Snowed under for seven months a year, when it’s denizens can reach the outside world only by walking on the frozen Zanskar River, the remote Zanskar Valley is perhaps one of the last Shangri Las. It is a large area of about 5,000 sq km made up of two valleys, the Stod or Doda and the Tsarap or Lugnak, which meet to form the Zanskar River at Padum, which in turn meets the Indus at Nimmu, west of Leh. Somewhat breaching Zanskar’s aura of mystery, a road of sorts was built in the late 1970s connecting Padum in this once ‘Hidden Himalayan Kingdom’ to Kargil. But even this road is cut off during the seven months of severe winter. And during the other five months, it’s a hardy visitor who does the beautiful but reasonably backbreaking journey from Kargil along the Suru and Stod rivers to Padum. If you break journey, as opposed to something like a 12-hr bumpfest, you have just the odd guest house that may not be open, or tented camps to shiver the night away in.

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Stongde village and the Zanskar Range beyond
Stongde village and the Zanskar Range beyond

Anyone who does this will nevertheless be more than thankful that they did. The 250-km journey from Kargil to Padum, though physically punishing, amply compensates through the stunning beauty of the Suru Valley. And despite the cluster of hotels in Padum — Zanskar’s largest settlement, administrative centre and trekking-launch point — this is still a place where people wait for hours, gossiping and at ease, for a bus or a lift-giving vehicle to pass by. A place where any lama or lay person you fall into conversation with would casually announce that they had done the famous frozen Zanskar River ‘Chadar walk’ half a dozen times, a trek that is the dream of adventure enthusiasts from near and far. A place where, in case of a medical emergency in winter, a helicopter has to fly in from Leh. And, of course, a place where some wonderful old monasteries have been practising their religion and art for centuries.

This relative inaccessibility is what makes Zanskar so attractive to the adventure traveller with loads of time.

The drive to Zanskar

Leaving the melee of Kargil behind, the road to Zanskar emerges into the valley of the Suru River, a green swathe between the dry rocky mountains. Poplar and willow trees line the road. Emerald green fields of peas and barley, fringed by yellow spring flowers, spread out from small villages.

After Sanku, the road starts climbing rapidly. So rapidly that at Panikhar you feel you can almost reach out and touch the angular, snow-covered Nun-Kun massif in the Great Himalayan Range, which towers above the village. You could break journey here at the good JKTDC Tourist Bungalow (₹250), or continue to Rangdum. Beyond Panikhar, the dramatic Gangri Glacier cascades down to the road, bringing down the snows of Nun and Kun. Tongues of snow reach down gulleys, almost licking the road. The thinning tree cover disappears. A small white chorten indicates Rangdum, the first Buddhist village, about 3/4ths of the way between Kargil and Padum. You could also break journey here, at the Nun Kun Camp (Leh Tel: 01982-252153, Mobile: 09419178401, 09419979372; Tariff: ₹3,960-4,620), an established tent-stay option close to the Suru River. The J&K Tourist Bungalow at Rangdum has very, very basic rooms for ₹400 per person. Next morning, visit Rangdum Gompa before continuing toward Padum. A museum on the upper floor of the monastery has a collection of thangkas, masks and old manuscripts.

A chorten marks the crossing of Penzi La Pass, at 14,500 ft
A chorten marks the crossing of Penzi La Pass, at 14,500 ft

The next stretch starts with the climb to the 14,500 ft-high Penzi La pass. Sheer crags of snow-covered mountain rear up on both sides of the road, which has shrunk to a narrow furrow of brown in a sea of white. The car’s engine struggles against the altitude, as occupants pull on yet another warm layer to add to the existing two! A chorten marks the top of the pass. A few hundred metres ahead, the enormous Drang Drung Glacier, source of the Stod River, comes into view, a vast jagged river of ice snaking its way between the mountains. Far below, the road levels out, running straight out across the start of the Zanskar plain.

A speck of green in the distance turns into a village of stone houses, cows, horses and donkeys. A few more villages pass by. The mountains move apart. After 200 km of ups and downs, the plain ahead stretches lazily, luxuriously, eternally out. The road cuts across the plain, skirts the edge of a mountain, and comes to an abrupt halt at a kilometre-long stretch of small shops and houses. All around are towering peaks gazing down on the confluence of the Stod and Tsarap rivers, where the Zanskar River is born. Welcome to Padum.

This drive is best done in the summer months between July and August. By April, the winter snows retreat to the tops of the mountains that surround Padum. A dense carpet of grass studded with yellow and blue flowers emerges from the dry and dusty Zanskar plain. The Penzi La pass opens and Zanskaris who’ve spent the winter outside, return home. When the ephemeral summer finally arrives, everyone in Zanskar celebrates.

