Karamjeet Singh's Himalayan Home


If you take a flight from Leh to Jammu, and sit on the left hand side of the craft, you get a birds eye view of the Suru valley. Barely 20 minutes into the flight, the aircraft takes a perceptible turn to the South west as it leaves the Indus valley to cross the mountains of the Zanskar. Below you will see the Zanskar range itself, and ahead, approaching swiftly, the Great Himalaya range with the twin pyramids of Nun and Kun clearly visible. Sandwiched in between these two great ranges is the deep cut made by the Suru river.

The Suru, a little known but large river from which the valley takes it's name, flows south to north, one of the peculiarities of the left bank tributaries of the Indus. Fed by the glaciers on the north side of the Great Himalaya range, the Suru is a big river by the time it exits the valley near Kargil, the largest town in the region.
As you move up the valley from Kargil, you could be forgiven for forgetting that you are in the trans-Himalayas. Astonishingly verdant for it's altitude, in summer the valley abounds in wildflowers. The lower Suru is a wide valley, extensively cultivated, the barley fields interspersed with plantations of willow, with the blue-grey Suru itself, rushing through.

Suru valley is Dardic country. The Dards, an Indo-Iranian tribe, have been traced by historians to a 2nd century A.D migration. The Dards of the Suru valley are Muslims, though Shia as opposed to the majority Sunni's in the west. Consequently they draw religous inspiration from Iran and the walls of the village mosques are plastered with posters of the Ayatollahs of Iran. Religous and extremely peace loving, the inhabitants of Suru are a beautiful people, in a beautiful landscape. Albeit a grimmer people than their Ladakhi neighbours, at least to the outsider, for the prevailing Shia orthodoxy imposes a strict code, restricting contact with outsiders, secluding women behind the purdah and, as Islamic purists, frowning upon the arts like music, dance and the cinema. Nevertheless, the lower Suru valley is like a long, magical garden with hostile looking mountains towering on all sides. Suru is a crossroads between the Muslim and Buddhist regions of the Himalayas and represents the easternmost extension of Islam in the Himalaya.

The valley remains fairly wide, except for some sharp points of contraction, almost all the way to Panniker, where the landscape begins to change... great peaks like Nun and Kun become visible and at every bend you become aware of the looming presence of the Great Himalaya itself. After the great bend at Nanga Parbat, Nun and Kun are the first peaks above 20,000 feet. Nun at 23,410 feet and Kun at 23,250
Various high mountains have been magnets for different nationalities and have come to be associated with them as national obsessions. Particularly,The Germans with Nanga Parbat and the Japanese with Nun & Kun. Large numbers have perished on it's perilous slopes and faces and yet the mountain is an irresistable attraction.
This is great trekking and climbing country, the route from Dras across the Umba la being a popular one. The climb to Nun base camp starts at Tangol.

At Tangol the landscape changes dramatically, the valley narrowing down and the great peaks crowding in..the river flowing in a deep gorge, almost like a crack at points....till Parkachik, where the valley widens again.

Beyond Parkachik is glacier country with the valleys having been gouged out by long extinct glaciers..... Not all are extinct though. With ice walls stretching hundreds of feet, the Rangri glacier debouches straight from Nun into the Suru river itself..In one of the most amazing sights in the Himalayas, if you are lucky enough to witness it, large chunks of the glacier crash straight into the river... Great slabs of ice periodically peel off the glacier's 300 foot high front wall, to go crashing into the river flowing below. From Panniker on, another change takes place -the road such as it is finishes and onwards is just a rough track where you would do well to have a rough terrain vehicle, for it's rough country all the way to Zanskar with no mechanics or repair shops in between.

From Parkachik to Ringdom is a long, long drive, over extremely rough country, and through some truly spectacular landscapes. The terrain is glacial with large boulders scattered about and the track weaving it's way around these, and over, the smaller ones.

