Exploring the Zanskar Valley

It was late in September 2011. I was in Leh on a dream assignment. The assignment was open ended. I was to make my own itinerary and travel to places of my choice at my own pace. The idea was to make a nice portfolio of images from Ladakh. I was alone in my trusty Bolero 4×4 jeeep and I had already covered the main Indus valley and the Nubra valley.

I was planning to leave for Zanskar when, I came to know that my friend Tribhuvan was in Leh. We met at his favourite restaurant for dinner. When he told me that he and his friend, Charles, were also planning to go to Zanskar, I proposed a joint “expedition” to Zansakar.

 

A few words about Zanskar:

Snuggled between the Great Himalayas to the south and the Zanskar mountains to the north, the Zanskar valley is one of the most remote places of India. It lies  sandwiched between the Kashmir valley and the Lahaul valleys to its south and the Indus valley of Ladakh to its North. To the west of Zanskar lies the district of Kargil while to its east it is bordered by the Rupshu and Changtang regions of Ladakh.

A poorly maintained 200 km long motorable road connects Padum, the largest town of Zanskar, with Kargil which itself is a 2 day drive from the nearest railway station at Udhampur. Even this road is open only for about 5 months in a year, from June to October.  In winters the only way in and out of Zanskar is a hazardous walk along the frozen Zanskar river to the town of Nimmu.

Located on the leeward side of the Himalayas, Zanskar, like its neighbor Ladakh, is a high altitude desert. Most of its inhabitants believe in Tibetan Buddhism. In fact Buddhism made it way into Ladakh via this region. Zanskar has one of the longest uninterrupted Buddhist heritage of any region in the world. Zanskar has some of the oldest Buddhist monasteries of the Ladakh region. The Kanika Stupa in the Sani monastery was built by the Kanishka, the Indian emperor, in the 1st century AD.

The Zanskar river, which along with its tributaries drains this region, also gives its name to this region. It has two main tributaries, the Stod which originates from the Darangdurung glacier near the Pensi La pass in the western boundary of the region and flows in a southeast direction. And the Tsarap, which originates near the Baralacha pass far in the southeastern boundary of the region and flows towards the northwest. The Stod and the Tsarap join at Padum and form the Zanskar river which then flow due north through some spectacular gorges and joins the Indus at Nimmu.

The drive to Zanskar :

 

Day 1:  22nd September 2011

Leh to Kargil

The morning after we met we left Leh for Zanskar in Tribhuvan’s 4×4 Scorpio. Tribhuvan is not an early riser and it was about 10 am by the time we got out of the town and were on the highway to Kargil. The road was in very good condition and we made good time.

The Basgo fort

We stopped at Basgo, once the capital of Ladakh, to take some photographs of the old fort as the light was very good. Apart from this, a couple of other short halts at Lamayuru and Fotu la, and a lunch halt at Khalsi, we drove continuously.

The Lamayuru Monastry

The Lamayuru Monastry

By 8 pm we were in Kargil. After a bit of looking around we finally choose to spend the night at PC Palace hotel in the old part of the Kargil town. The hotel was dirty, dingy and expensive but, as by now it was 9pm, we didn’t really have a choice.  It is best to avoid spending the night in Kargil as the town lacks charm and has no good hotels. It is better to make an early start and reach the government run guest house at Panikhar in the Suru valley.

The Kargil Town

The Kargil Town

Day 2:  23rd September 2011

Kargil to Camp 1

We left Kargil at 8 am after an early breakfast of luke warm eggs and bread slices.

The road goes up the left bank of the green and fertile Suru valley. The people of this region are Shia muslims. They converted to Islam in the 15 century.

A few kilometers after crossing Sanku, the largest town of the Suru valley, the road crosses over to the right bank of the river. At this point, if the weather is clear one can see the twin peaks of Nun and Kun straight ahead. As we travel on the road comes back to the left bank and the view of Nun and Kun keeps becoming better.

Picnic in the shadow of Nun-Kun

The Nun Kun peaks can be seen in the background while the Suru river flow in front. If you look carefully our scorpio can be seen in the meadow on the right side.

