Not a lot of people know about Zanskar Ladakh. So, let me enlighten you. We all know that trekking in Nepal offers an amazing Himalaya experience! Yet, it’s not the only place where you can enjoy the majestic mountains. Great views and giant mountains can spoil you also in Ladakh, India.
This beautiful region is located in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). Any Ladakh trip will make you fall in love with this place. It’s not difficult to understand why J&K tourism relies so much on tourists visiting Ladakh. And there is one region that lies hidden from the rest of the world – Zanskar.
Before you go on your Ladakh tour, you should familiarise yourself with the area and read about it. It will surprise you to know that the culture in Ladakh is very similar to the one in Tibet. Starting from the locals’ features and ending with their cuisine, you will not feel that you are in India. You are in the magical realm of Ladakh.
What’s all the fuss about Ladakh and Zanskar?
Well, you need to go there to feel its magic and trust my word. To convince yourself that there are a lot of places to see in Ladakh, just check some tour packages. But first, I am sure you are still thinking ‘Where is Ladakh?’. If you look at the map of India, Ladakh is right where you would pin it to the wall. It’s located at the northwestern extremity, squeezed between Pakistan and Tibet (China).
Now, looking at a Ladakh map, slide your fingers towards the West, and you will reach Zanskar Valley. It’s a remote area, not so populated, and lacking the infrastructure from the more touristic Ladakh.
People are drawn to Ladakh and Zanskar due to the amazing outdoor activities and the fantastic landscape. Check any Ladakh photos and you will immediately be sold and want to make a Ladakh road trip. Logistically speaking, trekking in Ladakh is not as easy as in Nepal, but it sure is authentic and breathtaking.
But how to reach Ladakh and Zanskar?
To start your Ladakh sightseeing, you first need to get to Leh, the capital of Ladakh, Kashmir. You can fly from Delhi to Leh, a spectacular flight going over the mountain ranges. And the landing on Leh airport is not for the faint of heart, as it involves a steep descent.
From Delhi to Ladakh, you can also opt for a bus ride, or even better, a bike ride. The road to Ladakh is famous amongst motorcyclists, the route from Manali to Leh going through high passes. However, you should keep an eye on the Ladakh news. A lot of times the road gets blocked due to weather conditions, so the only option remaining is taking a plane.
If you want to get adventurous and get rid of the crowds, then head straight for Zanskar. Getting from Leh to Zanskar Valley is not easy, given the lack of infrastructure. You will need to take a car, a shared jeep or bus from Leh to Kargil (we paid Rs. 1,000 each in a shared jeep), and from Kargil endure a looong and excruciating jeep ride up to Padum. But trust me, after any Zanskar trek, you will forget about the road.
Be mindful that the road from Kargil to Padum is really bumpy and can take an entire day. Even though the distance is only 230 km – it took us 13 hours to get there (with a flat tire included). And a car does not come cheap, with drivers asking from Rs 13,000 to Rs. 15,000 – shared between passengers. And it will not be easy to find travelers to share the costs.
What about the weather? When should you go?
Well, for a Ladakh trek, you will want good weather. This means during the summer months, from June up to September, the best time to visit Ladakh. If you look at some Ladakh pictures in winter, you might be tempted to visit. But Ladakh in winter is really cold and most hotels in Leh close due to low temperatures, so it’s definitely not the best time to go there.
Given that summer is the best season to visit Ladakh, it’s also the most crowded one. If you don’t mind some cold nights, you might be better off going there in September, when the tourist season is reaching its end.
With Zanskar, things are different, as a lot of people want to do the Chadar Trek, also known as the Zanskar river trek because you walk along the frozen Zanskar river. The trek is possible in January and February (but be aware that most likely you will also be freezing, just like the river). So, if you want to include this adventurous Zanskar trek, then winter is the best season for you.
If you don’t want any icicles in your hair, then set your Zanskar Ladakh itinerary for the summer season, preferably in July or August. You will enjoy warm sunny days and cool pleasant nights. You can easily go camping as well, as the temperature will be mild.
Is Ladakh only about landscapes?
I’ve already buzzed you with Ladakh as a right spot for trekking, being home to some of the best treks in India, including the famous Markha Valley Trek. But if you don’t want to trek the Himalayas, there are still plenty of places to visit in Ladakh.
