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Singge: from Zanskar with love

Unconditional love - by Joel Schone

"It is no wrong to pay for learning. To help the ignorant to wisdom is always a merit."
The Lama to Kim in "Kim", Rudyard Kipling, 1901

May 2001

A boy: looking like a 6 year old, but with an old and sad face. Eyes with the look a dog gets when its been beaten, wary and watchful. Both ears set at odd angles on the head, like they had been pulled so often they gave up the struggle to stay straight.

Tetha: a lovely village set in green barley fields, in winter cut off like all of Zanskar cut off by frozen passes, the only access by walking along the frozen Zanskar river.

The boy stood away from the other children, watching the carnival of colours and laughter that was our trekking group. Kim had pointed him out - he wore a T-shirt, no shoes or pants. Lobsang, our sirdar, always attracted to the strays and needy of the world, told us he had no family. Lobsang fended off the other children when one struck Singge, gave him clothes, dinner, and set him to work fetching and carrying in the kitchen.

A villager told us he had been a novice at Phuktal, but had been so badly behaved he had been thrown out. Now he was returning to his half brother at Kargyak. That night, with a neediness born of more than hunger, he heaped sugar into his tea and munched chocolate. We would be passing through again in September, and when I asked Lobsang if it would be a good thing to get him sent to school, Lobsang was positive. "Good thing".

More treks and trekkers, Tso Moriri, the Changthang, and finally in Manali, set among the forested slopes of the Pir Panjal, Lobsang and I found time to track down a school created for Zanskari children. Earnest eyed and be-uniformed, we watched their lessons, the patience of their teachers, gave formal "jullay" and we had found a home for Singge.

September 2001

Resting in Kargyak after the crossing into Zanskar, we found Singge was half brother to Lobsang, the village policeman. As my group drank chang in his house, we heard his story. Singge had been born out of wedlock to a fairly wealthy village landowner, his own wife having passed on. He stayed with his mothers family, until the father died, when the family washed their hands of him. His mother was blind, and her entreaties to keep the boy were ignored. For two years he lived wild, looking after sheep for village families, and like Kipling's Kimball O'Hara, learned to survive at an early age, by turn begging and entertaining, stealing and lying. His sensitivity to cold and his damaged toes came at this stage in his young life.

Finally his half brother got him into Phuktal Gompa, but too late. Already used to grabbing what he could and stealing, he was thrown out. Tashi, a Rimo guide and firm friend, French and English speaking, translated this with horror for us.

Finally Singge was ushered in, giving us formal "jullay", blinking and nervous in front of so many round eyes. He was dressed in a borrowed Goncha far too big for him, and had attempted to slick down his hair with yak butter, lumps of which were matted in his hair. Lobsang gestured at our group and asked him if he remembered us; he looked at the group and his answer had Lobsang and Tashi laughing, "he says he remembers me and you, but the others have changed a lot".

The next day we had to get his mothers permission, and sat and explained slowly as the villagers harvested all around us; would she give us permission to send Singge to school? Unable to read or write, the school had told us they would trust our word that she had given it, but she clung to our hands and cried and cried, until finally Lobsang told me she had given her blessing and I could get away from the sight of tears flowing from blind eyes.

Jan 2002

So, we had made a promise, Singge would go to school next year. Early in the New Year, we were walking along the frozen Zanskar, and in the back of my mind, I planned to push through the gorges and get to Kargyak. We had promised spring, but I knew, survivor as he was, another winter could be the end of him.

Leaping broken ice, sleeping in caves, and marvelling at Zanskar in winter, we made it through the frozen gorges in early February, despite the heaviest snow in 12 years. Only 2 more days would see us in Kargyak, but the Tsarap Chu does not freeze as hard as the Zanskar. Using Plastic boots and ice axe we could do it, but one day out of Padum I looked at the avalanche slopes above the river and heard that even locals would not go. A week later we were in Delhi.

May 2002

We had a group planned for early June, though in late April the road over the first pass was still closed. Leading a trek in the Everest region, I heard that two trekkers were keen to cross Zanskar in early May. "Not possible" I thought, then for Singge to go to school. The others, Don and Lou, both said they were up for an earlier start, and it was all on.

By early May we were jeeping up the Rohtang Pass, 17 porters, and 5 trekkers. To get across the frozen passes, Tsarap and our horses would cross the frozen slopes by moonlight, and catch us at Kargyak village.

Five days later, and an epic freezing crossing, we were in Kargyak. An hour or two after we arrived, Singge arrived, jumping like a cat every time someone came close to him, nerves on edge. He was covered in lice, his threadbare Goncha infested. Lobsang washed him and his head was shaved, every stroke of the blunt blade making him flinch. It was hard to hold back tears as old scars were revealed, he had been beaten since he was old enough to walk. Dressed in his new clothes, it was all too much for him, he was all hands, grabbing food, equipment, overeating, fighting with local kids then running to hide behind us. He was used to living on his wits, and it was hard to get out of the habit. Lobsang and Tenpa, and our trekking group, had endless patience, and he-slowly-started adjusting to his new life.