At Purkitche, a few kilometers short of Panikhar, the road travels right along the bank of the Suru river while Nun and Kun tower up in the background, we decided to stop and have a picnic lunch on a meadow next to the river.

I went off to collect some spring water while Tribhuvan and Charles cooked the lunch. It was Spartan fare, just some noodles and bread, but the spectacular location made it a very memorable meal.

After lunch we hit the road again at around 2pm. After Panikhar the road becomes an unmetalled track. A few kilometers after crossing Parakchik we had to stop for about an hour because some dynamite blasting was taking place above the road. We were allowed to continue after the blasting stopped and the road was cleared. The road skirts around the western side of the Nun-Kun masiff and continues east till the fort of Rangdum.

A typical landscape of the upper Suru valley

A typical landscape of the upper Suru valley

By 3:30 pm we reached a place just to the north of Nun-Kun. There was some flat ground, a stream of fresh water and a great view. In short an ideal campsite. We decided to halt here and camp for the night. We had a couple of hours before nightfall but they quickly passed while we set up the tent and cooked our dinner.

Camp 1

Camp 1

 

Day 3:  24th September 2011

Camp 1 to Camp 2

I got up early. The campsite was beautiful in the early morning light. I collected my photography gear and walked around the campsite. By 9 am everyone was awake. We cooked a heavy brunch and then wound up the camp. By the time we hit the road it was 10:30 am. The road condition was quite bad by now and we were driving at a leisurely pace averaging about 10-20 kmph. Our plan was to stop and camp at any suitable site we reached by 3:30 pm.

After the fertile greenery of the lower Suru valley, we had now entered a high altitude desert with its own stark beauty. There were no trees in and high mountains crowded onto the road from both sides but the valley itself was quite flat. The river runs lazily with no rapids or waterfalls.

After skirting the Nun-Kun masiff the road runs along the upper Suru valley, which is a thin flat piece of land sandwiched between the huge Himalayan peaks to the south and the comparable Zanskar mountains to the north.

The wide flood plains near Rangdum

The wide flood plains near Rangdum . The Rangdum fort can be seen if you carefully.

A few hours of slow and steady driving, with frequent stops for appreciating and photographing the landscape, bought us to Rangdum.

The Rangdum Gompa is located on a single small hill in the midst of a vast flat floodplain. The Gompa is housed in a square ochre building which looks more like a fortress. In fact the Gompa was used as a fortress by the Dogra armies of General Zorawar Singh.

The Rangdum Fort

The Rangdum Fort

We stopped for a cup of black tea at a small shop and then continued on our journey. Although Rangum, along with the adjacent village of Juliodok, is the last inhabited place in the Suru valley, it is entirely Zanskari in character. The people here are Buddhist and culturally similar to the people of Zanskar.

Two monks walking in front of the Rangdum Fort

Two monks walking in front of the Rangdum Fort

At Rangdum the road takes 90 degree turn and starts moving south towards the Pensi La pass. The valley now becomes quite wide and the river flow quite far from the road, which continues on the right bank of the river.

The Pensi La pass

The Pensi La pass

By 3:30 pm we were at the Pensi La pass, the gateway to the Zanskar valley. As Himalayan passes go this is a very gentle pass. A long shallow climb, a couple of zig-zags and before you realize you are at the pass itself. But the view from the top is anything but gentle. As one reaches the top on can see two small pond right next to the road, these are the Ta Tso and the Lang Tso lakes. Beyond these lakes, to the south, one can see the huge Darang-Durung glacier spread out for kilometers. The view is very dramatic as the glacier, which is also the source of the Stod river, lies much below the road.

The Darang Durung Glacier

The Darang Durung Glacier

We thought about camping near the lakes but decided against it as it was already very cold and windy and it would get worse at night. After doing some glacier watching we continued onwards. Just after driving down from the Pensi La pass, on the Padum side, there are a few small hills to the left of the road and behind these hills is a flat plain. After little exploration we also found a spring of fresh water. We decided to camp here for the night, with the hills forming a good windbreak.

