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Old 21st September 2023, 09:08   #1
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The White Glacier | A journey through Zanskar to hear stories of climate change

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The White Glacier | A journey through Zanskar to hear stories of climate change-img2022060515203601.jpeg

I sit for dinner with Ka Abdul Salaam and his son Manzoor in their bijou home. I am in Padum, a small town and administrative capital of the Zanskar region in Ladakh. In the middle of the living room is an old hand made bukhari, with a chimney that snakes up to the ceiling and disappears into the roof. The bukhari has seen many winters in this frigid high altitude desert, crucial in keeping homes warm in temperatures that can drop to thirty below celsius. Today however, it sits in silence. We stopped using the bukhari much earlier this year than usual, Ka Abdul tells me. The weather outside is undeniably warm.



Quote:
spit la kha baps na,
zying kha ser la song.
If there is snow in early spring,
then it is the duty of the snow to water our fields.


The weather guides the lives of the Zanskarpas as the people of Zanskar are called. They lead a semi nomadic life with almost every family growing food in the land they own. As like their neighbours, the Changpas in Changthang, most families also own pashmina goats, sheep, and yak. In an ancient pastoral system called Doksa or transhumance, it is the women who often move with herds in search of higher alpine pastures, far away from their villages. They make their way down back to their homes where the garlung or winter pastures await them as soon as autumn arrives.

The White Glacier | A journey through Zanskar to hear stories of climate change-img_2029.jpg
Swathes of green fields of barley, lentils and potatoes lie hidden in the valley with the towering mountains gazing down like sentinels.


Snowfall has reduced a lot these past years, a passing shepherdess shouts out when I ask her where she is going. We have to go higher and higher up for our yarlung (summer pastures). With a stick in her hand to chaperone her large herd, she scrambles past me right across the road up the craggy landscape. Indeed, some of them have had to extend their annual journeys by over 40 kilometres in search of their yarlung. Snow lines have receded drastically dragging sparse vegetation further up the mountains.

Erratic snowfall also means unpredictable water supply during the summer months in the villages below. Everyone in Zanskar depends on water from the melting snow of the glaciers. The water we drink in Zanskar is the purest you can find anywhere. It is all coming straight from the mountains, a villager assures me as I refill my bottle. There is almost no rain fall here, with the entire region fenced off from any passing moisture by the Karakoram ranges in the north and the Zanskar mountains in the south. With only one harvest a year, water is crucial to ensure food sustenance through a hard and difficult winter. The whole of Zanskar remains cut off from mainland Ladakh for almost 6 months as all the passes that are used to cross over remain entrenched in deep snow.

We are on our own, Ka Abdul reminds me.

Last edited by Red Liner : 21st September 2023 at 10:36.
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Old 21st September 2023, 09:20   #2
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Re: The White Glacier | A journey through Zanskar to hear stories of climate change

Quote:
chhu zyig be na gyal,
mi zyig dum na gyal.
Diverted water is safe,
and people living together are safe.


Living in a land where water is scarce has meant that local communities have devised ingenious ways over the centuries to share this precious resource.

In Phyang, a village close to Leh the family I am living with have become increasingly busy with the onset of summer. Dorje and his wife are taking turns through the night along with the rest of the community to manage the water that is flowing down from the mountains. Last night I haven’t seen them at all.

We were up in the mountains the entire night, Dorje tells me the next morning. We had to manage the yur-go (main sluice) which controls the flow of water from the upper stream. Sometimes there could be blockages if debris collects. But if the weather is too warm there could even be overflows if we’re not careful. If its our turn, the Churpon will hold us responsible for any damage that might happen!


The White Glacier | A journey through Zanskar to hear stories of climate change-pxl_20220723_054506181.mp.jpg
Phyang village from Phyang Gonpa


Churpon, I learn, quite literally translates to “water lord” and is the person mandated to manage water sharing arrangements within the community. Dorje takes me out to his field. You see this? This is called a Ska. It’s a sluice to control water from the main channel into my field. Every house here takes turns during the week to receive water. But what if you cheat and take water when it’s not your turn? I ask him.

That’s why we have neighbours, laughs Dorje.

