Wed 30 July   Karsha to Randum via Sani
There are scattered houses and terraced fields behind the camp with white washed stupas and a backdrop of snow capped mountains. Collapsed mani walls with great piles of carved stones litter the area near the main prayer wheel. We’re reluctant to leave Karsha but it’s time to go; we drive over the bumpy track down to the river, cross the Padum bridge then turn west towards the Suru valley for our drive to Randum. Our first stop is the old gompa of Sani, the oldest Buddhist site in Zanskar, unusual for being built on flat ground. The gompa stands in a white walled compound; a covered gallery runs round the inside of the building containing dusty niches with simple prayer wheels and collections of mani stones. The images in the assembly hall are brightly painted but offset by older thankas; wooden beams and capitals are nicely decorated with carvings and paintings, Kashmiri style. There are three rooms behind the large Sakyamuni statue at the back of the assembly room, the central room contains three excellent statues and high walls of prayer books. The room on the right contains a statue of Mahakala, a wrathful tantric form of Chenresig (Avolokiteshvara) hidden behind a cloth, being too scary to be seen without preparation. Strangely, the back walls of these rooms consist of wooden slats, half open to the elements. In the back courtyard is the Kanika Chorten, a large, simple stupa, different in style to the others we’ve seen and dating from an earlier period.

Driving on from Sani we pass Stanzin’s family home on the opposite side of the valley. To avoid a taxi police checkpoint we get out the car and walk a mile through back lanes. Women are picking peas in the fields, Graham joins in the pea picking and gets another proposal of marriage. Further down the road is Lobsang (our driver)’s village - his sister and a little girl climb in the jeep, his sister throws a goatskin onto the roof. She’s going up the valley for a month or so to stay at the high pastures where women fill goatskins with goat milk to convert to curd and cheese. She gives us some hard cheese while I photograph a mani wall with fine rough-edged carved stones arranged in upright positions. I give up on the cheese. Further down the road Lobsang’s uncle climbs in, also with goatskin. I have a feeling this is pre-arranged. We have lunch in a roadside plantation of willows. I fear it also functions as a roadside toilet. Graham talks to our girl passenger about goats, though of what they said I’m not certain.

The road is starting to rise towards the Parfi La when we see our first views of the Drang Drung glacier, the longest in northern India. From the mountains of Kashmir it descends to the river just below the road in an final elegant series of bends. We stop to take photos and also to walk down to a large curd camp and the jumping off point for Lobsang’s sister. We enter another world - of yak dung, low stone shelters, smoke, dzos, goats, curd and feisty women here for the summer months. From a western perspective this is as unhigienic as it gets. Hands go straight from dung gathering to mixing the tsampa, butter and sugar that is offered to us. We enjoy ourselves - it’s a joyful place and it would be impossible not to - we accept what’s offerred and suffer no ill effects. Graham gets yet another proposal of marriage and is dressed in a wedding hat and shawl. Yet again it’s hard to leave.

For the next few miles we stop at curd camps and drive alongside lorries and buses taking people to tomorrow’s festival at Randum. The girls from the curd camps come down to the road to give us, well, curds. The people on the buses are smoking, drinking chang, playing music and singing. It’s party time. Curd girls plus lorry loads of high Ladakhis in holiday mood equals chaos. Curd gets thrown everywhere, men and women armed with bowls of curd are chasing each other up and down the road. The jeep windows are covered with curd. It’s going to smell bad tomorrow. We meet Stanzin’s brother who’s on the bus. Graham gets on the roof of the bus for a few miles, men are standing on the roof and dancing, the bus tips alarmingly on the bends, amazingly no-one falls off. 

On the Parfi La the bus is carrying too many people to climb the gradients. So they get off and run up the hillside to arrive before the bus. Altitude and lack of oxygen is no problem to Ladakhis. From the pass we get great views of the Drang Drung glacier, it’s torrential silt laden river and the higher peaks towards Kashmir. A woman is sick out of the back window of the bus. The river opens out into a flood plain; mountain peaks are reflected in standing water, soft dusk light bathes the eastern mountain slopes; there’s a surprising number of cattle. The road drops down to the plain, Rangdum gompa sits on a hilltop, illuminated by the last of the sun. Rangdum village is in two parts, at the first stage villagers greet the pilgrims off the bus and take them away to their houses. The camp is past the gompa on flat wet grassland near large herds of horses.
During the night we hear animals shuffling around just outside the tents. They don’t sound like horses.

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Zanskar - Karsha to Rangdum