Camp 2

Camp 2

 

Day 4: 25th September 2011

Camp 2 to Padum

Woke up early and found ice on the tents. The spring water also had a layer of ice on it. I had to break it to collect some water for the camp. Went for a walk around the camp. There were many marmots around, giving their whistling danger call on seeing me. I also saw an immature golden eagle and a fox.

A marmot near the camp

A marmot near the camp

A fox seen near our camp

A fox seen near our camp

By 9am we cooked and consumed our brunch. After an hour of winding up, we left the campsite by 10 am and continued our leisurely drive towards Padum.

A bridge across the Stod river

A typical scene in the upper Stod valley

Soon we reached Chibra, the first village of Zanskar. After Chibra there was a steady succession of villages. Soon we were on a metalled road. The valley also keeps becoming wider. The road crosses over to the right bank at the Tungri village. After a few stops for photography, we reached Padum by the late afternoon and started looking around for a hotel. As it was very late in the season, most hotels had closed down. We finally chose to stay in the Chamling Kailash Hotel located on the main street of Padum. The room was average but the bathroom was clean and had running hot water. The restaurant of the hotel had closed down. While in Padum we had all our meals at a small ladakhi restaurant located on the main street and run by a Zanskari lady. All the meals we had here were very tasty and filling.

After checking in we went out in search of diesel. We soon found out that there was only one shop still selling diesel. The shop charged a small premium on the usual rates of diesel. We topped up our tank.

Day 5:  26th September 2011

Padum to Hanumil and back

We decided to spend the day exploring the road going down the Zanskar river towards the Zanla village and ahead. There is an all season metalled road till the town of Hanumil. After this there is a motorable track to the point where the Zanskar river enters the famous gorges. Construction work on the road is going on here. A 20 km patch is still remains which when completed will provide a welcome link to the town of Nimmu on the Indus.

The Pibiting Gompa

The Pibiting Gompa

The road crosses over to the right bank of the Zanskar river just after coming out of Padum and then stays on the right bank.  The valley here is about 10 kilometers wide. This route offers great views of the Pibiting, Karsha gompas and then it passes under the Stongde gompa and the Zanla fort. The route offers stunning landscapes with wide open spaces, tall multi hued mountains and impossibly located forts and monasteries.

The Stongde Gompa

The Stongde Gompa

The Stongde Gompa is spectacularly located on an almost vertical cliff halfway up a mountain. It was founded in the 11th century AD by the great sage Marpa, a disciple of Naropa. It is the second largest Gompa of the Zanskar region, after the Karsha Gompa.

A panoramic view of the Stongde Gompa

A panoramic view of the Stongde Gompa

Originally a Druk-pa Kargyad-pa (Red hat) Gompa, it was converted to a Gelug-pa (Yellow hat) order in the 15th century. Stongde usually has about 50 monks in residence.

The Zanla Fort

The Zanla Fort

After the Stongde Gompa, the road crosses the village of Zangla. At one time Zanskar consisted of two kingdoms, Padum and Zangla. The Zangla village still has a palace belonging to the King of Zanskar. Just before the village, on a huge cliff, lie the ruins of the Zangla fort.

Due to shortage time we did not visit the Stongde monastery or the Zanla fort.

Interesting patterns in the rock strata behind the Chillingskyd village

Interesting patterns in the rock strata near the Chillingskyd village

We continued past the villages of Chillingskyd and Hanumil till a point where construction gangs were blasting the rockface to make the road through the gorge and then we turned back for Padum. We reached Padum by nightfall after a day of very satisfactory landscape photography.

The Hanumil village

The Hanumil village

Looking up the Zanskar river from Hanumil

Looking up the Zanskar river from Hanumil

The Wanla fort

The Wanla fort in the evening light, on our way back.

Day 6:  27th September 2011

Padum to Reru and back
Padum to Sani-Zongkhul-Karsha and back

After an early breakfast we drove up the Tsarap Chu to the village of Reru. This is as far as the motorable road is ready upriver of Padum. Work is on to connect Padum to Darcha along this road via the Shingo La pass but it will take some time before this road is ready for traffic.

The Bardan Gompa

The Bardan Gompa

On this route the Bardan gompa is very scenically located on a huge rock next to the river. A few days walk upriver from the road head of Reru lies the famous cave Gompa of Phugtal.

