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It has been ten days since I arrived in Leh, Ladakh, in the Indian Himalayas. Between some bed-ridden time caused by a flu and the difficulties of finding a « base camp » and a fixer — many Ladakhis leave for warmer climes once winter has set in — I can’t wait to hit the road. After spending a few days in the village of Rigzin, my fixer, who likes to dance and drive at the same time while, bracing myself, I tell him to watch the road, we set off on a mission to see an ice stupa. Ice stupas are man-made structures created every winter in Ladakhi villages lacking water during the transitional spring period when glacial meltwater is not yet available. Inhabitants draw pipes from a source high up in the mountains, more or less far from the village, and as time goes by, the small cubic wooden structure turns into a mound of ice that takes the form of a giant stupa — or a wall of ice, depending on the topology of the site. This water reserve will gradually melt when the warm weather arrives, allowing the fields to be irrigated before the heat begins to melt glaciers.

I had been wanting to photograph these ice structures for years, and never thought it would be so difficult to find one. Our first three attempts were unsuccessful. Year after year, the villagers abandoned the project: too expensive, too difficult. It wasn’t long before we realized that to have an ice stupa is not just a matter of installing the equipment and waiting for the ice to build up, but that it is imperative to monitor and maintain it on a daily basis. Numerous phone calls later, Rigzin is confident, « In Ang, there’s one. For sure! »

Ang Village

Ang is a village tucked away at the end of a valley, a small cluster of square, flat-roofed houses surrounded by deserted fields. It may be winter, but like almost everywhere else in Ladakh, the snow doesn’t last. The wind quickly sweeps it away and, apart from a few scattered snowdrifts, the ground is desperately dry and the sky frightfully blue — a photographer’s nightmare. On the other hand, given that our little car has neither chains nor snow tires — nor heating, for that matter — it’s no bad thing. When we arrive, not a soul is to be seen. Will we find a place to stay? On the wall of one house, a « Homestay » sign followed by an arrow: we’re told it’s closed, but there’s another house where a small woman with a big smile named Stanzin lives. She speaks good English and welcomes us into her home. We warm up, sitting on the floor around the stove. Stanzin’s mother — also named Stanzin — is a woman whose face seems to have been carved to smile all the time. She serves us tea after tea1. It’s customary to refill the cup even if it’s barely been tasted. She doesn’t speak a word of English but it doesn’t stop her from trying to communicate with me between laughs and pretending to understand what I’m saying. « Hmmm, hmmm, » she nods — and smiles, since she’s always smiling — then laughs again, offering me the tenth cup of tea, which I don’t refuse. Apart from the kitchen stove, it’s the only source of heat in a Ladakhi house in winter. With full bellies and warm bodies, we walk for half an hour through a steep valley to find the ice stupa. On the one hand, I’m glad we managed to find one, but on the other, the photos I’ve taken are bad, really bad, « Sorry Rigzin, but we’ll have to come back tomorrow when there’s life. »

The Ice Stupa Builders

Every day, at least one of the five stupa builders climbs up to make sure everything is running smoothly. Today, three of them are present — there are five at all. Jigmet, a tall, round-faced man, Ringchen, with jet-black hair and a goatee, with a Romany look, and Thinlas, the carpenter, the handyman, more reserved but always solving problems. « Without him, we would never have made it, » confides Jigmet. A few meters further down, a makeshift tent with a gas stove. This is where villagers and other curious visitors come to warm up with the builders over a cup of tea after visiting the site. It’s also the « break room » after a sometimes exhausting day, as I would understand a few days later when I was stuck in the village for several days due to heavy snowfalls.

To grow the stupa, the ice must build around it. The builders place branches and stretch wires around. Water dispersed from the top of the stupa will then cling to these and freeze, making the structure grow. You also need to climb to the top every day to make sure the sprinkler hasn’t frozen, go into the tunnel under the stupa and break any ice that has built up on the pipes, turn off the water supply when it’s too « hot » outside, then turn it back on in the evening, etc. It’s hard work, and dangerous too: the stupa is about fifteen metres high!

Ice Stupa Problems — Frost and Avalanches

One evening, as the sun has already set, a water inlet freezes. « Fortunately, this only happens a few times a year, » I’m told. The pipes are dismantled, one by one, to try and find out which one is blocked. Water squirts everywhere and the outside temperature plummets to -20°C. Jackets get covered in ice and I realize that they’re handling the pipes with their bare hands — whereas with my gloves and under-gloves the cold is already making me suffer. There is nothing to be done now, we’ll have to wait until the next day to heat the pressure cookers on kerosene stoves and send steam for hours into the pipes to melt the ice: it’s the vertical one that climbs to the top of the stupa that has frozen. I am fascinated and despite the high cost of transport in Ladakh during winter, I say to Rigzin, « We’ve got to find more ice stupas! »

