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Report 1932: Ladakh Takes Your Breath Away

By Eleanor from UK, Spring 2011

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Page 23 of 25: Zanskar Gorge and Chilling

photo by Michael

Metal worker at Chilling

There is a reasonable road up the Zanskar gorge from the confluence with the Indus as far as Chilling. It is a superb drive along a very narrow road cut out on a ledge above the river. In June there was plenty of brown muddy water coming down from the snow melt with whirls and rapids. This section is popular with rafters but can be quite dangerous. The sides of the gorge rise steeply to jagged mountain tops. The rocks in the lower part of the gorge are dark with purple and green rocks. Further up the rocks become paler and much dustier. There is very little vegetation.

The road crosses the river on a bailey bridge. A new road is being built up the opposite side of the valley to several small summer farms which are currently reached by a narrow footpath along the side of the gorge. These are found on small patches of arable land on the flatter areas of land above the gorge. Traditionally the women and children moved out of the villages from May to September taking the animals to the higher pastures to graze, where they made butter and cheese and grew basic crops. Now only the old folk go, as younger members of family go to Leh in the summer months to work in tourism.

The road skirts a small settlement of two or three houses where a side valley joins the Zanskar and there is some flat land suitable for cultivation. One was advertising a restaurant and another a home-stay.

The roads skirts the edge of Chilling and the village is hidden by walls and trees. A rough track marked ‘Chilling Walk’ leads off the road and climbs up along the side of a wall above the houses. In June there were lots of rose bushes covered in pink flowers.

Chilling is home to a community of metal workers said to be descendants of the artisans brought from Nepal in the mid-l7th century to build one of the gigantic Buddha statues at Shey. They work in silver, brass and copper, producing items for domestic and religious use: tea and chang pots, mugs, ladles, bowls, cooking pots, horns for temples... They are famous for producing some of the best metal work in Ladakh.

We were taken to see a father and son working from a small tent in an orchard with a small fire and hand bellows. The father was beating copper to make bowls. The son was making decorations for traditional horns. We were ‘given’ a small spoon each and invited into their home to see examples of work by made by the father. We were taken into a traditional kitchen with brown painted wooden shelves displaying cooking pots, plates, mugs, bowls, decorative jugs with long spouts used to serve local beer (chang), tea pots with decorated spouts handles and lids with samovar type base which would contain heated embers to keep the tea hot. (A set takes about 21 days to make and retails at about 21000r - £300). In the centre of the room was a huge old oven made of clay and heated by wood. There were cushions around the walls for sitting.

We followed the path through the village past houses, barns, cowsheds, pens with zho and baby zho, big new farms with fields of mustard, orchards, chortens, mani walls and a small water fed prayer wheel. There are irrigation channels along the sides of the paths with stones controlling the direction of flow.

There are superb views to the tops of the mountains and across the very fertile valley bottoms. Weeds grow along the irrigation channels and pink rose bushes on the scree slopes. The path drops down past the medical centre to the road. Doctors don’t want to work in the villages but get posted by the government for the first two years after they qualify. Many only visit once a week.

This was a delightful place and we we were the only visitors that day, although there were plenty of people rafting lower down the river.

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