 

The courtyard of the Bardan Gompa

The courtyard of the Bardan Gompa

While we did not go up to Phugtal, we did spend an hour exploring the Bardan Gompa. Built in the 17th century, the Bardan Gompa belongs to the Drug-pa (Red hat) order and hosts about 40 monks. These monks also administer the Sani Gompa.

A image from the Bardan Gompa

A image from the Bardan Gompa

By noon we were back in Padum. After a quick lunch we drove to the Sani Gompa. Located a few kilometers upriver from Padum on the Stod valley, the Sani Gompa is possibly the oldest Gompa of the Zanskar region.

The Sani Gompa

The Sani Gompa

Unlike other Gompa’s of this region it is a low building built on flat ground and is surrounded by a grove of ancient trees. In a courtyard behind the Gompa is a very ancient chorten called the Kanika Stupa. It is said to be associated with the reign of King Kanishka during the 1st century AD. Although the exact provenance of this chorten is unknown it might mark the advent of Buddhism in the Zanskar region.

The Kanika Chorten

The Kanika Chorten at the Sani Gompa

Though the gompa itself was built in the 8th century AD, the area around the Sani gompa was considered sacred even before the gompa was built. Naropa the great Indian Buddhist guru is said to have meditated in the Sani Gompa while the Great Guru Rimpoche (Padmasmbhava) meditated in a cave near the Gompa. Outside the Gompa near the Kanika Stupa stand 10 statues of a Pre-Tibetan style dating back to the 7the century while opposite the Sani village lies a sacred spring fed pool.  The Sani gompa belongs to the “Red Hat” order.

After visiting the Sani Gompa we continued on a track on the right bank of the Stod river to the village of Ating. At Ating the track enters a side valley that leads to the Umasi La pass which connects the Zanskar valley to the Atholi village in the Lahaul valley.

The Zongkhul Gompa

The Zongkhul Gompa with the valley leading to Umasi La pass in the background

A rough dirt road leads up the valley to the spectacularly located Zongkhul Gompa. Also belonging to the Druk-pa Kargyad-pa (Red Hat) order, the Zongkhul Gompa is closely linked to the Sani Gompa. Built around two caves high up on a mountain face, the Zongkhul Gompa offers spectacularly stunning views into the valley leading to Umasi La. The great sage Naropa (10th-11th century AD) is said to have meditated in the caves of the Zongkhul gompa and he left behind a footprint in the rock which can still be seen. The gompa contains some murals painted more than 300 years ago.

Statues from the Zongkhul Gompa

Statues from the cave temple in the Zongkhul Gompa

After visiting Zongkhul Gompa we drove over to the Karsha gompa located high on a hillside about 8 kilometers to the north of Padum. Karsha is the largest and the most famous gompa of the Zanskar region.

The Karsha Gompa

The Karsha Gompa

 

A courtyard in the Karsha Gompa

A courtyard in the Karsha Gompa

 

A doorway in the Karsha Gompa

A doorway in the Karsha Gompa

Built in the classic Tibetan style, it dominates the Zanskar valley around Padum. Belonging to the Gelug-pa (Yellow hat) order, it was founded in the 8thcentury by the followers of Guru Rimpoche (Padmasambhava). Today the Karsha Gompa holds about 80 monks. The Gompa has some well preserved murals and statues. It is worth the effort to walk up to the temple area from the parking lot, if only for the spectacular views.

The view towards Padum from the Karsha Gompa

The view towards Padum from the Karsha Gompa

 

After a long and hectic day we reached our hotel by 7:30pm.

Day 7:  28th September 2011

Padum to Panikhar

We checked out and left Padum at about 9 am, stopped at the Sani Gompa to take a few photographs in the morning light and then continued onwards. A long, slow and steady drive later we reached Panikhar at 8 pm. We found the J&K Government run guest house open. The rooms and bathrooms were simple but clean and the chowkidar provided us with a tasty and filling dinner.

A view of rhe Rangdum Gompa on the way back.

A view of rhe Rangdum Gompa on the way back.

Day 8: 29th September 2011

Panikhar to Leh

Left Panikhar at 8 am and reached Leh, after an uneventful drive, by the evening.

