Aimee and her boyfriend Zach recently participated in a Tibetan Children’s Education Foundation (TCEF) service trip to provide medical care and education to local healthcare providers in Zanskar, India. As Aimee discovered, the journey to Zanskar was an adventure all its own.
Our capital “A” adventure took off in full force when we headed out of Leh towards Padum, the administrative capital of the Zanskar Valley. It’s a two-day journey by jeep, and it’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced (and having grown up in Montana; a regular visitor to Glacier, Yellowstone and the backcountry; and a traveler of 5 continents, I’m not a newbie to crazy roads and pretty scenery).
We’re talking switchbacks up the sides of mountains that are literally carved through glaciers, stupas (structures of various shapes and sizes that hold relics of ancient Buddhist teachers, gurus, or even Buddhas) and monasteries dotting the landscape, and emerald green rice paddies mixing with the intense white glow of the distant peaks. It seemed as though I reached for my camera every other moment in an attempt to capture some new, over-the-top scene. After a while, it was clear I wasn’t going to succeed and the real magic was in being fully present.
Day 1 of our journey took us past the confluence of the Zanskar and Indus Rivers, up through Moonland (because it looks like, you guessed it, the moon), and down into the Kargil valley.
We eased into the road trip with only 6 hours of driving. We stopped for lunch at the beautiful Lamyamo Monastery where I got to spin my first prayer wheels of this trip to India, chanting the ancient mantra Om Mani Padme Hum as the scriptures on the wheels whirled around, sending the prayer to infinity and beyond.
Om Mani Padme Hum. Om Mani Padme Hum. Om Mani Padme Hum. Over and over these sacred words are chanted and have been for thousands of years.
These simple yet profound words call our attention to the idea/teaching/fact (call it what you want) that all of us have the Buddha essence within us and can bloom like the beautiful lotus flower which makes it’s home in the muddy water.
I’ll be the second to admit this is a reductionist definition (the first being our incredibly well-spoken translator, Lobzang, who shared this snapshot interpretation of the mantra with our team in an effort to give us something to chew on without a full-on dissertation), and yet, the simplicity of it captures the mantra’s essence. It’ll do for now.
After lunch, the 4-jeep caravan carrying the Tibetan Children’s Education Foundation’s 14-person medical aid team and our mountain of supplies was off again, winding up and over passes and through valleys, chasing each other through the Great Himalaya.
It didn’t seem there was a speed limit of any kind: the conditions of the road dictate that detail. And, while there aren’t signs that specify the preferred speed, there are dozens of signs alerting drivers to the dangers of driving too fast, as well as general road safety.
Slow and steady wins the race. Drive with pot, arrive not. Drive with whiskey is too risky. Time is money, but life is precious.
You can tell that serious thought went in to this sign campaign, and yet, after having shared the roads with locals and tourists alike, it appears that everyone missed the memo. Maybe they’re driving too fast to read them?
Scarier than the speed, though, is the passing. Oh my Buddha! The passing. I will say, there seems to be a flow to it, and some general trust among the local drivers, but holy cow! (Fun to use that little saying while in the land of the holy cow…)
The jeep drivers follow closely behind trucks on these teeny tiny mountain roads, honking to let them know that they’d like to pass. The trucks try to honk back when it’s safe (sometimes…if they feel like it), and then it’s just a game of chicken. Who is going to slow down or move over to make room or speed up to dodge the oncoming vehicle. Each time it felt like a close call. And, nevertheless, here I am, safe and sound. There;s a rhythm to it, and I’m sure a mixture of spoken and unspoken agreements that support the flow. Whatever it is, it seems to be working…except for when it doesn’t (and a major sign campaign is undertaken to warn drivers of the impact of their choices….just sayin’).
Our overnight layover was done in style – Indian glamping (glamour-camping…it’s a thing). Tall canvas tents, real-ish beds, western toilets that flush…the works. I was still fresh to the Indian scene (at least for this go ’round), so I wasn’t missing any of these amenities yet, but I certainly wouldn’t turn them down.