Over the next few days, we cross Ladakh in search of other stupas and learn that many challenges await, both for the local people and for us. As we set off in search of a small village in the Kargil region, the car begins to skid on an ice-covered road despite the chains — this time we’ve taken them. We spend an hour breaking it up with jacks, meter by meter. Once on the dry tarmac, we congratulate each other, all out of breath, before getting back on the road. At a bend, as we seem to be heading downhill towards a village, Rigzin asks, « Are you sure we’re on the right road? » to which I reply, « Of course we’re on the right road! » while glancing at the GPS. « Ah well no, shit, it’s the one above! » Bad luck, we’re already on an ice-covered slope. Impossible to turn around, there’s barely room for a car. We have to go backwards but it’s a slippery ride. We take out the jack, hit, hit, hit but the ice on the road is tough. We put the chains on the road to back up the car fifty centimetres by fifty centimetres. Half an hour later, we realize that it will take us several hours at this rhythm to reach a dry patch of tarmac. Despair sets in. Rigzin leaves to find help in the village below while I rest, out of breath — we’re almost 3000m above sea level. He returns with a big bag of earth and a shovel, « There are no men in the village, so the women gave me that. » Rigzin presses hard on the pedal as I push the car backwards, then it slides back down the slope. The village women come to the rescue. Together we push the car to the crossroads. Phew! We’ve made it. The image of these women in white veils and long dresses — the Kargil area is predominantly Muslim — and a European guy pushing a car on the ice must have been fun to see. « Come and have a cup of tea at home, » they suggest as a man joins us. We warm up with the whole family in the kitchen of their little brick house, the kind of house that is increasingly hard to find in Ladakh, where the light from the window radiates a soft glow over the faces and creates a powerful contrast with the dark walls of the nooks and crannies. Luckily, they know one of the builders of the ice wall we were on our way to. He can take us there tomorrow morning, weather permitting, as this is an avalanche-prone area and their ice wall was recently buried by two avalanches. They don’t want to take any chances.

We need to be there at 8 a.m. Getting out of bed when it’s well below 0°C in the bedroom is a pain. Climbing into a frozen car and driving with the windows open while the sun is not yet shining on the valley to prevent condensation from icing the windshield, the body not yet fully awake, is close to torture. At times like this, I dare not meet Rigzin’s eyes for fear of being struck by lightning. Or I’ll make a little joke like, « It feels good today, » but it doesn’t really make me laugh anyways. Fortunately, he takes it with a smile, even though I know it pisses him off. Once in the village, Mohammad Abuzar and Mohammad Hassan accompany us up the avalanche path to see the remains of their ice wall. While on a short break during which I seem to be the only one gasping for breath they explain, « It’s good for us because even though our infrastructure has been destroyed, the ice wall blocked part of the avalanche and we’ll have plenty of water for the spring. » It’s the first time they’ve been back here since the avalanches and they’re happy to answer questions and take photos. As in Ang — and the other villages we’ve visited where people have built an ice stupa — you can sense a real passion for their project in these men. Back in the village we’re invited for breakfast with their family and neighbors under the sunshine on the roof of a house, with a breathtaking view on the frosty mountains.

The Good Moments

Whether it’s during hard times or after sharing a moment together, it’s these little surprises that I love most about traveling. You meet people more or less by chance, people who have nothing to do with your everyday life, whom you would never have met otherwise. Then they invite you in, offer you something to eat and drink, introduce you to their family and friends, and once you’ve asked, not without some embarrassment, if you could take a photo, a kind of trust is established and everyone asks to be photographed with so-and-so, and it all ends in laughter and goodbyes that go on forever, with a smile stuck on your lips and the sweet feeling that it was a day worth living.

During our adventure we meet several teams of builders, all with their own problems and solutions, and it’s with a team of students and researchers that we end it. Their aim is to install a system to automate the opening and closing of the water supply, the most time-consuming and problematic operation, which discourages many villagers from trying again to build an ice stupa. From the village, it takes an hour and a half to reach the ice wall maintained by a 19-year-old villager, his father and a neighbor. The aim of this pilot project is also to repopulate the village, which was abandoned a few years ago due to a lack of water. I’m fascinated by the energy deployed not only by the villagers but also by these students. Carrying tools and crates of equipment, they will spend the day freezing their butts off — even by local standards — to install this new system. It’s heartwarming to see them struggling to come up with new ideas in such a joyful, good-humored way, and then putting them to good use to sweeten up a daily grind that grates on the body. Instead of abandoning everything for a better life far from Ladakh, as more and more young Ladakhis want to do, why not try some new alternatives?

  1. Ladakhi tea is a salted tea with fresh butter, unlike Tibetan tea, which uses rancid butter and gives me the shits every other time… ↩︎

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