THE Known UNKNOWN
Outlook Traveller|October 2021
Beyond the popular — but now routine — Ladakh, lies an infinitely absorbing stretch of the land that offers culture and life little known to the regular traveller — the Zanskar region
SANTOSH OJHA

WHAT ARE THE CHANCES OF MEETING a YouTube sensation in a three-house village deep in the remote Zanskar Valley in Ladakh? Pretty low, you would say. She sings, and she writes lyrics too. Stanzin Garskit is a vivacious young lady, a graduate of Hindustani music from Miranda House, Delhi. She is at home cheerfully rolling out aloo parathas along with Stanzin Dolma, her mother, in their kitchen. She is bustling around, handing us our blankets as we are about to turn in. Her family is hosting us, a weary ragtag bunch of ‘Jeepers’. We are on an expedition to the barely seen parts of Ladakh, with the Zanskar region being the most significant part of our itinerary.

Wander Beyond Boundaries, which facilitates extreme off-roading adventures, is co-owned by Nidhi Salgame and Col Satty Malik SM (retd.). Nidhi is a driving record holder — the first Indian to drive solo to Siberia, to the coldest inhabited place on earth. Safety is a decorated officer of the Indian Army and has handled many challenging assignments in Kashmir, northeast India and Congo.

I have a love-hate relationship with them. I love traveling with them; Ladakh was my fourth expedition with them in just over two years. I hate it when they tell me, rather unceremoniously, to wake up at 3.30 am and commence the drive at 4.30 am. After each trip, I resolve not to travel with them, and each time when they announce a new expedition, I succumb. So here I was, signing up to an extreme 1,200 kilometres, 13-day self-drive expedition across rarely visited west and south Ladakh areas.

You can quickly drive by Byama village along the Indus Valley road, unaware of its significance. It is your average, nondescript hamlet, but for two notable features. It lies in the heart of India’s apricot cultivation area of the Batalik sector. More interestingly, the residents are said to be pure Aryans. Some believe they are the descendants of the mighty Alexander the Great’s soldiers, the great conqueror who abandoned the thoughts of conquering India and retreated. The soldiers scattered; some traced their path eastwards along the mighty Indus river. The truth about the origins of Brokpas, as they are called, is obscured in the mists of time. But one can readily see that these people do not look like Ladakhis, who typically have Tibetan-Mongoloid features. The Brokpas are sharp-featured, very fair, long-nosed, with beautiful green or blue eyes. They occupy some five to seven villages in the Batalik area.

Skidzum Lundup, a Brokpa, runs her hotel Aryan Residency in the Byama village with a light touch. She smiles with her eyes. She has spent all her life in the area; the Brokpas marry within the community to keep their lineage pure. She indulgently watches as we nearly strip the apricot tree in the hotel compound bare of ripe apricots. I had never had fresh apricots before.

A FESTIVE atmosphere prevails at the polo ground at Drass. A throng of polo crazy villagers from nearby villages wait in anticipation. A traditional polo match is about to begin. A two-member band playing daman (a percussion instrument) and surname (a wind instrument) is whipping up a frenzy. The horse riders enter the ground, and the game is on. The shops (horses) seem hugely enthusiastic, though to my eyes a bit rough-mannered! Possibly because a polo match is being held in Drass after a long time due to covid. Polo sticks clobber the kopoli (ball) from one end to the other. The frenzied music continues. A goal is announced by the musicians; there are no referees in traditional polo. No rules either, as polo promoter Amin explains to us before the game. You expect tired players to take rest during recess, but they would have none of it. They break into a nutay, dance in their local Shina language.

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