On day 2 of this incredible journey, things got real. Over the course of 15 hours, we climbed a 14,000 ft pass and descended into the Zanskar Valley.
We started by picking up a few very special passengers – 4 Zanskari boys who were making their way back home after being away at a Tibetan boarding school (sponsored by TCEF in Kyetseling) for the last 4 years. Ranging from ages 8-12, these little fellas haven’t seen their families for nearly half their lives. They’d been traveling for days, and the final push was a day’s ride wedged between caring but oh-so-strange American’s making their way to Padum. Shy as could be, they were delightful traveling companions, mostly passing out on one of our shoulders or staring quietly out the window from the middle seat.
As we drove past villages and tiny hamlets, we could see women hunched over in the fields in their colorful cloths (saris don’t make it all the way up here to the north, but the women still wear beautiful head scarfs), children playing in the streets waving and chasing our jeeps, and the men, either drinking tea, manning their fruit stand, or staring out aimlessly, nodding as we drove by.
Each time it felt as though we’d traveled through a wrinkle in time, seeing the distant past – the ancient prayer wheels, traditional garb, straw roofs and cow patties drying to be used as fuel later – as it slowly merges with modernity – everyone with a cell phone, American brands plastered on tea shops, and solar panels. Lots and lots of solar panels.
For most of the journey, we were high above the tree line, so the surrounding mountains were stark. The valley floors have been cultivated to grow rice and barley, but as we climbed the pass, even the valleys became barren.
A new peak appeared around every corner, some drenched in white, others streaked with brilliant colors (reds, browns, greens, blacks…an earth-toned rainbow) and razor-sharp rock. All of them reached high towards the heavens. The higher we climbed, the more layers of mountains we could see – mountains upon mountains in every direction. The road wound through tight canyons gushing fresh glacial melt (we could see the glaciers calving before our very eyes!), out into expansive valleys, around pristine mountain lakes, and over the spines of the Himalayan mountains.
Once at the top of Penzila Pass, adorned with yet another stunning stupa cloaked in prayer flags, we began our descent to the Zanskar Valley. This valley, like all the others we drove through, was barren and vast.
It was almost nightfall by the time we made it to the valley floor, and at this point we know we’re getting close. We were exhausted, hungry, and tired of peeing into the wind on the dusty road.
I was traveling with my mom and another woman her age, both of whom made it clear that they were “absolutely not driving in the dark under any circumstances.”
My cousin and I assured them that we were close; we’d been told we won’t be driving at night, so not too worry…
“Three more hours for Padum” our driver told us through broken English (which we’ve already been told once or twice). At this point, the two lovely ladies started begging our driver to pull over and let us sleep in the car. Thank goodness he didn’t speak English! He nodded and drove into the night as they yelled at him from the back seat.
We finally make it to Padum at 10 PM. We’d all passed out in the car, either from exhaustion or diesel fumes, and we deliriously made our way to our simple yet suitable hotel, the Kailash Hotel, our home for the next month. There were beds, pillows, cement walls and even indoor plumbing. Most importantly, there was delicious, hot food awaiting our arrival. Home sweet home.
And now on to the real work: setting up the new clinic and doing our best to bring free health care to the local Zanskaris.
Zach and Aimee currently call Missoula, Montana home. Aimee was raised in the mountains of Montana and spends her days balancing her love for the outdoors with her passion for building community. She has studied yoga, meditation and mediation practices for over 15 years, and currently runs Core Connections, her own consulting and education services company. Zach works for a fundraising consulting firm helping non-profits grow and flourish. He has his parents to thank for instilling a love of nature. His small-town Wisconsin upbringing gave him endless access to beautiful parks, slow-meandering rivers, frog ponds, and deciduous forests that he spent countless hours exploring.