Ok so this is what we came here for and after four days of getting used to being at cruising altitude for a light aircraft we are ready for the off. Sonam met us in one of the ubiquitous tiny vans and we struck out on the road we took to Nimmu. You feel much too small in this landscape, with the little van struggling up the slopes and slowing down for the sharp bends hugging the contours of the rock. As the green swathe of Nimmu village appeared ahead of us, we turned sharply right to Chilling following the putty-coloured Zanskar river through its gorge. The road is newly laid and the narrow bridges are slowly being replaced with something more substantial. Sun blackened workmen perched on top of new pylons with corkscrews of silver cable which will eventually carry power to the mountain villages. The region is changing fast.
The flat and creamy waters of the Zanskar surged up into rapids along the way. Last year they carried off a bridge and bits of the road which are now being rebuilt. The tarmac gave way to a narrow gravel track lined with workmen and women shifting rock by hand in the dust and the fierce sunshine. On one stretch we had to stop for half an hour or so as an avalanche of rock filled the road ahead.
Great lozenge-shaped boulders bounced down the mountain triggering explosions of smaller rocks and a great cloud of dust. They were being prized out of the mountainside by workmen with crowbars, in an effort to minimise landslides when the new road has been laid. Others in the road crew sat on the verge and watched the show before eventually clearing the road for us remarkably quickly. We crossed the river on the shiny new bridge and got ready to go. The sun was now blazing and we were grateful that a horse was carrying most of our luggage, leaving us with backpacks full of waterproofs and warm clothes and water and lunch, with which we set off into the Himalayas.
Sonam wanted to take us along one of the old trails along the river but within five minutes we came to a place where the path had eroded and was now a treacherous wedge of gravel about the width of a human foot which dropped off towards the river thirty meters below. Sonam had made it across but this really looked too dangerous and we declined. Sonam came back across and one foot briefly slid out from him as he did so. He led us back to the dirt road: “There is a network of old paths here” he said “but now most people use the dirt road the paths aren’t used and they aren’t maintained any more’. Not taking the short cut meant a steep climb between the dirt road switchbacks which left us all gasping, but once up we rejoined the dirt road and the going was easier.
As we came to the first village – a handful of squat mudblock houses – Sonam stopped to show us a watermill for grinding barley, housed in a little shed. Barley is the heart of Laddakhi life, used for the flat bread we had for breakfast and the beer they make here in the villages called Chang which is served with spoonfuls of barley flour.
We stopped amid ancient stupas and in the shade of a big prayer wheel house for chunks of preserved kiwi fruit which we’d bought from a dried fruit shop in Leh. Sonam, who had declined all offers of water along the route, didn’t say no when offered a piece.
At the far end of Skiu village we turned into a dusty farmstead which was to be our homestay for the night.
A smiley lady ushered us in and her husband showed us two square rooms with thick rugs on the floor and mattresses and cushions which will be our beds for the night. We ate in the main room, a much larger space also covered in rugs with low platforms along the walls and little tables at our feet. As with our guesthouse, all the iron and copper pots are proudly displayed on shelves. Chilling is known for its metalwork as the Tibetan craftsmen brought in to make giant metal religious statues in Laddakh hundreds of years ago, chose to settle in the village and their skills have survived.
Sonam took us up to the tenth century monastery in the village.
It’s a small and unassuming building perched on a rocky outcrop. But inside it is a dazzle of colour.
Around the back of the main shrine is a low doorway through to a second shrine in what was the original part of the building housing a large statue of a Buddha.
The walls are covered in elaborate tableaux now faded and crumbling; faces peering out from ages past.
Outside he showed us two small sculptures like little Jerusalem artichokes left on a window ledge which he said were made from clay mixed with cremated ashes to honour the dead.
The sun has dipped behind the cliffs towering all around us and a few of the villagers are sitting on the ground outside chatting. We can smell dinner and are wondering about getting cleaned up in a house with no running water. Philippa has just been pointed in the direction of a large bowl and a hosepipe outside. That will do!