Micha? and I 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 it with the rest of the world. For hundreds of years villagers across the mountains have used Chadar (the ice road trek) to get to school, work or to see a doctor. 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 avalanches.
After the Chinese invasion of Tibet, Ladakh became a refuge for many Tibetans and Leh became the Buddishm centre of India.
While in Choglamsar, on the outskirts of Leh, we were told that in the Hemis monastery (40km away) we could try and meet His Holiness XII Gyalwang Drukpa, the head of the Drukpa lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. The Drukpa lineage was founded in 1206.
On the road we found that we had company, two Buddhist nuns. Jigmet Rangun, one of seven siblings, was the first person I talked to about the potential changes that the new road might bring.
The monks at Hemis were very hospitable and we were invited for a meal in their canteen.
After days of waiting we were granted a Chadar permit and headed towards the place where the river Zanskar meets the river Indus. As its current is much stronger, the Indus freezes much less.
There are bridges that allowed us to cross the river on the first few miles of the rather grandly 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 the poorest regions of India. As well as the gruelling conditions, for many workers this was also a first encounter with a cold climate and snow.
The river changed rapidly. It could be an ice block-dotted, slow-moving body of water or narrow and extremely fast. Scary in both cases, especially given how thin the ice could 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. They work as porters for Indian tourists, many from Mumbai and Delhi, with numbers rising year on 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, with “modern” civilisation pushing tradition, heritage and culture to the fringes.
Many of the locals, such as Tashi, pictured below, still wear traditional, woollen coats, called gontshe.
Ladakhi women often wear colourful clothes, which adds vibrancy to what is a harsh landscape.
A short, wooden bridge near the village of Nierak is where, after many cloud-filled days, we got our first glimpse of the sun.