Joel around that time, but not Singge

As we left Kargyak a party of returning men on horseback all stopped to formally shake hands and bid him goodbye; and from the village on the other side of the river children waved, shouting "Singge, Singge!"

That first day we realized his frostbite-damaged feet prevented him from walking far. Tsarap, our horseman, allocated a horse and got his helper, Pinku, to look after him. So excited he would throw rocks, fall off, hurl one of my water bottles over a precipice to watch it bounce. When Tsarap told him to behave, he would scream "Balti! Balti!" to Tsarap's sun and snow blacked face.

In the morning I would learn to be there when he woke up; he would start to cry as his feet so damaged were slow to wake up. First, though I would have to clear away the chairs and tables he would block the tent door with, to stave off night time terrors. All this would have kept me busy, but more worryingly, we were approaching the Singge, "Lion" pass, at over 5000m, easy in summer but I knew from our experiences on the Shingo la earlier it would be a hard crossing. It would be covered in snow, and we had to get loaded horses across.

A yak caravan had attempted it recently, and had failed. We were up at 4am, it had been snowing hard all night. By 5am we were moving, trekkers looking back across a snowscape straight out of a Scottish winter. Peter and Susan dropped their camera and it bounced away down valley, and there was no time to get it, we had to keep moving. (Lobsang heroically did return to get it see their diary). By the top of the pass one horse had already tumbled, Tsarap coolly grabbing its halter and choosing to go down with it, tumbling end over end until he pulled the slipknot and the load slid clear, seconds from the edge.

Then we were on top, trekkers moving down quickly. The guys and I stopped, crouching out of the wind and Tsarap passing out the bidis (local cigarettes). Definitely a 3 bidi problem as we smoked and looked at the steep icy slope. There was a suggestion of a trail in the ice... First, the loads came off, Singge screaming in delight as duffels, tents and boxes slid and crashed down the hill, me grabbing Singge out of the way of one about to cream him.

I climbed back up and watched as the Lobsang and Tenpa slowly coaxed a horse onto the big unfolded kitchen tarp, looking for all the world as if they were going to gift wrap it. Then, they took corners of the tarp and slowly started to drag it down the insane trail. Tsarap and Punsok gently clicked their tongues and the other horses, seeing what was apparently one of their own going down, followed. Horse psychology...

There was still 2 kms of soft snow to go, and the horses could not do it loaded. So the gear was loaded on two tarps and wrapping ice axes around to get purchase we started dragging it all, floundering and slipping in deep powder, looking like Captain Scotts' doomed polar explorers. Singge sat on top of the loads, shouting encouragement and running after pots and pans as they tumbled off. I think that day marked a turning point for Singge, as it was for me. Watching Tsarap tumble and with freezing toes and burnt faces getting over that pass I realized these guys were more than employees, that I was blessed the day I met them, that our treks were more than a job. And Singge, I think realized it was true, that we had kept our promise and we would never let him down.

June 2002

Singges' first days in school were not easy ones, we all knew that he would sink or swim. He was hard to discipline, running away many times. He was used to begging from strangers and would still do it, and the other children knew him from his wild days and were naturally distrustful. Leaving for Nepal in October after our last trek he knew there would be no more Joel and Kim descending on him with hugs and presents.

January 2003

In January when we returned he had settled. In between slurps of his lunch, he shyly rattled off his alphabet and 1 through 10 in English. He is also speaking some Hindi now also, thanks to the patience, love and talent of his teachers.

It is early days still, but we think he has turned the corner. Singge still bears the scars of his traumatic upbringing, but is slowly learning to be a child instead of a survivor. Next summer we hope to take him trekking with one of our groups, as a reward for his first year in school. He is touchingly adamant in his 8 year old way he will never go back to Kargyak.

But Zanskar steals your soul; trekking there you quickly become part of the landscape, part of the cycle of the seasons. Last year I was fortunate to cross Zanskar 5 times, and see it in winter, spring, summer and autumn. Above all, though, we know when we visit Zanskar we have given something more then our smiles to one Zanskari.

March 2005

Singge in the black and Jamphael, Tenpa and Nima Lhamoo's son
(who Don and others are assisting because he has a cleft palate, now operated on but still some work ahead)

August 2007

Singge is in fine shape, speaking fluent English, doing very well at school. We met him this summer in Tanze, where while playing "JACKIE CHAN" he fell off a wall and with a suspect broken arm he trekked back to Manali with us for treatment (it was sprained); you would never have guessed he would have turned out such a lovely boy...it was touch and go there!

2007: Singge with his present from the Himalayan Circuit trekking team - Joel
A trekking pole and torch combined - who dreamt that one up!


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