Day Trip To Phuktal

Staying in Cha at a wonderful homestay with a wonderful family. Figured I should head up and say hello to Phuktal.

Up to photograph the sunrise at 5:15 I’m thoroughly skunked by low haze.

I’m also really struck by how ugly the new road construction is. The whole slope above the town is scarred with road and so is the slope on the other side of the valley (across the Tsarap.)

Feels like I’m inside a copper mine.

Back to my room and wait around for family breakfast. Eggs and potatoes. The kids are terrific and interesting. My host makes me a killer lunch of eggs and potato wrapped in chapati with some local salsa. I mean really!

I intended to take my bike but host tells me to leave it, there’s no point and it’ll just slow me down. He knows his stuff so I trust him.

Head out by foot and climb back up the trail out of town. It intersects that ugly road, then the foot trail becomes an informal road for the tourist taxis. Tourists don’t stop in town, they drive as far as they can towards Phuktal, so eventually there’s a pack of vehicles parked.

Continuing on the Cha-side trail to Phuktal is unchanged. Including photographs it takes me roughly 90 minutes to reach Phuktal.

Light isn’t great, I’m stuck with this periodic high overcast. Pretty disappointing because I’ve seen amazing light in this rugged valley.

Also I notice that there’s been a bunch of work on the trail from Purne to Phuktal. Last year the path from Purne to Phuktal was a crazed and life-threatening disaster. Seriously risking life running across active and over-steep screen slopes – even locals claimed it was impassible to horses. This year the path from Purne has been extended into a sort of road for at least half the distance, and the rest looks like a nicely maintained and flat wide horse trail.

Tsarap Landslide, Excitement and the River Color

On my first two visits the confluence of the Kargiakh and Tsarap rivers showed a pretty dramatic merging of colors. The Kargiakh is brown and muddy and the Tsarap is either milk white or a deep clean blue, depending upon the time of day.

Sometime in 2015 there was an enormous landslide on the upper Tsarap. Enormous? How big exactly? Well… big. Locals claims the river stopped flowing for the rest of the year.

I found some photos on this site that show the slide itself: https://blogs.agu.org/landslideblog/2015/01/22/tsarap-river-zanskar-1/

I’ve reposted these here in case that site goes down:

Yeah, so thats big. Thats a big chunk of mountain fell on the river. The gubnint went up to investigate, used some explosives and then declared there was nothing they could do. I guess Nukes would have worked? What they did do though was monitor it and very pro-actively kept everyone safe.

When the slide finally broke a huge wall of water was released. I’ve spoken to folks who were at Phuktal and saw the destruction. Created a giant whirlpool when the waves hit the narrow canyon below Phuktal and the high water totally disintegrated a school that was newly built on the banks of the Tsarap.

Anyway, I can see the color of the river is very different this year. This is a high water year and the Tsarap is too busy ripping the shit out of its banks to show me its usual colors. Hopefully later in the season?

Here’s a photo of the Tsarap in the afternoon that I took from near Phuktal in 1992:

So that said, here’s the muddy river I got to enjoy with the muddy mediocre light. The color photos look monochrome so I think more interesting when converted to black and white.

Eventually I round a corner and view the bridge across the Tsarap. Like everywhere else construction is occuring. Last year they were installing the cement pillars, this year there’s a big pile of scattered timbers.

The trail crosses a small stream just as it flows into the Tsarap, and there is a huge back-eddy there. A cluster of monks is trying to fish branches and sticks out of the river using branches and a piece of string but they soon give up so I follow.

Something that surprises me. The monks are unloaded but I am easily keeping pace and talking with them, and they are visably struggling with the exertion. What the heck? My memory I’ve never seen a monk do anything but super-human hiking. Why are these guys so out of breath?

The monks stop at the closed guest house that is built on the flats below the monestary so I continue on alone.

I guess I’ve been here too much as I am actually not impressed this time. When I first visited in 1992 I had the feeling I was visiting a really ancient place. The stonework inside was amazing and worn by so much traffic, including horse hooves because the trade route passed through the monestary.

Sometime after 2002 the monestary reconstruted itself using concrete, redid the floors, added concrete steps and created a horse bypass trail that led above the monestary. Some of the ancient juniper doors were replaced. Etc.

The saddest thing about Phuktal

Here’s a sad story about Phuktal. When I was here in 1992 I passed through on my way to and from Shade. On my way down a monk led me to an ancient holy spring that came from the foot of the cave.

We followed a stream running with horseshit until some steep stone stairs. Up more and a corridor led to a round-topped door with ancient iron hardware and an old chinese lock. In the base of the door an opening had been cut and water was gushing through.

The monk opened the door and let me peer in. I remember this photographically, there was a long dark cave and inside was a lake leading back at least 40 feet into the darkness. The light from outside showed silver ripples moving lazily inside.

The monk explained that this was holy water and drinking it had curing properties and also the potential for immortality? But… the legend said that no woman must ever touch the spring, if that happened the water would vanish.

The monk let me fill my water bottles and the water was really great. Yes I was dehydrated and probably I’m subject to more than a little suggestion but man was that stuff good.

