Forty kilometres from the middle of nowhere, in the rarefied boulder-strewn landscape of Suru Valley in Zanskar,
Forty kilometres from the middle of nowhere, in the rarefied boulder-strewn landscape of Suru Valley in Zanskar,your car refuses to fire up. The warning lights on the instrumentation panel glow all at once, and every time you turn the key, hope flickers, only to fade the next moment. The frigid valley rasps with a cold wheeze that grates down the jagged moonlit peaks. Diligent satellites trace arcs across the busy night sky. Your car, on the other hand, is quite dead.
You sit in the darkness and ponder, strangely detached from your predicament. Car breakdowns are real-world problems, and you left that place when you entered this primordial expanse. “What’s in store for me in the direction I don’t take?” Kerouac asks. In Suru Valley’s parallel universe, you’re not as concerned about fixing a car as you are by thoughts of physical, spiritual, and metaphysical roads still left to try.
Until this moment, a week after you parked your ride at the foot of a promontory jutting over Suru River, the Hyundai Santa Fe had acquitted itself remarkably well. Not your first choice for a month-long rove that began in Delhi, it surprised you with its assuredness on the straights from Delhi to Chandigarh. Its stock continued to rise with the altitude when it kept its composure through wet roads along a circuitous meander through the Himachal hamlets of Garli and Bir to Manali. You were, by then, confident in its abilities to warrant an early morning assault on the treacherous Rohtang Pass but didn’t foresee the sleet. It outdid itself that morning by keeping a tenuous grip on the black ice, as it crept up, over and alee. In Sarchu, halfway to Leh, when you decided to stop for the night and sleep in, it kept you warm with nary a whisper while gale-force winds buffeted it from all directions. By the time you reached Leh, your grudging admiration had turned into genuine respect. You decided to explore the edges of Ladakh, just the two of you—your friend, Paloma Monappa, a wisp of a girl you had travelled with all yearbecause—by now you trusted this car, and the thought of driving for hours without seeing another soul did not faze you.
Tenzing Jamyang, part-time raconteur and full-time adventurer, lives as much of his life off the grid as he does lighting it up. He once traded pressure cookers for old artefacts in Mustang; and another time, when asked by Tom Robbins—who he was taking around Kumaon—how he’d collected so many of his (Robbin’s) books, told the American seriocomic novelist, “I got them cheap”; Jamyang sees nothing amiss with spending years studying the murals at Ladakh’s Alchi monastery simply because he’s curious. Precisely the sort of character you want to follow if you’re seeking adventure.
So, when Jamyang asked you to pop by at a bouldering festival in Suru Valley that he was putting together, it seemed like a fortuitous turn of events. One of those places that people always speak about but no one ever seems to have been to, this valley, bisected by the Suru River, winds upstream up to Penzi La glacier from where the river originates. As legendary as its beauty is the arduousness of navigating its rocky terrain: Jamyang described a two-hour drive, off the map, to access the campsite. Now he has a penchant for hyperbole, and from his description it sounded like nothing short of a moon rover could make the journey. But we were smug: the Santa Fe had earned its chops. Or had it?
For the motley group of free climbers and bouldering enthusiasts, beatniks and backpackers, musicians and juggling artists, from around the world it’s hard to feign concern for the Santa Fe’s inexplicable blink. These folks got here hitchhiking, walking, by bus and via other more immersive ways of travelling; they’re more concerned about minimalising the carbon footprint of the festival. And not particularly impressed by your quest in a luxury SUV that, candidly, involved little more than humming along to Neil Young streaming out of six speakers (placed strategically to re-create a concert hall experience). And now, here, at this otherworldly expanse from where the Milky Way seems frighteningly close and one can tell how much time has elapsed just by counting the number of shooting stars that streak by every minute, you’ve brought a problem from the other side. It’s entirely your fault. You yuppie.
The problems the climbers would rather tackle have more to do with the gigantic monoliths strewn across this cinemascopic landscape. Every morning, multiple groups set out, crash pads on their backs, hiking to different locations in the valley. None of these boulders have been climbed before. It’s a strategic sport, and brute strength rarely leads to success. Hanger-ons like Paloma and you follow the likes of Sandeep Maity, one of India’s top-ranked climbers, as he hangs by fingertips, and slowly contorts his body over seemingly impossible ledges and overhangs. On a particularly tough rock, he fails repeatedly, and the support group that’s ‘spotting’ (standing below to support and break his fall) gather into a huddle and come up with suggestions on plotting an alternative route, or move. Eventually he hauls himself over, eliciting whoops of delight before the gang moves on to tackle the next ‘problem’. The easier ‘solutions’ are then tackled by less skilled climbers.
At nights everyone gathers under a tent and recounts the day’s successes; rocks are named, different routes chronicled, and graded. This information, you’re told, will be made available to the climbing community worldwide for the benefit of those who may come here in the future. The highly anticipated evening entertainment, for those not interested in a stack of cards or a game of chess, consists of screenings of climbing documentaries on a small television under the central canopy of the campsite. Engrossing for the most part (except when Jamyang pauses the footage to deliver unsolicited commentary), the movies are an insight into this close-knit community. Evoking the maximum incredulity and adoration are films about Alex Honnold’s audacious ‘free solo’ exploits. Climbing sheer rock walls without a rope or safety net of any sort, Honnold—who lives out of his van—is as close to a celebrity as is possible in the world of rock climbing. (Recently, the American made news for becoming the first person to free solo up a 3,000-foot wall called ‘El Capitan,’ in California’s Yosemite National Park—an astonishing climb that’s been called one of the greatest feats in human history).
