Zanskar- A Hidden Treasure
One of the most isolated valleys of the trans-Himalayas is the Zanskar Valley. Zanskar is a part of Kargil district in the state of Jammu and Kashmir in India. The beautiful valley is separated from Ladakh by the majestic Zanskar range. A freely flowing river also by the name of Zanskar River flows through the valley.
Zanskar is surrounded by high ridges on almost all sides, with the sole connectivity via waters of the Zanskar River, lending some way inwards, especially when it is frozen in winters. One can also approach the valley via high mountain passes amidst the mountainous ridges all around. The smoothest way (and by no means easy!) is from Kargil to Suru Valley, crossing the 4401 m high Pensi La on a rough track past the Buddhist Rangdum. Its capital Padum is connected via the sole road to the Srinagar – Ladakh main road along this route.
Thats the View from Pensila, pic credits Hans Harald- our traveler to Zanskar from Germany
A surprising welcome in summers
The climate of Zanskar is a semi-desert kind due to the Great Himalayan range barring the entry of the monsoons into the valley. This makes summers very dry and pleasantly warm! This is of course the best time to visit the legendary valley! It is surprising that people as ancient as those in the Bronze Age, managed to combat harsh living conditions and started to settle here, as per findings and records!
A tourist’s paradise
Zanskar was inaccessible to visitors, both in terms of infrastructure and extreme climatic conditions. In fact foreigners were not allowed to enter here till 1974. However, in recent years, there has been a boost in the tourism here and this has in fact brought about uplift in economy of this remote place. Development has followed with the building of schools, roads, restoration of monasteries and increasing the wealth of the locals.
Tourists flock Zanskar for its unadulterated beauty and marvel at God’s creations, up so close. In fact breathtaking views and uninterrupted majestic and rugged landscape have captivated everyone who has set foot in this area.
Travel like a vagabond
The best way to explore Zanskar is by trekking – the rustic, raw way on foot, where you can get first hand encounters with the harsh and bold nature, as well as feel its beauty and expanse. The Ladakhi-Buddhist valley has hot days and cold nights for you to enjoy your trek.
Places of Interest
Zanskar is mainly inhabitant by Buddhist population, although a minority of Sunni Muslims also resides here. The quaint habitats lie side by side with natural scapes, each offering an exclusive experience to a curious traveler.
By and large, the following destinations will let you soak in the spirit of Zanskar to the fullest:
This is the capital of Zanskar, and is a stop for those who like a bit of settlement. It has a majestic mountainous backdrop and justifies well how a remote town in folds of mountains can thrive as a melting pot of activity and civilization. One of the most developed parts in the region – you can find neat and comfortable hotels and inns to stay here. Take a break and visit parts of the town to learn about the local style of living. Try some local food at the eateries her.
Off Padum by 6km on the Kargil Road, is the oldest monastery or gompa of Zanskar – the Sani Gompa. It is a small structure of two storeys, quaint and simplistic. There is a prayer hall surrounded by tunnel-like clusters and a stone wall having many stupas. It lies on a flat piece of land, which is rare in these parts and is one of the holiest sites of the region.
It is a breathtaking glacier that can be seen as one comes down from the Pensi-La and is the largest glacier in Zanskar. It has a spectacular cliff-like snout that gives rise to one of the tributaries of Zanskar River. A must see indeed!
A unique and historic wonder, this monastery is built around a natural cave in the Lungnak Valley of Zanskar. This is a huge complex with teaching rooms, prayer halls, library, kitchen and many apartments for the monks. There is a sacred and protected spring here which according to legend was caused by the spiritual leader Zangpo when he visited the cave, after which the cave became larger and it became possible to make the present monastery. The festivals here are surely crowd-pullers and host some of the finest revelry in traditional culture, music and dance.
It is situated 35 km north of Padum and has old ruins of a castle in the hills around, lending ancient charm to the area. The castle provides a panoramic view of the valley below. There is a nunnery nearby, along with harmoniously located monastery in the village of Tsa-zar. This one has gorgeous frescos. Zangla is the base camp for treks to Padum Markha valley. It is also an important stop en-route most of the cultural trips of Zanskar like Padum-Strongdey-Zangla-Karsha-Padum trip.
Frozen Water Trail and Chadar Trek
During winters, a trek takes you to the unbelievable frozen water fall, walking on the frozen Zanskar River. It is an expedition like no other! The 9 inch thick ice seems to have captured the roaring and surging river, as if everything is standing still. The Chadar Trek is a fun-filled adventure trek on the frozen river which is the perfect ground for a rush of adrenaline due to the winter-sports offered here. The Chadar Trekking Trail takes a whopping 8-9 days to complete and is a sure test of your stamina and mettle around sub-freezing temperatures and dangerous slippery (and sometime thin) ice! Walking between the walls of the frozen Zanskar gorge is an experience at another plane altogether! Want to give it shot?
This is a monastery in the Padum Valley. It looks beautiful with the Doda River flowing next to it. It is an imposing complex with whitewashed building blocks making up chapels, apartments, a large assembly hall in the centre, and a temple that can be reached via a hole in the roof! This picturesque gompa can be seen from far, rising above the Karsha village, which worships and supports the monastery. The 3-day Gustor festival held in early July is a marvel, since it is attended by thousands of devotees and the mask dance of the lamas or monks is the main attraction!
As if proudly perched on a ragged rocky terrain guarding a precious little hamlet of a village below, the Stongdey Gompa is daunting and alluring at the same time. Inhabited by 60 lamas, it is the second largest monastery in Zanskar. Many veiled deities mark the temples especially the Gon-Khang temple. It can be reached by foot via an arduous but exhilarating trek, worth the breathtaking scenery and gorgeous view.
This is a perfect overnight break on the 12-hour Kargil-Padum ride. This is a beautiful valley with jagged peaks and meandering streams along which tea-stalls, a homestay and few buildings are scattered like toys of a spoilt child. Yet it paints a glorious picture. The Rangdum Gompa, 5 km to the east, resembles a floating island atop strange stratum.
Some tips to keep in mind
It is important to note that the road between Zanskar and Kargil (a distance of 235 km) is motor-able from mid-July to early November. One can hire or avail transports like buses, jeeps, gypsies and taxis that ply on this route. June and July is perfect for trekking as well. Accommodation can be taken in tourist complexes that are quite budget friendly. Or you can rough it out in camp tents. Some hotels are also dotted all over Zanskar. A homestay in a villager’s house or a bed in a monastery, as well as various dormitories in inns are also quite comfortable. In any case, you will need to be on the move to explore the wonders of Zanskar, so do carry minimal baggage that you may have to lug around!