Last edited by Red Liner : 24th September 2023 at 19:20.
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Old 21st September 2023, 09:43   #3
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Re: The White Glacier | A journey through Zanskar to hear stories of climate change

Quote:
Ngas sang kal yin ley
Yang la rtags shig kyang
Let me send
To you a gift

Da ri ya gang po nang ley
Rgya tso nang kal yin ley
The swelling river
And the entire ocean I will send to you
In 2018, Pishu a village deep in the Zanskar valley about 30 kilometers from Padum faced one of its worst droughts in over a thousand years. The glaciers above the village had melted away over the years leaving only barren rock. With little water for irrigation, farming came to a standstill. Almost every family lost their precious livestock to shortage of fodder and water. The situation could not have been more dire.

We tried everything including holding pujas and prayers to appease the gods, but nothing worked, a villager laments. Pishu was at the risk of abandonment, with most of its inhabitants preferring to move away to settlements that had more ready access to water. The government stepped in, stung by news reports of the crisis and offered a measly Rs 1000 per household as a form of relief. The villagers refused; even the travel upto Padum would have cost them more.


Zanskar has always had a history of being self reliant. Acting quickly, the villagers teamed up with the Navikarana trust led by Lobzang Wangtak, a glacier conservationist to implement a bold project. They would lift water from the Zanskar river over a kilometer away to the Pishu village reservoir. The energy of choice? Solar. But the project was not cheap. With materials estimated to cost many thousand dollars, donors from around the world came to the community’s support.

The project was successful and Pishu was rescued from the brink of disaster. Buoyed by the news, other villages facing acute water scarcity contacted Lobzang on similar remedial measures. But funding for such projects remains elusive. And in 2023 the droughts returned with a vengeance, forcing the local administration to distribute cattle feed and relief funds to villages including Pishu to fend off disaster.

With the gradual increase in temperatures, snow is no longer precipitating in the higher reaches. Instead it is rain. Our houses have not been designed for rain at all. You see these flat roofs? When it rains they end up accumulating water and it seeps right into the house. That’s why most of us have started constructing concrete houses. It’s not because we like concrete houses more! Ka Abdul tells me. What’s worse is the rocky ground which is much of Ladakh cannot absorb the rainwater to create water tables. Instead the rainwater rushes down swiftly to lower areas in the form of floods.


The White Glacier | A journey through Zanskar to hear stories of climate change-img20220605092122.jpg
Old crumbling mud structures are characterised by flat roofs. But new more modern construction is taking over the landscape in Padum.


Since 2005 eight flooding incidents have been documented in Ladakh, almost all of them tracing their origins to the changing weather patterns. Scars from the deadly flooding in August 2010 are still visible in the village of Alchi, close to Leh where I walk around and meet villagers.

The floods came without warning. It took away my house and all my belongings. There was nothing we could do other than run out to save ourselves. Our houses were built for a dry climate, we have never seen anything like this, an old woman tells me as she points out to her earlier mud house now lying in ruins. Indeed, the flooding was triggered by a cloud burst which equalled three and half times of annual rain fall at one go. Over 600 people lost their lives in the aftermath.


The White Glacier | A journey through Zanskar to hear stories of climate change-pxl_20220409_074458456.portrait.jpg
An old woman sits amongst the ruins of her home in the background in Alchi, Ladakh.

Last edited by Red Liner : 21st September 2023 at 10:05.
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Old 21st September 2023, 09:51   #4
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Re: The White Glacier | A journey through Zanskar to hear stories of climate change

Quote:
Phu ya gi ru gangs ri kar po ma chags na
In the high mountains, if the glacier does not form

Do ma gi ru uu tso ngon mo chi la khil
In the low lands, why should the turquoise lake form?

Do ma gi ru uu tso ngon mo ma khil na
If the turquoise lake does not form

Shing zad ni dong po jig ni chi la thungs
In the low lands, why should the sandalwood tree grow?
The sun is out and I make the best use of the weather by riding my motorcycle on the NH1 D to Pensi La, a high altitude pass that connects the Zanskar valley to Kargil and further on to Srinagar. It is no longer a nondescript trail as I had imagined, but a wide lane rough road with construction trucks kicking up dust everywhere. I wave out to road work crew as I pass them. Dark skinned young men shipped in from outside Ladakh to brave tough conditions for the next six months toiling away under the harsh high altitude sun.

A few wave back.

The track begins to narrow and I keep my eyes open for the odd marmot that might decide to cross without warning. On my left I have the Stod river for company. Just after Abran, I begin climbing up the steep road and I stop at the very top to take in the view. Below from where I stand is a brilliant turquoise glacial lake that is yet not named, gleaming in the mid morning sun. To my right are the head waters of the Stod river, carving a deep prehistoric canyon as it flows down the valley.

My eyes pan to absorb the expansive Zanskar plateau as it stretches away into the distance.