You can take a car to Nubra Valley and admire the desert landscape. Yes, you will find sand in the mountains (and remember, the Ladakh altitude starts from 11,500 feet)! And where there is sand, there are also camels. A reminiscence of the Silk Road, Nubra is home to the two-humped Bactrian camels. Or head to the famous high altitude lakes, Pangong (4,350m) and Tso Moriri (4,522m), and maybe interact with the nomads.
Or you can learn more about Buddhism by visiting the fascinating monasteries in the region, such as Lamayuru, or Hemis. It’s even better if you go when there is the Ladakh Festival, as there will be more ceremonies at the monasteries. Try the local cuisine, do some shopping in the Tibetan Refugees market, immerse yourself in the local culture.
But let’s turn our attention on Zanskar Ladakh
The place where we got kidnapped. But I will get there soon. Not many of the Ladakh tour packages include Zanskar. That’s because it’s more remote and it’s difficult to get there. In fact, we only met a handful of foreigners bragging about trekking in Ladakh and Zanskar as well. Most people focus their attention to visit Ladakh and the Ladakh Valley.
We were also a bit apprehensive about going for a Zanskar Valley trek. We were after one-month trekking in Nepal so we felt a bit tired and wanted to take it easy. But there was one guy selling trekking tours in Leh who convinced us. He said that if we wanted quiet, we had to give the Zanskar range a chance.
It was our second time in Ladakh. We had already ticked all the Ladakh tourist places found in guides: we needed to reignite our passion. And the number of tourists increased dramatically during the beginning of July, so we wanted some peace. I guess having our Ganesha statue with us helped, as we met a French family who was planning a trek in Zanskar. We immediately connected with them and arranged to split the costs for getting to Padum via Rangdum.
Starting our Zanskar Ladakh adventure
Oh boy, we were in for a rough start. We spent two days on the road just to get to Padum. My back was killing me from all the bumps on the road and only thinking that we have to go the same way to get back to Leh almost made me cry. I was already missing the smooth roads surrounding Leh.
Once we reached Padum, it was pretty difficult to find updated information concerning the trekking trails. We wanted to trek from Padum to Darcha. And the Gods were not on our side. The weather was gloomy, and we were receiving conflicting information for the trails. We were told that now there is a road built from Padum, so it would have made no sense to walk our way out.
Given how much we hate walking alongside a car road – and in that area, they were pretty dusty, we decided to take a car, one that would take us to Enmu, a village two hours away. I was pretty excited about trekking again, but it was proving frustratingly challenging to arrange the necessary logistics.
It took us two days in Padum to find a driver willing to take us to Enmu. The problem was that it had rained, so the roads were dangerous. Rain means landslides, so the drivers didn’t want to take the chance. In Ladakh, it’s not difficult to get stuck in an area due to sudden landslides.
Finally, we begin our trek
After a bumpy drive (and a long one, as we had to stop to wait for the road to get cleared) we finally reached Enmu/Anmu/Angmu (your choice). It was already late in the afternoon, so we hurried to find a room in one of the not so many houses in the village. We stayed at Angmu Homestay – not really the friendly type of homestay we were used to from Nepal.
We were all smiles, but we were greeted by a young girl (not smiling at all), and her grandma. The old lady was actually nice to us, and she prepared dinner, rice with dal and vegetables. While the food was cooking, given that the girl was not very friendly, we decided to take a tour of the village. It was amazing to discover a house up in a cave, where we were told an old couple was living.
The night we spent in Enmu was horrible – our room was filled with bugs crawling everywhere. So, we had to hide in the sleeping bags and sleep with the light turned on. But it was too hot for the sleeping bags so every now and then we had to wake up and get some air and make sure we didn’t get any bugs on our face. By far, the worst night during our Himalaya treks.
Escaping the bugs
The next day, we couldn’t wait to get out of the room. We had a quick breakfast, and although we were feeling exhausted from the lack of sleep, we just wanted to be back on the trail. The girl from the homestay told us that our next stay, Phugtal, was only a 4-hour walk away. Her words were music to our ears.
However, after four hours, upon reaching a village, we were told that Phugtal is another couple of hours away. Tired and hungry, we decided to stop for the day. We had reached the village of Purne. Right at the entrance, there was a campsite, and a charming lady greeted us and invited us for some tea. We can never say no to tea. She was talking a lot, trying to entertain us and it felt good after the unfriendly stay in Enmu.
She offered us a room in her newly built guesthouse. I was only thinking about bugs, but we decided to check it out. It was immaculate and had real beds instead of thin mattresses on the floor. Our host was continually smiling so we gave it a go and told her that we would stay for a night. Dolma, the nice lady, was thrilled and immediately went to cook us lunch.
