The Tsarab Chu: Our journey out of Zanskar

At the end of spending 3 weeks researching in Kumik village in central Zanskar, the group geared up for a change of pace and a totally different phase of our expedition. When we were planning the expedition we knew that other than reversing our exciting but slightly bone-jangling 2 day 4×4 drive into Zanskar, the only way back out was by foot. We quickly decided that it would be more fitting and far more enjoyable to trek back out of the valley, following the route of the Tsarab Chu river, which winds SE of Padum to a point where we could rejoin civilisation on the road from Manali to Leh.

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A chilly but refreshing river crossing.

We researched the route as carefully as we could but came across relatively little material, except for the fantastic Cicerone guidebook, Trekking in Ladakh  by Radek Kucharski  (1) (highly recommended), which describes the route as the most difficult he had done in Ladakh but by far the best. We were psyched. Looking ahead, we knew that the biggest challenges would mainly be water based: either trying to cross rivers, or to find drinkable water sources at the end of the day, alongside the ever present dangers of getting sick or injured whilst out in the wilds, since most of the route is totally remote in an abandoned valley. We planned 12 days for the trek, leaving 2 contingency at the end, or in case of arriving early, using these days to extend our research. The particularly intriguing part about the trek, and the reason why we chose our route, was that it allowed us to trek along a river valley that had already been abandoned due to water scarcity around about the year 2000. The route brought us through the abandoned but still intact villages, and finishes at the new village they had rebuilt by the road side. In terms of research, we simply wanted to establish when and why these people had decided to move and record this, since as far as my research showed, no-one really knew.

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The team atop a high pass.

Setting out on the trek, we all enjoyed the change of pace, to a more planned (though still fairly relaxed!) daily routine. Every morning we rose at about 7.30, drank tea, took our tents down, ate a fantastic and filling breakfast curtesy of our cook Jamyang’s remarkable culinary skills, and set out on the days’ route. We walked between 10 and 20 km per day, sometimes through undulating trails, one day on a mission over two consecutive 5000m passes, but most often along precipitous scree tracks above the remarkably turquoise Tsarab Chu river. Trekking past the twin abandoned villages of Shun (Marshun and Yarshun refer to lower and upper portions) was surprisingly eerie; the houses stand very much in tact, along with field boundaries and irrigation systems, though they are obviously uninhabited. Thinking that just 10 years ago these villages would have been bustling hives of activity, much like that of Kumik, served as a stark example of what Kumik village could, and most likely will, look like in 10 years’ time. We continued on our way however, enjoying each days’ highs and lows, and our new staple lunch breaks of boiled eggs, potatoes and chocolate. Towards the end of the trek however, we were all beginning to feel the cumulative toll of living in Zanskar for the past month: not just the dust and dirt on our necks and hands but achy legs, blistered feet and sore stomachs following various minor stomach upsets.

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Saying goodbye to our fabulous team, horses included!

Our arrival into Chumik Gyaltsa village, the newly built village for all the residents of Marshun & Yarshun brought quite a bit of relief amongst the team, but also some frustration that we at that point would have to wait 2 days more for the much awaited hot shower and internet connectivity. We decided to change our plans to focus and try hard to research for one more day and then arrange our drive back to Leh for the following day, which proved to be the right decision. The weather was beginning to take a turn towards autumn, and Chumik Gyaltsa at over 4000m altitude turned out to be a frontier-esque and spectacular but cold and even rainy, final camp spot. At the very end of our stay we departed Chumik Gyaltsa under a brilliantly clear sky, departing our wild remote valley to join a tarmacked road (albeit for only some of the way!). We said a bittersweet goodbye to our brilliantly fun and hardworking trek team of the five ponies, Jamyang, Dawa, Stanzin and of course, Kalsang. Trekking out of the Zanskar valley had been the perfect way to draw our expedition to a close.

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