The Phuktal Spring in 1999

So… I came back in 1999 and spent the night at Phuktal with my wife. She of course had to stay clear of the spring but I did head up and refill my water bottles and we both agreed it was extremely tasty water. The water wasn’t bursting out the door like it was before, but there was still a full lake.

The Phuktal Spring in 2018

And… I return with my son in 2018. I’ve regaled him with the story of the amazing spring with the tasty water. “Just you wait!” I exclaim….

Well, we arrive and the spring is dry. Dry like an egyption crypt. Can’t even wet a rag in the room where the spring was. What I also see though… there’s been a bunch of construction in the area. Instead of a long cave the room with the spring now ends about 8 feet in, there is a wall inside now.

The young monk mumbles something about how they built it to expand the monestary. He looks bummed and sort of ashamed. Maybe disappointed to ruin my excitement.

And the cool old juniper door with the ancient iron hardware is gone too, replaced with some cheap plywood thing. Sadness!

Phuktal Spring 2019

Yeah… so all you tourists reading this… The spring was dry again in 2019. There’s just dust inside. Can see how there was once water there but when I saw it it wasn’t even a little damp. Even this big snow year and so much water the spring is still dry.

I really hope it comes back someday but given global warming I’m not holding my breath.

That spring was a good thing in the world and its gone now.

Sorry no pictures of the spring, didn’t really seem like a point to it.

Phuktal Kitchen

Head up to the kitchen for chai. Monks asking about my trip. There’s one monk with good english that seems to be in a really bad mood. Tells me I’ve come up from Padum, asks me how was the drive. I just sort of stare at him, uh? No? I shake my head. I don’t know how to respond. He grins at me smugly. The monk that guided me to the spring starts correcting him. After a minute or so the angry monk yells and stomps off. Whats his deal? Not the sort of peace I thought these guys were going for. His heart isn’t where I thought it would be.

Kitchen hasn’t changed, still a great view. Still a crazy thick coating of carbon on the rock wall behind the fire.

I mention I stayed in Shangka and the monks pipe up. “Our cook is from Shangka!” I meet the cook, the monks translate my message that Shangka is gorgeous and very good water and air that lives up there. He is excited that I liked it so much and allows me to take his photo.

Finally I leave the kitchen to go exploring. Is nice to have idle time to just wander the place. I find a high vantage and sit to enjoy my aloo-egg-chapati lunch. Pretty nice. Air is cold but the sun is warm. No wind so its a great place for a nap.

Finally I’m relaxed and rested. Stare across Tsarap to the village across the way. Wouldn’t be a bad idea to come up and stay some time there. Maybe next time?

I explore an alternate route out of Phuktal and end up at the dead end on a cliff above the bridge. So a photo-op before back tracking.

Hike back is uneventful, there’s a bit of rain, a lot of overcast and a few moments of interesting light. All in all its a bust for photography.

Just before I crest the last climb on my return to Cha I see some hikers coming the other way. Oh gee! They are westerners! They’re all carrying small backpacks, walking in clumps. There’s like 10 of them. I say “Jullay!” to each as I pass. They’re young, like college kids. On their way to Phuktal I guess. These are the first non-zanskar people since I left Zanskar-Sumdo 10 days ago. The place is changing!

That Structure Above Cha

Just before the end of the trail to Cha I pass below a small stone hill with a haunted looking structure on top. What the heck is that? Looks like an old fortress. Is that a thing here? The floor is paved with enormous stones, a meter or more across.

Also below this structure in the cliffs are more small stone structures, they’re visible from the new road.

Later I ask my host and other villagers in Cha about what this might be. Story is that long long ago there were bandits here. There is was a hidden store house on the cliffs below this structure, and they think this might have been a fort. They say that definately purne had a fort and its crenelations are still visible.

About 60 or 70 years ago someone tried to start a nunnery at this location. The structure was completed but the installation failed for some reason. Ok, that is the story I heard.

Past the structure on the hill there are a cluster of parked vehicles. There’s a small bus… a van… an suv… and a small car. A set of porters are walking up the hill, 5 or 6 of them and each is carrying at least 2 and sometimes 3 large duffle bags. Serious weight! They’ve strapped the bags to their bodies using poly-line, including the classic head-strap. Sorry no pictures. 😦

As I get to the car I see there’s 3 more people getting out of an SUV. Also on their way to Phuktal. These guys are brits and have proper back packs that they carry themselves, are just leaving on their trip up valley. Phuktal, then across and up and over Shingo-La.

Finally I descend back down to lovely Cha. Flowing water, green barley and birds and bees.

On return I take a bucket bath, host even provides warm water. Wow. How nice is that?

I then walk across the field to the shop, hang and watch some women dyeing fabric, then watch some girls play, and finally I stock up on biscuits and candy for my ride. Lastly back to fields to enjoy the sunset.

For dinner we had potato momos with masala inside along with a giant vat of tsamik (the salsa.) I’m not saying that because I was hungry, this was seriously fantastic food.

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