Reported earlier this month in the Daily Excelsior (scroll down to J&K abode of amity, secularism: Jora) Minister for Tourism and Culture Nawang Rigzin Jora confirmed that the Kargil-Padum road was in the process of being upgraded, some 70 crore has already been spent in this area and another 48 crore is earmarked for phase II. Jora also mentions 'Padam-Zanskar road', the budget for which is Rs 340 Crore. The budget would suggest that he refers to the chaddar/Zanskar river road, which as I reported several months ago is progressing rather slowly...
Apparently the chaddar is in condition early this year, Zanskaris were traveling on the frozen river before Losar (17th December), although of course by now conditions may have changed.
I've just received an email from a friend in Zanskar, Sonam 'Jimmy' Stobgais, one of the most experienced frozen river guides. Jimmy is free this year so if there is anyone thinking of dashing out in the next few weeks to embark on one of our planet's most rewarding treks, contact Jimmy to organise your chaddar/frozen Zanskar river trek. Jimmy's contact details can be found on the trekzanskar site.
Reported on the REACH site some 150 people are currently waiting for helicopter flights out of Zanskar. Clearly the Pensi-la has closed and winter isolation has begun!
However, it does seem a little odd that so many people are waiting to get out of Zanskar. Perhaps locals were lulled into a false sense of security by the relatively late snows of previous winters. Admittedly there are some medical cases waiting for evacuation by helicopter, but aside from patients most Zanskaris are well aware of winter snow closing the road and they usually organise their urgent business accordingly. I wonder if migrant labourers or government workers remained in Zanskar later than usual and got trapped as snow closed the road? The helicopter service between Zanskar and Kargil should run reasonably frequently but despite government assurance the pilots of these relief flights always seem reluctant to fly into Zanskar, the weather is frequently 'not safe for flying' and rest assured if there is even the slightest chance that the chopper will get in, but not out, they will not leave Kargil. Pilots do not want to get stuck in Zanskar, the accommodation is generally basic, and furthermore once shut down the winter temperatures can make unprotected helicopter engines difficult to start.
The Boston Globe has just published 'when the glacier left', a timely article on climate change and the village of Kumi. The story accurately documents the water deficit that the Kumi-pa have been facing over the last couple of decades, and their efforts to relocate the village with a view to regaining water security by tapping the Lungnak river. The article is optimistic about their relocation prospects although it does point out the spectrum of problems that they face, from the spiritual technicalities of moving the family household to the environmental constraints of cultivating the unimproved, rocky soils next to the river.
Personally I think the greatest problem for the Kumi-pa will be the creation of agriculturally viable fields and the maintenance of the irrigation canal headworks, which are currently destroyed every spring by the rush of meltwater in the Lungnak. Yulang, on the opposite side of the valley is the only other village in Zangskar that draws water from one of the main rivers. Taking water from the Stod, Yulang does not have a water shortage, but even with a favorable topography their canal demands regular maintenance. Kumi's canal is a lot harder to maintain than Yulang's and for some distance it contours through a crumbling conglomerate cliff.
The Kumi-pa have their work cut out and they have yet to make the jump in full to their new settlement. Every spring they now decide which fields will receive their attention. As there was plenty of snow last winter they decided this year to cultivate their ancestral fields, their judgement proved correct and this autumn they reaped a good harvest. The temptation to farm the old fields and use the established irrigation network is understandable, but will no doubt delay the development and overall viability of their new fields. Indeed, I wonder if the Kumi-pa will ever make a complete transition, or whether Zagnskar's rapidly modernising economy will give the younger generations an alternative to creating viable fields at the new village.