Guido Fino

Zanskar  - Trekking in the heart of the Himalayas

Introduction by Guido Fino  and  Elisabetta Valtz     

..all experience is an arch wherethro’
Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move”   

(from “Ulysses”, Alfred Tennyson)

Hidden in the heart of the Indian Himalayas, on the southern border of Ladakh, 12,000 inhabitants, around fifty villages at an average altitude of 3,600 metres and a handful of monasteries over three valleys run through by rivers which descend from the sacred Kailash, surrounded by glaciers and peaks which rise to over 6,000 metres.

This is the remote and rugged Zanskar, an ancient, tiny Buddhist kingdom, still the homeland of one of the most isolated populations on the planet. This was the destination of our Himalayan journey back in 1977. Opened only one year earlier to foreigners, Zanskar was still immersed in an almost total isolation from the world, due to the lacking of routes connecting the area with the valley of Leh, and offered unlimited opportunities for trekking and discoveries, encounters and true emotions, in one of the most impressive Himalayan landscapes and in one of the last untouched enclaves of Tibetan culture. 

With the exclusive support of a geological map to plan a rough route , and of epistolary contacts with an Indian guide/interpreter from Srinagar, we set off with tents and sleeping bags in our rucksacks, and with a compass and altimeter as our only technological aids. We had no idea that we would be undergoing what, today, we can consider not only as an extraordinary experience of extreme trekking (380 kilometres on foot in fifteen days with passes at over 5,000 meters), but also a journey of discovery in places were religion, spirituality and ways of life have remained unchanged since the Middle Ages.

We would travel over ancient paths known only to the locals, halfway up the mountains over vertiginous crevasses, cross rivers on fragile suspended bridges, wade through swollen torrents and rest in villages meeting the mountain people, the wonderful Zanskar–pa, who live in one of the most hostile natural environments in the world, overcoming the hardship of life through their native and profound spirituality. The old and the young with their sun–baked skin, women with red cheeks and shining black hair, wearing the peyrac studded with silver, coral and turquoise, working in the barley fields, shepherding the yaks and goats, intent on gathering wood or making offers to Buddha, and swarms of children with their younger siblings on their backs running out from the houses to greet us with smiles as soon as they spotted us, curious and shy at seeing us – the first foreigners to enter their villages.   

We would ascend passes with breathtaking views over the Himalayan Range, accompanied by a silent monk on a pilgrimage to Leh, put up our tents in pastures dotted with chorten, share chapatis around the campfire with Rampa, an elderly Zanskari inhabitant who left his village to join us as a guide and scout because of his expert knowledge of all the paths and fords that he travelled in his annual crossing of the valleys to trade barley with sugar, rice and tea in Leh.  We would drink Tibetan tea with the monks in the simple but lively monasteries hanging on to the slopes of the valleys as a protection for the villages. And after fifteen days of extenuating but exhilarating journey, begun in Srinagar and following on through the glaciers, gorges, rivers and starry skies  we would see, from the path descending from the Ganda La, the Indus river running through the Leh valley, our journey’s ultimate destination.

The photographs taken along the route are, above all, a spontaneous and immediate reflection of the vast sum of emotions generated by the journey, by the meeting with people and the sublime nature of the landscapes. They also serve as a memory of what was shared during the walk with our three fellow hikers but, principally, they are an affectionate homage to the unforgettable and wonderful people of Zanskar. 

After thirty years, in a world which is conveyed by the media as easily accessible to all, even in its more exotic aspects, this testimony of what was a true adventure in terms of discoveries, challenges and daily amazement when faced with the untamed reality of ancient and untainted purity, is aimed at all those who understand the most authentic sense of travel.