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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Day 8: 29th September 2011
Panikhar to Leh
Left Panikhar at 8 am and reached Leh, after an uneventful drive, by the evening.