What generates most interest in the curious children from the village, who’re already somewhat perplexed by these adults converging on their isolated milieu to climb rocks, are the slack lines—three-inch-wide tapes stretched between tree trunks a few feet off the ground. It’s not a high wire but the principle is the same—balance, concentration and fluidity. Unlike you, the children take to it naturally.
“Stay loose,” Maity tells you. “Tight muscles are weak muscles. You need to allow your body to react.” Considering that you can’t stay on the tape with two feet for more than a couple of seconds, watching Maity and others do back flips on the line, landing on their feet, or rumps sitting or standing in perfect balance, is an extraordinary thing to watch.
For Paloma and you, this week at Suru Valley marks the end of nearly a year on the road. After driving through all 29 states and 40,000 kilometres across the country for a television show that both of you worked on, this is the remotest place you’ve visited. It seems appropriate after the madness of travel and television to be here, to think, and to assimilate all that the year’s been about. The perfect wind-down as it were.
But after ten days you would like to leave, and that brings us back to the Santa Fe, which, as readers will remember, has decided to go into hibernation. Given the location, towing it out is impossible and you place a call to the people at Hyundai in Delhi who have lent you the car. The events that transpire after that phone call stupefy everyone: eight hours after your mayday call goes out, the camp staff espies flickering torchlights slowly snaking their way down the hillside. It turns out that the service centre in Kargil has sent a bunch of mechanics who have, after making extensive enquiries at Sankoo, found their way to the campsite. A quick diagnosis reveals a dead battery caused by alternator failure (which in turn is likely the result of one of those knocks the Santa Fe took on the moon landing). To cut a long story short, the tenacious folk from Hyundai install a new battery, take the Santa Fe back to Kargil, fix the alternator, and the car is delivered back to us the very next day. It’s impossible to overstate the difficulty level of that accomplishment, considering that even locating the campsite was a task. It’s your last day at Suru Valley and Jamyang is holding forth on the allure of bouldering as opposed to indoor climbing walls. “When you’re on the rock face, it’s the real thing. It’s hot in the day and if the wind picks up then that changes everything. It’s an incredibly intense experience, every sinew stretched, your mind telling you to give up, just you against the elements. And once you acquire a certain amount of skill, it’s all about mental strength,” he says. “That exactly the way I feel about golf,” you respond. Jamyang rolls his eyes.
“Because in the end, you won’t remember the time you spent working in the office or mowing your lawn. Climb that goddamn mountain.” — Jack Kerouac
The road to Padum (Zanskar) winds along the Suru River and at Sankoo, 40km past Kargil, enters Suru Valley. The nearest airfield is Srinagar but transiting via Leh (256km; multiple flights from Delhi and Mumbai) is a better option. Taxis from Leh take seven hours to reach Sankoo (one-way; ₹7,500 and ₹500 for overnight; ₹1,500 per person in a shared taxi). If you’re driving up, avoid the Kashmir valley and come via Delhi-Manali-Leh-Kargil; allocate at least five days to get to Suru. It’s imperative to top up fuel at Manali and carry at least 10 litres in a jerry can. Avoid filling up at Tandi (the last petrol pump after Manali) as the gas is usually of inferior quality.
Where to Stay
While at the festival, there’s no option except the campsite but for those who want to travel up to Zanskar, there are a few J&K tourist bungalows, of which the one at Purtickchay has the loveliest views of the Nun and Kun peaks. These can be booked at the Tourist Reception Centre in Kargil.
While no Inner Line Permit is required to visit Suru, all visitors are required to get themselves registered at Drass, Rumtse and Sarchu if coming by road. Those flying in can do so at Leh’s airport. An Inner Line Permit is required for visiting the Changthang plateau, the lakes and Nubra Valley. That can be acquired from the LAHDC office in Leh (Ph: +91-1982-252010). It’s advisable to have multiple copies of identity documents (driving license, passport, PAN card) and a set of passport-sized mugshots.
What to Pack
Climbing shoes, a regular sleeping bag (high-altitude not required), UV protective sunglasses, good trekking shoes, woollen socks, high SPF sunscreen, personal medication and a camera. Don’t carry bulky outerwear—aim to wear multiple light layers that can be shed during the day.
Suru Boulder Festival
This year, the festival will be held from August 25th to September 7th. Besides climbing, there will be mountain bikes on hire and lots of walking trails around the campsite. Expect humble facilities—vegetarian food, tented accommodation and shared loos—in a superlatively surreal landscape. Transport from Leh to Suru and back are included in the festival package (₹35,000) that also covers accommodation and food. Those who don’t want to spend a fortnight can sign up for ₹2,500 per day. See surufest.com, or call Tenzing Jamyang (+91-9811742903).
There’s no mobile network in Suru Valley except for those with a postpaid BSNL connection.