicle and practically shouts her mantras above the crash of water. We rev to roaring, face the flood, and cross without mishap. At the top of Shinku la pass, the track peters out completely. Kalsang’s father meets us with four sturdy mountain ponies. We begin the long walk home to Testa, through snow, mud, water, over single-plank bridges, fording flooded rivers on horseback, and scrabbling across rocks when there is no path. Abe le suffers nose bleeds. The wind sings sharply, coldly, in our ears. We arrive at Testa after three days and nights on the trot.

Cut to five years later. Testa now has its first motorable road. Our three-day trek becomes a six-hour drive from Lahaul. Abe le, now 85, is violently car-sick for most of the journey.

For almost every other Zanskari I meet, however, the convenience of being able to travel home this fast is little short of miraculous: suddenly, there is immediate access to hospitals, to technology and cashpoints. Bread, sugar, phones, satellite dishes, clothes, shoes, and cash, a means of exchange unknown in Zanskar until about 20 years ago. Almost gone are the days when jewels changed hands for land and eldest daughters inherited rock coral and turquoise headdresses so heavy, wearing them would cause the brides to go cross-eyed during the marriage ceremony.

“Things used to be done in a good way,” Tanzin’s sister-in-law tells me as we sit around, drinking tea and rolling small balls of tasty tsampa in the communal living room of Testa Kha; for instance, she tells me, she hasn’t needed to buy new clothes throughout her married life: her trousseau of homespun dresses has never worn thin.

We stoke up the woodstove and warm more yak milk. The tea flows. Tanzin recalls that when he was a boy, traders would arrive each year over the high passes with hundreds of yak and sheep strapped with bags of salt from the high lakes of Tibet to exchange for matches, oil, kerosene. “I remember they used to pitch camp each year in the fields of Testa Kha. The nomads played a string instrument called damyan and we Zanskaris played drums and Zanskari clarinets. We would sing and dance until midnight for many days on end.”

Kalsang, a new-gen Zanskari, decided that his best investment of the year would be a hardy pick-up in which he could drive back and forth to Manali, sourcing atta, rice, sugar, fruit and vegetables. Travelling from village to village with orders, he reckons that his profits have already paid for the truck. 

“I mean, it’s good for people to have access, not to feel cut off from everything going on,” he says. “And it was the young people of Testa who fought a battle with the elders to insist that the road, when it reached here, should run on the other side of the Valley and not through the village itself. We are aware of the environmental impacts.”

Beyond belief

For Abe le, her world is changing beyond belief. “We used to tell tales about how someone in the village had once seen hundreds of rupee notes somewhere. But we didn’t really know what they looked like,” she chuckles.

Kalsang’s dad begins preparing momos. Fresh coriander and chilli are ground and made into a mouth-watering dark green chutney. Kalsang gets out his guitar and strums. There is a happy hum of voices and cooking. “The main difference is the range of commodities we can now see in different houses,” says Tanzin. “Before, if you visited the richest family in Zanskar, you would be offered tsampa and chang and butter tea. If you went to the poorest house, it would be the same. The only difference would be in the quantities consumed.”

When the momos are ready, we consume a great many more than is strictly necessary. Question marks, minute as the high white clouds, hover above sacks of concrete brought in to make the bricks with which to build new habitations in a way previously unheard of in this land of earth and rock. 

Will the road bring multi-storey hotels and fast-food menus to this community so close to the sky? Will it mean greater vulnerability to potential invasions of all kinds: materialistic, touristic, militaristic? Will life change here as rapidly in the next 20 years as, say, it has done in Dharamsala and Manali? Or will this surfaced tarmac prove to be a lifeline to those living on both sides of the pass: a new kind of barter-exchange route that enables the ancient sustainable ways, now more relevant than ever, to be absorbed, better understood and practised for the benefit of all beings beyond this once secret valley.


Kalsang’s dad’s moorish momos

( Makes 20)


For the wrapper:

1 tbsp cold-pressed olive/ sunflower oil

400g organic white flour

Water to mix

For the filling:

150g finely chopped mushroom

150g finely chopped or crumbled paneer

100g grated cow or yak cheese

100g very finely chopped onion

10g torn or chopped coriander

5g finely chopped fresh parsley

3-4 cloves of finely chopped garlic

1 tbsp soya sauce

20g butter

Himalayan rock salt, to taste

Spices, turmeric, basil to taste


1. Sift the flour into a bowl. Pour in a tbsp of oil and enough warm water to knead a soft dough.

2. Mix all the finely chopped ingredients into a large bowl. Pour onto the mixture 20g of melted butter, a tbsp of soya sauce and pinches of spices (as required), plus Himalayan rock salt (to taste). Check the balance of flavours.

3. Cut out circles of dough rolled as thinly as you can make it without it breaking, approx. 3 inches in diameter. Place a teaspoon of filling in the centre of the rolled out circle and pull up the sides of the dough to create small ‘sacks’, folding in pleats at the top to enclose it; or alternatively, fold the circle of dough in half and pinch the momo closed around the semi-circular circumference.

4. Pour two-and-a-half glasses of water into the base of a steamer. Add half a teaspoon of Himalayan rock salt. Place individual momos in the top part of the steamer (not touching each other) as soon as the water starts to boil. Your moorish momos will be ready to devour in 16-18 minutes.

The writer is a freelance journalist, educator and editor of the young people’s journal Apple Press www.kin-ship.org/applepress.

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