India's Ladakh may be seen the last redoubt of the culture that once spread across the entire Tibetan Plateau. Within Ladakh it is the region of Zanskar to the west, that perhaps retains this culture in its most untrammeled form. These traditions find their origin in the great Tibetan invasions of the 7th Century, which extended the Tantric Buddhist culture across the Trans-Himalayan plateau up to the very easternmost gateway of Kashmir, the Zoji La (pass). Although its history is mostly lost in unrecorded past, Zanskar is known to have been a separate entity, its geographic remoteness and consequent low population, (about ten-thousand at the time of my visit) leaving it relatively untouched by the Muslim expansion experienced by its neighbors. This remoteness is enforced by its extreme terrain lying at a median altitude of 13,000 ft. which limits human habitation to the lands immediately adjacent to the three branches of the Zanskar river--the northern Doda with its source near the Pensi La, the southern Lingti with its source near the Baralacha La, and its tributary the Kurgiakh with its source near the Shingo La--and offers access over those few high gateways, the passes open for only a few months per year. In this place yet untroubled by the "Pandora's box" of motorable roads, people live much as they have for the past millennium. This is not to glamorize their existence for though it provides a colorful backdrop to the casual visitor, especially in the relatively benign summer season, life for the local is extremely hard.
I came to Zanskar rather late--the summer of 1991--in an attempt to resolve, or at least to temper the rage of "mid-life crisis". The goal of my travel was Kashmir and its highest massif of NunKun. The troubles in the Vale, which at that time were severe, persuaded me to try the "backdoor" route from Manali in Himachal Pradesh, crossing the Rohtang La into Lahaul, up over the Shingo La and then down to Padam. While seemingly wild, as it crosses the spine of the Great Himalayas, the route is well-trodden. For hundreds of years Zanskaris from the north and Lahaulis from the south have carried on trade. Much of this was focused on livestock, of which Zanskar held a near monopoly due to its superior grazing lands. Now this trade has been joined with another form of "livestock", tourist--of which, of course, I was one--who while potentially of economic benefit, may at the same time be culturally malign. From Padum, I had envisioned a climb into the Vale via the Chillung La and then along the Krash nala (river). This was not to be, once again reminding how ambitious one can be when planning on maps, and how such best laid plans, evaporate when confronted by reality. Instead, I travelled the more popular route via the Pensi and Zoji, subsequently traveling up to the western approach to the Chillung La