Protected by the mighty Himalayas to the south and the mountains of the Zanskar range on the other sides, the region known as Zanskar has always lured the intrepid traveller in search of something extra- ordinary. Cut off from its neighbours by these natural barriers, the area is accessible only during the brief summer months of June to September, when the snow over the high-altitude passes melts. It is a land of extreme harshness, with little rainfall and extreme cold in the winter. The moonlike landscape is spectacular, ascetic and pure, helping the mind to get rid of its accumulated cobwebs, retaining only the essence. Geometric shadows over the canvas of rocks dance like a chimera, unsettling the certainty of our programmed minds and occasionally revealing a hint of wisdom. It is an ode to the Zanskari people that they managed to eek out a space from this utter desolation and filled it with human warmth wherever possible. The remoteness helped protect its Mahayana Buddhist traditions and local customs up until very recently. At present Zanskar sits at the cusp of a change when more roads and increasing number of tourists are affecting changes in its age old lifestyles.
After spending a few carefree days in Leh, I managed to team up with two other trekkers with the help of a trekking agency that also provided all logistic support including guide, cook, packhorses and tents. Though trekking in Zanskar is a bit on the expensive side I rationalised that with all the socio cultural changes that are coming thick and fast my old dream of seeing this hidden gem cannot be postponed any further.
Situated at the head of a spectacular rocky gorge, 2400 metres above sea level, where the meadows and barley fields of a V – shaped valley suddenly encounters layers of bare jagged ranges, photogenic Photoksar is the launch pad for the walking trail into the heart of Zanskar. A motorable road has recently reached this place, cutting the time taken to reach the original road-head at Lamayuru (on the Srinagar-Leh highway) to two hours instead of two days of walking. Enterprising villagers are investing their money in building guesthouses and home stays. The village is a dense fort like cluster of rectangular houses built over a bluff, the land then plunging down to the river in a series of earthen brown phantasmagorical pillars. The green meadows on the other side, dotted with occasional chortens and prayer flags, seem particularly attractive for aimless wanderings and lazy campings.
Our next day’s trail crosses the river and then hits a level path towards the Sengge La pass (4955m.) Just before the final ascent of the pass we stop at a tent shop run by Phuntsok, a middle aged man from Nerak village- two days away on the other side of the pass and down to Zanskar river. Trekkers stop here for tea, biscuits, noodles and cold drinks. Horsemen stop for a spot of gossip. There are some flat platforms covered in million layers of blankets where a few people can spend a night too. The ascent to the pass is rewarded by spectacular views of the nearby ranges with their multicoloured hues caused by the different minerals found in those rocks. Expecting to find the camp . The desolate campsite in the middle of nowhere becomes a surrogate home for the tired body.
Next day’s walk first brings us to the small village of Skyumpeta, housing less than a hundred people and countless bushes of wild rose. Small patches of barley fields carved out of the vast and unforgiving rocky terrain seem miraculous. Sonam, a kindly villager takes us into his house. An ibex skull with its curved horns hangs over the entrance. The contrast between the bright sun outside and the cavern like darkness inside results in temporary blindness. The head rams against the low door frames, if not careful. And then one enters a room where a shaft of sunlight streaming through the skylight feels like a found treasure: light, vision and then butter tea with tsampa.
Fortified, we walk for few more hours till the sight of Lingshed village stuns us with its huge fields and groves of trees, completely unexpected after those long days of walking through pure barrenness. Beautiful Lingshed is spread over a big area of chequered barley fields watered by glacial melt channelled by traditional methods. Fort like houses of red and white stand proud and alone in the middle of their ancestral fields. The road has not yet reached here and neither have telephone signals and electricity. A big monastery and a smaller nunnery take care of the spiritual needs. It is one of those small breaks in the middle of evening prayer session of young trainee monks under the vigil of older lamas when I enter the monastery. Butter tea is served by a young novice to lubricate the throats, dry from long recitations of the mantras. These young boys come from all over Zanskar to study at Lingshed Gompa.
Keeping in mind the dreaded steep climb to Hanuma La (4780m.), the start is earlier than usual on the next morning. It feels good to be sent off with a reassuring smile from the shepherd girl at the edge of the village. The first part till Lanak, though not steep, has a tricky section of unstable rock bands where my guide Tseten’s safe hands sees me through. The relentless steep climb to Hanuma La is broken by a flat piece of ground about halfway. It is impossible not to sit back and relax for a while. Mercifully, there are ersatz clouds giving occasional cover from the harsh sun. One of the best stretches comes after crossing the pass where the path follows the bed of a seasonal stream with views of snow-capped mountains in the far horizon. The campsite at Snertse is in the middle of a cosy bowl shaped valley. Over a bottle of beer, the campsite owner regales us with the story of a red bear that killed six donkeys in the past week while the villagers were all out to attend the Kalachakra ceremony near Leh. Somehow I am getting addicted to these small relaxing sessions at the end of tough trekking days.