Padum

Padum itself is no more than a scattering of small, whitewashed buildings in a vast plain with a tiny population of about 1,500. It also has quite a few guest houses from where to explore the monasteries nearby and in the Zanskar plains beyond. There are exactly three roads in Zanskar, all of which start from Padum. One goes northeast to Zangla along the Zanskar River. The other goes southeast along the Tsarap River till Anmo via Bardan Gompa and Reru, and the third runs parallel to the Kargil- Padum Road on the opposite bank of the Stod River, to Sani and Dzongkhul gompas. These distances are short (10-20 km), but unless you’re walking there’s no alternative to hiring a taxi from the market in Padum, since buses are erratic and share-taxis rarely available. A reasonable taxi rate is ₹3,000 per day (for travel within Zanskar).

Sanjoy Ghosh
Karsha Gompa is built up a hillside, like a fortress
Karsha Gompa is built up a hillside, like a fortress

Padum is also a hub for the legendary treks in Zanskar — southeast into Darcha in Himachal; south-west over the Omasi La pass into Kishtwar; north over the Zanskar Range to the Sham region, or Hemis monastery. Packhorses, guides and supplies can all be procured here.

TIP The BSNL mobile service at Padum can go out of order for over a week. Sometimes, there’s electricity for only three hours in the evening

ZANSKAR’S GOMPAS

The vast plains beyond Padum are where most of the population of Zanskar resides as it is relatively good farming and grazing area. Thus, some of the most important and beautiful monasteries have been constructed here. The high peaks of the Zanskar Range form a scenic backdrop to the pastoral beauty of these plains. Now, thanks to the Snow Leopard Conservancy’s Himalayan Homestays programme, you can stay in some of these Zanskar villages and witness the Zanskar way of life at close quarters.

TIP Zanskar monasteries don’t charge an entry fee, but expect donations

In Padum

Pibiting Monastery, 2 km north of Padum back towards Karsha, is located in a lovely village beside the Tsarap, and offers expansive 360º views of the valley at the centre of which this gompa perches. Less than a kilometre ahead is the Dalai Lama’s Zanskar residence, the Photang, a square two-storeyed structure. Old men twirling prayer wheels shuffle slowly alongside women wearing elaborate silver jewellery and flowing turquoise- studded peraks within the large dusty courtyard of the Photang.

On Padum-Sani-Ating Road

Sani Gompa

A rare gompa built not on a hill slope but on the ground, Sani may be the oldest monastery in Zanskar and has some attractive old murals. Of particular interest is the ancient Kanika Stupa chorten located behind the gompa, popularly associated with the Emperor Kanishka (1st century CE). In a small shrine near this stupa, you can see old icons and murals preserved behind glass.

Sanjoy Ghosh
Ancient capital of Zanskar
Ancient capital of Zanskar

Location 9 km north-west of Padum along south bank of Stod River; return taxi from Padum costs ₹700

Dzongkhul Gompa

Though it falls out of the way, along a rough dirt track, Dzongkhul is isolated and beautiful, set in a near-surreal location at the mouth of a valley that leads onward to the Omasi La pass on the Great Himalayan Range, and thereon to Machail and Kishtwar in the Jammu region. Dzongkhul is also important because its main shrine lies within a dark cave where it is believed the 11th-century yogi Naropa meditated. An imprint on a rock is believed to be Naropa’s footprint.

Location 30 km north-west of Padum, a left turn after Ating; return taxi from Padum costs ₹3,500

Off Kargil-Padum Road

Karsha Gompa

Like many of the monasteries in Ladakh and Tibet, Karsha is built like a fortress and stands defiantly against a hillside. It is the largest monastery in Zanskar and as you drive towards it across the central plain, you can spot the monastery from a great distance. This Gelugpa monastery was founded by Phagspa Shesrab around the 10th century, though a legend attributes the foundation of the monastery to Guru Padmasambhava (8th century CE) himself. It houses around a hundred monks in buildings built on different levels, with whitewashed walls and bold maroon borders. The main prayer hall has a three storey high central image of the Maitreya Buddha. All around it are intricate paintings of the life of the Buddha, the Bodhisattvas and scenes depicting the victory of good over evil. The ancient frescoes have been refreshed often, but this does not at all take away from the luminous glow and air of antiquity in the shrines. The kalachakra or ‘wheel of life’ occupies a prominent place at the entrance of the hall. On one side are the Kangyur religious texts — hundreds of books lining an entire wall.