The beginning of our imprisonment
Oh, God, the food was soo good at Dolma’s. She cooked us some delicious meals and started telling us about her five kids, three of them studying in Jammu, another one in Manali and the last one in Leh. And one of the girls was supposed to arrive the next day: she was on holiday. We were eager to meet her, but at the same time, we knew we had to continue our trek.
During the night we slept like babies. There was no sign of any bugs, not even in the toilet, which was a standard Ladakhi toilet. We woke up feeling so fresh and relaxed. But we had to prepare our goodbyes. However, life had other plans for us. We met Garskit, Dolma’s daughter and she was oh so charming. With a clear English, she was extremely friendly and told us that she is willing to join us to the Phugtal monastery before continuing our trek.
The most beautiful monastery in Ladakh
During our travels in Ladakh, we have seen dozens of monasteries. They are all wonderful, some more impressive than others. Some were not so amazing, but a lot of them stuck in our heads. However, they cannot be compared to Phugtal. It’s by far the most beautiful Buddhist monastery we have seen. And that’s all due to its stunning location.
It’s so remote, there is no village right next to it, and it is located inside a cliff, having been built literally inside the mountain. We were shocked by its beauty. This is one gompa (monastery) one cannot forget easily.
Garskit told us that the name of the monastery comes from the word ‘Phuk’, which means ‘cave’ in Zangskari, and ‘tal’, which means ‘at leisure’. And it belongs to the Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism (the one of the Dalai Lama), housing around 70 – 80 monks. It is actually believed that the cave used to be visited by monks even 2,500 years ago, searching for solitude in that perfect remote place. After being invited to have a tea by a monk, in his house, we then started a tour of the monastery by following Garskit’s footsteps.
A tour of Phugtal Monastery
What I loved most was the atmosphere. Yes, it is a monastery, but it is also a school for young monks, and you could hear their laughs everywhere. They showed us the kitchen and the dining place for the monks. Seeing us made them even more enthusiastic, and I can only imagine how much fun they were having on our account. They invited us to have lunch with them, but we didn’t want to get all the attention.
It was interesting to see all the locals from the surrounding villages, dressed in their festive Gonchas and holding their prayer beads, the japa malas. We made our way towards the main ceremonial room, called Dukhang. This is where the monks perform their ceremonies. And we waited for Garskit to hang a couple of Tibetan scarves, the khatas, for good luck.
We then walked to the Lakhang, the confession room, where we waited for Garskit to pray to one of the Goddesses. We also noticed that a lot of the paintings on the cave’s walls were covered. Garskit explained that they are only revealed at a particular festival during winter. There was something very profound about the place, and we tried to absorb as much peace as possible.
When it becomes hard to go back on the trekking trail
After some walking on the premises, we decided to make our way back to Purne, have lunch and then continue on our trek. But once we got there, Garskit had other plans for us. She told me that if we stay for the night, I would be able to help her cook momos. It was my chance to finally learn how to cook momos. My heart was torn. I wanted so much to stay with her longer, but at the same time, I also wanted to continue our trek.
We finally decided to forget about the trek and just spend time with Garskit and her family and return with her to Padum after a couple of days. I told her laughing that her family had kidnapped us from the trek. And so, we said goodbye to our trekking plans. Sometimes, it’s good to listen to your heart and just forget about any plans.
We ended up spending four days talking and having fun with our new family. They taught me how to cook various traditional meals, while all of them were laughing at how bad my skills were. We ate momos and sku, made of wheat flour, which is kneaded and then cooked and served with vegetables.
In the evening we would chat together and learn more about how difficult life in Zanskar is. Living in such a remote place is no piece of cake. However, we admired the fact that all the children in the family were sent to school and education was taken care of. Garskit told us that winters are so harsh and that sometimes they cannot get out of the village for weeks. Now that’s what it means to live in a remote community.
It’s all about the people
Even though they are having such a rough life, our hosts still had warm and kind hearts. We realized that they insisted so much in us staying longer with them just because they love to have guests. Especially foreigners who are interested in their lives and culture. It was funny to hear them saying that the trek is not that good after Purne, knowing that they just wanted to have us with them.
In the end, we had a fantastic time with them, and Zanskar Ladakh is an incredible area. Trekking in the region will take to some remote places with breath-taking views. You just need to be flexible and know that sometimes it’s better to go with the flow. Because sometimes the stories you hear from people are the best souvenirs.