A gateway to Zanskar, and an indication of the start of Buddhist regions, is the Ringdum gompa, overlooked by a fantastically striated, pyramidal mountain, it's sedimentary layers clearly visible. Ringdom is an orthodox Gelupga monastery standing right on the frontier of the Himalayan Buddhist regions - the westernmost Gompa in the Himalayas. The approach to Ringdom is across a flat plain kilometers wide, where the Suru stream has meandered and issued into dozens of streams, which again converge at the point where the valley broadens into the plain. Coming into the valley in the evening, directly ahead, spotlit by the fast sinking sun, we saw the Gompa atop a squat hillock. Already, in early september, the nights were below freezing and the cold only contributed to the sense of bleakness we felt as we negotiated the water courses trying to get to the village before it was totally dark. The night was spent in a spanking new government rest house, which sounds better than it was. Besides being cold and dark (there is yet no electric supply to this remote habitation) the architect had for some reason known only to himself, omitted including any bathrooms at all in the building, or outside it for that matter.The next morning we had our first look at this high altitude settlement, obviously owing it's existence to the gompa.The gompa itself, didn't look so impressive by day as it did at dusk, having none of the lofty, imperilled feel of some of the other Gompas in Ladakh and Zanskar. The impression of bleakness was reinforced in the morning. Fields there are in the vast plain but crops are an uncertain matter owing to the short growing season and long and ardous winter. Everything of consequence has to be thereby trucked in and stockpiled, for in winter the snows fall to a depth of several metres.

Sandwiched between the ancient tethyan sediments of the Zanskar range and the crystalline and granitic structures of the main range, Suru valley is a geologist's and prospector's delight. The rocks in the region abound in Garnet and other semi-precious stones and copper sediments are heavy in some glacial streams.

The Suru is rich in wildlife. Red Bear, ursus arctos, and wolves, are plentiful. So are their prey, the Ibex, Bharal and other mountain goat species. Snow leopards are regularly sighted in winter, when they range at a lower altitude. Foxes, Vulpes vulpes montana, are easily sighted around the villages, and the river teems with fish. Higher up the valley, the meadows fairly sprout marmot colonies. The most common predator is the Tibetan wolf Canis lupus chanku locally known over most of the western transhimalaya as Shanku . Local populations consider it vermin as it preys on their prized livestock, as well as smaller animals like the marmots. Undoubtedtly the most dangerous in terms of a chance encounter is the Red bear. Heavily built and omnivorous, like it's black cousin, a hungry red can scatter an entire mule train or wreak havoc in a shepherd's flock. Much more difficult to see, near impossible during the summer, is the Snow leopard Panthera uncia. It's highly effective camouflage colouring, diffuse rosettes and grey white colour, allow it to merge with the landscape. This combined with the high altitude and inaccessibility of it's preferred range, along with a retiring nature, make chances of a sighting almost nil. Filmmakers who have filmed it in the wild, have done so in the cold weather, when it is wont to approach the animal pens in the villages, and used bait. A time consuming, extremely ardous, and expensive procedure. Hunting and poaching is common, as all over the Himalayas, especially in winter. Villagers also try and kill both the foxes and wolves, because of their penchant for raiding livestock. Huge mastiffs are frequently set loose in winter in order to rid the locality of "vermin". The wolves suffer too, for Sankhu, the Tibetan wolf, doesn't move about in packs. Thus he is vulnerable to a pair of mastiffs or some armed villagers on foot. One would think the scene would change in the Buddhist regions, but strangely enough local populations of these animals are equally at risk there. In fact the Lama at Bardhan gompa, in Zanskar, proudly showed us a room with some stuffed wolves and foxes, as well as the ancient muzzle loader that brought them there. The actual hunting had been done by some men from the village. Come winter and the graceful snow leopard too, enters the category of villain. Snow leopards have been killed by villagers after it has entered a livestock pen and slaughtered all the animals inside. Though to the credit of the Ladakhi villagers, in recent years many such animals have been reported to the forest authorities who have then come and relocated the animal.

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