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Chortens at Stongde Gompa; Zangla Fort
Chortens at Stongde Gompa; Zangla Fort

All around the gompa are fields of barley and peas the colour of rich copper, surrounded by the snow-clad peaks of the Zanskar Range, which encircles the valley.

Location 11 km north of Padum; the road to Karsha branches off from the Kargil-Padum road, 8 km from Padum; Karsha is just under 3 km from here. Return taxi from Padum costs ₹1,200

On Padum-Zangla Road

Stongde Gompa

A hilltop gompa perched a good three hundred metres above the village, Stongde Monastery offers some gorgeous views of the Zanskar Valley, where you can spend some time soaking in the silence of this remote land. This Gelugpa monastery, founded in the 11th century, possibly by the great sage Marpa, is the second largest in Zanskar and houses about 60 monks. The seven shrines here have pleasant frescoes and statues, mainly of those that you may be very familiar with by now — Maitreya, Shakyamuni and Manjushri. It manages a perfect harmony between friendly monks who show you around and an air of silence and stillness.

Location 12 km north east of Padum; return taxi from Padum costs ₹1,200

Zangla Fort

From Stongde, the road continues along the plain above the sunken gorge of the Zanskar River, narrowing as it approaches Zangla, the ancient capital of Zanskar. The ruins of Zangla Fort appear high on a hill above the village. Cross the fast-flowing green-grey Zanskar River on a rickety wooden suspension bridge to enter Zangla village, where you can stay the night at a Himalayan Homestay and explore Zangla at leisure.

Tribhuvan Tiwari
Bridge across the Drass River
Bridge across the Drass River

The fort is a square three-storeyed structure, with narrow balconies that look out from the top floors. This was where half of Zanskar was once ruled from. It was also where Alexander Csoma de Korös, the 19th-century Hungarian Tibetologist, stayed and worked for a year in 1823. A narrow passageway leads into the fort. Many rooms have fallen, but it is still possible to climb up to Csoma’s small dark room on the third floor. Do stop by and meet the friendly chomus (nuns) at the Zangla nunnery nearby.

Location 31 km north east of Padum; return taxi from Padum costs ₹3,500

On Padum-Reru Road

Bardan Gompa

The 17th-century Bardan Gompa is located on a sheer hill top rising above the Tsarap River. On an average day, hardly any monks are to be seen, and the fading but beautiful murals recreate the centuries gone by effectively. This Kagyu or Red Hat gompa is linked to Hemis. It is especially worth a visit for its enormous prayer wheel.

Location 11 km south east of Padum; return taxi from Padum costs ₹1,200

Phugtal Gompa

Nestled under a yawning cavern, fitting so snugly into crevices and footholds that it seems to grow out of the mountain, the Phugtal gompa is an astonishing piece of architecture. The Buddhist monastery — built on a foundation of twigs and mud — has survived the ravages of the Zanskar landscape, along with other laws of physics since the 12th century, when it was founded by Gangsem Sherap Sampo.

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Imposing Phugtal Gompa
Imposing Phugtal Gompa

Overlooking a gorge through which flows a tributary of the Lugnak River, this Gelugpa retreat harbours 70 monks, prayer rooms and a library. Phugtal was first built in a cave on the cliff and the later additions were almost beehive-like accretions. The gompa has some exquisite murals similar to those at Alchi. On the upper side of the gompa is an old juniper tree that dominates the entire valley. Phugtal cannot be reached by road; the best way to visit is by a trek organised with Himalayan Homestays.

Location 70 km south east of Padum via Raru and Ichar; return taxi from Padum up to Anmo costs ₹3,500 return

WHERE TO STAY

In Padum

Padum’s hotels are clean and functional but this is not a thriving tourism hub; you would do well to be flexible. The most luxurious of the lot is Marq Hotel (Tel: 01983-245071, 245223, Mobile: 09418002171; Website: marqinnzanskar. com; Tariff: ₹4,900), which has running hot water and plush rooms. Also among the better options are Hotel Omasila (Tel: 245075, Mobile: 09469369100; Tariff: ₹2,200-2,600) in Pibiting, which has a restaurant, Zambala Hotel (Mobile: 09906990623, 09419242838; Tariff: ₹3,400); and Hotel Ibex (Tel: 245012, Mobile: 09469545962; Tariff: ₹1,700, with meals). The latter is popular with trekkers and has rooms located around a sunny central courtyard. Mont Blanc Guest House (Mobile: 09419177627; Tariff: ₹700) is smaller and cheaper. The J&K Tourism Bungalow (Tel: 245017; Tariff: ₹400-500) has 15 rooms.

