In 1976, James Crowden abandoned his career in the British Army and trekked into Ladakh, in the northern Himalaya. There, he spent a winter living among the Zangskari people, one of the most remote communities in the world.
In The Frozen River, Crowden recounts his time in Zangskar, and through his eyes we glimpse a vanishing world; the nature, people and traditions little changed for hundreds of years until roads connected the area to the outside world. Crowden witnesses the first vehicles ever to arrive in Zangskar.
In contrast, the author, only 22 at the time, journeys along winding mountain passes, with enough supplies to last the long, frigid winter loaded onto four packhorses. Shortly after, the area is cut off by the weather, forcing him to quickly adapt to his new existence and the deeply spiritual people around him.
Cold is an ever-present companion, and temperatures drop rapidly when the sun sinks behind the mountain tops. In another writer’s hands it could feel bleak and inhospitable. However, The Frozen River is beautifully descriptive, capturing the poetry of winter and the characters Crowden lives among.
A key part of Crowden’s time in Zangskar is his journey down the frozen river, accompanying two dozen locals, including Buddhist monks, as they travel to sell their butter in the nearest bazaar. Days spent trekking along the frozen waters are followed by nights spent sleeping in caves. The seven-day journey ends in the colourful trading town of Leh, where the group sell their butter and buy much-needed supplies, before heading back home.
The Frozen River is a fleeting glimpse of an older way of life, and the author makes it clear that the last 40 years have not been kind, with global warming leaving nearby peaks devoid of snow in the summertime and villages forced to relocate to new valleys. This only increases the importance of a book like this.