31 Comments

  1. Shireesh Joshi April 21, 2015 at 10:22 pm #

    Superb Snaps Somu … Dreamland come alive :-)

  2. Peter February 11, 2015 at 3:37 am #

    Wonderful!!
    And excellent captures of Zanskar landscape.
    Many thanks!
    [ I have seen some Ladakh, but would love to visit Zanskar. The recent mountainslide above Phugtal may cut that part out, but I see a couple of smaller cave monasteries — (Shergol and Zongkhul.)

  3. prakash khatiwala June 28, 2013 at 6:48 pm #

    While exploring various sites for my soon upcoming photography tour of Ladakh, I came across your site on Zanskar valley and learnt to my astonishment that there is more to Ladakh (as it is generally understood to the outside world) than already known. Must give credit to a travelogue writer cum photographer Manish Shah who also made me aware of Zanskar valley’s existence and my interest has flared up. Will appreciate your answering my few quarries. 1. Are there towns/villages with hotels with modern toilets between Padum n Leh so that my wife n i can take a day’s break over a long journey of 470 kms (we are in our seventies)? 2. According to your travel diary, Padum was made base camp for going to a few places around, would one day there suffice? 3. Is a car like Innova good enough on roads of the Zanskar valley? 4. Can we get veg food in all these places (we are vegetarians)? Warm regards and thanks for wonderfully portraying Zanskar valley.

    • Somendra July 3, 2013 at 11:05 am #

      Dear Mr. Khatiwala,

      First let me thank you for taking time to go through my site and for writing to me. Yes, there is much more to Ladakh than usually known and I am sure you will enjoy this little known and hidden facet of Ladakh during your tour.

      I will try and answer your questions :

      1. Are there towns/villages with hotels with modern toilets between Padum n Leh so that my wife n i can take a day’s break over a long journey of 470 kms (we are in our seventies)?

      Ans: The journey from Leh to Zanskar cannot be done in one go. It is best to stop for one night. One of the best places to stop is the JKTDC guest house at Panikhar. Panikhar is a small town in the Suru valley. Weather permitting, you can enjoy spectacular views of the Nun and Kun peaks from here. One can also stop overnight at Kargil but the hotels here are bad and overpriced.

      2. According to your travel diary, Padum was made base camp for going to a few places around, would one day there suffice?
      Ans: THere is a lot to see at Padum. To enjoy the Zanskar valley I would recommend at least 2 days, 3 or ever 4 days would be even better. Reaching Padum is the main effort and expense, each extra day you spend here would cost very little.

      3. Is a car like Innova good enough on roads of the Zanskar valley?
      Ans: Road conditions change every year but usually Innova is good enough for the journey and is a popular choice.

      4. Can we get veg food in all these places (we are vegetarians)?
      Ans: Yes you can get simple vegetarian at all these places.

      Hope you find my answers useful. Please feel free to get back to me if you have any further queries.

      Wish you a happy journey,

      Best regards,

      Somendra

  4. Tashi Namgyal January 23, 2013 at 2:27 pm #

    … I fell happy to learn that you have been to my birth place zanskar. the photo are really wonderful…
    I am happy to know that you are interested to come back again to zanskar or ladakh. I have an idea and plan to share if you are interested

  5. Richard November 27, 2012 at 2:04 am #

    You have made superb photos ! congrats !

    We have been invited by the king of Zanskar in 1985, and we did the valley by foot in one week.
    I enjoyed to see your photos that remember me that nice “trip”

    kind regards Richard

  6. Heath Whiley September 6, 2012 at 11:52 am #

    Hello,
    I met you in Darjeeling at a look out. I’m the Australian guy. You have some great pics here, and now Zanskar is def on my to do list! I’ll let u know if I end up near Jaipur,
    Cheers

  7. amar patel August 13, 2012 at 12:35 pm #

    Well Dear Somendra..

    This is simply well wrote and wonderful captured article for Zanskar :) i really loved..
    Thanks for sharing ur link on Tripadviser.

    keep it on..

