Zanskar at last, but how to get out?

6 August - It doesn't seem true, but I can take it easy today, at last. Still, the rhythm I have acquired doesn't allow me to stay in bed after 8, which is already very good. Now that I have finally got to Zanskar, I must find a way to get out without wasting too much time. If only I could afford spending days on end waiting for buses that may come or not! On the contrary my time is limited, but I must be happy with what I have.

I mentally explore the different possibilities to leave the valley: the easiest one would be returning from where I came from, with a long and tiresome journey, but with what vehicle?

The second hypothesis could be trekking over the Shingo La pass at 5,090 m, along the famous route to Darcha, beyond Leh, and from there get to Manali. This option would allow me to walk by Pugtal monastery lying at two days' walk from Padum and reachable only by foot. However I'm perplexed because the days are barely sufficient to complete this trek at a brisk pace, but if a health problem or bad weather or just a lower than expected physical performance should detain me, I would miss my return flight.

The third way is the fantastic one that I have imagined and I don't even know if it's feasible. But I told myself that if the valley is not crossed by a road, it must be by a river. So the idea would be to sail down the Zanskar river course in some boat and get to Nimiu, in the vicinity of Leh, where it flows into the Indus. I would skip the Penzi La and all the long Suru Valley. There is no road because the river gets into such narrow gorges that there is no natural space for a passage. For this reason, when the Penzi La is closed in winter due to snow and frost, Zanskar is isolated and the only way of communication is the Chaddar Trek, a astounding trail that the locals do in three days on the frozen river surface, sleeping in hollows of the rock in the glacial night. Going out of Zanskar along the river would be a windfall, but they say it's not possible because the river presents rapids and there aren't boats available. Shame! I could have seen the river gorge that fascinates me so much!

As I look out of the window, I am surprised to see an overcast sky today, with low clouds that hide the mountain tops. It's raining. I go for breakfast and the nice hotel manager expounds the stages of the trek to Darcha... but it's just enough to convince me how highly imprudent it would be to venture on this way with the limited time at my disposal.

I walk out with Albert to Guru Gompa, that we visit. At its foot lies a group of whitewashed Tibetan houses with large windows; on top of the thick layer of dry twigs on the roofs flies a coloured prayer flag, delicate and silent. In crossing it, the group of houses looks like a deserted village, on such a muffled day - maybe they're all working in the fields. Then a smiling face appears at a window and we verify with this girl that the direction to Karsha monastery is correct.

We can already see it perched on the ochre rocky face on the other side of the wide valley and we head to the distant clot of buildings. The drops that were falling thin this morning have dwindled and it looks as if the low white clouds cutting the mountains in half are also slowly dispersing.

We are at the crossroads of three valleys: the one we came down from after the Penzi La, the very narrow one leading to the Shingo La and the one that the Zanskar River flows along, but that the road gets into only up to a certain point. I can guess that in the sun and with brighter light the mountain colours should show nicer, but as it is I cannot say that this landscape beats the immense fascinating bleakness of Rangdum, with its monastery in front of the most surreal forms and colours that one can imagine.

We cross the fields and an old woman hails us with a hearty “Juley!”, even more expressive than how Albert utters it when he greets people. She ensues with other words we don't understand, but we make out the name of the gompa we are going to.

A jeep makes our march shorter and leaves us at the base of the quaint cluster of the monastery buildings. As I trudge up the steep ramp I have to stop several times with a short breath. I understand how rash it would be to embark on a trek at extreme altitudes with counted days.

We get into the prayer room, escorted by a shaven monk. Colourful embroidered cloth in Chinese taste hang from the ceiling and fall to the level of the eyes, illuminated by a a light penetrating from a second level of the roof build as a dormer window. On the walls I can make out figures of terrifying demons that populate Hell, scenes of incubi and succubi, carnal acts and erotic symbols. A tantric influx has in fact come to this ancient monastery that was founded 1,000 years ago.

The place infuses a strong sense of the sacred. With their conic shapes in different hues of orange the monks' thick woollen capes occupy the wooden benches, just raised from the board floor and covered by a stripe of carpet. They seem to mark an invisible presence, attend to the divinity that is permanently present. Here takes place the community morning prayer, with 100 monks that I find it difficult to imagine fitted in this limited space. From a shelf peep the ancient codices with loose leaves pressed between two hard wooden planks. I mentally picture this very room in a morning of the very hard winter.