The cloudless sky makes today’s walk the most tiring. A steep, hot and dusty climb down the Parfi La along rocky and crumbling mountainsides with nary a shade brings us down to the banks of big fat Zanskar river. This river becomes a highway for the locals, and lately adventure- seeking tourists, when it freezes over in the winter – the now famous Chadar trek. The sight of the green oasis of Hanamur village on the banks of Zanskar brings new energy to the weary legs. On reaching the pretty campsite of velvety green grass fringed by poplar groves the joy is boundless. Days of tiredness are washed away in a cool bath in the sparkling water of the man made narrow channel. Later in the evening, taking a stroll in the village, I am taken in by these pair of sparkling eyes, open gaze and snotty nose. Very soon he is after my camera. A dignified retreat takes me to the adjacent field amidst the expansive sky domed valley where his young uncle Phurba is squatting and harvesting his golden barley crop with a genuine and relaxed smile on his face.
Zing means field of barley and chen means big. Walking right beside the Zanskar river, that is what we encounter next morning at Zing Chen, just before the relatively large Pidmo village. A Buddhist gateway leads out of the village and gradually climbs to the shoulder of the ridge and carries on effortlessly to the campsite of Pishu. On the opposite bank the erstwhile Zangla Palace, now a monastery for the adjoining village, is always in sight like a beacon. Till recent times the King of Zangla ruled over parts of Zanskar from this place. In the evening, I sit beside the Zanskar river balancing small colourful rocks atop each other and reminiscing the past few days. Trekking in Zanskar is tough with its high altitude and the consequent paucity of oxygen. Everyday one has to climb up and down multiple passes, beaten down by a scorching sun. The distances between camps are long. But at the end of the day, this physical hardship in the middle of elemental nature performs an alchemical magic on our minds, transforming the nature of time and memory.
A taxi operated by the locals from the village close by, picked us up from Pishu next morning and in one hour flat we were at Karsha Gompa. When I saw the sweat drenched figure of a lone trekker trudging grimly along the dusty road on this scorcher of a day, I really appreciated this modern convenience. The view to the south was marvellous, the Himalayas finally making their majestic appearance. The sprawling Karsha Gompa complex sits like a bird on the ledge on the northern rim of the Padum valley and is considered one of the holiest in the region housing the five hundred year old mummy of incarnate lama Rinchen Zangpo seated in a lotus position. A couple of hours walk along the valley floor takes us to Padum. Even a decade ago the place had concrete buildings countable in single digits but currently it seems in the midst of a building frenzy. The tourists are coming and with the promise of two more motor roads, one towards Himachal Pradesh across the Shingo La and one following the route we had just covered, the locals are confident of business. The visual power of a place like Padum lies in its insignificance inducing sparseness amidst the infiniteness of nature. But the present growth might lessen that impact.
A long day’s journey by car to Kargil over an atrocious road is punctuated by attending a festival taking place at Rangdum monastery, perfectly located atop a sugarloaf hill in the middle of a round valley. Prayers are offered, food is shared, smiles are exchanged and then we are on our way again. The sight of the majestic Drang Drung glacier enroute is literally a high point after which the road exits Zanskar and rolls down to the picture perfect Suru valley, made even more enchanting in the afternoon light. It is late evening when we reach the bustling market town of Kargil. Army convoys carrying soldiers honk pass on their way to the international border. We are out of Shangri La.
Day 1: Leh to Photoksar via Lamuyuru by car (7 hours)
Day 2: Photoksar to Sengge la South camp (10 hours walk)
Day 3: South Camp to Lingshed (6 hours)
Day 4: Lingshed to Snertse via Hanuma La (9 hours)
Day 5: Snertse to Hanamur via Parfi La ( 7 hours)
Day 6: Hanamur to Pishu (5 hours)
Day 7: Pishu to Karsha by car (1 hour)
Karsha to Padum by walk (2 hours)
Day8: Padum to Kargil via Rangdum Gompa ( 12 hours by car)
Note: The time taken for walking assumes an average level of fitness.
Text and Photographs: Pavel Chakraborty.
(Pavel Chakraborty is a true globetrotter moving from one end of the planet to the other. From Fiji to Belgium, he has travelled a lot of nooks and corners of the planet with his camera, backpack and his notebook. An endless story teller, he is a really fun person to be with. You can look/buy his high resolution photographs of Zanskar by clicking here.)
If you wish to have such extraordinary experiences, Maavalan Travels organises such treks and trips to the Zanskar, both in summer and in winter.