    Regards
    Amar

  8. Dr H Ramakrishnaiah July 21, 2012 at 8:23 pm #

    Well I am a Nikon-er and was curious know your ultra-wide angle lens. 10-22 is an awesome lens.
    Good luck

  9. Dr H Ramakrishnaiah July 18, 2012 at 11:26 am #

    You have virtually drove me into the into the heartland of Buddhism in India, one of my most loved destination. All along I felt as if I am there and taking those stunning images. Admire all the pictures shot with so much professionalism. Would like to know which equipment you have used especially the wide-angle lenses.
    Thanks for this wonderful travelogue.

    • Somendra July 18, 2012 at 8:58 pm #

      Dear Dr. Ramakrishnaiah, thank you for spending time on my blog and of posting your thoughts.
      I feel that most DSLR’s from reputed companies, if used properly, give great results. Files from almost all present day DSLRS are good enough make large fine art prints.
      I like to keep my kit as light as possible as I walk a lot while photographing. I am presently using a Canon EOS 7D. I normally I carry two lenses, the Canon 100-400 mm IS L and the Canon 15-85mm IS. Once in a while, when I feel the need for a wider lens I keep the Canon 10-22mm and when a macro is needed I carry the Canon 100mm macro.

  10. Julie June 24, 2012 at 4:53 pm #

    Well Somu, thank you so much for sharing these pictures with us. The weather and energies are very poor in Paris since a few weeks… admiring Zanskar landscapes has changed my mood, I am now peaceful and amazed, the feelings I had last summer in Ladakh are coming back. Of course I missed something in not joining you but I have no regret since I want to be in the best conditions possible to appriciate so much beauty and wonder. I will definitely go back to the Himalayas but with time and freedom : ) Thank you again and keep on doing this fantastic work, lucky you : )

  11. Gopal June 23, 2012 at 3:17 am #

    Incredible travelogue and amazing pics. You virtually got us there. Thanks sir.

    – Gopal

  12. Angad Achappa June 22, 2012 at 7:06 am #

    Beautiful images and a lovely write-up!! Thanks for sharing this experience of yours. :)

    -Angad
    Indian Wildlife Photography

  13. sukhjit singh June 21, 2012 at 2:45 pm #

    nice landscapes thanks u to share this

  14. Manoj Nair June 21, 2012 at 9:43 am #

    lovely write up and photographs.

  15. yogesh June 21, 2012 at 7:09 am #

    Wonderful photos …amazing effort

  16. yogesh June 21, 2012 at 6:51 am #

    pics are amazing…well done…

  17. C V SINGH June 20, 2012 at 7:17 am #

    Nicely done Somu, I feel as if I have travelled the Zanskar valley sitting at home.

  18. Vasundhara Kumari June 19, 2012 at 7:28 pm #

    Lucid evocative writing and spectacular photography… Makes one want to be there with you… Reminds me of the times we travelled and camped together… Wish to see all this for myself someday…till then thank you for making it as good as real!

  19. Manish June 19, 2012 at 5:59 pm #

    Amazing, the narrative and the content both.
    I love to see the effort that you have put in there.
    :D

  20. girish ramanathan June 19, 2012 at 12:43 pm #

    somu, wonderful trip, wonderful write up. makes me want to quit everything, and hit the road.

  21. sunil June 19, 2012 at 10:05 am #

    great write up n the photography is outstanding,,,wow wowwow

    • admin June 19, 2012 at 10:50 am #

      Thanks you Sunil

  22. Guhesh June 19, 2012 at 10:01 am #

    Somu … fantastic. Absolutely fantastic … really wish we had gone to Leh and Ladakh this summer: instead we went down south to Neil Island. Will speak with you to get a brain dump!

    • admin June 19, 2012 at 10:49 am #

      We can make a deal, I will take you to Leh and you can teach me scuba diving. How about it :-)

  23. Umesh Gogna June 19, 2012 at 9:42 am #

    Great work. shows your dedication and passion.

  24. Bhavin June 18, 2012 at 4:01 pm #

    Amazing landscapes. Rekindles my desire to be there soonish.

    • admin June 18, 2012 at 6:40 pm #

      Thanks Bhavin! Now that the season is on, even I feel like going to Zanskar again :-).

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