The White Glacier | A journey through Zanskar to hear stories of climate change-img_2079.jpg
An as yet unnamed glacial lake with the head waters of Stod in the background.


But I am here for something else. It is something far more magnificent than anything you might have ever seen, Ka Abdul had promised me earlier this morning. And with not a minute to spare, she appears. The famed Drang Drung glacier. At 23 kilometers in length, it is only the second biggest after Siachen. What lay before me utterly took my breath away. A vast meandering river of ice and snow set between mountains that seem to pierce the sky. Freckles of debris and moraine dot the placid white sheets that sit in calm disposition under the laid back eyes of the mighty Doda peak. But there is more than meets the eye.

In the autumn of 2021, a small team of Indian and British researchers, led by Susan Schuppli traveled to the Drang Drung glacier to study the impact of climate change on glacial topography. But they also wanted to involve local mountain communities in helping them understand what was going on in their own backyard. And they did this in a very special way through a project called “Listening to Ice”.

Reaching the glacier is through the head waters of Stod river by inflatable kayaks. Once on the glacier, the team embarked on fieldwork to begin their study of the material transformation of the glacier. Using sonic methods, they deployed underwater sensors to “hear” melting ice. Locals were then asked to listen and describe what they heard. One woman describes hearing two sounds in unison. I can hear boiling water or tea, she says, a sound that all of them are well accustomed to. But she also hears cracking sounds, the sounds that ice makes when in contact with water. On camera they are all caught laughing in excitement. But off camera, they accept that things are only getting worse.


The White Glacier | A journey through Zanskar to hear stories of climate change-img20220605152036.jpg
The majestic Drang Drung Glacier in Zanskar.


Mountain glaciers are the true markers of climate change, reacting quickly to the recent trend of warming in climate. Drang Drung is no exception. A recent study revealed that the glacier shrank by close to 7.8 square kilometers or 14% in 46 years between 1971 and 2017. At over 13 meters per year this trend is only going to accelerate. What you see today is a much receded Drang Drung, Ka Abdul tells me back in his bijou home. Back in the 60’s when I was trekking around here with my French clients, the snout of the glacier sat much closer to us and even extended all the way to the road. It was a sight to behold. Every season the glacier would need to be blasted with dynamite to open the road, he reminisces.

On my way back from Pensi La, I stop at the only inn on this 80 kilometer dust track. The pretty girl at the counter asks me where I’m coming from. I tell her Drang Drung. Do you know Drang Drung is named after the sound a falling stone makes? I look at her questioningly as she continues, When a stone falls, it goes drang drung drung!

As I settle back to enjoy the view of the mountains from the sit out, I am reminded that what’s falling from Drang Drung are not merely stones, but sheets of ice calving off the glacier into something even more dangerous.

Two huge glacial lakes have formed recently near the snout, a tell tale sign of a fast retreating glacier. Measuring over 97 and 47 hectares each, if any one of them breaks their banks the resulting flood could be instantaneous and catastrophic to the entire population downstream. The Indian Himalayas is no stranger to such tragedies, called glacial lake outburst floods with multiple events over the past decade wiping out entire mountain communities who have lived there for centuries.

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Old 21st September 2023, 09:58   #5
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Re: The White Glacier | A journey through Zanskar to hear stories of climate change

The White Glacier | A journey through Zanskar to hear stories of climate change-img20220605165203.jpg
Over the millennia, the Stod river has carved a deep canyon.

Zanskar has always been referred to as a hidden kingdom.

Until the late 80’s, one could reach this valley only by foot, enduring days of arduous trekking through the many high altitude passes that guard its gates. Now there are three overland routes to reach Zanskar, and I am on the shortest but most treacherous of them all. The gravel road traces its way through three high mountain passes, snakes along gorges by the Zanskar river and finally deposits one at Padum. Come winter and all three roads will close down. But the Zanskarpas use another way of passage on the ice bound Zanskar river. It is the Chadar, or “Ice Blanket”, a trading route as old as the kingdom itself. For three months a year, this 105 kilometer walk on the frozen Zanskar river at thirty degrees below zero is the only accessible route to Zanskar. I shudder thinking of the cold. But it’s this very temperature that lets the river freeze over allowing right of passage.


The White Glacier | A journey through Zanskar to hear stories of climate change-img_2131.jpg
The shortest albeit most treacherous gravel road snaking alongside the Zanskar river on the left. Only a car’s width wide and no guard rails.


