A small stream of snot slowly worked its way down from her nose pooling on the ridge of her upper lip. She sucked and snorted in vain. My stomach churned apprehensively waiting for the inevitable – and then she did it again for the eighth or ninth time. She whipped up her barley-flower-coated hand, dragged it across her face leaving a thin strand of sticky goo, a snot web, stretching out as she plunged her hand back into the chapati dough, otherwise known as our breakfast.
“That’s it,” I secretly whispered to Thomas, “I’m not eating those chapatis. Let’s get out of here.”
We politely excused ourselves explaining we needed to hit the trails early and quickly made our exit. For those of you who quickly dismiss us as hygiene softies, consider that we were on day thirteen and EVERY calorie was a treasure. Passing up any food was quite a statement.
While planning our hike, we were fascinated by the fact that virtually all adventure tour groups to the region camp rather than making arrangements to stay with local families. The reason for this is absolutely clear now. Staying with Zanskari families, while quite an incredible cultural experience, is a bit too much for most westerners.
Superficially, the houses look quite similar to those in Spiti and central Ladakh. From our videos, you will not be able to detect the filth. In fact, in pictures and film, the houses look far nicer than they actually are because most of the video was shot in kitchens. Zanskaris, like Spitians, display their wealth in the form of cookery giving the illusion of quite a high standard of living for such a remote region.
In most of the houses we stayed in, you enter through a lower-level where animals such as goats or yaks are housed. These levels are often filled with animal droppings, which inevitably end up in the upper level where the family lives. In many houses, scraps of food were dropped on the floor and simple left there. This has the negative side effect of attracting rats. Moreover, dirty dishes were simply re-used – or, occasionally, they would swish around a little water and then dump the dirty water out on the floor, fill the dish with food, and hand it to us.
To make matters worse, as with most Indians, Zanskaris don’t use toilet paper. (Most Indians simply wash themselves with their left hand.) But in Zanskar, there was no water in the drop toilet. How were they cleaning themselves? It should come as no surprise that by day 10 in Padum, both of us had severe cases of giardia.
Why are Zanskaris so dirty? Actually, such sanitary issues are quite common throughout the Tibetan world from Sichuan in the East to Zanskar in the West – but, yes, Zanskar is a step grosser than most. I assume Zanskar is simply so remote that we are witnessing the last vestiges of such extreme living. Locals still believe that disease has supernatural origins and have no knowledge of why hygiene is necessary. In fact, many Zanskaris were quite amused by our filtering drinking water. Humorously, they seem to perceive it as some kind of odd cultural ritual.
Of course, even native people who have no knowledge of western science eventually learn the hard way that there are limits to the filth. However, people living at the super-high elevations of the Tibetan plateau have been sheltered from such discoveries. Essentially, they live in a relatively germ-free refrigerator, so they can push the limits. (Unfortunately for us, the high elevations also dramatically reduce the boiling temperature of water allowing some nasty things to survive in your tea, which is probably how we ended up with giardia.)
So is it worth the filth? Absolutely. I wouldn’t trade our time with these remarkable Zanskari families for any level of comfort. These are some of the best people in India, if not the world. The are generous and extremely honest. In such a remote region, they could have demanded any amount of money for a warm carpet to sleep on. But they didn’t. In fact, we rarely bargained for accommodation. Many times we were told we could pay what we thought was fair.
Food and fuel for fire is hard to come by in Zanskar. They grow their own vegetables and barley, mill their own grain, make their own yogurt and cheese – it’s an enormous amount of work. On top of that, they have to store enough food, hay, and dried yak dung to survive eight months of extremely harsh winter. And yet they went out of their way to make sure we always had more than enough to eat. Yes, it was very much worth it.