Journey From Zanskar: a perilous bid to save traditional Tibetan culture

Two monks herd a band of children on foot through the Himalayas in this gripping documentary
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A documentary by Frederick Marx. Unrated. In Hindi, Tibetan, and English with English subtitles. Plays Friday and Sunday, January 21 and 23, and Monday and Wednesday, January 24 and 26, at the Vancity Theatre

One revelation about the “roof of the world” that comes from watching the documentary Journey From Zanskar is how relatively claustrophobic and monotonous the surroundings there really are.

Because habitable areas in the Himalayas and surrounding ranges of remote northern India tend to be strung out along deep river valleys, there is always a looming grey wall in the near background. Endless vistas of peaks and plateaus running into blue-skied, cloud-bedecked horizons can usually only be accessed by arduous, often dangerous, ascents.

And there is little green—patchy grasses and almost no trees—in the high-desert hollows and defiles, where precipitation of any kind is rare, except for the snowfall during the interminable winters.

In Journey, director Frederick Marx doesn’t attempt, except incidentally, to embellish the stark landscape or to make cozy the austere dwellings of the district of Zanskar’s inhabitants. He is telling, with the help of Richard Gere’s calming narration, a tale of courage and determination, a story of a people and culture under siege. The beauty really comes from within the human beings who scrape out a living in the mean environment.


Watch the trailer for Journey From Zanskar. />

Two Buddhist monks, Geshe Lobsang Yonten and Lobsang Dhamchoe, have taken upon themselves the task of saving Zanskar’s traditional Tibetan culture and society. Being that it is a territory historically fought over by radically different states—most recently by India, China, and Pakistan—it is rather amazing that Zanskar has been able to maintain its population’s adherence to Tibetan Buddhism (95 percent of about 14,000 people).

But the district’s isolation—which has preserved, so far, its language and religion—also means that there are no phones, running water, sewers, electricity, or hospital. The Indian government provides little funding and minimal educational opportunities; most parents are illiterate, and the Tibetan alphabet and tenets of Buddhism are not taught.

And a proposed new road into the area, which is virtually closed off from the world for up to eight months of every year, could mean the end of Tibetan tradition starting with the children of this generation, according to Yonten and Dhamchoe.

The monks secure the backing of their Stondge monastery for a risky venture: to find 14 children between the ages of five and eight and deliver them south to a Buddhist school in Manali for 10 to 15 years of uninterrupted traditional education, not to be seen by their parents until their return. With winter snows closing in and the prospect of losing a whole year of schooling if they don’t get moving quickly enough, the children’s caravan must travel almost 300 kilometres by foot through some of the highest, coldest, and most dangerous mountain passes in the world.

Marx hasn’t had a lot of directing jobs since his writing-producing stint with 1994’s profoundly popular and influential U.S. documentary Hoop Dreams. There have been only three in the past 16 years, all told, including Journey From Zanskar. But maybe that dearth of experience, that lack of refinement, works to his advantage here.

His simplistic, almost primitive portrayal of the travails faced by this courageous group draws the viewer into the landscape of tumbling rocks, dusty scree, and dangerous river crossings as if part of the expedition. Scenes of the mostly uncomplaining youngsters, some of kindergarten age, trudging along impossibly narrow and precipitous footpaths will have tense and ultraprotective western parents squirming in their seats and groaning inwardly.

Sequences of parents saying goodbye to their children—knowing that the next time they lay eyes on them, if they survive, they will be adults—are heartbreaking. And the final, potentially fatal, roadblock dropped in the band’s way is a discouragement that would cause many to abandon hope.

But not these indefatigable monks.

More than anything, Journey From Zanskar is a tale of sacrifice and devotion, qualities that, especially on this scale, have become less and less important in our day-to-day existence.

This is a film that really does put our lives into perspective.

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