Ka Abdul’s son, Manzoor points out that warming temperatures have made it more difficult to walk the Chadar. In 2021, the temperatures never dropped under thirty below zero. During the day the river thaws breaking up the ice and at night the temperature is not low enough to freeze the ice. It’s made life increasingly difficult for us, he tells me. There have even been cases where people have been stuck in the valley with no way forward or back. Or worse falling through the broken ice sheet into the frigid depths of the river below never to be found. Now the window for the Chadar trek is just a month between January and February.


The White Glacier | A journey through Zanskar to hear stories of climate change-chadartrekoverzanskarriver.jpg
The Zanskar river is no longer freezing up like it used to, rendering winter passage dangerous for the Zanskarpas. Image courtesy Conde Nast


Walking the Chadar is a pilgrimage for us and is as old as the 11th century Phuktal monastery, a local elder tells me. If the Chadar ceases to exist, how do we pass on this knowledge to the next generation?

Quote:
The people of Zanskar have persevered for centuries in this ancient land, fighting back invading armies, braving some of the coldest winters on the planet, and enduring isolation from the rest of the world. But there is a new war on the horizon now. Climate change is threatening their very survival and it is not a war they can fight alone.

Last edited by Red Liner : 21st September 2023 at 10:08.
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Old 21st September 2023, 10:00   #6
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Re: The White Glacier | A journey through Zanskar to hear stories of climate change

The elder turns his back to face the great mountains. Unbeknownst to me, his eyes mist up. And then he sings.

Quote:
Phu dey ru chhags pa po
Born high above the valley

Gangs ri kar po
Gangs ri wey kar po
The white glacier
The white glacier

Ma gyur rtan po ru jugs shig
May it remain steady and unchanged

Gyur meyd rtan po ru jugs shig
May it remain steady and unchanged
The White Glacier | A journey through Zanskar to hear stories of climate change-abt-author.jpg

Kat Ramana is an adventurer and explorer first.

His earliest memories of a true travel adventure was sailing around the world with his dad, a year’s journey on the great seas when he was all but five. In 2015, he walked over seven thousand kilometres from Kanyakumari to Kashmir, exploring India’s diverse cultures and ethnicities. His love of the great snow capped mountains have taken him tramping from India to Tibet and his search for authentic stories has seen him living in the distant North East for months at a time.

His way of understanding cultural nuances is by meeting people, listening to their stories and living with them.

Thank you for joining me on this journey of self discovery.

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Old 25th September 2023, 05:29   #7
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Re: The White Glacier | A journey through Zanskar to hear stories of climate change

Thread moved out from the Assembly Line. Thanks for sharing!
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Old 25th September 2023, 09:39   #8
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Re: The White Glacier | A journey through Zanskar to hear stories of climate change

Beautiful and well articulated, some folks still think global warming is just an English phrase that was thrust upon us and nothing to worry about. Plastics, Fossil fuel and accelerated plundering of all natural resources makes it easy for us to leave a world which may turn into a desert ultimately within a few decades.Plant atleast 10 trees in your lifetime and see them grow fully is the best reward that one can do for the future generations
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Old 25th September 2023, 12:12   #9
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Re: The White Glacier | A journey through Zanskar to hear stories of climate change

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Originally Posted by Chillout View Post
Beautiful and well articulated, some folks still think global warming is just an English phrase that was thrust upon us and nothing to worry about. Plastics, Fossil fuel and accelerated plundering of all natural resources makes it easy for us to leave a world which may turn into a desert ultimately within a few decades.Plant atleast 10 trees in your lifetime and see them grow fully is the best reward that one can do for the future generations
Not just the word, the actual thing was also thrust upon us and now on even poorer countries. Countries want to progress and keep on going totally oblivious to the damages we have already caused and still doing. Its all about short term wealth and greed.
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Old 25th September 2023, 23:09   #10
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Re: The White Glacier | A journey through Zanskar to hear stories of climate change

A couple of years back, I did the Basic Mountaineering Course from NIM, Uttarkashi. We had to trek 4 kms to reach the Dokrani-Bamak glacial ice walls where our ice-craft training used to take place. These 4 kms used to take 2-2.5 hrs of trek. After a few days of this daily trek our instructors informed us that in early 2000s the trek was mere half an hour to reach the ice walls. He instructed us whoever feels that climate is not impacted share this info. The impact is profound, but one has to reach such places actually to see. Unfortunately in 2022 the NIM Advanced course faced the avalanche tragedy while ascending DKD-2. Few of the climbers and trainers lost in this tragedy were my acquaintances.
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