By Charlotte Zealley
The University Library holds many treasures, not least the archives of the Cambridge University Expedition Society. They provide a record of all the transactions between the committee and its members, from term cards to handwritten notes by the legendary Sir Vivian Fuchs. Best of all for me however are the mentions of the St John’s College 1983 Ecological Expedition to Kashmir. Why? Well, it turns out that while our plans to travel to Zanskar are ambitious and unique not only has another Cambridge expedition been there before but my own father was one of its members. Something must be in the genes….
Similar to our expedition the five members of the 1983 team were all undergraduates at the university and studying various different subjects. Fundraising was just as much of a difficulty as it is for us. Among the dust I found tens of rejection letters from companies the team had approached for sponsorship. It strikes me that there will be very little physical evidence of our planning and fundraising with so much of it done through email. The similarities are greater than the differences however, and their expedition was funded just like ours with a combination of grants, commercial sponsorship and generous individuals. They were perhaps more creative than us though and organised a Himalayan themed night at one of Cambridge’s notorious nightclubs. Apparently the Himalayas are not the easiest party theme to work with and it raised absolutely no money!
The 1983 expedition combined research with strenuous trekking, and their research included a study of plant adaptations to altitude, an ornithological study and research into levels of lead pollution. They trekked from Kashmir to Ladakh and so were able to contrast the two regions, the latter proving much more arid.
The expedition report that the team compiled details their research conclusions and gives us a taste of what we might expect when we’re in Ladakh. It is also going to be interesting to compare their photos and experiences with our own and see the development of the area. Even in the 1980s Zanskar was becoming less remote: in 1983 the team were regaled with the story of the first army trucks to reach the valley in the 1970s. The famous Zanskar hospitality shone through as the villagers generously offered grazing to the truck and its baby, a second jeep travelling closely behind. Thirty years is little in the grand scheme of things but Ladakh is changing fast and the 1983 observations and research may seem unsettlingly out of date in comparison to our own.