Kailash Bar and Restaurant is the only liquor outlet in Padum.

Elsewhere in Zanskar

The Snow Leopard Conservancy’s Himalayan Homestays programme runs homestays in several villages in Zanskar — at Karsha, Zangla, Pidmo, Pishu, Anmu, Ichar, Cha, Reru and Dorzang. These can be booked at Himalayan Homestays (Mob: 09419657213; Website: himalayan-homestays.com) in Leh and Padum, or through Leh-based operators. Himalayan Homestays aims to provide villagers alternative sources of income, in the hope that this will bring down the retaliatory killing of snow leopards, a predator of livestock. In Karsha, for instance, stay is in the home of Mutup Chospel. Simple and clean guest rooms on the third floor of Chospel’s house offer stunning views of the mountains. Tariff for the homestays is ₹800 per person, per night. This includes breakfast, tea, lunch and dinner.

FAST FACTS

When to go The south-west monsoon season from June to September is when the high passes are free of snow, and it is possible to drive from Kargil to Zanskar. The rest of the year, road access to Zanskar is cut off. Trans- Himalayan Zanskar is a rain shadow region like the rest of Ladakh. The weather is dry and warm during the day and dry and crisp at night

Tourist Offices

J&K Tourism, Padum, Tel: 01983-245017

J&K Tourism, Kargil, Tel: 01985-232721

J&K Tourism, Leh, Tel: 01982-252297, 252094, 253462

Himalayan Homestay Offices

Himalayan Geographic Adventure, Near Tourist Office, Mane Ringmo, Padum, Mobile: 09419657213, 09419815906

Snow Leopard Trails, Hotel Kang-Lha-Chen, Leh, Tel: 01982-252074, 252355, Website: ladakh-tours.com

Operators It’s best to get a Leh-based operator to organise your trip to Zanskar. Several offer jeep safaris, horse safaris and trekking expeditions. Try Overland Escape (Tel: 01982-257858, 255881, Website: overlandescape.com), Maitreya Tours (Tel: 251466, Mobile: 09419176036; Website: spiritualhimalaya.com), Rimo Expeditions (Gurgaon Tel: 0124-2806027- 29; rimoexpeditions.com), Dreamland Trek and Tours (the operator we used; 01982- 257784, Mobile: 09419178197, 098580 60607, dreamladakh.com) or Dawa Tsering at Oriental Ladakh (Tel: 253153, Mobile: 09419178774)

STD codes Padum 01983, Kargil 01985

GETTING THERE

Location The Zanskar Valley lies between the Great Himalayan and Zanskar ranges, south-west of Leh and south-east of Kargil, in Kargil District

Distances Padum, the administrative hub of Zanskar, is 250 km south-east of Kargil and 466 km south-west of Leh 

Road From either Leh (7 hrs) or Srinagar (10 hrs), it takes a whole day to drive to Kargil, which affords the only road access to Zanskar. From Kargil too it takes two days to cover the 250-km distance to Padum, requiring an overnight halt at either Panikhar or Rangdum en route. The road is rough and bumpy with no wayside facilities and so one has to be totally equipped in terms of food as well as fuel for the vehicle. But the drive is spectacular.

Taxi Note that taxis from Srinagar or Leh cannot ply on the Kargil-Padum route, which is exclusively served by the Kargil Taxi Union. At the Kargil Taxi Stand in the main market, you can get a dedicated taxi to Padum (₹11,700 one-way with an overnight stop), which allows you to set your own pace. You could also take a share-taxi (₹1,500, 8 people to a Tata Sumo). They leave at 6 am and barrel recklessly down to Padum in 11 hrs.

Bus Buses (₹500-750) leave Kargil at 4 am, and take 15-16 hrs to get to Padum, but they leave only when there are enough passengers. There is a semi-deluxe bus service also from Leh to Padum (₹1,000) on alternate days, with a night halt at Kargil. The only other way to get to Zanskar is to trek 

ROUTE AND DISTANCES

Kargil to Padum 250 km

Kargil to Trespone: 20 km

Trespone to Sanku: 21 km

Sanku to Thamo: 12 km

Thamo to Panikhar: 14 km

Panikhar to Tongul: 10 km

Tongul to Parkachik: 11 km

Parkachik to Rangdum: 40 km

Rangdum to Pensi La: 26 km

Pensi La to Chhibra: 34 km

Chhibra to Remala: 15 km

Remala to Kuser: 29 km

Kuser to Padum: 18 km