We pass on to a second room, then we are about to take leave of the monk who only communicates with few words in English, when Albert a bit cheekily asks him if he would show us his cell. He agrees and takes us down the steep descent, then up again by a narrow passageway. We get into a room designed for two monks, with a little corner equipped as a kitchen for the evening meal. He prepares us some butter tea using a wooden cylinder in which a piston runs to obtain the emulsion. He's very welcoming, as much as his room is cosy. I feel we've established a relation of friendship, we haven't been tourists as many others.

Below, in the little square, we meet a Frenchman, not too young and vaguely dressed in the hippy way with a necklace and finger rings. Despite his somewhat eccentric look, he's a polite and courteous person. He tells me he was in Zanskar several times before for extended periods of time and now too he'll be staying two months to live in the monastery. He's accompanied by a beautiful child monk, dressed in dark red, his room mate.

Back at the village, I have now decided what I'll do to get out of this valley, that is the only reasonable solution I can enact: take the bus and get back to Kargil. However I am left with the dilemma of how to make my plan come true, since there is a bus leaving tomorrow, but it's already full. The cars ask for preposterous sums of money to do the long way on demand. I therefore insist with the bus conductor, imploring to let me in. I tell him I will sit in the aisle all along the 12 hours at least that the ride will last, starting from 2 am. It's sheer craziness, I know, but if I can't find anything better, it'll be my way out. The guy must think I'm nuts, especially when I declare, without a not too well suppressed giggle, that I will buy a plastic chair to sit on. Or he may think I'm just desperate... However, he agrees in the end and so I secure a makeshift solution.

At dinner I can't believe there are dishes in the menu that are not rice and beans. Even though it's not delicacy food, the variety of flavours arouses my appetite a little. I have a long and interesting discussion with Albert about self-realisation in life. Accepting one's destiny or striving to follow one's way? Contrary to him, I believe that there are limits that we cannot ignore nor overcome and sometimes it's better to learn to accept them to feel happy. But the real problem, in my opinion, may lie in understanding which is the path of self realisation. How could I fight and do my utmost to change when I do not believe in an alternative? I may as well accept what I have without great upset, an attitude that maybe denotes basic personal contentment. But, who knows, we all have spells of dissatisfaction...

On the other hand, I reflect, the people who live here can't have a great desire to be different from what they are and keep within the boundaries of space and traditions, as if living to survive. In accepting most of what we have and we are passed on from the past, we have peace. But the thing is that in our culture much of this heritage is upset, overturned and scorned by most people.

While Albert goes to the room, I set all my pride aside and ask two Italian people travelling in a jeep with a driver if they are planning to return to Kargil tomorrow and could I please join them? They confirm they're heading to Srinagar and Claudio kindly welcomes me on board. I've got it made, and very comfortably too. I have contradicted my principles that usually lead me to travel with the locals in order to meet and know them, but this time the effort required was too big. So I have relieved the fatigue of what is still a very long and hard journey.

7 August - I say goodbye to Albert and we leave at 6 with an early stop at the small Sani monastery. A young monk opens the room, filled with the acrid candle odour. We drive along the road up to the Penzi La, today illuminated by patches of light that make it fascinating. Hours and hours of road, then we descend towards Rangdum Gompa that I sight from afar, on a new backdrop from a different angle, but still fantastic. I greet the monk Mingyur as we drive past. At 12 I see the yard where I was waiting for a passage for two days and I realise, today even more, that the wait made me live very important experiences. We go down the long Suru Valley. We pass Panikhar and I greet my friend the policeman at the check post. We also cross the driver that took me to Rangdum. In those days of worry because of the irregular transport, how many people I have met and how many places I had to discover by force!

This time I noticed details in the landscape that I had not noticed in the outbound journey, like that mountain marked by vertical black stripes on all its rocks as if ink had been trickling over it. Or the magnificent and powerful phenomenon of nature that is a glacier with the modelling sign that it leaves behind, even when it has shrunk and become extinct. It's like a giant's thumb that pressed on plasticine and has been drawn back to disappear, leaving an imprinted trace of its potent action.